My heart was pumping, my hands were clammy, the horses were off and running. This wasn't the Derby, nor the Grand National, it was the closing handicap at Lingfield on a Saturday night. There I am, a naïve young bookmaker's clerk with only a few dozen meetings under my belt, who's yet to be hit for six and wouldn't know where to run if I was.
We had just been approached with a £200 bet on some rag at 12/1 a minute before the off. A red light went off in my head. I plugged the numbers fearfully into the keyboard. My computer asks me "Are you sure?". I turn to my Dad, the face of the operation, "Are you sure?". He turns to the customer, he turns back. "Go on" he says, not a flicker of trepidation in his voice. The walkie-talkie between us screams, my brother's in the stand calling out the prices. Gone were the days of tic tac by then. "Number 5 9/1" he shouts. I look into the book as I hear "8/1 now". The screen is staring back at me and I don't like what I see. Perhaps this would be a convenient time to notify the reader that the horse in question, whose price was tumbling faster than Humpty Dumpty and who had been awarded cloth number 5, was the very same that we had just laid £200 at 12s. We wiped the board. We panicked.
Back in the days before the benefit of Betfair, bookies would send runners around the ring with a roll of readies to relieve some of their hefty liabilities. But the stalls were almost full and the white boards were singing 7/1 about the aforementioned plunge horse. We were stuck with our lot, and we didn't want it.
As any regular to Lingfield would know, the Saturday nights usually end with a 1m2f handicap on the All-Weather as dusk draws in. The gates are located directly parallel with the stand, so the crash as the gates fly open is audible to all the crowd, even after they throw in their drunk cheers and hoorays. As the stalls loudly spat out their respective 0-65 handicappers to the delight of the punters plenty, my brother came back with a handful of cash and a look on his face that said we didn't get on, so we clasped our hands and prayed.
I looked in at our book and there was only one red number. Usually you would be happy with that sort of thing, but not when it's the gamble of the race and that red number has four digits and a comma. "What's going on?" enquired Dad, eyes a good few centimetres further out than they belong. "One loser", I replied, though it sounded like the voice came from somewhere down near the two furlong marker.
We were in the early days of our bookmaking operation at this stage, mere minnows in a league dominated by your old timers and big players. A small family team out to make a few quid for the odd holiday or perhaps even university for me if we were lucky. Those plucky dreams looked in serious danger.
There is a good camera angle for the All-Weather track at Lingfield. It points down the straight just before the final bend and usually you can have a good idea of the winner even at this stage - who's got a double handful and who's beating the living daylights out of their mount. Generally those are the ones you can forget about. Our fella, the nag that would send us home with a vacant expression and an empty satchel, was travelling as if he'd just dropped into the race with four furlongs left to go. The crowd had picked up the scent of a nice priced winner in the last and had begun to rumble.
I, on the other hand, had begun to crumble. As they turned for home, the gamble took it up and went clear. I imagined the phone call home, "Sorry, Mum, we lost the lot. I guess you're cooking tonight. We can't afford that Chinese after all". I foresaw my higher education floating off towards the slowly dipping sun of midsummer "Sorry, Dec, looks like a career at McDonald's for you; maybe you could make manager".
The furlong pole flew past and there was a mere 220 yards left but, as I've heard since and seen with my own eyes countless times, the final furlong on the Lingfield AW track is the longest last furlong in England. On how many occasions has a horse led with one left to go and been swallowed up, only to finish out with the washing. Well, I didn't need any help from the washing, I just needed a miracle.
And a miracle appeared. With 50 yards to go who should come to our rescue but no less than the favourite - a winner in our book - who flashed past the gamble and hit the front, winning half a length. Disaster averted. Breath exhaled.
In moments like that, you don't realise some of the things happening until they're over. Only then do you notice the trembling hands, the pulsating heart and the fact that your legs have manifested themselves as spaghetti noodles in a windstorm.
I've seen more than a thousand races since that day: Classics, Group Ones, historic handicaps, but not one has embedded itself in my memory like that. We were almost caught slipping, but we lived to tell the tale and it's lodged itself in our family history. You can have Epsom on Derby day or Cheltenham in March. I've got Lingfield on a Saturday night.