The Games People Play: Place Your Bets!

Monday, April 16, 2012

This Saturday was the annual running of the Grand National horse race at Aintree Racecourse near Liverpool.  The National is a famous and simultaneously beloved and reviled event that excites comment even among those who never watch horse racing at any other time of the year. Far from a standard, somewhat dull, single trip around a boring oval racecourse, the Grand National is a steeplechase, meaning that the horses race over a series of fences and ditches. Considering that 40 horses and riders start the race, this makes for a mad, crushing, insane, extraordinary sort of melee that is exciting and terrifying at the same time.

For reasons that are not clear to your humble blogger, the Grand National is the one race every year that gets everyone out to the betting shops (Well not everyone, but loads more people than would every normally darken the door of a bookie's). Newspapers all publish the odds on each horse in the field and often print a blank column for people to fill in for use in office sweepstakes, much as we in Canada might do for a Grey Cup pool. According to
Nearly half the UK adult population have a flutter on the Grand National staking a total £300 million, at an average of £8 per bet and Grand National day is the one day of the year when women close the gap on men in the betting stakes – one in every three Grand National bets is placed by a woman. 
All this gave me an excellent opportunity to place a few bets of my own, which is something I've been wanting to try out for ages but haven't had the guts to pursue on my own. Even though you can't walk down any High Street in England without passing at least three bookmaker's shops, it's always seemed like a highly arcane and certainly dodgy kind of thing to me. Luckily, the occurrence of the Grand National this year coincided with the return of the Crossword Tutor Patrick from foreign exile, and Patrick has some experience with semi-scallywag-ish things like betting shops. Thus, I had a native guide to act as an escort, explain the system, and take pictures of me at the betting window. (None of which turned out looking anything other than blurry or weird, so too bad...)

We put a cap on our betting for the day at the princely sum of £6.00 per person, and each decided to split our money among three horses. And, to increase our odds even further, we bet "each way", meaning that instead of paying out only for a win, if any of our horses came second, third or fourth, they'd also pay out, though at a lower odds. An "each way" bet costs double a standard "to win" bet, but of course the odds are much better. For my £6 I got three £1 "each way" bets at a very friendly Ladbroke's on The Strand in the West End. Ladbroke's are one of the biggest chains of betting shops, and it turns out that they're not particularly creepy or scary at all. At least that one wasn't. This one had friendly clerks wandering around in bright red t-shirts emblazoned with "I'm here to help". (I think it was smart for me to try this whole betting shop thing for the first time on the busiest betting day of the year, when the shops are expecting a lot of inexperienced punters to come in to place their yearly bets.)

So Patrick and I poured over the charts and made highly scientific determinations of which horses to bet on, based on important things like whether the name was funny, and what colour the jockeys might be wearing. I chose the favourite, Sychronised, and a horse called Organised Confusion (which reminded me of work), and one called Calgary Bay (of course). Patrick put his money on Deep Purple, Sunnyhillboy and According To Pete.

Grand National
Our betting slips showing the name of the race, the bet (E/W stands for Each Way), the name of the horse and the total stake.  When you take these to the window you have to specify whether you want them "priced", which means the printout of your bet will display the odds as they were when you placed the bet.  If the bet is not priced, then any payout would be according to the odds at the moment the betting closed.  Since the odds shift around constantly until the start this could work for or against you.

After we forked over the grand sum of £12, we wandered off to find a nice pub in which to watch the proceedings.  On the way we went through Trafalgar Square where they were holding some kind of "Happy Holland Day" festivities that seemed to involve wearing a lot of orange and eating french fries.  More interesting / terrifying to me was to see the big countdown clock in the square that's ticking away the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the Olympic Opening Ceremony.

104 days??? How the hell did that happen???

I certainly needed a drink after that, and we eventually settled ourselves at the Cambridge Pub where there was a reasonably sized screen, a respectable number of real ales on tap, and an empty table.  (Interesting aside: Showing most sporting events in pubs requires that the pub pay for a special license, but the Grand National is one of a very short list of events that is required to be broadcast "free to air".  Others include the FA Cup Final, the World Cup Final and, of course, the men's and women's Wimbeldon Championships.)  It seems quite a few people in the area had the same idea we did.

More pics
Everyone looking at the big screen.  Except that guy at the bar who might be checking his betting slips, and the guy on the phone at the back, who is probably just a loser.

Finally, after a bizarre incident in which the favourite, Synchronised, threw off his jockey during the warm-up and had to be rounded up and reunited with his rider, and after an odd amount of time spent stretching out the starting tape, they were underway.  And, as you'd expect from a free-for-all involving 40 horses and 40 riders and 30 fences, it was mayhem.

Grand Natl

Yes, horses fall.  Badly.  All the time.  

It really is crazy. As you can see from the above photo, it's an incredibly dangerous race. With so many horses and those crazy fences, falls are expected, and bad falls are standard. Though 40 horses and riders might start, fewer than half that number are generally expected to finish, and it's commonplace to see riderless horses galloping along with the rest of the pack on the course.  This year 16 of the 40 starters actually finished the race (in 1928 there were only TWO finishers).  And, worst of all, there are an average of three horse DEATHS every year at the Grand National, which makes me (and lots of other people) question whether it's really something that we should keep doing.  That's the really divisive, contentious thing about the race.  Organisers have recently redesigned some of the more dangerous fences, but horses continue to be badly injured.  This year two horses suffered broken legs and had to be put down, including Synchronised, the who had been favoured to win going into the race.  There really has to be a better way.

Nonetheless, it was impossible not to get caught up in the excitement.  My horses were all out of it fairly quickly, except for Calgary Bay, who at least managed to finish (though well out of the running).  On the other hand, one of Patrick's horses was involved in the closest finish in the history of the National.  Sunnyhillboy ended up leading coming off the last fence and looked like he had it won but an astounding surge by Neptune Collonge meant that our boy lost by, literally, about half a nostril.  And for the first time ever, a female jockey placed in the top three - Katie Walsh, on Seabass.  (The whole race is on Youtube, here.)

And so our hopes of a big payout were dashed (and when I say big, I mean £22.00). Instead, we had to content ourselves with a tube ride back to Brixton, where Patrick collected his generous winnings for the second-place finish.

Patrick and his fiver, patiently posing for a photo in the Brixton Ladbroke's, which was not nearly so nice as the one on the Strand where we placed our bets, and hence not really a place you want to hang around having your picture taken with a £5 note.

And that was my first Grand National.  I'm really of two minds about the whole thing.  It was fun to place the bets and exciting to watch the race, especially with that photo finish.  It wasn't until a while later that we found out that two horses had to be put down, which certainly put a damper on matters.  I don't know what the solution is, and people who love horses and racing obviously don't know either.  It's definitely a British institution, but I really don't know how much longer it can last in its present form.  It could be that the Grand National's days are numbered.  If so, I'm glad I had a little taste, though really I would have been more glad if Sunnyhillboy had a slightly longer nose...


Karen said...

I had to watch the video of course.

Crazy, exciting, cringe-worthy, disturbing, and the list goes on.

Wow...just wow.

As for the countdown clock...ha ha ha ha! No pressure!

Kathryn said...

Now you're talking. Yours truly worked at Coral Racing one summer in Ladbroke Grove. Quite possibly the strangest job I've ever had. And the most depressing - watching destitute people spend their last 5pence. But I did have an aptitude for picking winners...based on pure guess work. Glad you made it in to the shop.

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