For most gamblers, having a flutter is more of a bit of fun than a serious attempt to get rich. But Ruth Campbell meets one man for whom a day at the races means earning a living.
PAUL Cooper greets me by the gate of his imposing five-bedroom Georgian farmhouse, set in 100 acres, in North Yorkshire. There is a gleaming four wheel drive and an Alexis with the personalised number plate PC2 parked in the courtyard.
The former public schoolboy is charming and polite, and surrounded by the trappings of his success. If I were a betting woman and were asked, from first impressions, to guess what he did for a living, I would plump for accountant or stockbroker, or something in the City.
I'd be wrong. Paul Cooper is a professional gambler. It is hard to know what a professional gambler is supposed to look like - there are not many working in the UK and just two or three, like Paul Cooper, are big players.
Cooper, 43, has bet £44m over the last 23 years and made just under £1m. He started with just a few pounds, which means he has enjoyed some spectacular wins, but at the same time endured some horrendous losses.
"I would almost bet on the proverbial fly crawling up a wall if I thought I could win. I more or less bet every day," he says.
He lost £26,000 on David Chapman's sprinter Glencroft in the 1988 Bovis Handicap. But the following year he won an incredible £250,000 after laying out just £432 on a tricast (guessing the first three horses in order) at Thirsk.
And then there was his nailbiting near miss in the States. Tantalisingly close to winning $5m after placing the winners in six out of seven races, his horse in the seventh race missed by a nose.
These are the sorts of highs and lows which would reduce the rest of us to jittery, nervous wrecks. But Cooper is cool, calm and measured. To him, it may as well be just another day at the office. There is none of the impulsiveness or recklessness we associate with habitual gamblers.
His wife Danielle, an interior designer, takes the ups and downs of her husband's unusual career in her stride: "I was surprised at what he did, I had never met a professional gambler. But you marry the person you marry, I accept it."
The couple have two children Clementine, two, and Cordelia, four months: "It is like a volatile business, no different than being married to a stockbroker," adds Danielle. Indeed, Paul regards the £44m he has laid out over the years as turnover and keeps detailed accounts. "I lost money last year and this year I am level. I could do with another quarter of a million pound win," he smiles.
His analytical, computer-like mind, combined with an instinctive eye for a good horse, is complemented by his incredible discipline: "I am not flippant about it, it is an art form if you like. It is quite mathematical." At one point he did work as a Lloyds insurance underwriter: "Insurance is similar, but a lot more risky than gambling on horses."
The son of a farmer, Cooper's gambling career began at the tender age of four when his parents took him to Derwent point-to-point. He bet four shillings on a horse called Paul's Diamond, which won at 100-1, and was hooked. He left Stowe public school at 17 to work on the racing magazine Stud and Stable. Out of his first wages, a £1.90 stake on the ITV seven, won him £800. Within two years, he had collected £13,365 for a £3 accumulator. That bought him a plush London flat overlooking the Thames. By then he realised he could live off gambling and turned professional. His parents didn't mind: "My mother was amused," he says.
Although he wouldn't want his own children to follow in his footsteps, he never thought of doing anything else: "It is what I know and understand." Much of his success can be put down to his meticulous research of times, trainers, form and track bias.
Immediately before a race, he views the horses, then takes about five minutes to weigh up odds and make a decision, staking between £50 and £1,000 a time. There is no adrenaline, no nerves: "I am as relaxed as can be. It is conditioning."
Cooper has his forensic approach to thank for his incredible £250,000 win at Thirsk (which got him into the Guinness Book of Records), followed by a £178,000 win there the year after.
He doesn't pick favourites, as they give poor value. "On days when a whole string of favourites win, I tend to lose." He likes discovering trainers who are underestimated, he virtually never backs a maiden and homes in on high quality races: "I love group races and big events."
Whatever happens, Cooper keeps a cool head. Like a good poker player, he rarely betrays emotion. He recalls that, despite losing £61,000 after three days at Ascot one year, friends assumed he was having a good run. "Most people would not be able to tell how I was doing," he explains. (Incidentally, he adds, he won all the money back again by the Friday.)
He appears to dismiss huge losses easily, but admits: "It is a rollercoaster. I don't think anyone enjoys the lows." He regards the bookies as public enemy number one. The feeling is probably mutual. He has had 41 credit accounts closed over the years. "It is an incredibly unfair service," he says.
He plays the lottery, £8 every week but has won nothing - yet. Because most people pick birth dates, he goes for numbers 32-49 which are better value and linked with higher wins. "There is an edge to picking the high numbers." Beating the system intrigues him, he says, financial rewards come second.
In addition to his gambling, he is now in charge of sponsorship for Betfair.com, a betting exchange launched in June 2000 which links people who want to bet on anything, from horses to the stock market.
Where bookmakers make about 20pc on every race, Cooper points out Betfair, which now has a turnover of £17m a month, takes just 2-5pc commission. "It is rather like buying stocks and shares without the need of a stockbroker," he says.
Cooper has recently returned to his roots, buying the house near Thirsk where he was born and enjoyed a happy childhood.
Occasionally it does cross his mind that his life may be misguided. But betting is in his blood. "Yorkshire people love horses, it is in our roots," he says. "I am not leaving home again. This is home for the rest of my life."