This Sporting Life

We’re on a winner – it’s in the bag!

My nan loved a bet, often putting her money on “housewives’ choice”, Lester Piggott, although many of her biggest wins came courtesy of rank outsiders piloted by far less accomplished jockeys. The recent death of Piggott, nine times Derby winner and eleven times Champion Jockey, prompted me to revisit my own family’s close connection with the Sport of Kings, and in our case, commoners.

My grandfather, who trained and owned greyhounds, was by profession a bookmaker. Or, as I prefer to call it, a turf accountant. It sounds so much more respectable. However, as off-course cash betting was illegal when granddad first opened for business and, as there was no such thing as a betting shop, the enterprise was far from respectable.

Before the 1961 change in the law there were confusing and off-putting regulations permitting some off-course betting, as long it was on account and by telephone and providing no actual cash changed hands. Wins and losses were meant to be totted up and the account eventually settled by cheque. But back then few people had telephones and even fewer could afford to set up an account, so street bookies prospered.

Grandad’s was a family firm which also involved two of his sons, my dad and his younger brother Jimmy. Dad’s office was at the White Hart pub in Collier Row and Jimmy’s at the Parkside in Romford. Their dealings were, of course, illegal and subject to heavy fines, or up to two years inside if nicked. So, cautious security measures were followed with a runner on watch outside. It wasn’t so much they feared most of the local police – many were regular clients – but there was always the risk of an over-enthusiastic youngster eager to impress his superiors. Other punters had to be protected too, so no one placed a bet in their real name but rather used a nom de plume. They would write this name on a small piece of paper, plus the name of their selected horse, the time and place of the race and, finally, the amount and type of bet. This was given, along with their stake money, to my dad or to Jimmy. And that was it.

It was largely a matter of trust, but as an added guarantee that all was on the straight and narrow, bets and stake money were placed and locked into a leather clock-bag before the race started. The clock recorded the precise time the bag had been locked, so punters knew their money and bet were secure. They also knew that grandad had the only key to the bag and that it would not be opened until the race had been run and the result announced.

Grandad did not approve of women showing their knees in public, nor of them betting – especially his wife

Grandad was an old-fashioned sort of man. He did not approve of women showing their knees in public, nor of them betting – especially his wife. He didn’t mind the odd bit of shoplifting at the Harrison Gibson department store in Ilford, but that’s another story. The boys respected and were a little in awe of their father, but they loved their mum and didn’t want to deprive her of one of what she considered life’s great pleasures, or the shopping money that might go with it. So, they made a plan.

Nan, whose name was Elizabeth chose “Terry” as her nom de plume. As far as I’m aware, there were no Terrys in the family or amongst Nan’s friends; she must simply have liked the name. And somehow the boys found a way to loosen and make a tiny gap in the stitching of the leather clockbag. Having written out a winning bet for Terry after a race was over, they would tightly roll up the slip of paper and push it, with its rolled-up stake money, through the gap. A few shakes of the bag to unravel paper and banknote and the deed was done – nan was in the money.

Those loving sons were artful, sometimes ignoring the first past the post and going instead for a big earning each-way bet on a second or third placed outsider. And to avoid raising suspicion, they made sure that Terry had losses as well as wins. The boys were honest too, in their own way. Placing winning bets in the clockbag for themselves or anyone else was out of the question. It was only for their dear old mum. Grandad never clocked that the clockbag was being tampered with, but he did eventually recognise Terry was luckier than most at spotting a money-making horse. On more than one occasion when sorting through the bets after a race, he was heard to loudly groan to nan: “Bloody hell, Terry’s had it off again!”

Terry enjoyed a long and profitable winning streak. Nan and her sons knew grandad could afford it; ultimately bookies never lose. When off-course betting was finally legalised grandad also went legit, opening a couple of betting shops of his own. It was never the same, though. The boys had to find alternative gainful employment while nan was reluctantly obliged to give up betting.

Nan is long gone, but her legend lives on and is often fondly remembered within the family, even by younger members who never met her. The betting tradition has largely disappeared, but if any one of us enjoys an unexpected slice of good fortune, the same cry always goes up: “Bloody hell, Terry’s had it off again!”

Robert Rigby is a journalist, author

Life

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