He stares at the opposition. They shuffle impatiently under the grey Yorkshire sky. He sees among them the usual array of customers; the inexperienced punter relying on the Racing Post selections, the hopeful student looking to boost his finances, and the seasoned race-goer armed only with a race card and a weathered rain coat. To Ron, now in his 44th year of bookmaking, these people are all the same.
A tattered umbrella shelters his blackboard, the only means of communication with his clientele apart from the occasional grunt in acceptance of a bet. Beside him sits the same brown briefcase he brought with him when he first crossed over to the other side of the betting ring. It contains simply a few pieces of white chalk, a red cash tin and a couple of cheese and pickle sandwiches wrapped in re-used foil. He stands resolutely on a chair borrowed from the café in the nearby shack where his prospective benefactors wolf down pork pie and mushy peas in preparation for the afternoon ahead.
The battle begins in 20 minutes. He sees the mounting optimism in their eyes, their growing desire to increase the monetary value of their pockets. Subtlely glancing sideways, he proceeds to chalk slightly more generous odds than those scrawled on the neighbouring board. Before him, the mob pounce hungrily, jostling for position within the heaving mass, eager to capitalise on the seeming generosity of the prices.
He opens a fresh A5 notebook, volume 580, and meticulously pencils in the name and number of the challenger accompanied by the chosen horse and the amount risked. Today’s transactions would be added later to his records of every win, and indeed loss, contained in a collection of identical notebooks stacked high in the spare room. In return for cash, he pulls out of his coat pocket a pile of hand-written slips, held together by an elastic band, each headed by his name in neat block capitals, and distributes them to each customer.
He ignores the practices of his younger compatriots on either side of him. Their assistants expertly input all the required information of the bet into a laptop, utilising that new-fangled Internet thing in order to monitor the latest odds. Their privileged punters then receive a comprehensive computerised slip informing them of their selection and how much better off they could be in 15 minutes’ time.
Smiling to himself he snaps up a flurry of money for a horse that cannot win from a group of optimistic novices. He notices an attractive young lady near the front, clearly unfamiliar with the betting procedure and struggling to avoid being submerged in the midst of the crowd. He takes pity on her and encourages her to come forward, accepting her bet of 50p each way on the 50-1 ‘rag’.
He catches a glimpse of a wad of crisp banknotes being thrust towards him from his left. He meets the eye of their owner, a long-standing adversary with a shrewd racing brain. He is undoubtedly a threat to the contents of his cash tin but is also potentially a significant contributor to the value of it. He willingly notes down his name already etched in his memory, and tucks away a monkey in his cash tin. He revels in this kind of challenge.
As the leading horses approach the second last he surveys the rabble before him. He watches with satisfaction as a few of his slips are torn up and hurled to the ground in disgust at the sight of their weary animal a full 30 lengths off the pace. He sees some people, too proud to publicise their defeat, slyly tuck their losing slips into their back pockets and stare ahead passively. In contrast is the sight of others whose faces exude hope as they see their choice vying for the lead before the final fence. For him, the thrill of the close finish had not receded over the years and he now stretches forward his neck to get a better angle of the finish line in order to give odds on the outcome of the photo.
An overwhelming feeling of contentment surges through him as the 50-1 outsider absolutely hoses up in the final furlong to clinch first prize by a short head from the well-backed favourite. Groans of his victims which drown a young lady’s excitement in the crowd are received warmly. He looks around for the punter whose £500 now rightfully belongs to his cash tin. He thinks he can just about make him out hurrying away from the ring probably to regain his composure and prepare to launch another attack. He takes pleasure in rewarding the ecstatic young lady for her highly profitable, if not fortunate, 50p each way bet. She grabs the money, full of thanks, and runs back to her boyfriend who desperately tries to conceal his annoyance.
With the final race providing him with a favourable result, he now looks down on the rapidly emptying battle-field. His feeling of victory is magnified by the sight of shredded betting slips strewn over the ground. As the conquered filter away despondently he begins to gather together his simple possessions. He places his red cash tin, a tidy profit testing its limits, safely at the bottom of his brown briefcase. As he trudges away alone, blackboard tucked under his left arm, he contemplates the tiring bus ride home followed by an evening studying the form in preparation for his next confrontation with the gambling community. Subject to a precautionary inspection at 7.30 a.m. of course.