Luck is all a matter of perspective – even if your horse forgets to breathe.
They say there are certain phrases you’ll never hear in certain circumstances, no matter how long you listen. At the Chelsea after a particularly humiliating defeat, there is scant chance of Jose Mourinho saying: “I fear that tactical ineptitude on my part, in no way exacerbated by the actions of the referee, have led us to this sorry state of affairs, my fine journalistic friend.”In a courtroom in the back of beyond, nobody has ever been known to utter the immortal words:“Actually, your honour, no matter what I said in my statement to the police, I’d have to confess the sheep didn’t back into me.”
But surer, far surer, than these is the knowledge that if you stand outside a betting shop at close of play, you’ll never catch a departing punter saying to his pal: “Today, Colin, through a combination of my own poor judgement, lack of self-discipline and six pints of lager, I lost rather more money than I could afford to.” No. Everybody who leaves a bookie’s has been denied a satisfactory return by the actions of a crooked trainer, an incompetent jockey (universally known in the betting shop argot as “that useless ****”) or the great God almighty (who isn’t all he’s cracked up to be); or, by some miracle of creative accountancy, has “broken even” and is only going to walk home because he feels like the exercise, not because he can’t afford the bus fare.
These are the unwritten rules of punting in public. As the last forlorn and crumpled betting slip hits the rim of the over-filled waste paper bin and lands in that sticky patch on the carpet, blame must begin to be apportioned and the absence of luck be ratified by all those still present. I’d have to say, I’ve never considered myself an unlucky punter. I’ve had my bad days, but in the final analysis I suspect that without all the good luck that we normally choose to pass off as razor-sharp judgement, I’d now be living in a soggy cardboard box under Waterloo Bridge and drinking paintbrush cleaner with Colin and his friend. Mostly I’ve broken even, which loosely speaking means I’ve never had to attend a bankruptcy hearing, rummage through the bins round the back of Waitrose or kill a man with my bare hands for the price of an Egg McMuffin.
Lucklessness isn’t such a bad thing. A little good fortune here and there doesn’t go amiss, but too much and you’ll never experience the bracing pleasure of unendingly negotiating life’s slippery slope, like Sisyphus playing his joker in a mythical renewal of It’s a Knockout. Bad luck? There was that time when I thought I was unlucky to have placed a losing £400 bet at Ascot on a horse whose name I couldn’t recall the following morning. In fact I couldn’t even recall the bet the following morning – frankly the name of the racecourse was a bit sketchy, too – and I was only reminded of it when the credit statement arrived a couple of weeks later.
With the twin benefits of hindsight and experience, I suppose the most I could claim is that I was unlucky to have attended a racecourse on the same day that it hosted a beer festival, and to have been overtaken by ale and backed so many losers that I’d plainly felt the drunken need to blast my way out of trouble with a tottering coup de grâce on a 9-4 shot in a 20-runner handicap.Whether that genuinely constitutes bad luck is a question of definition, given that there are always days when booze-addled fortune smiles upon us, even if we can’t remember it or choose to forget it as part of the process of claiming credit.
One of those times came in 2011, when, attempting to get into the west coast mood for an evening of Breeders’ Cup action from Santa Anita, I was well into the second bottle of Californian merlot before realising the meeting was in fact being held in Kentucky. Perhaps this was a merciful oversight, as it had kept me off the bourbon, but the end result was remarkably similar. When the time came to act on a suspicion that Drosselmeyer would outrun his colossal odds in the Classic, I was struggling with basic reflexes, well advised to steer clear of heavy machinery and 66/1 to retain a grip on internet betting.
But in I plunged, regardless. The process seemed to go well, until it came to the tricky bit of clearing my bet slip and having a few bob each way on another long shot that had just announced itself through the haze surrounding the form page of the Racing Post. Click as I might, Drosselmeyer just wouldn’t go away. The machine defied me, mocked me, and by the time coincidence had come to my aid – working on the dubious principle that a million monkeys hammering away at a million keyboards will eventually hit the right button – it was anybody’s guess what punting madness had transpired.The other long shot ran as a long shot should, but its principal worth proved to lie elsewhere. As the euphoria surrounding Drosselmeyer’s unlikely victory began to subside, my feverish search for the website’s “settled bets” section and the account balance revealed an unlikely truth.
Drunkenness and incompetence had caused me to fumble with more buttons than a man whose new girlfriend wears a cardigan over her blouse. They were the wrong buttons in a sense, but the right ones if you wanted to place the same bet again and again – and possibly once more again for good luck. So I profited enormously from over-indulgence and hopelessly impaired hand-eye co-ordination in a fashion that, even 12 hours later and with the benefit of clarity, I couldn’t claim as a triumph.
It’s all swings and roundabouts, though. I couldn’t begrudge myself Drosselmeyer after the debacle of The Magic Blanket a couple of years earlier. I’d backed this seemingly progressive beast twice and collected handsomely and, buoyed by reports that he had always wiped the floor with85-rated sprinters at home and was still able to run off a handsome mark of 66, I headed for Warwick with joy in my heart and £1,200 worth of online betting receipts in my coat pocket, along with a small wad of cash with which to inflict suffering on the on-course layers.
I should have been forewarned by his patchy form figures, I guess, but he was on a roll, as was I, so 12th of 17 was rather less of an effort than expected. About £1,200 less, to be more precise. The drive home suddenly looked rather longer than it had 62 seconds earlier, but like all good punters seeking validation of their selection process, I was sure there had to be a perfectly sane explanation for this damaging reverse. And there was. Micky Fenton hopped off him and reported to the trainer that the gelding had broken smartly and travelled promisingly in a forward position. Sadly, his finishing effort was compromised by the fact that he “forgot to breathe”.
Now, I don’t ask a lot of racehorse trainers, but I do at least expect them to be able to teach a horse to breathe. After all, it’s a fairly natural component of the act of staying alive, without which the sport of horseracing would quickly disappear – levy negotiations notwithstanding. Surely it isn’t too much to ask of any creature to master the art of drawing breath and give its red blood cells something to do?But apparently it was, and for once I counted myself unlucky, even while deducting the profits of his two earlier wins from my losses on the day and realising that sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between when the gods have smiled on you and when they’ve sent the deceptively fluffy dog of disillusionment to urinate on the trouser leg of your happiness.
By way of example, I can never resist harking back to my first meeting with the woman who would become my better half. It was at Southwark Crown Court, where we sat on the same jury panel and thus spent much time mooching around waiting to pass judgement on the unfortunate and the guilty. So much time, in fact, that I finally got round to chatting with the beguiling one about football, the impending 2002 World Cup and my betting strategy therein, which largely revolved around the hidden charms of Turkey, whom I saw as the dark horses of the tournament. I pointed out to her that if they were to do well, then Hakan Sukur, their prolific striker and national treasure, would be sure to bag a hatful of goals, which made him a steal at 100/1 to be leading scorer.
The logic was irrefutable and she seemed impressed, even more so when Turkey qualified from their group and progressed seamlessly to the semi-finals, scoring seven goals in the process.Less luckily, they were almost wholly unaided by Sukur, who remained resolutely unfamiliar with the onion bag until, to rub belated and ironic salt into the wound, he scored the fastest ever goal in World Cup history after just 11 seconds of the third-place play-off game against the hosts, South Korea.
Understandably, none of this will sound in any way unlucky to you, perhaps until I tell you that the object of my desire had decided it would be a good idea to advise her husband of this once-in-a-lifetime money-making opportunity and he’d had a hundred quid on Sukur and had presumably been expecting rather more of a run for his money from the man hitherto known as ‘the Bull of the Bosphorus’, now revealed as ‘the Sloth of Seoul’.
I’ve found that if there’s one thing a man dislikes more than another man trying to gain carnal knowledge of his wife, it’s the same man providing a duff tip in a major football tournament. I recall our subsequent phone conversations containing mentions of shotguns and kneecaps, or some such, and not much philosophical debate on the nature of punting misfortune and the fickleness of serendipity. Then again, he only lost a hundred quid and I gained a rather expensive wife, so who’s to say who was lucky in the long run?
Peter Thomas is a journalist who writes for the Racing Post.