Out of pocket - out of mind

Sam North

Someone once declared horseracing to be the sport of kings. Well they were right.
The first thing you have to realize is that you need a kings ransom to survive the game.
There is only one possible winner in racing – the bookie. Anyone who tells you anything different is a liar. Glamour? Welcome to the members enclosure. Rub shoulders with loan sharks, the gentry, businessmen on shindigs and high class hookers looking for a husband. Join the endless parade of horses and fashions, the whole paraphernalia of salmon and champagne lunches, the tension, the near misses, the upsets, the joy of winning. Study the form, fill out the jackpot and placepot forms, be certain that today is your day, you will win, you will leave with your pockets full. You will meet your friends there, make new friends and everyone is like you, an addict. Here you are normal. Everyone you meet will be like you, have an opinion, have certainty and you’ll see them again at York, or Newmarket or Goodwood or Melbourne or Cape Town or down at Corals where Alf or Pete will be perched on their favourite stools, staring at the screen, betting money they haven’t got and no matter if they win or lose, they will be there tomorrow. This is what they do, this is who you are, you are a gambler. High stakes or low, it is the same, you will lose and you will go on losing – forever. You can bet virtually everyday of your life, follow the seasons, become an expert in turf form, live and breathe the life or you can walk away and never look back. I walked away.

Do I miss it? Hell yes.

It took me ten years to realize something quite fundamental about myself and horses.Every week, six days in the week I was obsessed by horse-racing. It’s an addiction, like any other, and just like alcohol, it’s legal, it’s taxed and all the respectable people do it. Even the Queen drinks and bets on horses. Funny I never seen her down at Ladbroke's on a Friday afternoon or the Wheatsheaf afterwards to discuss the days disasters.
Dancing Brave

It’s a life. You are not just drawn into it, you become it and it becomes you. No matter what else you might be doing, if you love horse racing and you want to win, you will have to become an expert. Everyone is an expert. Everyone has a system, everyone knows the trainers personally, or has inside knowledge from the jockey, the stable hands or maybe they got a tip from a bloke down the pub or subscribe to some ‘special knowledge’ phone line that tips you the nod just before the off. But I never actually met anyone who really made it big on a regular basis. Not even Sangster. He makes money from breeding and selling on. You hear about the big wins, but the big losses?
Tthat doesn’t get talked about. Everyone gives it back. That is the real story.

Of course there are times when you absolutely know that a certain horse is going to win and deserves to win. I can still recall with bitterness the defeat of ‘Dancing Brave’, one the best horses ever on the track and when Greville Starkey allegedly delayed his storming gallop for the line on Derby day, you just knew (suspected anyway) that someone had (possibly) paid him more than he thought he could win to pull that race. It’s not my thousand quid I lost on that race, it was the utter disgust we ALL felt at seeing this strong beautiful horse denied its rightful place as a Derby winner. I’d seen his first run and fallen in love with Dancing Brave and if I saw Greville Starkey now I’d still want to spit in his face – even after all these years.

That is the point of sport I suppose, you fall in love with the horses, the game, the tracks and personalities. You also must be totally prepared to lose everything. Because you will. You cannot expect to beat the odds, especially if you bet everyday. For every bit of luck you have, you will give it all back, three times over.

I used to have a good friend and housemate called James. He was the racecourse commentator in Cape Town and later on buyer and breeding selector for Robert Sangster before moving to Australia, where I lost touch with him. Gambling coursed through James’ blood. He lived and breathed form, he could predict the distance a horse could lose by or win by to an inch, he could tell you without looking the breeding history of a horse going back to the stone-age (well almost). Yet I was there when the ‘boys’ came looking for him to break his legs when some bets went sour. The experts can lose and lose really big. We used to eat all the time at the old Rondebosch Hard Rock in Cape Town. James even had his own table and had an arrangement with the owners. At the end of every month he’d bet whatever the bill was that month to be able to settle it. Most time this would work out, but I recall a tense month when nothing would win. I was following him, every race day we would look for the get-out horse, doubling up, trebling up to get out of the hole and not a favorite or second favourite would ever win, for weeks. Outsiders all the time and there was nothing one could do about it. The point of outsiders is that they are outsiders. They are not supposed to win. You end up having to virtually bet on them all to break even and that is really stupid. This month of hell ended and I don’t know what James owed, but I know I had blown around six months worth of income. I had blown the rent money, my royalties, my income from writing the radio dramas I was commissioned to do, the deposit on the new car I was going to buy and I borrowed more. Still there was no winner. Everyone was disbelieving. The jockeys were all under suspicion and going to the races was a real lottery.

Anyway, one day James found a winner. Of course he kept this to himself. The less people know, the better the odds. I found out a minute before the off but I had already bet everything I had left on it’s stable-mate Pennythoughts. Pennythoughts led from the off. Anyone who knows racing will know on the flat that this is immediately fatal. I’d lost my money. I couldn’t watch and went for a cup of tea in the member’s tearoom. James’s horse romped home, beating mine, which remarkably had stayed on to finish second. When they called the result everyone was stunned for moment because this horse should have been pulling a milk cart by rights, but that is horse racing. I was about to tear up my ticket when Robert, a steward sharing my table, stopped me. ‘There will be an enquiry.’

Those are the magic words for people who have come second. A reprieve. I had bet big. A last gasp. £500 at 5-1. I needed this. I owed all of it. Sure enough a stewards enquiry was called. James appeared as the next race was delayed for thirty minutes for some marching band to parade. He looked pale.
‘How much did you do?’ I asked.
He shook his head. ‘If I don’t come home tonight, feed the dog. I might be gone for a few days.’ He’d bet big. I knew some boys would be coming around. I guessed from his demeanor that he knew he’d lost. ‘Bumping on the bend. She’ll be disqualified and they’ll reverse places.’

I was getting more hopeful. He had lost, but I had finally won. I almost bought another cup of tea to celebrate, but couldn’t afford it.
The result was devastating. Horses 7 and 5 were found to interfered with each other. My horse was placed third, James’ horse placed last and some lame dog was placed first. We both lost.

I felt nothing. James stoically went back to the commentary box and called the next race.
I still felt nothing when I sold my old car to pay the rent. Suzanne, whose mother trained horses and never placed a bet was able to point out exactly what the trouble was. ‘You’re not addicted to horse racing, you’re addicted to losing.’

If there was one thing Suzanne and others of her ilk hate is losers. She was a racing princess, her own Jag at 18 and she could lose a million and not notice. I knew she was trying to help, but in the end there is no help for losers. You either go under or quit. And quitting means walking away from everyone you know, a whole way of life.

That is what addiction is. An addiction is an affection for pain, suffering, doubt, anxiety and you tell yourself that this is just the by product of the life. Whether you are are a junkie or an alcoholic or a gambler, winning is not the goal, the high isn’t the goal, the paraphernalia is the thing, the people, the other losers you are surrounded by, all bolstering yourselves up with ‘next time it will be better, the high will be bigger, the win bigger’, but whatever your poison, there is always a hangover.

I gambled for fifteen years. I don’t own a house, I couldn’t keep a stable relationship because money would fluctuate so much. I didn’t used to have a future because I put gambling and horse racing before everything else in my life. I was lucky. I met someone who said, 'me or the horses' and I chose her.

I had to walk away from everything and never look at the racing pages again. It was tough, very tough. I still feel a hole where that life was. There was an occasional lapse, but I would always lose and then that numbness came back and I knew finally that Suzanne had been right, it was the losing that mattered. It was everything.

In the end, I stopped looking at the horse pages, I stopped myself from following the races, never watched them on TV, saw no one, communicated with no one who was associated with racing or betting and slowly, inevitably, I began to rejoin the human race, accumulate things, jobs, income, holidays, a decent car.

But I know something that any recovering alcoholic will acknowledge. I am duller for all that. I have lost a passion, an enthusiasm, I have been divorced from a cruel and harsh mistress and gained a weak simulcrum of existence with no highs or lows. My life is pallid and although everyone I knew was a fair-weather-friend, I have never found replacements. Normal people live like shadows. I have become one of them.

Would I go back? No. That’s the way it is. Shadows cannot find their way back once they are weaned. To love a sport is to experience a lifelong passion for something bigger than yourself. To walk away from it must therefore be the opposite. I live with it.

All former addicts live with it. If you read this and say, I can beat it. I am better than you. I win. Great. You are better than me. You are stronger than me. Your fall will be harder than mine – it’s the nature of things. We all want to beat the system. But remember this,
The system cannot be beaten. It will still be there after you are gone. That is the system.

© Sam North 2001

Watch out for Sam's new novel
'The Curse of the Nibelung- A Sherlock Holmes Mystery' Published Sept 2005

Photo: Hazel Marshall

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