MICHAEL WOLSEY: How a dark horse helped Charlie beat the bookie at last
Work was scarce when I was growing up and a lot of men, with nothing better to do, divided their days between the bookmaker and the pub.
Once a week they collected the dole – the buroo, they called it, Belfast-speak for the employment bureau.
Battle-hardened wives would swoop quickly to get some family money before their husbands returned to the daily round of boozing and betting.
Charlie also passed his days between the bookie and the boozer, but he never went into the pub, spending most of his time hanging around doorways in an alley that linked the two.
He didn’t go into the bookie’s much either. Charlie liked to place all his bets early in the day and only went back to the betting shop if he had winnings to collect, which wasn’t always the case.
I don’t know if he really spent all day on the street, but it seemed you could always find him there, fretting over the fate of his bets and inquiring, in an anxious way, about which horse had won this race or that.
As kids, we had all kinds of theories about Charlie. One rumour had it that he was a robber on the run, who didn’t dare show his face outside the alleyway. In another story, Charlie was a millionaire and the bookies lived in fear that the big bets he placed could put them out of business.
When I was older I discovered that Charlie was far from being a big-time punter. His bet was usually a shilling, the equivalent of about five cents today, and the smallest stake the bookie would accept.
Since he only went into the betting shop twice a day, Charlie never saw any of the races he worried so much about, and he missed the one great success of his gambling career.
In 1967, Charlie’s sister had drawn the Kildare-trained horse Foinavon in an office sweep for the Aintree Grand National. Charlie took this as an omen and put his shilling on the 100-1 outsider.
Riderless horses caused absolute chaos that day. They had unseated a few jockeys early in the race and then, at fence twenty-three, one veered suddenly to the right, bringing down the nearest runner and creating a domino effect that left almost every horse riderless except Foinavon.
In those days, jockeys were allowed to remount and some did, but Foinavon had established a good lead.
Josh Gifford, on the favourite, Honey End, made a brave dash for the finishing post but, in an Aintree version of the tortoise and the hare, Foinavon strode steadily across the line to claim an incredible victory for jockey John Buckingham. And for Charlie.
Charlie’s stake was so small that, even at 100-1, he didn’t collect much money. There were jokes about him spending his winnings on a luxury cruise or a holiday in the Bahamas. Someone suggested, a little more seriously, that he might actually go to a race meeting, and there was talk of a whip round to get him to, if not Aintree, then maybe Leopardstown, or his nearest venue, Down Royal.
Charlie was horrified. He had never watched a race in his life, he declared, and he wasn’t going to start now.
My view of racing is almost the direct opposite of Charlie’s. I like race meetings with all their colour and clamour, the bookies shouting the odds and the punters cheering their choices. But I have no real interest in betting and only back horses when I am at a meeting. Since I wasn’t at Cheltenham, the huge excitement this year’s festival generated pretty much passed me by and I didn’t contribute to the €1 billion it drew in bets with Irish bookies.
There is one exception to my track-only gambling habit. Like Charlie, I always have a bet on the Aintree Grand National. It’s an impossible race to predict and so, again like Charlie, I make completely illogical choices, and can easily end up backing a 100-1 outsider.
I sometimes think of Charlie when I make my selection. He has long since gone to the great Totalisator in the sky. I wonder is he hanging round the pearly gates, asking St Peter who won the 3.30?