157. Men taking risks

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The Cheltenham National Hunt festival started today. Four days of the best jumps racehorses competing for huge prizes in front of a monster crowd in deepest Gloucestershire. Thousands of Irish men and women roaring home their fancies, as the early spring sunshine and rain alternately warm and drench their spirits.

Our lad Rory is working at the course as a steward, as it’s so close to his university digs.  Mainly stopping people taking their alcohol into the betting enclosures. I asked him what he would do if a six foot ten gypsy wanted to take his pint past the gate. “Smile hard and let him,” he replied.

I have only been the one time, in March 2000. As a corporate guest, for one of the insurance companies I write about. The track looked in great shape, set against the spectacular amphitheatre of the Cotswolds. But the experience was miserable. The crowds were a nightmare, shoulder to shoulder in many places and so many of them already pissed when I got there, at about 12. Drinking and punting is a highly flammable cocktail. A cup of coffee and a clear head works better.

Russell Brand said something perceptive when he spoke of his first visits to the terraces at Upton Park. That he saw how football gave men the chance to be legally naughty. Shouting, drinking, swearing, singing and, in the old days, and outside the law, fighting.  Racecourses have the same effect on many guys, with the big difference that you can be a little more active in your partisanship, through the betting. Less passive, potentially more destructive. Gloriously spent hours, on the good days.

It’s a shame that the guys I met in 2000 were uninspiring. Their business involved pinpointing and eliminating risk, and the conversation was too timid and polite for my liking. In the end, after lunch, I thanked my hosts, prized myself free and wandered off. Couldn’t be arsed to make an effort. Which was lazy of me. But I am super-inclined towards my own company when the talk lays flat and stagnant.

Of course, I had looked through the race-card on the train. But no horse stood out as a good bet.

That should have been that. I had evolved – and still generally maintain – a view that if you can find an edge, at decent odds, that is when to bet. Anything else is gambling, and the house/bookie will always win, over the long run.

Nonetheless, it was Cheltenham, I told myself. Scene of some very nice wins in the 1980s, especially Forgive N’ Forget in the 1985 Gold Cup. So I had three punts, and each one lost. Maybe fifteen quid each time. I left before the last race, to avoid the crowds. But that £45 was enough to make the walk back to the station a long, downbeat trek. Why had I wasted a day?

I popped into the station café for a cup of tea and who should be there, sitting morosely at a table, but Clement Freud. He of the hangdog look. A half-eaten cake sat before him. Our eyes met for a few seconds. “Yep, I’ve also done my dough, and feel miserable,” was my swift mind-read of Mr Freud. Retrospect says he might have been more preoccupied with his decades of paedophilia, but who knows. Freud was reputedly a big punter.

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Years down the line I decided to stop betting on jumps races. The Grand National and Cheltenham Gold Cup are fabulously exciting to watch, but why take the risk that your selection would fall, or unseat the jockey? Finding a winner is difficult enough without this extra unpredictability. Equally important was the terrible number of injuries sustained by horses in National Hunt racing, and more than a few of the jockeys.

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If you are betting on events that include that eventuality, I believe that you bear some responsibility, however small, for the outcomes. Flat racing was better from all angles.

Rory said a few minutes ago that he enjoyed the day, and spent much of it chatting with a policeman, which probably cut down the chances of an incident. Hope the next three days are equally pleasurable for him.

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