Low Life, Racing,

National disaster

One unlucky man recalls the day his Wimbledon betting shop went to the dogs.

It all started at the bookmakers by Wimbledon Park. I’d been using that place for well over 20 years and there’s a real community of people in there. It was originally a William Hill but was sold to an independent, who then passed it on straight away. The next guys held on to it for a couple of years but then decided they couldn’t make ends meet either. I didn’t want to see the shop close – not just because I used it, but for the people that I saw day in, day out. I just didn’t think it was right that it should shut like that.

In February 2007, I took it over – at the worst possible time. There had been a split between SIS and RUK and all the licence fees went up for the machines. For independent bookmakers, this became very prohibitive, making it almost impossible to make money. Looking back, without a website business it was a doomed project from the start. I’d done it at the wrong time but for the right reasons: community reasons.

I had a manager in the shop who was pretty adequate and we were working it together. You couldn’t say we were doing well, but we weren’t doing as badly as we could be. We weren’t making any money on a weekly basis, but we had a few things to look forward to: Cheltenham and the Grand National. My thinking was, we’ll ride the storm and then make a few quid at Cheltenham. By the end of the week, we’d probably made a tenner. Every time we got a favourite beaten, we’d flick through our field book and see we’d laid the winner at double-figure prices. We needed oxygen, and I couldn’t see where it was going to come from. People kept on reassuring me that we had the Grand National to look forward to. We could take a breath there. “The flat season comes thick and fast, especially with the night racing. You don’t see many poor bookmakers,” they all told me.

I’d been a director of AFC Wimbledon since 2002, and on the day of the Grand National, I was going to a game. I relied on my manager to look after the shop – to put a few signs up explaining how to write a bet slip, as there would be lots of people coming in on Grand National day not having a clue what to do. If we had any big, single liability on a horse, he should call me – all the one and two-quid bets didn’t matter. Take as many of those as possible, I was thinking. The great thing about the Grand National is that you always get a book. With 40 runners, all the punters have got their various reasons for backing different horses.

I got a call, literally halfway through the race, from the lad in the shop. The game wasn’t on at the time and I had managed to find a TV to watch the race. “Look, Ivor, do you know, um… I don’t know how to tell you this but…”Bear in mind this is practically the only race where you’ve got time to take a breath and count all the bet slips without the race having finished. He continued: “I’m only halfway through the pile of all the small bets and, well, nearly every single one is on Silver Birch.”

“What, the same Silver Birch that’s in the lead? He won’t stay there, will he? No horse ever stays at the front all the way through the Grand National – that just doesn’t happen,” I reassured both him and myself. “What’s the biggest bet we’ve had on Silver Birch, then?”

“The biggest bet is a fiver each way, Ivor.”

“We’re not going to worry about that, are we?”

“Well… the problem is,” he went on, “we’ve got an absolute avalanche of them! You wouldn’t believe it. What on earth are they all doing backing Silver Birch?”

Silver Birch went on to win at 33/1. To answer his question, there are two reasons. Firstly, there’s a big family in the area called Birch. On top of that, every single member of the family who has ever died has been cremated at the local crematorium. In fact, everyone who’s died in the area and been cremated has had their ashes sprinkled under the silver birch tree. It was like an omen. They had all backed Silver Birch.

We lost a lot of money on it. I’m talking in the thousands, which is an awful lot for a small, independent bookmaker. That was meant to be our biggest payday of the year – it was the most bets we’d taken by a country mile – and to be honest, I was crestfallen.

Although we continued for a few days more, it was heartbreaking. I thought about trying to hang on and get to Ascot, but I knew it was always going to be difficult. The expenses of keeping the shop open were getting greater and greater and there was more online stuff coming. There’s a reason independent shops were closing down left, right and centre. Everywhere the big boys were opening up and putting those dastardly machines in. That was everything I didn’t want to be. I wanted it to be a hub for those who genuinely loved racing. I wanted it to be a place where people who liked to bet could always go and mix with like-minded people, as opposed to those who wanted to play on the fruit or poker machines.

I’d never regret trying to do something that I think is for the overall good of man. In a world that is increasingly losing its sense of community, I felt that doing something for the community was a good thing. For a short period, I really thought we’d be able to make a bit of a difference. More than anything, I miss that atmosphere – on any given day I would enjoy myself. It wasn’t a question of winning or losing money; I knew there would be people in the shop that I liked to see, and there would be real characters in there, legendary characters. That doesn’t exist any more.

Ivor Heller is the commercial director of AFC Wimbledon.

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