“Accept it, the smart man only gambles on something he can research, something where form counts, where a combination of experience and knowledge brings reward. Something like…..the lottery.”
Another session of “Dad-Baiting” was in full flow.
“There are so many things that must be considered. The course and the going: will the balls be negotiating Guinevere’s steep turns or Lancelot’s steady slope? Who is the course-official? Some balls have never recovered since Anthea Turner gave up the post. And who is the guest starter? We all know the effect a bad starter can have on a race. Aintree ring a bell?”
Normally this got a rise, but not today. My father, the self-styled Oracle of four-legged betting, mumbled something incomprehensible without taking his eyes off the TV screen. It was January 26, 1996 and, after 40 years of, in Mum’s words, “systematic self-abuse” arising from his love of racing, he was on the point of coming good.
That morning’s Racing Post had The Oracle and his old friend heading the leader board for January’s £10,000 Ten-to-Follow competition. The month had started well and got better. Tough hurdlers Mysilv, Trying Again and Collier Bay had amassed 81 points; Big Matt had jumped his way to 27; and the legendary steeplechaser One Man had made the total up to 158 when he won the King George VI - rescheduled from Boxing Day due to snow.
“That’s a bit fortuitous isn’t it Dad?” I’d said, referring to the rescheduling.
“Form, son, form,” he had replied, choosing instead to focus on the wisdom of his choice of horse.
But here was the point. With five days to go, and leading by only five points from a lady in Gloucester, The Oracle and his fellow fount of wisdom had no more runners, let alone potential point-scorers for the month. And a full weekend racing programme lay ahead.
My mind went back to Christmas 1979. Thatcher had recently been elected Prime Minister, Afghanistan had been invaded by Soviet troops, and the fashionably-flared Oracle was ducking another family shopping trip with a side-step into Ladbrokes that was worthy of the then England rugby wing, David Duckham.
This was the final straw for Mum, who had painstakingly coaxed a promise out of him before setting off.
“Oh dear, it looks like your father’s off to spend your Christmas money, boys. The tree’s going to look rather bare this year,” she said with a shrug of the shoulders and a look of well-practised resignation.
Tripping over each other we burst into the forbidden, smoky den of the bookmakers, whining and screaming our displeasure. Dad, as startled as the other racing enthusiasts, was forced to think on his feet, despite almost being knocked off them.
He calmed us down, pointing to a couple of tall stools at a table in the corner where we would be hidden from view. The bookmakers throbbed with life and misplaced optimism.
“Now boys, you must understand, betting on horses isn’t gambling, or a pastime, it’s…….a science. Luck does not play a part. The smart man relies on form and hard study.”
He was barely audible above the loudspeaker blaring out the lists of early runners and their latest prices.
“What, like at school, Dad?”
“Yes, son, yes,” he said, his imagination working overtime. “Coming here is like going to school for me. The bookmakers is where I do my homework, the racing paper is my text-book, and the racecourse is my...um..laboratory.”
He seemed pleased with this final comparison.
There was a lengthy pause. We glanced at each other bemused. My eyes wandered around the dingy room, taking in ashtrays overflowing with crumpled betting slips and cigarette ends. A bizarre image of my father wearing school uniform flashed through my mind.
“I’ll tell you what,” he snapped, suddenly irritated by our looks of confused mirth. “You remember that holiday in Tenerife? Horse-racing paid for that.”
Now he had us. At an age when the end justified any means, especially where holidays were concerned, this was crystal clear. We looked at each other, shrugged, and for the next decade did nothing but encourage Dad in his honourable pursuit, the Sport of Kings.
“Where are we going this year, Dad…..?”
With such an easy formula to observe, it was a wonder that, 17 years on, I was not hooked myself. I suppose you can only go camping in Norfolk so many times.
Instead, much to Dad’s frustration, and therefore my amusement, I became a fair-weather gambler, as emotional and irrational as he was calculating.
Like a rabbit caught in headlights I would be drawn towards outrageous chances with impossible odds and those with a tendency to stop sharply and cautiously sniff a jump, leaving the jockey to glimpse a brief aerial view, would all receive my backing without even a sideways glance at Dad’s Bible, the form-book.
I never won anything but the thought of untold riches and a full, signed apology from The Oracle drove me on.
Later that night, as I crept downstairs for a glass of water, I could hear faint whispering.
“Frost, that’s what we need, five days of deep frost, just five days. Please God, please…..”
The Oracle sat at the table with his eyes fixed on the garden, the moonlight streaming in through the patio windows. A smile drifted across my face.
“Which chapter of the form-book deals with weather, Dad?” I asked gently.
He started and looked up.
“Wouldn’t it have made more sense to consult it before frittering away your hard-earned money?”
He stared at me for a while and then turned back to the garden, his face breaking into a wide smile. He chuckled.
“Alright. OK. You win; you win. Maybe chance does play a small part.”
The frost didn’t last for five days. It lasted for two weeks. But we didn’t care - we were in Barbados.