“There are rules, James.” “Rules?” “Yeah, every gambler has to have them. Little codes of conduct. Keep you from going broke. Never back odds-on, that’s one of them.” “Why not back odds-on?” “Dunno really. Mainly because you’ve to put so much on to get anything worth winning.” “But the favourite is the most likely to win, right?” “Well, yeah, but that’s not the point. Listen, there’s loads of these rules, but there’s one a-hell-of-a-lot more important than all the others. Don’t ever forget this rule, James, ever. When you’re gambling, no matter how bad or how unlucky you get, you never, and I mean never, ever, chase your losses.” “That’s it? I was expecting something better there Cathal. Anyway, why so serious? What happens when you chase your losses?”
James was an alien, in every metaphorical and figurative sense of the word ever conceived. Supported Man United, bought Kings of Leon albums, surfed Facebook, got drunk: all that archetypal uniformity that lads his age devoured. This world never existed until he was 20 years and two months old. It idly passed by on the sports news, breezed past his vision momentarily as his eyes caught sight of the racing section in the newspaper; those bleached pages that looked like Excel spreadsheets never seemed the most interesting. The Racing Post even made a brief appearance in his house, James never interested or observant enough to note that this occurred only in mid-March. A life of normality, he said. A life of mediocrity, I said. All this leading to him walking through the stiles at Limerick racecourse, paying that overly nice lady too much money because damn it he forgot his student card, an alien to my world. An American tourist in Paris. Plenty money, plenty of people who want to take it from you, an inherent sense of superiority, and not a notion about the language.
“So where do I do the bets?” “Two places, James. Most people, they go for the Tote, but we don’t want that.” “Why not?” “Too unpredictable. The price changes up until the off. Look at it this way, would you buy a car without test-driving it?” “What?” “Would you or wouldn’t you?” “No, Cathal, I wouldn’t. Why?” “Because you don’t know what you’re getting. Too many times, I’ve went to the Tote, thought I was getting a Porsche at knockdown price, came back after the race and found out I’d just been sold a Lada.”
We meandered towards the betting ring. Past the withered old man flogging Turform, past the woman with an oversized feathered hat, seemingly forgetting this was Limerick in December, not Royal Ascot in June. “Now this is where the real racing people are, James. Those people in the restaurant, they just don’t get it. They probably couldn’t name one horse in the race. To them, they’re just numbers. Big brown lotto balls, picked at random. Now these guys, they could probably tell you how the favourite’s done in his last five races, why his action isn’t suited to soft ground, and why the five-pound claimer is a tactical genius who just hasn’t got the breaks yet.” “Five-pound claimer?” “We’ll get to that.”
The poor stable girl never had a chance. He was a monstrous, chestnut hunk of muscle, repeatedly bobbing his head, agitated, unconforming, sending her stumbling forward, watching and probably smirking as she clasped the reins to maintain her stance and dignity. As he strutted past, he eyeballed us briefly, let out a bestial snort and clip-clopped his way around for the hundredth time, growing more upset as he waited for his date who, by the way, was 10 minutes late, and let’s face it, was only here for the ride.
To say we chose our weapon of choice for the bumper based on looks is, well, massaging the truth. The selection was based more on the deepening, singeing, cancerous hole in our pockets. That maiden hurdler who jumped like a kangaroo on acid, the hunter chaser with the old jockey who had all the strength of an anaemic toddler in that driving finish. The handicap hurdler who, well, no excuse there, he was just rubbish. All those horses that we came to dislike for no reason other than their physical ineptitude, all building to this cataclysmic need for a winner.
It needed to be substantial. Our cash had long since disappeared, sitting a prisoner in the bookies’ satchels, waiting to be released by a chestnut brute called Abroad. As we stood in line for the ATM machine, I tried to look at the ground; the way a murderer does as he’s led from court. Shame. “Four-hundred should do it.” I watched humiliated as James keyed in his pin.
“Four-hundred to win nine-fifty, Abroad.” Martin Murphy’s round, warm hand offered me the receipt, and as he did so, I remembered my earlier advice to James, back when I was a logical, safe gambler, if such an oxymoron exists, and felt a sharp pang of remorse. As they charged away in front of the stands, I felt adrenaline course through my body and a distinct weakness behind the knees. James had been led astray and had his bank balance riding on a five-pound female claimer and a horse that was zero from two. Down the back straight, they climbed the hill, and the commentator uttered those doomsday words: “Abroad is coming under pressure.” Third, fourth, fifth. I winced. James squinted to see the yellow colours being swamped to either side. “I’ll have that money for you tomorrow,” I said as I turned and trenched alone towards the grandstand.
Down the steps, into the restaurant, which was temporarily vacated as the masses flocked to see their lotto balls roll. I sat, head in hands, with the most hollow nausea welling up inside. Not just for me, but for my friend, whose innocence had been violated. My phone rang. I ignored it, staring into space. It rang again, but I continued my sorry trance. A third time, and the incessant bleeping broke me. It was James. “Cathal, where the hell are you?” “Does it matter?” “Of course it matters, we’ve got €950 to collect. Half a length, that five-pound claimer is a tactical genius.”
I strode out of Limerick racecourse and admonished myself for betraying the rules, the commandments. Bless me Father for I have sinned. The water was up to our nose, and it was a miracle we found a lifebelt, because I had done just about everything I could to drown us both.
“You remember what you asked me earlier James?” “Hmmm?” “About chasing your losses”. “Oh yeah, your little lecture.” “Well, you see that guy over there?” “The auld lad?” “Yeah.” James studied him. The jacket that started off grey but was now brown, the decaying shoes that were too well ventilated, the yellow teeth and gauze beard. His face drawn, hands held out, begging. No harmonica, no singing or other performance that could add respectability, just plain old, “Spare some change for a merry Christmas,” begging. I turned slowly to James and looked him sternly in the eye.
“That, my friend, is what happens, when you chase your losses”