Magazine article The Spectator

Place Your Bets

Magazine article The Spectator

Place Your Bets

Article excerpt

One racing acquaintance with a taste for dreadful puns used to inquire what the difference was between a street trader and a male dachshund. Answer: the street trader bawls his wares out along the pavement . . But not for much longer, it seems, are the bookies going to be bawling their wares out in the same old style, perched on orange boxes in Tattersall's with clerks at their elbows recording wagers in Dickensian ledgers and dispensing multi-coloured cardboard pledges for the bets struck. From the end of 1999 they will trade from standardised moulded plastic 'joints' on pitches spread round useful access points. Every bet will be recorded on audiotape, every computer-printed ticket will give full details of the bet and there will be betting advisors and betting managers on every course.

The changes follow a Levy Board review after years of fruitless negotiation between bookmakers' organisations and the Racecourse Association. They include provisions for bookies to be able to sell on their pitches to a new generation, plus the requirement to put up a financial bond and to attend regularly. The courses are not getting the extra money they had hoped for instead of the five times entry price they are currently allowed to charge the bookies. But punters should benefit, financially if not aesthetically. Personally, I will miss the sight of those elderly gents with gaudily painted satchels staggering off the race train with what looks like the equipment for a week's fishing trip or the kind of baggage an Edwardian lady watercolourist would have had a retinue of bearers carry to the banks of the Nile.

I patronise the Tote to ensure that a decent proportion of what I lose finds its way back into racing. But I patronise bookies too because of the colour and tradition they bring to the racecourse. It is more fun losing money to a face than to a machine. I love the yells of 'Six to four the field, are you all done?', the tortured pronunciations of horses with foreign names: 'Ninety pounds to ten Eddle Wiss Doo Mule-In and the odds a place.' And I enjoy the badinage. 'Is that a bet, squire, or a gratuity?' 'Two pounds, darling? If I was you I'd trade in your boyfriend. I'm free.' And I love the rituals of scurrying runners: 'Harry owes a monkey. That's six hundred down to Binns', and of counting out grubby fivers from back-pocket wads as thick as election night vote bundles. …

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