Ben Keith: The Formative Years…
A friendly Irish face approached the pitch, looked up at me and smiled warmly, and asked me for a price of a horse in the fourth race. “Just for a small bet.”. Were his words.
This was eleven years ago. I was twenty and thus not old enough to bet under my own name so I had privately bought and was using the pitches of Wharton Slaney. We ‘opted on’ to the last pitch on the rails, when there was a space, and called prices out into the ring for punters to take, as this was before the time rails bookmakers were allowed boards to display their odds. I didn’t have enough money to buy the then far superior tattersalls pitches, so this was my way to make my first assault on the betting-ring. I had spent six valuable months working for a clever man in Gibralter and had got together a float of £10,000 to start making my dreams a reality. I set sail back to blighty and put a small team and plan of action together to get going.
It was considerably more difficult on the other side of the fence than expected though. The rails werent a place for a boy, but i didnt want to be a boy anymore, so that was fine by me. Calling out prices of individual horses into the ring to really only be picked off by firms that were hedging, and effectively betting against one horse a race, was not the recipe for glory I had been looking for, and after a good start, a bad run had ensued…
I not only left Gibralter with some float money but also with the wise words the clever man passed onto me as I left the office. I asked him if he had any advice for me. He looked at me in his deeply pensive and often troubled looking way, and said “Ben, whatever you do, do it at the right price.”. I didn’t know it at the time but these proved to be far more valuable to me in my path ahead than the modest float I left with.
In an effort to get my business going, I had to do what is always so foolish when a bookmaker, and that is to compete on price. His words, that were so true, but so hard to abide by in a competitive business, and when greed and ambition has a hold of you, had been muffled in the back of my mind as being boring and old hat. Silly boy.
I opened my hod and took out my tissue. This was a long time before the firms bet early on every race and shortcuts for the independent bookmaker, like oddschecker, existed. We would subscribe to racing experts who would provide a tissue that we would then start making our book from.
It was rare at this time for a rails bookmaker to quote prices before the show but I was keen to compete with my elderly and established peers who had built up clients to do business with. I may have been keen but I was certainly naïve. There was a reason the old, wiley, and well tanned, rails bookmakers didn’t quote early prices.
“16/1, sir.”. Said the silly little boy.
“£1,000 each-way.”. Was his response, as quick as a shot. His mouth closed and he looked deep into my eyes as he waited for my decision.
“I thought you said it was for a small bet.”. I said, showing my innocence.
The Irish face then constructed a friendly smile again and in a soft voice said “Oh well, for some of us £1,000 each-way is a small bet.”
I stumbled for a second and with nerves, slightly gripped the tissue in my hands. Thoughts raced through my mind. Is this a potential client for me? Will he bet with me all day? I only want to lay him £150 each-way but what would his response be? Will he laugh at me, wander off, and proceed to lose a fortune to one of the big bookmakers next to me? Its 16/1. It can’t win. Its some easy money to get in the bag early. I need it. Come on. Play him.
“£400 each-way suits, thank you, sir.”
He looked down and counted out the money like an experienced hand. As he paid me, he didn’t say anything, he just slightly looked away and averted his gaze but as he turned to leave I noticed a glint in his eyes. I felt the feeling that I know now as it being ‘on me’. This is a sensation that every experienced bookmaker knows. Its, ‘The race hasn’t happened yet, but I know I have just foolishly made an error and let a punter, with an edge, break through.’. It quickly passed and I moved on to think about the first race of the day.
As was in line with my run at the time, the first three races were all won by the favourite. My float was very low now. Not just here at Goodwood, but as a whole. I had to back back the bet I had laid the Irishman as I certainly didn’t have eight thousand pounds to pay him if it won. I thought “Well, never mind. It will open 16s, maybe 20s, and I will just hedge my way out of it.”. Silly boy.
First show: 8/1.
Second show, 7/1.
“What do you want to do? Your call??”. The betting ring said to me, as coldy as a blackjack dealer’s eyes.
I started the humiliating process of backing the horse at 6/1 and 5/1 and ended up in a position where I would lose, whatever the result of the race.
I don’t think we need to regurjitate how the race panned out, do we?
Stood next to me was my oldest friend, Ali. He was on holiday from university and was clerking for me. He realised the gravity of the situation, looked down at the book, and silently tallied up the figures of the days business. They weren’t quite reading how I had hoped. Hope is not something the betting business accounts for.
The Irishman waited a few feet form the pitch as I collected in the hedging money. He didn’t say anything. There was nothing to say. He hadn’t appeared for a bet on any of the previous races and was clearly, to me now, a professional gambler who had appeared at the racecourse to back one horse, and one horse only. I had been just a part of his days business that afternoon. I counted the money out to him in bundles of £1,000. This time there were no sweet pleasantries or gentle Irish jokes. We were at the business end of proceedings. Without a word, he turned and left. I was the loser. I had given the punter space to move. I had paid the price. A lesson was being learnt.
We slowly packed the gear together and made the humiliating early walk of shame through the betting ring that every bookmaker has experienced at one time or another. The forced smiles and early ‘goodbye’s’ and ‘see you’s’ at wherever the next meeting was, were absolutely grating as everyone knew how you had gone and many took twisted pleasure in it. The clever man’s words whispered again and again, louder each time in my ears. Silly, silly boy. The pain was cutting me open and the torture was in full flow now.
As we reached the car-park the hod felt heavy on my arm. I was out of float money and would have to duck and dive if I was to continue at the next meeting. It was a dark moment. I was not in the mood for conversation and Ali just walked, head bowed, like a priest behind the coffin, at a funeral. A tear ran down my cheek and I felt desperate and weak.
As I looked up, a gypsy appeared. She beckoned me in and took the palm of my hand into her hands. She asked me to give her “some paper money”. I gave her a £5 note.
I have only ever wanted two things in life. Money and to have kids and be a dad. I felt a long way from either at this time and looked into her eyes and listened to her words, hoping for some good news to look forward to.
The rough tips of her fingers ran over my palm and the corner of her left eye flickered. She said to me that she saw me travelling the world. She said she saw me as a father with many children. She said that if I took it slowly and steadily I would find the way to many riches.
Everything changed that day. Everything became a lot clearer. It would be a long road but I was ready to tread it and make my way on. Here I am now. Still with a long way to go but I have found my way.
And the clever man? Well, let’s just say that he never forgot his own rule. Let’s just say that he’s the king of the castle now. And probably that I’m still just a dirty rascal..