Low Life, Racing,

All that counts is that final hurdle

Don’t try this at home: Stuart Barnes recalls a desperate last roll of the dice at Cheltenham

‘A man can be as wise as Solomon and have an iron character and still be carried away.’ Fyodor Dostoevsky was writing about the poetic charms of the roulette wheel, but it could just as easily be Cheltenham for those of us addicted to the thrills of that Gloucestershire spa town in March. Just to clarify, I lack Solomon’s wisdom and, come the festival, am not always renowned for my iron character. Yes, I too have been carried away – all the way to the brink. To the “Get Out Stakes” that for so many years was the County Hurdle – the last race of the meeting in those days when Cheltenham wasn’t stretched (along with our stamina) to four days. Friday was for recovering, as often as not licking the wounds. 

Memory is a trickster, not to be trusted, but I didn’t need the aid of Google to leap back in time to 1997. Istabraq hacked up in the Sun Alliance, but at 11/10 that profit was soon swallowed. AP McCoy was beaten with a late run by a second-string Pipe horse in the Coral Cup. I had backed the Pipe/McCoy partnership at 14/1 but an Australian came from nowhere to beat him. 

Big Bloody Strand. A clear memory. Then it all goes hazy, dark, very, very wrong. 

Wind the clock back to the County Hurdle and I am in trouble. I have disobeyed Dostoevsky’s gambling maxim, “keeping one’s head the whole time… and not getting excited”. Don’t ask me when the bets became bigger or how the situation so perilous, but by the last race on the last day I was triple my limit down. Most of us have been there, but I was deeper in the mire than I had ever been.

 £50 each way was my last remaining bet. An antepost on the 33/1 Nicky Henderson horse, Barna Boy. (And no, the wager had nothing to do with the fact that Barna is indeed my West Country abbreviation.) He was being backed in. A good each-way bet – but not good enough when you are £9,100 behind on a planned stake of £3,000. Consolations count for nothing. If I didn’t know I had the gambler’s genes before, now I realised, as 

I saw the price drop to 25/1,. Begging, borrowing, claiming whatever credit was left, I decided through my gin that if I was to go down it would be in flames. £450 each way at 25/1, plus the original bet. A ten-grand disaster. How to explain that to my lovely wife? There was no way. Might as well lose a clean ten thousand as a silly figure like £9,100. “The necessity of risk redeems him in his eyes.”

I was beyond the safety net, in the sort of losing position I had long dreaded but never quite believed I could end up after 17 races. And I was thrilled. Enthralled. And, yes, resigned.

I didn’t bother with the first mile and a half of the County Hurdle. It was not until the runners approached the last that the Henderson horse was mentioned in commentary. Could it happen? He took the last – and the lead – with Carlito Brigante moving menacingly. But Richard Dunwoody kept him going, the gap always a good length. 

There were no half-cut computations of unlikely profit, nothing other than the knowledge that I was up. That I had taken myself beyond my admittedly conservative self-imposed limits and come out a survivor. A well-known gambling industry advertisement advises us to stop when the fun stops. But the hardcore gambler is brutally aware that it is exactly when “the fun stops” and the risks are real, that the thrill seems greatest. 

Winning the Supreme Novices with a hundred on a 20/1 horse to fuel a few festival dreams, or picking the lock of the gaoler in the last seconds of the last race? There is no comparison. To be ahead of the book and winning: that is what I call “fun”. To be in a dark place and punt your way back into the game. Here is the essence, I think, of what constitutes a gambler. 

It’s not greed. As soon as we get ahead we are finding ways to give it back. Professional punters are not gamblers. They are investors – in knowledge, in form. They keep their heads, they don’t get excited.

They’re fortunate in their wisdom in many ways, but it’s the getting carried away that counts. The winning festivals are wonderful. I wish all punters well, but there is something about the hot-blooded excitement of being in the punting pit that takes gambling out of its usual planetary parameters. 

Cheltenham is one of the centres of this dangerous world, a tingling place where you find yourself torn from reality. Barna Boy’s win in 1997 was a victory for ill discipline, poor punting… you could say insanity.

I’m not proud of myself and my wild betting that year – I wouldn’t recommend that anyone take that route – but you know what? There’s no thrill quite like running the risk and coming out, somehow intact, on the other side. n

Stuart Barnes is a former England rugby international who writes for The Times and commentates for Sky Sports.

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