Anyone who has regularly waded through these jottings over the past six years or so will probably believe that my professional life has been one of many more ups than downs, writes Tony Stafford. However, thanks to an inability to equate a decent knowledge of horse racing and before that greyhound racing form with sensible gambling, I’ve spent much of the past 50 years in various stages of distress.
As the self-righteous ads in the racing press and in the television bookmaker ads say: “When the fun stops, stop”. What they really mean is: “When the money runs out, stop.”
Fourteen or fifteen years ago, in one of the deepest troughs, my son plucked up the courage to suggest I tried to find a branch of Gamblers Anonymous. Around six months of regular Monday night meetings in a church hall in East London went a long way towards curing me of my worst excesses. It helped though, that the money truly had run out.
What imprinted itself on my conscience were the stories of the dozen or so fellow sufferers, with their various illnesses and obsessions, much like drink or drugs. The compulsion to have the next bet whether on horse racing, greyhounds, betting shop machines, at bingo or in casinos, was common to all of us.
One very nice woman came along only sporadically, but the memory of her fall from grace, which she readily admitted, must always have been with her. She’d been in a position of trust in the accounts department of a small company and to fuel her compulsion to play the machines and bingo, she’d embezzled quite a large five-figure sum. She admitted that it was only by a degree of mercy by her employers that charges were not brought, but she would need to pay back the money over time, which she was doing. Hopefully that process will have had a happy conclusion by now.
Others of them, and there was quite a wide age and social background spread, would be in betting shops from start of play until the close, a bit like my own story at the time of my greatest level of betting activity, more than 30 years ago. Still others would bet on-line, bearing in mind that it was relatively early days for that activity.
With all of that in mind, I’ve always hated the presence of the FOTB machines in betting shops. Next year the limit of a single unit stake will be reduced from the present £100 to £2, causing some of the major bookmakers to scream that “up to 4,000 shops might have to close”. That in turn, they say, will lead to a serious reduction in prize money from horse racing.
To paraphrase one insider last week: “If our wonderful sport needs the FOTB machines to be allowed to ruin lives as they undoubtedly do, then that is too big a price to pay in human terms.”
The scale of the money the machines rake in is not only obscene to my mind, it defies belief. I rarely go into betting shops, but one friend, who lives in a town in the East of England, gave me two recent examples that he swears are correct.
One regular, after two winning turns, lost all the previous profits and then some, putting £22,000 in cash in a single machine in one day. Another punter, who apparently would struggle to verify his source of income as honestly earned, lost £5,000 on his own debit card and systematically racked up similar losses with five family members’ cards.
During the Cheltenham Festival last year, Harry Taylor and I wanted to find somewhere to watch a Champions League match. The only place in the small town we found was a betting shop, and there was just one other person in there, betting compulsively on every race, be it domestic horse racing, US racing, or dogs. Me all over: 1980’s style.
There was a single member of staff on duty that evening, and his main task, coming up to closing time was to empty the machines. I always understood that there was a maximum of four per shop, but I’m sure, by some device, this shop managed to have at least double that. The £20 notes came out in a thick bundle from each machine and the manager - as the only one there he qualified for that title - confided that they could take up to £6,000 in a single week.
That’s a handy £300,000 a year, so the bets they take on the various forms of racing in relative terms are a flea bite in comparison. Yet the few successful horse racing gamblers who regularly make a profit quickly have their accounts closed, and often only a fraction of their requested bets accepted.
With a £2 minimum stake, given the quick repetition time on the machines, it will still be possible to lose a nice amount of cash; it will just take longer to lose it than is possible now. Coming back to “When the fun stops, stop”, the same observer says that every week he sees machines being punched and pushed over, such is the frustration and anger, hardly surprising, with the fact they are “tailored” to guarantee a decent profit for the shops.
“Many years ago,” he recalled, “one friend of mine found one of the earliest machines and three weeks in a row on a Saturday, he lost all his wages in it. After the last episode, he went away, returning with an axe. He broke the machine, took out the money and was lucky that the manager, who had tried to make him stop, accepted the loss.” Clearly, it’s only fun when you win.
Over the years, I’ve noticed some unlikely machine punters. My friend Peter, once fairly regular in casinos, can be found playing Rainbow Riches with the best of them at times, while at least three trainers, one retired, to my knowledge have if not an obsession, certainly an affinity for the machines.
Naturally, though, there will be no corresponding limitation to on-line casino betting once the changes come through. Predictably, the bookmakers were immediately on their guard when it was suggested that any short-fall resulting from the reduction to a £2 maximum unit bet could be made up.
I might be tempted to have a tiny each-way tonight at Windsor on the Brian Meehan-trained two-year-old filly Laxmi, owned by my boss Ray Tooth, with two new partners, Messrs Siddiqui and Sharma. She’s a daughter of War Command and worked nicely at Manton last week. Most of Brian’s are running well and she could out-perform what seem like generous odds on the overnight markets.