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1st February 2020

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When you tell people you bet on horses and follow racing a common response is all, some or a variation of the following: ‘Mug’s game, of course; no one can win, y’know, you don’t really, do you; we always hear about the winning bets but never the losing bets; bookies have got it all sewn up; it’s all a racket, and it’s a worse addiction than heroin: my brother-in-law ruined himself, even gambled his kids’ dinner money; OK, clever clogs, if you’re doing so well then tell me what you’re betting on each day and I will bet on the same and then we’ll see . . .’ And so on.

I suppose it is only to be expected in a highly medicalised, quasi-socialist society such as Britain that almost any pastime outside of watching politically correct drama on television is now considered ruinously addictive and hazardous to one’s being. As in so many areas of life now an epic level of missing the point has been reached.

Of course I don’t win all the time – though as I explained in my last column, I have finished many seasons in profit, and those profits would be a good deal bigger if I didn’t plough so much of my winnings back into yankees and trixies etc in search of the Truly Big Win – but racing only exists because of a simple and ancient equation: almost everyone loses almost all the time. If you can plot a course through that general situation, as many of us do, without it costing you too much or even coming out on top then you have your hobby and the fun of it. In my case gambling costs me far less overall than I spend on public transport or going down the pub, and some seasons it costs me precisely nothing.

So let’s talk about losing, the thing we punters are said never to talk about.

For years I wanted to have a share in a racehorse and pored over the syndicate adverts in the Racing Post looking for an opportunity. Nothing really suited. The syndicate looked dodgy, the trainer looked unprepossessing, or the horse did or all three. Then there was the expense. I gave up on the idea.

Then in the Triumph Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival last year I picked out a horse trained by Nicky Henderson, one of the supreme National Hunt trainers; the man’s a wizard quite honestly. Pentland Hills, an ex Flat horse, had had what I considered to be a rather typical prep for a Henderson novice nag. He’d only been on a jumps track once, a Class 4 maiden hurdle at Plumpton, a little country track in Sussex, and had pissed up by 14 lengths. Now he was in deep at the Triumph Hurdle at an SP of 20/1 (I backed him at 25s on the Betfair exchange). He won, I danced round the front room, and the formbook must tell the tale:

Blundered 1st, hampered after 4th, headway on inside after 2 out, not clear run turning in, challenged going well before last, ridden to lead flat, stayed on well tchd 22/1.

Pentland was a syndicate horse handled by Owners’ Group, a company in Devizes, Wiltshire. You pay a one-off fee of about £50, your syndicate share lasts a year before renewal and all horses are with top trainers. Owners’ Group’s offer seemed to good to be true but research showed they did what they said on the label, and Pentland proved it. I duly invested in a few young horses.

At last, I thought. Soon I will be strolling up to terrified bookmakers at Ascot and having £500 on my own horse with the nonchalance of an Edwardian turf aristo, safe in the knowledge that I had been squared up by my trainer.

It isn’t quite like that. Take Glynn, one of my horses with Nicky Henderson – yes, appalling name but we don’t choose them. Had I been in charge I would have opted for a name such as Sir Arthur Sullivan, Carry On Screaming or Exile On Main St or something in that line (sadly Sid James has already been used).

Glynn’s first time on a track was at Doncaster on January 24 in the Sporting Life EBF ‘National Hunt’ Maiden Hurdle (Class 5) over 2m 3f on good to soft. He was second favourite with an SP of 15/8. Anyone who knows Flash Harry knows that anything under 3/1 bores me. Glynn was a newbie, it was a big field of unexposed horses. I decided not to bet Glynn on the grounds that to get a winning tickle would require a large bet and I had no idea if he would win apart from an expectation by the trainer that he should go well. He won of course. Formbook, speak:

Held up towards rear, headway before 4 out, led 3 out, clear before last op 9/4 tchd 5/2.

He didn’t just win he thrashed the field like an imperious star by 11 lengths. Later that day for complex reasons I found myself in a pub in Highgate, north London, where my mobile phone told me that Glynn’s performance had made headlines in the sporting media. He was entered in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in March and bookies had priced him up at 25/1. This is like your football team in the FA cup final. On him I had not won a penny (and in the following wet and dingy days would continue to not win a penny over the course of several bets on various horses) but I sat outside the Flask, at Highgate, where the Fullers ESB is a work of art quite frankly, and basked in a sense of anticipatory pleasure and also proprietorial pride.

And this is where the politics comes in. I am a member of several social media forums concerning my syndicates. It is extraordinary the pleasure and interest generated by having the tiniest stake in proceedings, to have access in a small way to that which you never previously thought you could attain or afford.

In these days of plans to ‘level up’ poorer areas of the country could not the public be offered similar bite-sized investments in the country over and above general taxation? Something that makes people feel similarly proprietorial, engaged, interested and inside the tent pissing out? Could those who claim they could not afford such investments be offered one in advance to be paid for in increments by further dividends if any? That would avoid inevitable left-wing grievance mongering.

It is a very vague idea I grant you and I know similar notions were floated in the Eighties and Nineties but a sense of ownership must surely lead to a sense of membership, which is likely to prove good bulwark against widespread urban decline and alienation, and the unceasing march of the dictatorial bureaucrats. Well, it’s a thought.

Meanwhile, I’m going down the pub to drop into conversation that fact that one of my horses is entered for ‘the Festival’.

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