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Tuesday, 30 August 2011

The Happy Punter Of Ally Pally

John Mort Green (alias The Butterfly)

In the peculiar world of British horse racing, where skulduggery flourishes, John Mort Green (alias the Butterfly) earns a fancy living by regularly outwitting the bookies and other bettors.

A few minutes before the train reached the racetrack the Butterfly's friend leaned across the table and said, "Oi say, John, d'yer know 'ow to mike a small fortune on the 'orses? Yer start wiv a big fortune!"

John Mort Green, who calls himself the Butterfly, emitted a guffaw that was slightly larger than life, even though he himself had told me the same alleged joke the day before. Still chuckling, the Butterfly returned to the pleasures of his steak and Stilton, his lager and lime, and the green-on-green English countryside flashing by the window. As the train pulled in, the friend leaned forward confidentially and said, "Now, John, be sure to let me know if yer 'ear anything, won't yer?"

"Of course, mite," said the Butterfly in his strident, high-pitched, Australian-accented voice. "You're entitled to know. You'll be the first told, private, O.K.? We'll bet well and come home early!"

It is part of the Butterfly's modus operandi to collect information and at the same time try to create the impression that he is sharing valuable information in return. This, plus a certain natural Australian joviality, makes him laugh at jokes that he has already heard and appear to enjoy people more than they deserve, while all the time he is listening, always listening. "If they operated on me," he said recently in a moment of candor, "they'd probably find a stomach full of ears." In his business John Mort Green can use every one of them. He is that rarest of all sporting phenomena: the successful professional horseplayer.

On the surface of it (and on the surface is precisely where the Butterfly's life is lived), his is a happy lot. As a London telecast put it a few weeks ago:

"Every punter dreams of easy money, living like a lord. Few ever do, but this man does: John Mort Green, alias Butterfly. Butterfly is 34 years old and lives entirely by gambling. He goes racing six days a week, and sometimes seven. He flies to Paris on a Sunday. Butterfly has a chauffeur-driven Rolls to take him to the track, a luxury flat, Savile Row suits and handmade shoes. He earns an average of 200 a week, and it's all tax-free. He chose to live in Britain because in this country gambling on horses is completely untaxed. Butterfly cashes in. He's a systematic gambler and insists he can stop whenever he wants to."

The American bettor, still blighted by the Damon Runyon pronunciamento about elderly horseplayers, is under the impression that nobody makes a living at the track except jockeys, horses and flamingos. But that is because the American bettor understands only American racing. The English variety is as different as football is from soccer, or Levittown from Hyde Park Corner. In America one fights the pari-mutuels with their relentless one-sixth off the top. In England one fights the bookies, who are only human, their own protestations of infallibility notwithstanding. "On the American tracks I'm a derelict," John Mort Green admits.

The largest reason for the Butterfly's success lies in the peculiar nature of English racing. It tends toward naughtiness. Things happen. A horse with a lock on a race goes around the track like a somnambulist and finishes eighth. A horse nobody ever heard of, with six consecutive out-of-the-money finishes, wins over a strong field by 10 lengths under a fierce drive. Sick horses suddenly get well, and well horses suddenly get sick, and over it all hangs a cheery atmosphere of boys will be boys, everybody has to make a pound and let the bettor beware. As a result, successful punting in England becomes more a matter of information than a matter of handicapping. What horse is being held back intentionally, being "stopped"? What horse is really trying? Do the trainer and the owner want to win the race, or have they bet their horse to lose? (You can bet a horse to win or lose in England.) Enter John Mort Green with his stomach full of ears, his mysterious phone calls, his close liaison with the corps of Australian jockeys, England's elite. "I may not win every race," the Butterfly says with becoming modesty, "but I pride myself on one thing: I'm never on dead meat. Oh, I might bet 10 horses a year that are being stopped. The average punter might back 300 and never know that his horses were dead from the beginning. Sometimes the trainer or the owner is in on the deal. Sometimes the jockey stops the horse for his own purposes. Some of 'em here'd stop a locomotive.———would stop the Constantinople Express, that bostid! To me, that's the worst thing can happen to a punter, when you have your money on a dead horse. Oh, I spit blood when that happens! You have to know your jockeys. Take Hutchinson R. [The Butterfly always refers to a jockey's last name first, followed by the first initial.] Hutchinson R. always rides to win. The Happy Horseman, we call him, always grinning, rides for the Premier Duke and Earl of England. A lovely little boy is Hutchinson R., never had a bet in his life. He has a beautiful wife, a nice family, doesn't drink too much, likes a party occasionally, dedicated to his job. Not a good judge, but a tradesman. Well, we know all about Hutchinson R. for a start, and we can be fairly sure his horse is trying. But now take———. He's a good thief. If he stole apples when he was 12 he'd steal 'em now, wouldn't he? If he was stopping horses in 1948 and getting plenty of money for it, he'd still be stopping them now in 1965, wouldn't he? So when———is on a horse we have to be careful."

Understand, the Butterfly takes no moral position about stopping horses. To be blunt about it, if horses were not being stopped in England, John Mort Green and his stomach full of ears would be out of business. Our hero does not create the chicanery, but if he happens to hear about it who is to blame him for getting a bet down, or perhaps a dozen bets down? And there is an element of risk even in a fixed race. The Butterfly recalls an example (only the names have been changed to protect the guilty):

"There was a deal one day to let Jack Olsen's horse win the race, see? Everybody else's horse was dead, all our friends': Doodles' horse, Brighton's, Blond Viking God's, Under the Bed Stewey's and the Butterfly's. Jack Olsen is gonna win, y'understand? And what happens? Bloody Jack Olsen's horse isn't good enough! Five horses are being stopped, and the sixth horse isn't good enough to win! Oh, I enjoyed that. It was so funny. One of those races where the idiots win the money and the smarties get bloody nothing. I went straight to the bar and had a laugh. I had �2,000 on that horse altogether, but when you've lost your money you have to forget about that right away. You have to laugh about it, think about something else. You can't go around saying, 'Oh, my God, I've lost me holidays in New York.' Oh, yes, these boat races—these stews as they call them here—they come unstuck now and then, but not as often in England as other places. I remember a race in Australia where they paid off the starter. When the right horse was on the tape he suddenly lifted it and the horse was down the track with a 25-length lead. And it got beaten! Fair play is bonny play. Remember that, me lad!"

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

This will be given as a price some time in September - so make sure you keep visiting HCE.