The Winners 2011 Under 26 Winner

It was noteworthy only for its complete insignificance. Mick’s eyes lazily followed the bumper, but his mind wandered distantly. Twelve National Hunt newcomers and twelve amateur jockeys hurtled down the hill in a chaotic, turbulent torrent of mud, each scrambling, slapping and grinding away in optimistic desperation. Such energy, such determination, such… hope. It had been so long since he felt it that empathy with their effort proved impossible to summon. Instead he stood there, looking but not watching, eyes welling up, partially due to the bitter wind, partially due to his now-desperate plight. The closing race, financially, carried about as much magnitude for him as Roman Abramovich discovering an unknown fiver in his jeans pocket. He didn’t note or care who crossed the line first. He just stood tall on his pitch, closed his tired eyes, and conjured up blissful memories of happier times. How the hell did it come to this?

There was a time when it was different. Lee Trevino had it right: the older I get, the better I used to be. He knew, though, this wasn’t simply decrepit nostalgia. It really was better then. Back when rules were merely guidelines, when the favoured racecourse lunch was a beef roll and hot whiskey, not a panini and latte. He looked around now, saw the dwindling clutch of regulars, overthrown and outnumbered by the new breed, the weekend socialites, the ooh-I-like-that-one’s-name punters. To these people, tic-tac was a breath-freshening mint, not a language. Noting the recently named Hold-Your-Christmas-Party-At-Fairyhouse Handicap Chase, he angrily mumbled several unrepeatables.

Overall though, he knew this was good for racing, anything that kept the industry afloat. The insular secret society with a superiority complex was unsustainable. Still though, he couldn’t help lament the days when he knew half the betting ring by name. Last week he spotted a group of twentysomethings queuing for a burger, oblivious and unconcerned that Hurricane Fly was simultaneously racing a hundred yards away. Don’t you know, don’t you care? He remained an obstinate purist. If he had his way everyone at the gate would be asked what the King George VI was. Anyone who cited Kauto, Kempton or cold turkey would be welcomed with open arms. Those who mentioned Ascot or top hats would be tolerated, while those who discussed the former Head of the Commonwealth would be turned away faster than a cat at a mouse convention.

His eyes wandered slowly along the rail to the plum pitch of his best friend, the bookmaker who taught him everything he knew. Paddy’s stories of ruthless battles with the sharpest punters for eye-watering sums were the catalyst for his initial tentative foray into bookmaking. “A ship in a harbour is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for” was Paddy’s favourite saying. He noticed the owners and trainers bar, and remembered the time Paddy tested the feasibility of bugging it. “Imagine the inside info Mick, priceless.” Again he stared into the distance, daydreaming sadly. Paddy had been dead seven years now.

At his funeral, Paddy’s son took to the pulpit and tearfully read To An Athlete Dying Young.

Now you will not swell the rout of lads that wore their honours out runners whom renown outran and the name died before the man.

Sitting with head bowed, Mick silently promised to make his friend proud.

“It’s classic Darwinism Mick. Adapt or become extinct. That’s all this is, survival of the fittest. What can you offer punters that the lad beside you can’t? Listen, new people come along every week thinking it’s easy, thinking we always win. Well we bloody well don’t. You have two races to win, one against your competitors and one against the punters. Win the first, and the second’s a cinch.”

Such sagely advice was not lost on the young bookmaking protégé, and Mick remembered the words verbatim to this day. Adapt or become extinct. The thing that irritated him most nowadays is that he had adapted. He spent a small fortune switching to digital price boards, and in a despairing effort to lure in business, shouted the odds with a gusto that would make any Camden Market vendor feel self-conscious. None of it made a difference. Fourteen years on from his first day here, the last of which he’d struggled resolutely against the tide to keep his nose above the surface, he was inevitably swept under. There’s only so many times a man can parrot “five euro to win ten thank you madam” before his bankroll struggles alongside his temperament to maintain a semblance of propriety.

Though it appeared so, this wasn’t simply a natural decline. A ruthless competitor, who emerged around the time of Paddy’s death, with more financial backing and better margins than Mick could feasibly maintain, had gradually taken him out. Made his position, as those thesaurus reporters proudly declare, untenable. His nemesis didn’t care much about his pathetic ledger, his wife who had recently been made redundant, or his five-year-old son who wondered how exactly Santa got lost this year.

Mick stood and prepared to go through the motions again, removing his gloves in preparation to pay out the few lucky punters. Fourteen years on and he was still reminding the impatient ones that sorry, he doesn’t pay out until “winner all right”. He knew, as he stepped down, he’d never stand on that pitch again, never mouth morning spoonfuls of honey to prepare for a voice-destroying afternoon of high-pitched punter-gathering. This is it, he thought, as he closed his satchel and dismantled that waste-of-money digital board. It was everything he feared since day one, going gently into that good night without so much as a sorry-to-see-you-go from his contemporaries.

He strolled towards the exit, past the still-bustling bar. He managed a brief laugh as he recalled the day Paddy took 25 grand off JP, then duly shared the wealth with everyone in the bar, announcing proudly who their kind benefactor was, unaware that JP himself was standing down the back, smiling politely. Mick carried a legless Paddy to the car that night, pausing only for his friend to unload his stomach contents on a nearby flowerbed. He passed those flowers now by the exit and smiled.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away from fields where glory does not stay and early though the laurel grows it withers quicker than the rose.

The nostalgic smile quickly faded to an enraged scowl when he remembered who controlled the betting ring now. That relentless, heartless nemesis with no sympathy for his plight. He walked slowly through the exit, turned and looked back at the ring. He’d certainly return, but never as a bookie, one of the select few who physically and metaphorically stand above the masses. He’d be a mere mortal, a punter with the margins against him, a layman, a tourist, a goddamn lamb to the slaughter. May as well be a deranged monkey throwing darts at the Racing Post. He turned and trudged slowly away, the heavy load he would soon grudgingly be rid of making him hunch forwards.

And for one final time, he cursed the indifferent, unstoppable adversary that had finally put him out of business: “bloody Internet”.