Betting, Low Life,

Roll of the dice

A gift from a dearly departed pal brought a slice of fortune in the 2016 Olympics.

It’s March 2016 – Cheltenham eve and anticipation is high. On the windowsill of my bedroom is a square silver die. It was sent to me out of the blue by a friend a year earlier and had stood in the same spot unused ever since. Six sides, six results: accumulator, place, on the nose, favourite, evens, outsider. I should give it a whirl, I thought. Sprinter Sacre was back, Victoria Pendleton was having a crack, and then there was Thistlecrack on the attack. Rolled it. Accumulator. Rolled it again. On the nose.

For whatever reason, I decided that meant a win double. And for some reason, I decided now was not the time, that it would come to me. This was a sign, and all would be revealed at some time in the future. Sprinter Sacre and Thistlecrack won; Pendleton didn’t. 

The sign came four months later, reading an interview with the English golfer Justin Rose. “I see it as an incredible opportunity to do something different, something cool, something that will always stand alone,” he said. This was Rose talking about golf’s return to the Olympic Games in Brazil. Several elite players were swerving the tournament, citing fears about the Zika virus, but not the 2013 US Open champion. He was embracing it, had done his homework on the course, and was determined to enjoy every aspect of the experience. ­­

It can pay to follow enthusiasm in sport. I was reminded of trainer Paul Nicholls and his belief in the ability of his staying chaser See More Business, bedraggled in the King George and then winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup at 16/1 in 1999. 

The bookies were going to see more business from me, as Rose was begging to be backed. He was going to be plan A in my Olympic double, and plan B involved a sport I’d known little about a year earlier: hockey. On the opening day of the 2015 Ashes Test in Cardiff, I’d bumped into some of the Great Britain women’s hockey squad, who had been invited to the game. It was noticeable how well they got on. Their enthusiasm for all sport, but their own in particular, was infectious. They were determined.

“The Olympics is a chance for us to show we are the best team in the world and we can win gold,” forward Lily Owsley told me in an interview for BBC Sport a few months later.

In 2014, Owsley had put England ahead in the Commonwealth Games final and they were just 11 seconds from gold before an Australia equaliser, followed by defeat on penalties. The players were heartbroken, but they had turned their form around after finishing 11th out of 12 teams at the World Cup less than two months earlier, and they went on to win the 2015 European Championships. At 7/1 they were worth a flutter, and so was Rose at 14s. The double was 120/1. We were on.

While the hockey players arranged a social media blackout for the Olympics, Rose revelled in the chance to meet competitors from other sports. He tweeted a picture in the weights room with British boxers, took selfies with flag bearer Andy Murray and soaked up the occasion of the opening ceremony. He took the Rio joie de vivre into the tournament: Swede Henrik Stenson provided formidable opposition as the pair swapped the lead before going up the 18th on the final day locked together at 15 under. Stenson’s wayward approach handed the Englishman the initiative, and he sealed the deal.

Leg one in the bag. Leg two hinged on the hockey. The TV evening news was delayed as the women’s hockey final between Great Britain and the Netherlands reached a dramatic conclusion. GB goalkeeper Maddie Hinch saved four penalties in a shootout as GB triumphed. Nail-biting penalties and final-hole drama – no one said doing the double was easy. 

I got to tell Rose my own small story of Olympic success when we chatted in the parade ring at Royal Ascot this summer. “That’s so cool. You were on a roll,” he said. Yes, Justin. A roll of the die. Although I didn’t tell him the story behind the story. My pal Charlie sent me the die. He had leukaemia and died in March 2015, aged 39. The fee for this article is being donated to a fundraising campaign he set up to help the bone marrow transplant team that helped him.

Frank Keogh is a journalist with BBC Sport.

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