A very happy New Year to all Roving Reports readers!
I expect you've tuned in here today to hear exciting tales of Newbury, Cheltenham and the like. Tales of daring, of bookmakers standing lumpy bets, of big Christmas crowds and even bigger Christmas bad beats.
Instead, good people, I have a tale of woe to tell you. No sooner had Boxing Day come and gone than this horrid virus that seems to have gripped half the nation managed to get a hold on me too, and for the last week I've been so ill I've been unable to do much other than sit on the sofa and watch the racing. This has its advantages in so much as I haven't had any early starts or humping the gear around in the rain but it also means that, at a busy time of the year, I've earned nothing in the past week. There's no sick pay scheme when you're working the pitches, you know.
I'm hoping to be back at Southwell on Friday night. I'll make a decision on that on Thursday, but for the time being, I'll tell you about the last time I worked, which was Huntingdon on Boxing Day.
This was to be Huntingdon's Boxing Day swansong, with the fixture being moved to Aintree next year and from that point on. It remains to be seen how well that works, as Liverpool is very much a football city and whether people can be persuaded to change sport (and indeed, tradition) is not a given.
I get a lift to Huntingdon with my good friend Daren, who picks me up nice and early from Loughborough. Sharing the journey there and back always makes for an easier day, as there's someone to discuss all your certain winning selections on the way there, and to moan about what bad luck you've had on the way home. (It's the same with the Lottery - I'm picking the correct numbers every week, it's only the machine that keeps selecting the wrong balls.)
As is usually the case here, I'm working with the Speechley firm, otherwise known as S&D Bookmakers. We've a heavyweight team here to run no fewer than five pitches, three on the rails, two in the ring, and once we've set up we get betting straight away. There's an hour to the first but we know today will be busy, and it is important to get business for the first, as once a customer bets with you they tend to stay with you on a day like this. The key is to be pleasant, and have a laugh, which is second nature to me anyway. Every customer is wished the best of luck for the day as they place their bet, although one customer is hardly full of Christmas cheer, spitting back at me "yeah, you don't mean that, you want us all to lose!" I explain to her that some customers today will win, some will lose, and I'll get paid either way, so I may as well be pleasant to everyone! She does not have another bet with me.
It's slow enough to get going but once we're in full swing, it's a steady stream of punters, most wanting £2ew on. That's fine, as long as you've a near endless supply of pound coins (inevitably they'll pull a fiver out) and I make the decision to make it £2.50ew as a minimum, unless they've the correct money. Which on a day like today, I think, is fair enough.
Loup De Maulde is a good result for us in the first, although business is quiet. As the race is taking place, a look out to the A14 shows there's a whole queue of cars still waiting to get in. Supreme Gift is no good in the second, although it could have been far worse as we take a £50ew A Definite Getaway at 66s. Three out he looks certain to be placed, and maybe even win; there's a sigh of relief when he's just run out of the places.
The car queue has disappeared and the place is heaving by Race 3. One thing you have to recognise as a workman is when someone's clearly lurking with a wad of cash, looking for a price, and it's your job to try and reel him in. There one such bloke in front of me, and I start a conversation. "What you looking for, mate?"
He's looking to have a 750-400 the jolly, Crystal Moon. It's 13-8 with us. I offer him the middle ground of a 700-400 but no, he's insistent 15-8 is what he wants. Can't say I didn't try. When it wins, I feel I did the right thing standing my ground.
A stewards enquiry is called. Now, on a day full of once-a-year punters, that's the last thing you want. Those wanting payment are now milling about, waiting for the bing-bong to tell them their fate. This also has the knock-on effect of decreasing business by about 50% for the next race. Folk won't bet if they don't know how much they have to bet with. I'm keeping punters entertained with a joke or two whilst they wait and they really do have to wait, what looks a fairly cut-and-dried places-remain-unaltered verdict is taking more time than thought. Finally that announcement is made, and we can get paid out. Then... the rush begins.
They are at the post with around two minutes to the off and now everybody wants on. I've a queue of about 15 that isn't getting smaller. I'm flat out trying to clear it, which I do with about a minute to go.
Normally, with about 20 seconds to the off, I will stop betting as Jason, running the master book, needs that bit of time to make sure the book is how he wants it, and any late big bets that come raining in from the satellite pitches can easily affect it. However, having cleared my queue, I look up and all I can see is...queues either side of me.
I can't resist a challenge. "NO QUEUE HERE!!" I shout at the top of my voice. Like a pack of meerkats, up pop a hundred heads. The next 60 seconds are a blur as the twenties, forties and fifty pound bets are thrust my way. I'm serving two at a time, almost, to get everyone on. The horses are lining up to go. "Keep betting!" I say to Andy, on the keyboard and punching the bets in. More twenties and forties. We just - just - get them all on as they jump. The first thing I do is go and apologise to Jason for leaving him no time to sort his book, but he's not bothered! Better taking the money than not, he says.
We get a result with the aptly-named Seelotmorebusiness, Harry Derham's first runner which, strangely, has gone unbacked and drifted like the proverbial barge.
William Cody is no good in the next but Jason has decided I should bet the King George on my board, and so I give it a roar. Business for the big race is steady, but a £500-£200 Bravemansgame ensures it isn't a winning one.
Back to Huntingdon and my favourite £2ew punter of the day is back. She's having £12 on every race and has drawn every time so far. This time she backs Supasunrise and Master Malcolm ("because my brother is called Malcolm" - yes, it's that sort of a day) as two of her three bets this time and true to form, she's got the winner and third.
Billy Boi Blue is as bad a result for the payout as possible in the last, as everyone knows a Bill, or Billy, or Mac or Buddy, as Sheryl Crow might have sung, and that's the end of that. We've had a great day though, and as we pack away the gear and get paid, there's a definite sadness we won't be here next year.
That ought to be the end of the tale, but when I get home, I get a text from Jason.
"You've not got any money on you, have you?"
This is a text that sends your heart sinking, as it means the money is wrong. Now, it has been known for me to walk off with some of the float in my pocket. I once got home from Southwell, turned my pockets out and two nifties fell on the floor. I was horrified, as I knew they weren't mine. I rang Rob to ask if the float was short.
"Exactly a oner," came the reply.
"I think I might know where that is..."
One of the reasons Rob employs me is that he knows I'm honest all the day long, and if there's money missing it'll be a genuine mistake. However, after checking every pocket and bag I've taken with me, I find nothing. That gnaws away at me all night but I'm pleased when Jason finds a fair bit of it after a recount. Some margin of error is perfectly acceptable on a busy day like today but you don't want it miles out. I shall sleep easier now...
That is, until, the flu kicks in the next day. Best of 2023, everyone.