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Saturday, 3 September 2011

The Happy Punter Of Ally Pally (Part 4)

John Mort Green (Alias The Butterfly)

Raceform Notebook is another add-a-page work; it contains a brief description of every race at every course in England, up-to-date, with comments on the performance of the first six horses in each event. ("Ran much better than the final placing suggests. Pulled back on the final bend in order to get the rail position, he ran straight into a pocket from which he failed to extricate himself. Nine to four.") As if all this were not material enow, the Butterfly and his colleagues feel naked without various racing magazines like The Racing Week, a publication devoted to news, advice and nuggets of inside information from owners and trainers about their horses. Sample nugget: "I bought Cold Henry at Doncaster. It's rather an extraordinary name; his owner lived at a place called Cold Henley, and he said he's always getting letters addressed to him at Cold Henry, so he thought he'd call this horse Cold Henry. He's been coughing on and off for a hell of a long time. I thought, perhaps, as he'd had a cough and a dirty nose before, he wouldn't be infected with the last epidemic, but he got it with the rest. We shall have to wait and see about him." By the time one has looked up all the references to Cold Henry in Timeform. Raceform Notebook, the newspapers and the magazines and learned about his performance in every race, his jockey's and trainer's phone numbers, his breeding and coloring and general attitude toward life, his nomenclature and his dirty nose, one begins to feel that one is learning more about Cold Henry than one cares to know. But not the English bettor. "Your betting in America is a craft," says Green with Britannic pride, "but here it approaches being an art form, and we need everything we can find."

British bettors like Green also must consider such esoteric matters as the nature of the horse's stable. Is it a betting stable and, if so, is the stable betting on its horse to win or holding it back? One can learn something by following the changing odds. "Here's a certain horse that's owned by a betting stable," the Butterfly explained. "Today he's 20 to 1, so I know he's not going to be trying. But the moment he becomes a 7-to-1 chance or a 5-to-1 chance I know the stable has sent him out for the biscuits. He may not win, but he's trying, and that's the trick; to be on live horses, on horses that aren't dead meat."

Listening to the Butterfly running over the form is a study in stream of consciousness. He sits on the edge of his bed, his long, bony finger tracing down the page, muttering aloud: "Hm, the key to this race is Blarney Beacon.... Got no weight on his back, seven stone seven.... Proven Valour is ridden by Williamson W., top-class jockey. Beat nothing much last time.... At the present time I'd say Gurkha with a question mark on Blarney Beacon.... The 7 o'clock race, that's a good hard race to pick. I reckon at the present time Close Call is worth watching. He's a winner on the track, but he hasn't had the run. Eight stone 12 on his back, a lot of weight.... Milesius? Captain BoydRochfort is the trainer. Grand old man, the Queen's trainer, but he's old.... You've got to give way to youth. I dismiss his horse.... I like Close Call and Directory."

When all this sussing out is completed and Green has a rough idea how the races should go, he picks up the phone and begins calling bookies around the country. "They can tell you not only what horses are getting the play but, more important, who's making the bets. That's what you want to know. But there's a protocol about this. You don't ask the bookies anything. You allow them to volunteer. The rule is if you ask a question you're entitled to be told lies. But information volunteered must be true. That's the code. Violate it and you're out; they'll never tell you another thing. So I'll be having a friendly little chat with a bookmaker, and somewhere along the line he'll say, ' Jack Olsen's got a big bet today. He bets for the Earl of Kidney Pie.' And then I'll crash in on the earl's horse. At least I know he'll be trying."

To supplement all this morning information, the Butterfly maintains an unknown number of "sprayers," racecourse layabouts on retainers, to provide him with information. " Brighton is my best; he gets 5 pound a week," says the Butterfly, "and then I have Cambridge Snowy at New-market. He gets about 12 pounds 10 shillings a month. Very reliable, an ex-jockey and a member of all the enclosures, a quiet, ordinary old man but a great fellow. He might give me only one tip a week or one a month, but then it's 'Up lads and at 'em!' because he's always right."

On the subject of jockeys and how much information they give him, the Butterfly is somewhat cagey, partially because the feeding of information by Australian jockeys to Australian bettors is an old story in Britain and one that annoys the English. Publicly Green will make such statements as these: "Certainly, I talk to Hutchinson R., Williamson W., Pyers W., Breasley A. and a few others. They may tell you whether a horse is trying or not, and if he's fit or not. But outside of that they're the worst judges in the world. They can give you a very false impression. They get too enthusiastic about their own mounts. Just consider this: if jockeys were 12 stone there'd be four million of them, wouldn't there? But because they're little seven-stone midgets they become glorified altar boys or something. They reach the hearts of thousands of people, these little uneducated things. These little pinheads, how can you have any confidence in them once you see them?"

Some think the gentleman doth protest too much. Says a British turf writer: "We know these Australian jockeys stick together, and it's caused some bad feeling in the jockeys' room as well as in the bookies' ring. They suspect that if one Australian jockey plans to win a race the other Australians in the race will get together and stop one of the English jockeys getting through. It's deeper than just information. A very unpleasant situation."

It is true that the Butterfly's own actions sometimes belie his avowed contempt for jockeys. Not only does he discuss races with them in the morning and drink with them in the evening, he also has developed a set of signals for communicating with them at the track. "If his horse is going to try," Green explains, "a jockey will rub his finger across his upper lip or his cap to give me a sign. He's 'casting me,' and it means bet the horse. But if he rubs his finger across the coat, if he 'gives me the coat,' that means the horse is dead. It's not done blatantly; it's very quick."

Last year, just before the saddling-up for a big race, the Butterfly happened to walk by one of his jockey friends slated to ride a mediocre horse that day. "He made a motion across his top lip and that meant bet the horse," the Butterfly recalls. "I was astounded. I thought he'd made a mistake or something. The horse didn't have a chance. So I leaned over my friend, and I said, 'What?'

"He said, 'Find bookies.' I still looked surprised, so he said, 'Find bookies!' louder, through his teeth. The horse won and I made 2,200 quid on that race. It was one of my big coups of the year."

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 prize some time in September - so make sure you keep visiting HCE.

Part 3 (click)
Part 2 (click)
Part 1 (click)