Professional Gambler: Freddie Williams

It's November 2005. The location: Cheltenham racecourse. It's about an hour before the first race - the opening day of the Paddy Power Gold Cup meeting. 

Under a grey sky, with steadily dropping temperatures, the crowd gathers. In the betting circle bookies are pitching. 

Barry Dennis shouts prices back and forth. Gregory and John Hughes watch the crowd. Andy Smith and John Christie await the first bets of the day. Mickey 'The Asparagus Kid' Fletcher, his face like a 'Wanted' poster, scowls from the sidelines. But Scotsman Freddie Williams, a famed drama actor, hasn't yet arrived.


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Miniature in stature he may be, he's known as the biggest bookmaker at Prestbury Park.

Freddie delays his entrance, sitting comfortably in his Jaguar a hundred yards away in the members' car park. His daughter Julie, and other members of his on-course team are already in place on the pitch. Freddie, the softly spoken boss, confers with them by phone, always monitoring the early activity and estimating the moves of the day.


At the Cheltenham Festival in March 1999, JP McManus - a feared pro gambler of racing legend - has a colossal £100,000 each way at 7/1 on his own horse in the Pertempts Hurdle Final. This wasn't some transaction by chance. It was a very deliberate, planned, almost hand-to-hand combat in the heat and gun-smoke of the Festival. Shannon Gale, trained by Christy Roche, finished fourth and JP collected £175,000 from the each-way part of his wager. If he had finished first, Freddie Williams would have had a payout in the ballpark of the £900,000. To clearly understand what makes him such an accomplished man we need to take a look at his whole life. What makes his story so interesting is not just his enthusiastic embrace of customary betting and his detest for the cautious, corporate approach of the big betting-shop chains but also credit that this is a man came from a modest beginning and earned the right to be a player on the greatest racing stage of them all.


Freddie was born in 1942 in Cumnock, East Ayrshire. His father was a miner, like his father before him. Freddie, like the rest of his male relations and colleagues, would have gone down the pit himself had he not failed the medical exam at the age of 15. Instead he became a mining engineer.


After a few years Freddie went to work for a soft drink company. Everyone knew bet in those days, and the backbone of gambling in the mining communities was 'pitch and toss'. Horse racing, especially jump racing, was exerting a far greater allure.


I was lucky to earn a pound a week at the time. I kept my money in a tin box. There were illegal betting offices all around Ayrshire and I put every dime I could on Pas Seul. He made it to the last stretch but then he fell.' Williams laughs sorrowfully at the memory. 'Kerstin stayed on to win the race.


Pas Seul made no mistake the next year, though.' Freddie's was not alone in his love of a punt.In fact it was shared by his workmates at Currys.


He bought his first bookmaking pitch at Ayr in 1974, followed by one in Hamilton and one in Musselburgh. He would go on to own seven betting offices. After Currys was bought out again in 1991, Freddie, already worth over a million, started his own bottled-water business called Caledonian Clear.


Some of competitors like to say that it must be very nice to try bookmaking when you have another job paying your bills.However, Freddie emphatically denies racing job is some sort of sideline. 'Bookmaking is my livelihood and my passion in life.' Freddie has said.


The enthusiasm and nerve Freddie brings to his job is something the Southerners had not witnessed for themselves until the massively overdue reforms that allowed racecourse pitches to be bought and sold at public auction in the late 1990s. The old-fashioned system of Dead Man's Shoes, the bookmaking pitches were restricted to successive generations of the same family, was a sort of Masonic protection swindle that shut out new money and new faces from the ring.


The Scotsman got an early start on 1st January 1999 and again in March. It didn't take McManus to seek him out. As well as conflicting Shannon Gale, the bookmaker also accepted Nick Dundee. Dundee was the Irish banker of the week. The young novice ran in the colours of McManus' close friends John and Sue Magnier. But Freddie didn't fancy Nick Dundee. 'I was going 11/8, One gentleman wanted £80,000 on, and I laid it to him, but I didn't take down the price. He looked at me for a moment then asked for the bet again. So I laid him another £110,000 to £80,000, but I still not taking down the price.'


It was a close-run race. Then it happened Nick Dundee's legs buckled landing over the third last fence. Plus, presumably, the sound of one Scottish heart beating faster. Freddie was not always so lucky.


Although the bookie and punter seem to be natural enemies, they also tend to respect each other alot. 'We're friends,' says Williams sincerely. 'John was in business as a bookmaker for 15 years. He had a good bet on Dawn Run when she won the Gold Cup in 1986 and that helped him to change his life. However, he told me that if she'd lost, he'd have been skint the following week.'


Freddie admits, 'Festival trading is totally draining, which is why I stay in a nice, quiet hotel. When you get back, all you want to do is eat and sleep. I'm afraid I'm well behind in the entertainment stakes.'


There was plenty of entertainment on November '04, though: The Rising Moon, running in the McManus colours, was the medium of a £100,000 plunge at 3/1. Half an hour later, JP's Spot The Difference won the Sporting Index cross-country chase. Someone stuck on £28,000 at 7/1 for a payout of nearly two hundred grand.


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Frederick Sidney Williams, soft-drink manufacturer and bookmaker: born Cumnock, Ayrshire 28 October 1942; married Sheila Edwards (two daughters; marriage dissolved 2006); died Cumnock 21 June 2008


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Freddie Williams: Bookmaker of amazing boldness by Tony Smurthwaite, The Independent 



Freddie Williams was the buccaneering bookmaker who left onlookers amazed by an incredible boldness that, at the end of one remarkable day at the races, had cost him £1m. He attained celebrity status as the immovable object that met the irresistible force of J.P. McManus, the singularly audacious punter whose huge wagers during the Cheltenham National Hunt Festival each March are one of horse-racing's constants.



Their personal conflict might have bankrupted lesser players, yet relations were always cordial amid McManus's six-figure investments. Such Corinthian spirit, made easier by each man's wealth, captivated many who followed the betting moves at the leading racing and greyhound meetings, and made Williams a hugely popular and high-profile bookmaker.


Williams's most bruising encounter with McManus came on a day he would never forget, as it was to end in terror. It began at the Cheltenham Festival on 16 March 2006. McManus had struck a £100,000 bet to win £600,000 on Reveillez, who won, then followed up with £5,000 each way on Kadoun, another of his horses, at 50-1. When Kadoun won, in the last race of the day, Williams owed McManus more than £1m. As if that were that not bad enough, on driving away from the course in his Jaguar with his daughter Julie and her boyfriend, Andrew, Williams was ambushed by an armed gang. Though the three escaped physically unscathed, the ordeal shook them badly. The assailants were said to have made off with £70,000.


It had long been Williams's ambition to be a bookmaker at Cheltenham. Born in the coal-mining heartland of Cumnock, South Ayrshire, he developed an aptitude for laying odds at a young age, watching the miners playing endless games of pitch and toss. "There was nothing to do then but work and gamble," recalled Williams, whose grandfather and father had both gone down the pit. Freddie's first role model was his great-grandfather. When a pit accident robbed him of an arm, cut off in an accident, he recovered to set up in business as a coal merchant.


Freddie was bedridden as a child and missed out on pit life after failing a medical as a result of polio. He swept floors in the local Curries of Auchinleck lemonade factory, and acted as a bookie's runner before graduating to lay his own odds in a small way at Auchinleck greyhound track.


Though his schooling was interrupted and his education compromised, Freddie Williams had an aptitude that allowed him to rise to manager at the lemonade plant. A buy-out among staff increased his involvement, and later he took over the business. In 1991 he sold his stake and four years later opened the alcopop manufacturer Caledonian Bottlers, which boasted a state-of-the-art factory employing 50 full-time staff, and used natural Scottish spring water.


Williams maintained, however, that bookmaking, not bottling, was his livelihood. He had established a bookmaker's pitch at Ayr racecourse in 1974, where he became known as a daredevil, and then put his name down for a coveted spot at Cheltenham. But the "dead man's shoes" system of bookmaker pitch transfer was a source of great frustration, and Williams languished on the waiting list for 20 years. In one interview, he said: "I started off at 120 on the list and by the 1990s I was at number 40. It was never going to happen, but then the rules changed and you could buy a pitch. I was the first to buy one. I thought, 'Here I am! I'm not just here for a day out – I'm taking on the biggest hitters in the game.' "


So it was that on 1 January 1999, Williams arrived for Cheltenham's traditional New Year's Day meeting. McManus tested his nerve immediately, placing £90,000 on the Queen Mother's runner Buckside. The 2-1 favourite led at the last fence, but faded into second place. Seven weeks earlier, Williams had undergone a quadruple heart bypass.


He never looked back. In March 1999 he took on McManus and other big hitters over the three days of the National Hunt Festival. He clearly loved the cut and thrust, never flinching no matter how high the stakes. "Fearless" Freddie was soon in his pomp, making appearances on Channel 4 racing where he shared his love of the betting ring, and the game of wits, bravado and instinct he waged with customers, who ranged from heavy hitters to £2 punters at Glasgow's Shawfield greyhound track.


Shannon Gale marked the start of battle royal with McManus. Williams accepted a bet of £100,000 each way on the 7-1 chance. Honours were shared when the horse ran fourth, ensuring an each-way payout of £175,000 rather than the £875,000 had it won.


Williams enjoyed studying his clients as much as the horses, seeking give-away signs of confidence or uncertainty. He stood at other racecourses and at greyhound tracks, and owned a string of racehorses. In 2004 he bought the 78 St Vincent Street restaurant in Glasgow, installing his daughter Julie as manager, it was said to stop her following him into the betting game. When his marriage broke down in 2006, it was reported that a £1m divorce settlement had been agreed.


Williams worked until he dropped, suffering a heart attack after a day spent working at Ayr races and an evening working at Shawfield. His philosophy was summed up in the view that the final race each day did not mean an end to the winning or the losing. "There is no last race," he would often say.

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