Thursday, 10 October 2013

This section didn't quite make the cut of Off The Chest. Originally, it was planned to cover a horse racing fix. However, due to a certain footballer being involved in exactly that, this was pulled.

Premier Ship

Another season ended - this time a profitable one. I still owned most of the money Id received as reward for the fix. My debts had been whittled down to almost nothing and I had a greater standing in my club - ironic since I betrayed them in a heartbeat.

 I wasn’t quite in their league on the field, but I wanted to join the Owens, Fowlers and the McManamans off the field. So I went and bought myself a horse. Well, actually, Hollow, Wheezy and Simmo and I went and bought a horse.

 We thought it best to keep the Infamous Four together – and what more innocent way than by buying a four-legged racing machine?

 It was just that Hollow, Wheezy and Simmo didn’t actually know of my cunning plan just yet. But they would soon enough – and they’d go along with the idea. Well, they had few enough ideas of their own. This one was bound to be a winner, wasn’t it?

 Anyway, they owed me big time. The bent game they’d participated had netted them thousands. They could afford to channel some of it back into my latest money-making scheme. We were on a winning streak. And when you’ve got the enemy –in this case, the bookmakers – pinned down, keep on firing, that’s what I say.

 I reasoned I wouldn’t be feeding my addiction. I’d be feeding the trainer, his wife and kids and several members of his staff. And in any event, I’d only be betting on our nag. There was no way I’d let myself lapse back into betting on the previous gargantuan scale that had almost put me on my uppers. Anyway, that was my reasoning.

 There’s always been a strong betting culture in the sport. After all, what is there to do after training in the afternoons? The local betting shop was a natural – and welcoming – venue.

I’d lost thousands on the nags over the years and I thought a little inside knowledge wouldn’t go amiss. It would cost, of course, but the best information always did. Just like the best cocaine. You always got what you paid for. Cutting corners had never been in my nature.

 And we might end up in the winner’s enclosure at somewhere like Royal Ascot, kitted out in top hat and tails. Or maybe, Southwell on a freezing winter’s day wearing flat caps and thermals. A winner’s a winner wherever. And you know what they say, 6-4 at Royal Ascot pays exactly the same as 6-4 at Southwell.

 I didn’t know where to start as far as buying the beast was concerned and decided to scan the classifieds in the Racing Post that Saturday. I spotted the name of an agent I’d read about over the years. He regularly purchased winners although his percentage success rate was never revealed. Strange that. The jocks’ and trainers’ stats were always available, not the agents. But I pressed on. I won’t give the guy’s name. He might not want to be associated with someone with my track record. So, for the purposes of this book, let’s call him James.

 First, I checked him out with a couple of mates in another Prem team who I remembered had used him not too long ago. ‘Genuine’ came back the reply from the pair of them. They liked the guy even though he’d sold them a pup – and I’m not talking a young greyhound here! Their horse had never won for them, but had been placed in a couple of good-class races and, what the heck, they’d had some fun at a few of the classier racetracks.  By now I had roped in Hollow, Wheezy and Simmo. I wouldn’t say I had to drag them screaming into racehorse ownership, but let’s say they were a little bit reluctant at first. Until I pointed out what we’d gone through in the past few months and that they needed to let their hair down although in Hollow’s case that wouldn’t be possible as he was losing it faster than I used to lose my dosh in the local betting shop.

 Once we – or rather I – had sorted out that we’d be four equal partners, I gave James a ring on his mobile. Funnily enough, he was on his way to the sales at Newmarket. How much did I want to spend? Talk about cutting to the car chase. But I liked his directness and told him we had £100,000 in the pot. I felt sure that would buy us something with half a chance. James said for that money he would be able to find us something we ‘could have a bit of fun with’. It sounded like he was just off to Hamleys down the West End to buy us an expensive train set! But we were off and running. Or at least James was.

 Later that day I got a call from James who said he bought us a really nice colt with impeccable breeding. “How much did it cost?” I asked. “Well, with my commission and other bits and bobs, exactly £100,000.”

 Why wasn’t I surprised that James had gone and spent the lot. I thought we’d have a few thou left to pay off the first six months training fees. I suppose I should have told we only had £90,000 to spend. Maybe next time, I thought.

 “That’s great,” I said. And when he’d given me details of the breeding I began to get more and more excited. There was an Epsom Derby winner on the sire’s side and a half-sister to an Irish St Leger winner on the dam’s side.

Whatever, else, the damn thing would stay longer than the mother-in-law!

He certainly wouldn’t be an early two-year-old. So I explained to my fellow-owners that we’d have to be a little patient.

 Now all we had to do was find a trainer, register our colours and we’d be on our way.

 It just so happened that James’s brother-in-law (whom I shall call Martin for reasons of discretion) trained in Newmarket. Now that was handy wasn’t it? Not knowing many other animal trainers outside of the travelling circus that came to town every Easter during my childhood, I went along with James’s ‘kind’ offer.

 Next step would be to get the horse from the sales to Martin’s yard. It was about three-quarters of a mile from the sales complex – six furlongs in horsey language – but despite being an ‘athletic-looking sort’ as James had described, the poor beast wasn’t able to walk that far. My God, if he couldn’t walk six furlongs how was he going to gallop a mile and a half? Anyway, the transportation would cost a little extra. Of course, James knew a firm that would do the job. And, of course, he was getting his little cut for each piece of advice. This time it was Martin’s sister’s boyfriend who ran the transport company. “You can trust him with your life,” James assured me. Who was I to argue?

 Eventually, when all the cheques had been signed and apportioned, our horse – totally oblivious to how much he cost and what high hopes we held for him – was safely settled in his new home.

 I took the three likely lads to see him in Newmarket. As a regular punter I was more at home in some seedy betting shop, but even I recognised that Newmarket was the centre of England’s Flat racing universe. Housed within its flat, almost shapeless contours was a collection of thoroughbreds worth many millions of pounds. Driving through the gates of James’ yard, I couldn’t help but feel a frisson of excitement although I’m not too sure the others shared my feelings. They were probably totting up, mentally, just how much they had already spent. And that was without travelling and entry costs and any vets’ fees the animal might clock up in the next one or two years.

 Of course, insurance was too expensive to even consider so a false step on the gallops could end it all. But I banished such thoughts from my mind as James greeted us at the door accompanied by two yapping spaniels.

 Wearing the trainer’s uniform which included those must-haves of flat cap, jacket and jodhpurs, James invited us all in for a hearty full English.

 Our healthy eating regimen went out of the kitchen door as we tucked in, excitedly talking about our horse in between mouthfuls.

 Of course, the Derby in about five months was the target – and on breeding and looks the four of us felt he would be in the mix.

 “Well, that’s a long way off,” said James. “Let’s get him on the racecourse first and see what we’ve got. I agree he looks the part but he was only broken a couple of weeks ago and has only had a handful of half-speed gallops. So let’s not race before we can walk so to speak.”

 “You’re the guv’nor James. That’s what we’re paying your extortionate fees for,” I laughed. The others joined in and we got back to clearing our plates.

 Hollow asked for seconds as we expected. I reckoned he was actually hollow and that anything he ate disappeared into the black hole that passed as his stomach. Still he was a big lad. He was a goalkeeper after all. In any event, he probably thought he was still growing; a useful asset for a keeper, don’t you think.

 After breakfast we all trooped into the yard and were shown our horse in its box being got ready for its morning gallop. Then we all piled into James’ battered Range Rover and drove out to the gallops. Newmarket is as flat as my first girlfriend’s chest, but James managed to find a slightly elevated spot where we watched our horse canter past us with a group of his mates. Simmo had come up with the name Premier Ship and as none of us could think up anything better – or in Wheezy’s case couldn’t be bothered – the name sort of stuck and was duly registered with Weatherbys, racing’s admin organisation. 

We clambered out of the warmth of the Range Rover into the chill of a typical Newmarket morning and waited in anticipation as Premier Ship sailed on by accompanied by three of his mates.

 “I think he’s got everything,” said Wheezy. “Four legs and a tail!” “They all look the same to me,” said Simmo as James looked away in disgust. “He’s coming on nicely,” said James, ignoring Wheezy and Simmo’s facetious remarks. “But he’ll need time. He’s very immature.” “Just like you,” I said turning to Wheezy. “When will be ready to run?” I asked our trainer. “Well, I’m not rushing him,” he replied. “Five or six weeks at the earliest.” “That’s five or six weeks’ of training fees,” said Hollow pointedly.

 After another four or five lots had cantered past our vantage point we climbed back into the car for the short journey back to the yard.

 I kept in touch with James through our weekly phone call and as the weeks passed I could sense he was becoming more and more pleased with the way Premier Ship was shaping up.

 Eventually, about two months after our visit and well into the new Flat season, he told me Premier Ship was ready to make his debut. He found a race at his local track. The horse wouldn’t have far to travel. Nor would we.

 I felt more excited than when I’d made my own Premiership debut. I couldn’t wait to tell the lads. I phoned round and told them we were running at Newmarket a week on Wednesday. All Hollow, Simmo and Wheezy wanted to know was ‘what chance have we got?’ I told them I had no idea.

 “I don’t know what’s in against him,” I told Wheezy. “Won’t know until later in the week when the entries come – and even then we won’t know the final field until 48 hours before the race.

 “Anyway, he’s probably only out for a sighter.”“What’s a sighter?” asked Wheezy.

 “Just out for a run so that he can get some experience. It’s a bit like a practice match. We’ll see what he’s made of and take it from there,” I replied. With his breeding, I felt there was little chance of Premier Ship winning as a two-year-old. He’d need a trip, as they say in racing circles, which means he would turn out to be a stayer rather than a sprinter and that we wouldn’t see the best of him until his three-year-old season, but I didn’t want to entirely crush the other lads’ hopes.

 He’d have to run some races over five, six and seven furlongs before being stepped up to a mile and beyond.

 Naturally, the boys assumed he was a flying machine and would be good enough, forward enough and, most importantly, quick enough, to win first time out – before anyone got wind of just how good he was. Well, that was the plan – or rather their dream. But gradually they were weaned off the idea by both the horse and its trainer. I didn’t have to say too much. Premier Ship even looked slow and ponderous in his early gallops even allowing for his lack of experience.

 And he didn’t get much better. After one of our regular Monday morning trips to the gallops, Hollow opined: “I don’t know about Premier Ship, he looks like an old boat to me!”

 “He just needs time,” echoed me and the trainer. It was the tried and trusted method used by trainers, syndicate bosses and racing managers to explain away a complete waste of oats!

 “He should be doing time for all money he’s stolen off us,” said Wheezy.“C’mon guys, give the horse a break. I’m sure he’s doing his best,” I urged them.“Yeh, but his best ain’t good enough,” said Simmo – and he meant it.

 Thankfully, a good pub lunch in one of the many Newmarket hostelries restored their good humour and on the way home no one even mentioned Premier Ship – thank God.

 A few weeks later James rang to say that Premier Ship was ready to run.

 “I’m going to start him off over six furlongs at Yarmouth next week, all being well,” he told me. “But I wouldn’t have too high hopes,” said James as understated as ever. “He’s a slow-maturing type.”

 “I thought he was just slow,” I quipped, but there was no discernible ripple of amusement. “He’ll need more time and distance,” he said. “You won’t see the best of him until his three-year-old season.” “Right,” I said. “Just let me know if you’re declaring him to run. I think some of the lads will fancy a day at the seaside!”

 I couldn’t wait to tell the others that finally they were going to see their colours on the racecourse.

 I knew Premier Ship wasn’t going to be a betting proposition, but I had something like £170,000 burning a hole in my pocket. I had been a disciplined gambler, but I’d have to have a few quid on the beast just for good luck. Well, my bet would bring the bookie good luck at least!

 We all arrived in our best clobber come race day and had supped plenty in the bar before Premier Ship was due to run in the second race at 2.20.

 He should have started in the 1.50 because he barely got going. He had a slow start, a slow middle and an even slower ending, trailing in last of the seven starters. 

We weren’t best pleased to say the least but dear, old James described it as an “educational run”.

 “Yeh,” said Simmo, “we all learned something today – he’s useless!” “That’s unfair,” said James. “We’ve all got to be patient.”

 Well, we were and three races later and his two-year-old season done and dusted, Premier Ship had added a seventh of nine, a ninth of thirteen and a fourth. But don’t get too carried away with fourth – there were only four runners!

 He stepped up from six furlongs to a mile and a quarter, but all the time James was telling us: “He really needs a trip.”

 To the knacker’s yard, I thought.

 The three-year-old season followed almost the same pattern. Premier Ship went further and further, ending the campaign racing, if that’s the right word, over a mile and six.

 Even James admitted he wasn’t quick enough to win on the Flat. So a new career over hurdles beckoned. But first he had to have his wedding tackle removed. It was painless – for us! Apart from the few hundred quid in vet’s fees.

 It seemed to concentrate his mind – or what passed for a mind – and he actually seemed to like hopping over a few practice hurdles. By now we’d said our goodbyes to James and sent him to Lambourn to be trained by a well-known jumps trainer whose name wasn’t Mark, but that’s what we’ll call him for the purposes of this book.

 That early promise didn’t translate any winning performances over hurdles and we were all, Mark included, scratching are heads as to what to do with our expensive purchase.

 As far as punting was concerned I was having a few quid on ‘for luck’ although I wasn’t finding any and those losses stirred those old feelings I used to have when I was punting regularly.

 I’d vowed not to punt except on Premier Ship but it wasn’t a strategy that was likely to work for someone as feeble-minded (when it came to betting) as I was.

 I was slipping back down the old, greasy pole. I was having little, almost meaningless, bets here and there on the sly.Then, almost inevitably, I was chasing those losses which led bigger and more meaningful bets. You have now idea how much cash you can eat into if you’re betting every day of the week.

 But what of Premier Ship? As I’ve said there some early signs that he might have been good enough to pick up a novice hurdle. Certainly, on breeding I’m surprised he even deigned to race against some of the cheap, lower-class rivals he was now being forced to compete with.

 Mark suggested a last resort. “Not Yarmouth again,” I said. Just like James last season, he ignored my attempted joke.

 “There’s a claimer at Fontwell. I think he could go very close.” “How close?” I asked. “Close enough to win it,” replied Mark with a certain amount of assurance. “I’ll put him in with a reasonable weight. Of course, you could lose him you know.” “I’m well aware of that. But I don’t think the boys would worry too much. They thought they’d be hiring morning suits for Royal Ascot or Epsom when we bought him, not slumming it round Fontwell. Enter him up. Let’s try to go out in a blaze of glory. I might even win some of my money back.”

 The big day – if you can call an afternoon’s racing at Plumpton a big day – finally dawned the following week. It was throwing it down outside but the loyal syndicate members were all on parade.

 He was slap bang in the middle of the weights and on his earlier form he did look thrown in – if he could reproduce it.

 In the ring he was trading at 5-2 and 11-4. Naturally, I was looking for 3-1. Eventually, I got it all on in dribs and drabs at 3-1, 11-4 and 5-2. The betting gates opened and before long I’d somehow got £150,000 down altogether to win approximately £400,000. I’d always worked out my returns before any race so that I didn’t make a mistake when collecting although other punters told me it was bad luck. It had been tough to place such an extraordinary amount on a budget race such as this. However, Betfair was incredibly ‘liquid’ by this time and at the click of a button a large proportion had been matched by the phone operator. If I could have seen it, my account would have shown a colossal ‘green’ figure next to my horse with seven large ‘red’ figures alongside the seven other horses.

 On this occasion they were right. Premier Ship got beaten a short head. He hated sloshing through the mud and it was only his class – remember he was bred to win a Derby – that got him so close to the winner who was picked up at the sales recently for the princely sum of three grand.

 He may well have run his heart out. I knew that and Mark knew that, but trying telling that to Hollow, Simmo and Wheezy.

 Luckily, before I needed to there was an announcement of the Tannoy that our trainer should report to the stewards. Thankfully, someone had claimed Premier Ship and the stewards wanted Mark to sign the paperwork. Three grand as well. Like that was going to help. Split four ways, I considered throwing it down the gutter which of course figuratively I had done countless times.

 As Premier Ship was Mark’s only runner at the meeting, it meant that one the way home his horsebox would be as empty as my wallet and more importantly my Betfair account.

 Still, once we had settled up our final bill, the syndicate wouldn’t have any more money to chuck down the drain. Premier Ship was someone else’s responsibility now – and good luck to them.

 I certainly didn’t want to repeat the cash-draining exercise and I knew, without asking them, that Hollow, Simmo and Wheezy would be glad to end their association with Sport of Kings. Their hearts were never really in it from day one.

 It would have been nice to have shut the stable door after the horse had bolted in, but it wasn’t to be. 

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