CLEM Delaney is one of the many racing aficionados who takes time off work every mid-March. He’s never been to the Cotswolds, but hasn’t missed a Festival in the bookies since 1963.
Ever since I started working I have taken holidays for the week of Cheltenham, a place I have never been to. It’s an annual pilgrimage for many each year, but I am more than happy to spend the days in my local bookies.
I was struck with the Cheltenham bug in 1964 and it has remained with me ever since. I was a young lad but clearly remember Arkle beating Mill House in the Gold Cup. Ireland v England in any sport gets you going but you can’t beat that feeling when you have your money down as your horse passes the post first.
Up until around 10 years ago I would have gone in at around 11am, read all the papers and had the craic with the other punters. There would be no racing from South Africa, France or any other type of crap. All you had to do was concentrate on the big meeting, with excitement rising as the first race loomed. We didn’t even feel hungry, the adrenaline was food enough.
This year I will get the tabloids which usually have free fiver bets for Cheltenham and have my free bet in the selected bookies. Then off to my regular bookie at around noon. The usual punters will be there, but also a fair number who are not regulars, everyone thinking that this will be the day when the accumulator comes up, all at good prices. Tips will be flying and the trick is to go completely deaf for about two hours — this way you will ignore the extra ‘races’. And avoid hearing tips.
The 2013 bookie is very different from the ’70s and ’80s one. Bad weather could mean all race meetings being called off but the bookie will never be closed these days. Virtual horse, dog, car and bicycle racing is available all day if you were desperate enough to participate (I have been known to partake). Not forgetting roulette and virtual football, and don’t be surprised if they soon introduce mouse races and two flies going up a wall racing.
Food? Will you stop! They now give out sandwiches, sausages and chicken pieces and you can have tea, coffee, hot chocolate etc as well. This is of course in Irish ones. The English ones are often less generous. I was over last year and found myself thinking that this was Ireland 10 years ago.
The small independent bookies I frequent/support/want to take to the cleaners/sometimes burn, Kingstons, Graiguecullen, Carlow, pay the better prices on accumulative bets. So you can back four nags in a yankee at 3/1 each and the prices go out to even 25/1, you are paid the better prices.
After the first four races things usually quieten down with dreams shattered and the losing docket free draw box starts filling rapidly, although there might still be an odd few happy heads.
Day-trippers from the local college start moving in and tricking around, making loads of noise and generally livening things up. You see their happy faces as they hope Lady Luck will turn their fiver into E50 or E60, or E100 even! And you think back to the ’70s and ’80s when this was yourself, only there wasn’t any college, or even a TV in the bookies. Just a crackling radio and a tight-looking bookie.
The girls taking the bets in Kingstons bookies are okay as well, even the owner is okay and we are treated okay. It can’t be that big a job to smile, laugh even, when a man walks in and willingly hands over his hard-earned money. But that was not always the case with bookies in this town.
In 1974 I remember well having five shillings on Epsom Derby winner Snow Night at 50/1, five shillings on a horse called Willy Willy at 33/1 who won the last race in the Phoenix Park that night, and five shillings each way double. This is the truth. I went in the following day and he handed me out £75 and told me, with a cross between a snigger, a sneer and a smug gob, that this was the shop limit on any one docket. Without this limit the docket was worth nearly £500, and this was 1974. I knew he was laughing as I left the premises but nine months later he got a heart attack, and died, which took the sting out of it for me.
There are 1,145 horses entered in this year’s festival handicaps alone. The chances of getting a winner will be pretty slim so I will be backing the jockeys instead of the horses. The leading Cheltenham-winning jockeys are Ruby Walsh (34), Tony McCoy (27) and Barry Geraghty (25). All Irishmen of course. These are the jockeys I will put my faith in and hope they get me through the week. Forget the horses, the top jockeys usually ride the best anyway, and are trained by the best. You can’t go wrong! Have a squint at what Pricewise is tipping in the Racing Post as well.
Finally, it is possible to have one foot in the grave on the last day —Cheltenham that is — and come out smiling. In 1986, I was almost broke after the first two days.
On the final day I decided that Dawn Run would win the Gold Cup. She was favourite, so the few pounds I had would be no good, and instead I backed Ted Walsh on Attitude Adjuster before the Gold Cup. Ted obliged, and retired after the race as well by the way.
I forget the price of Attitude Adjuster but I put the lot on Dawn Run who was 15/8. I had my graveyard head on as she jumped the last looking tired and a few lengths behind Wayward Lad, but in the last 100 yards the Lad tired and Jonjo O’Neill got Dawn Run up right at the finish to win by three-quarters of a length. I nearly had a heart attack but I collected £59, not bad in 1986, and walked to the nearest pub, very delighted to have something to celebrate.
Some year I would like to go to Cheltenham just for one of the days of the Festival, just to savour the atmosphere, just once, but for now Kingstons will do me.
The best of luck in your chosen bookie — and keep away from the virtual side-shows. Don’t forget there are no crying rooms in the bookies and unlike the bankers and bondholders here in Ireland, when we gamble and lose, there will be no one to bail us out. You would have a much better chance of being kicked out. So don’t go too mad this Festival week.