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Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The Happy Punter Of Ally Pally (Part 2)

John Mort Green (Alias The Butterfly)

Stopping horses here is much more prevalent than it is in the U.S.," a British turf editor informed me when I recounted a few of the Butterfly's more astounding stories. "Frankly, it's considered less of an offense here. And it's very seldom proved; the British stewards and judges are so lax. For the last two years in the Schweppes trophy race, worth about 5,000 to the winner, a horse named Rosyth came on to win. His record before that had been terrible. After the 1964 race there was an investigation, and the trainer was stood down for about six months and the jockey for six weeks. But it's seldom they take action like that. In the same race this year a horse named Elan won. Before that, he'd been on the track four times and had done nothing. He paid a good price and the bookies around the country lost about 200,000 on him. The trainer got off with a reprimand. So don't be surprised if it all happens again next year."

The same editor also informed me that the bookmakers, in the long run, gain more than they lose from such jiggery-pokery. "They get the word, too, don't forget that," he advised. "The bookies have a remarkable system of intelligence and espionage. Let us suppose that the Butterfly comes along the line and is making bets against a horse ridden by a certain Australian jockey at short odds. The bookies will soon realize that this horse is being stopped. They'll adjust their prices accordingly, and the few hundred pounds they lose to the Butterfly will bring them back that much and more from the bettors without information."

The Butterfly does not demur. He sees the bookies as his friends: "They want me to bet with them. I'm a challenge to them. And another thing: they know I get a bit of information. And they want to know my judgment." The bookmakers are going to win in the long run and so is the Butterfly: an entente cordiale exists. But other professional bettors are a nuisance to John Mort Green, because they are always sniffing around to find out what he is up to. "They'll do anything. They have to know everything. If you went up today and bet a grand on a horse, they'd say, 'Who's that geezer?' But the moment the horse won they'd be watching you, and they'd know who you were; you're Jack Olsen, you're from New York City, what time you get up in the morning, when you get your underwear washed and everything. They'll tail you all day and night to find out who you're betting for.

"I do all sorts of things to fool them. Sometimes I ask bookies not to write my bets on the books, just keep them in their heads. Or I'll say to a bookie, 'Now, I'm gonna have four bets with you today, and all of them are gonna be void.' So I'll stand back and I'll shout, 'Binns, 5 to 80 on Dogsbody!' Then these parasites will rush off to follow my bet, but it won't be my real bet. They'll tell their pals, 'Butterfly's backed Dogsbody.' That little trick of mine is called somersaulting."

Many owners and trainers also practice somersaulting, simply to confuse big bettors. If Butterfly and his coterie of Nathan Detroits and Nicely Nicely Johnsons find out how a stable is going to bet, they will move in and ruin the price for the stable's own bettors. "So they'll stop at nothing to fool me," says the Butterfly with glee, for he relishes this sort of intrigue. "I remember an owner who was stopping one of his horses: it absolutely was not going to win. But nobody knew this but the owner, and we're all waiting around to see which way he bets. He got all his own bets down secretly, so none of us knew he was betting against his own horse, and then he sent his wife over to one of the bookies to put five more pounds on the horse—to win! One of my colleagues came running, and he said, I saw Mrs.———back the horse! She had a fiver on!' So to check it, I looked at the book, and sure enough she's down on the horse. Well, we figure this owner's not gonna dump his own wife, is he? We know he's a crafty bostid, but surely his wife must know. They sleep in the same bed together, don't they? The horse lost. He had dumped his wife, just to fool us."

To understand the atmosphere in which such happy skulduggery flourishes, one must go back to the differences between British and American racing. It would be a joy to report that the contrasting cleanliness of American racing is simply a reflection of the purity of the American spirit, but then Billie Sol Estes and Bobby Baker might be thrown in my face. The simple fact is that the pari-mutuel system keeps American racing relatively antiseptic by taking its money off the top and creating a vast dollar pool for decent purses, insuring ample rewards for jockeys, trainers and owners. But in England the profits go to the bookmakers, and they put hardly anything back into racing. The result is small purses, low jockey fees, lack of incentive for owners. The solution is to bet, preferably on sure things, and it is considered a coup to hold your horse back in five or six races and make a killing in the next, or bet your own horse to lose and get away with it. Nobody gets excited, least of all the stewards, most of whom are horse owners and horseplayers themselves.

To add to the flavor, there is the antic behavior of the nobility, which has found horse racing a profitable sideline. It is not easy to be an earl or a duke these days, what with the government nipping away at the castles and vassals and serfs that used to be all that made life worth living, not to mention the beastly income tax and surtax that take as much as 18 shillings and threepence out of the pound, or about 91%. But horse-race winnings are tax exempt; there is no beady-eyed little man from the Queen's Inland Revenue Service waiting to demand your name if you win a bundle. Certain members of the nobility have taken full advantage of this friendly arrangement. No need to look askance: put yourself in the position of these poor aristocrats. If you had a choice between stopping your horse in a few races so that you could make 5,000 tax-free pounds the next time out, or of allowing some horrid American colonials to stomp through your old homestead at six shillings a clip, dribbling mustard all over your Persian rugs, why, by jove, what would you do?

Not long ago I had the pleasure of watching a betting noblewoman in action. Her horse was not reckoned to have any chance in this particular race and was carried on the bookies' boards at 14 to 1 ("fourteens," as the British put it). Just before the start Lady Avarice plunked 200 on her horse to win, causing the bookies up and down the line, through their semaphoring "ticktack" men, to knock the price down to 8 to 1. It seemed to me that slicing the odds in half just because of one $560 bet was a bit drastic, but then the bookies knew Lady Avarice better than I did. On form, her horse would have figured to run dead last in a potato race in Kew Gardens. But this time he roared home, trying for his life, and Lady Avarice had �2,800, or $7,840, to show for her trouble. How did Lady Avarice know her horse was going to win? I do not pretend to know, but the manner in which she laid her bet and the manner in which the bookies reacted makes one wonder. This sort of situation is usually money in the bank for John Mort Green, but he was standing out of the betting ring, protecting himself from a chill rain, when the action occurred. "That's the thing about being in the right place at the right time," he said later, laughing at himself and boldly maintaining his perpetual good spirits. "Sometimes things change sharply at the track, and most times they change for the good. In the last few minutes before a race you get your most important information. If one big bet goes down in the last few seconds, that changes everything. That's why you have to be in the center of the action, somewhere near Hill's or Ladbroke's, where the big bets are gonna be struck. Now, if I'd been there to see her make that bet, I'd have been set on fire! I'd have rushed off to another bookie before the word was out. I might not have got fourteens, but I'd have got twelves or tens. When Lady Avarice bets I'll follow her to the grave!"

One of Butterfly's cockney friends took a dim view of the coup, piping up: "What d'yer think'd 'appen a me if Oi did sumpin loik 'er? Why, Oi'd be boiled in oil and executed in the Tower of London, Oi would!"

"I don't talk about the nobility, my boy," said the Butterfly, who knows which side his scone is buttered on. "You're on very tricky ground there, my boy."

To be continued...

HCE: ''We are lucky enough to have the original (1995) paperback of Come Fly With The Butterfly. The Ten Secrets of Successful Punting by John Mort Green

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