The late, lamented Soho lush and gambler, Jeffrey Bernard, tells the story of a man named Antonio, a barman in one of his locals:
“His addiction to matters concerning the Turf began one day when he put fifty pence on a horse of Scobie Breasley’s called Hittite Glory. The animal trotted up at 100-1 and Antonio got the idea that he could repeat the performance every day for the rest of his life.”
It was a similar lucky chance that brought us to the glamorous surroundings of Fakenham racecourse, Norfolk, on New Year’s Day.
A trip to the New Year’s Day races is, you see, a tradition so quintessentially English that in 35 continuous years of living in the country, I had participated in it precisely never.
My mother, however, had debuted in the world of racing last New Year’s Day, and developed a system of backing the horse with the longest odds in every race and betting the two pound minimum on each. Having been rewarded by winning her entrance fee, several rounds of drinks AND about fifty quid on an outsider favoured with the sort of odds that would normally indicate a missing limb, she was in bullish mood for 2012.
Or, as Jeffrey Bernard would no doubt have it, going the full Antonio.
My father, perhaps remembering his own father, who gambled away not only his wife’s inheritance but also his sons’ at Monte Carlo, chose to eschew Fakenham’s myriad charms.
The real tragedy of Monte Carlo? My grandfather was a Life Master at chess and a Grand Master at bridge. That is to say, pretty damn good at chess and a world class player of cards. He didn’t, however, play poker. Not even blackjack. He blew the lot on goddamn roulette…
But I digress.
Now, Z has been studying probability in maths. And, no, this does not mean we’ve abandoned unschooling. He has, however, decided that he would like to learn physics and, given I have even less grasp on exponents and coefficients than I do on fractions, he has wisely requested to learn said subject with someone with a degree in it and a decent handle on maths.
Anywise, probability in hand, albeit not the immutable law that the bookie always wins, he was going to stick a fiver on two of the favourites, the ones, perhaps not coincidentally, with names like something out of World of Warcraft.
Me? Fuelled by my reading of Jeffrey Bernard, I was reckoning on one accumulator, and a series of rank outsiders.
My brother was going to be betting on mid-weighted outsiders.
Between us, we figured that if a cow were to win at Fakenham, we ought, collectively, to be up on the day.
It would be fair to say that entrance to the members’ enclosure at Fakenham Racecourse is rather less sartorially challenging than at better known fixtures on the British racing calendar, such as Ascot and Cheltenham. The drinks are, also, rather better priced.
Quilted jackets, Barbours, wellies and those odd green moleskin trousers folk wear in the countryside paired beautifully with the kind of rosy English faces that forced potato comparisons from George Orwell and make Americans say unkind things about the nation’s teeth.
Or, as my mother put it, “You do look nice. I’m not sure there’s going to be anyone here worth looking nice for, though…”
Anywise. The members enclosure is great. You are right up by the finish line, there’s mulled wine on tap, barely a queue for the bar, no stag parties or hen parties, and, in an uncharacteristically balmy January, with the mercury close to double figures, it’s a great way to spend the day.
Particularly, of course, if you win.
Now, my life has been characterised by a sort of insane optimism interspersed with stretches of doldrums. Ride a motorbike from Bali to Papua? No problemo! Learn Chinese in a month? Hell yeah! Produce 80,000 words over the Christmas break? Easy-peasy…
So, not withstanding the laws of mathematics and the evident absence of 80,000 words (or, for that matter, arrival in Papua), I was pretty confident that one or the other of us would back a winner at 30-1 or over.
There were only three horses running in the first race. My outsider ran great guns from the start, and, entering the final lap, I was fully in the swing of things and screaming for him.
It came in third.
On the second race, we, collectively, covered two-thirds of the six-horse field. No win. But at least my place bets for the place pot were holding.
By the start of the third race, we had become accustomed to the phenomenon of the rank outsider which leads from the start then gets overtaken in the manner of a dodgem on the M25 by everything with four legs over the last half mile.
Is “bolt” the correct verb for this?
“You’ve got half the field covered there, love,” said the friendly bookie, as I trailed our puddle of shrapnel and a calmly confident Z over to his table.
Z and I put our money on the second favourite, Safe Investment. It wasn’t.
As a family, it appeared, we had covered the wrong half.
Another round. “Right,” says my mother. “There are only four horses in the next race. If we each back a different one, one of us HAS to win.”
Due to familial miscommunications, we ended up with a whole tenner riding on the four. My mother’s pick came in. For a fiver. My bet to place came last, ending my interest in the place pot.
Her round. Again.
By this point both I and, unfortunately, my spawn were, ahem, “stretching” our budget for the races, raising our stakes to the princely height of three pounds. Both my mother and I had decided to throw feminism to the winds, quit betting on female jockeys, and had adjusted our sights to feel a mild glow of proprietorial pleasure when a horse we’d bet on actually finished the course.
In the penultimate race, Z had three quid on a rank outsider at 40 to 1 and three quid on the all out favourite at very much less than that, while I’d developed an irrational faith in a jockey named Matt Crawley largely because he’d won the first race.
Z’s outsider developed a convincing lead and held it for two and a half laps, Z screaming him on from the fence. At the second-to-last fence the favourite passed him.
No worries! He had three quid on this one too.
Then, at the final fence, the favourite stopped dead and refused to jump.
It was, as they say, the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“Right!” he exclaimed, a whole twelve quid down on the day and scrumpling up his betting slips in the manner of a much older male, one of those dark scribbled gloom clouds you get in cartoons hovering over his head. “I’ve had enough of this. I’m going to go and sit in the car.”
A couple with a baby behind us jumped up and down, screaming and hugging each other like something out of a National Lottery advert. They had won, they said, over a thousand pounds.
“No,” said Z, resisting all forms of blandishment. “I DO NOT WANT A HOT CHOCOLATE. I WANT TO SIT IN THE CAR.”
“It’s been an odd sort of day,” said one of the chaps beside us, who seemed to know what he was talking about. “Normally at Fakenham you’ll always get at least one that comes in at 8-1 or better over the day.”
My brother’s rank outsider led the last race only to lose by a short head.
“Well,” said my ma. “I think it’s been an excellent day out. But, you know, I really think Z genuinely thought he’d win.”