It’s 8am on a Saturday morning in the mid-1980s, and I walk sleepily into the room. “Well by bugger me, what time you call this?” he says. He’s sitting in his familiar white vest at a small dining table, a pencil behind his ear, the racing pages of the Yorkshire Post open in front of him. He calls this the sitting room, not the living room or anything grander, and he’ll sit at the table nearly all day, as he has done most days since his retirement.
This is, ostensibly, the story of how I developed my love for the sport of horseracing. More importantly, though, it’s also the story of the man who introduced me to it.
When I was five years old, my mum died after being ill for some time, and to help ease the pressure on my dad, my brother Mark and I (the two youngest of the four children) spent many weekends staying with family friends Colin and Doris Gill, both in their late 50s at the time.
These weekends were no hardship for us. They ran a small shop and Post Office, which was also their home, so we were able to pick our meals (and sweets) from a huge selection. They had a colour TV, which seemed a wild and fabulous luxury at the time; indeed, Colin, a former pig farmer who did little to dispel the theory that Yorkshire men are noted for thrift, stated that he would refuse to watch a colour TV if Doris rented one. On the day it finally arrived, he was transfixed all the way through until the national anthem was played at closedown around midnight.
Their main shared interest was in watching sport, which was just fine by us, all the more so with colour TV vastly improving the viewing experience over the regulation monochrome sets. They took us to live sport too, notably rugby league, but Colin’s first love was racing, and most Saturday mornings saw him try to finish his “cashing up” at the Post Office in time for a lunchtime dash to the races. Yorkshire had, and continues to have, a wide range of racecourses; living close to the A1 in Ferrybridge, he was well placed to access plenty of them, and his detailed knowledge of the back roads meant he never seemed to get caught in queues.
From an early age, Mark and I accompanied him to the racecourse. He had no need to take us – why a keen racegoer should feel obliged to take a couple of prepubescent squabbling brothers on his main social outing of the week is anyone’s guess, but Colin’s gruff exterior always concealed a very kind heart. He would chunter on at us and call us every name under the sun, but he never seemed to get genuinely angry.
I’d already been to quite a few rugby league games so wasn’t unaccustomed to crowds, but when I first entered a racecourse, it was as if I were entering a completely new world, and that feeling has never changed, even hundreds of visits and 50 years later.
The smell was what first struck you - of horses, of course, but also of cut grass, cigar smoke, burger stalls, all mingled together. Then that unusual feeling of being in a big crowd, but seldom feeling cramped, because of the spacious nature of enclosures and the freedom to walk around at racecourses.
There’s an enduring love for horseracing in Yorkshire, and I’m sure there were lots of couples and families in attendance at those early meetings, but my overriding memories are of solo, middle-aged men. Men in trilbies, men in flat caps, men in NHS glasses and ill-fitting suits. Men with binoculars festooned with day badges, men with a multitude of notes scribbled onto their copies of the Sporting Life or the Sporting Chronicle, men glad just to be in a different world. Men like Colin.
My brother and I were allowed to wander round unaccompanied from early junior school age as long as we met up with Colin at a designated point before each race. The afternoons seemed to fly by, as there was so much to look at; the horses in the pre-parade ring and the paddock itself; the soberly-attired connections laughing nervously in the build-up to the race; the multi-coloured jockeys meandering through the crowd from the weighing room.
I remember being amazed that the general public had such unencumbered access to the jockeys. Colin encouraged us to ask for their autographs, and although I was a very timid six-year-old, I can’t remember any request being turned down.
One particular instance I’ve never forgotten. One day Colin took us to Market Rasen; that was well beyond his usual range in terms of driving distance, but we had pestered him and it was the only meeting in the north of England.
The main target for us in terms of autographs that day was John Lawrence/Lord Oaksey, but he only had a couple of rides and we missed him as he went out to ride the first of his them, which was on a hot favourite. Never mind, we thought, we’ll ask him to sign for us when he comes back in after the race.
We neglected watching the race in order to stay close to the weighing room, memorising his colours in the meantime. Sure enough, a couple of minutes after the race, we spotted him returning, and the best news from our point of view was that he wasn’t walking that quickly.
We were both quite bright lads, but I’m not proud that we didn’t work out that approaching a jockey hobbling back to the weighing room carrying his saddle and caked in mud, having just fallen on a favourite, may not have been the best idea.
However, when we accosted him, our autograph books thrust out eagerly, he was patience itself, cheerily explaining that he wasn’t in the best position to sign our books now but that if we waited in front of the weighing room before the next race (which he wasn’t riding in) he would come and find us.
Sure enough out he came, signed our books and had a chat with us too; I’ll never forget that.
On another occasion, I was unable to go to the races with Colin and Mark, and was fuming when my brother announced on his return that he had secured the coveted signature of Lester Piggott on what had been a rare venture north for the jockey.
He seemed curiously reluctant to show me the evidence, however, and when I finally prized his autograph book away from him, it turned out the only new entry in his book was an illegible scrawl from a jockey I hadn’t even heard of – it looked like Peter or George was his first name, depending on which way up you read it.
I felt smug that I’d uncovered Mark’s fake claim, and even more so when I went with Colin to another meeting and managed to corner the great man for his autograph myself. However, my elation soon disappeared when I looked at his signature, and found it was identical to the scrawl I had dismissed as fake in my brother’s book. Most of the images that can be found online of Lester’s autograph nowadays are clearly identifiable as his name, but if you caught him on a chilly day at Doncaster in the early 1970s, his signature resembled a string of Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.
It wasn’t long before autograph hunting lost its novelty and my curiosity turned to Colin’s betting. There wasn’t much sophistication about it; for much of the time, he was an example of that much-discussed but rarely-seen beast, the favourite backer, though he drew the line at anything shorter than around 7-4.
Colin did rely on two sources that piqued my interest, though. The first was the Timeform racecard. Colin was what might be politely described as careful with his money – he’d routinely eschew the main entrance gates in favour of slipping a pound note to the man on the gate at the Tote entrance in return for free entry – so I thought it was interesting that he was usually willing to part with the cost of three or four pints of beer for a Timeform card.
I was immediately grabbed by the terseness of the comments; the racing characteristics of top-class performers were described with the same economy of phrase, if not the paucity of words, as those inferior thoroughbreds dismissed as “of little account”.
I was always especially keen to see if that day’s card featured any of Timeform’s “double squiggle” horses, if only to see if I could decipher from the horse’s demeanour whether it was an “arrant rogue”, or simply a “thorough jade”. But these horses were seldom seen on Saturdays. Nonetheless, it was an introduction at a very young age to the possibilities that there might be more insight to be gained about a horse’s chance than merely looking at the form figures in the newspaper and the betting market.
The other notable thing about Colin on the racecourse was how many people he seemed to know. Every time I went with him, he’d start chatting with other punters that he clearly knew. Some of them were clearly old friends, perhaps from a lifetime of attending the races; Colin rarely went out or socialised to my knowledge.
The conversations always seemed fairly one-way, with Colin doing more listening than talking. I was to find out why many years later, but one way or another, he seemed to just about keep his head above the water with his punting. Meanwhile, I was becoming more and more fascinated with the mechanics of on-course betting.
The bookmakers seemed terrifying to a pre-pubescent boy, but as an adult I was to find them as honest a group of tradesmen as I’ve come across. The colourful, randomly numbered cards that were handed out as betting slips added to the intrigue. But the thing that grabbed my attention most was the disparity of odds available.
Colin was well into his 60s by the time I started going racing with him regularly, and not the nimblest on his feet. It soon struck me that he was sometimes backing horses at odds that could have been improved upon given a quick dash up and down the ring. I was a skinny child and was able to nip up and down the ring much faster than Colin - you can get away with bumping into people much more when you’re an 8-year-old, too - and before long I was regularly steering him towards 11-4 about 5-2 favourites, and 9-2 or even 5-1 about 4-1 chances.
Betting towards the front end of the market, Colin managed to back a steady stream of winners, and he was very impressed with his new-found help. Traditionally he had always bought me an ice cream at some point during the afternoon, but this ritual soon developed into a treat every time he had a winner, and there were several glorious occasions when I enjoyed three or four trips to Mr Whippy on a single afternoon.
As I gained his trust more and more, Colin occasionally would spot an opportunity for me to help him even more. He’d point someone out to me and ask me to follow them and try to discover who they were backing, though these sorties usually proved fruitless as the punters concerned invariably placed their bets on the rails in what seemed to me a cloak-and-dagger style more in keeping with a drugs deal. Colin always seemed particularly keen for me to glean the betting moves of one particular cigar-chomping, bushy-bearded chap, but despite creeping around him like Jack Wild’s Artful Dodger in “Oliver!” I never had any luck trying to decipher the betting intentions of Phil Bull.
It was one particular race at Doncaster, when I was quite a bit older (probably around 13 years old) that really opened my eyes to the possibilities from betting. Colin hadn’t had a good day, and had already backed the favourite in the upcoming final race, an apprentice event, when he was approached by a dapper little man, one of his innumerable racecourse friends. “You backed anything here, Colin?” he asked. Colin replied that he had backed the favourite, but immediately asked, “Why, you heard anything?”
His friend looked around a couple of times, then said he’d been told of a phone call from a trainer with a runner in this race asking another trainer if he could borrow his “boy” (as apprentices were routinely called at the time) to “ride my winner in the last at Doncaster.”
That was all Colin needed to hear, and off he went to the ring, doubling his usual £10 stake on what turned out to be an 8-1 shot.
I’ll never know whether the story was true, or whether Colin’s friend just got lucky, but the horse won easily. After the race, Colin hunted out his friend and quietly slipped £10 into his hand, muttering apologetically “I only had a fiver on it, I’d already backed the favourite.” I kept my counsel, and went home with a tenner in my pocket, too.
The lesson I learned from that encounter - apart from confirmation that Colin was a bit of a blagger at times - was that there was money to be made from this game. I didn’t conclude necessarily that inside information was the key - I’d seen too many of the supposed nods given to Colin by his “connected” racing pals run dismally – but I did conclude that there were some people who seemed to know more about what they were doing than others.
I kept up my interest in racing as a teenager, and it really took off when I started my first job after leaving university. Lingfield Hospital School, as it was then called, was Europe’s biggest special school, and a specialist centre for young people with epilepsy and other neurological disorders. I worked there for 14 years, was in charge of one of the residential units for 12 of those years, and loved my time there – not least because it was a five minute walk from Lingfield racecourse.
I doubt that I would have had the confidence to go and bet there without Colin’s input, and I got very lucky at the timing of my arrival in leafy Surrey. Lingfield was developing into one of the biggest draw bias tracks in the country, at a time before widely-available databases and before draw bias was to become as heavily-analysed as was the case in the 1990s.
It didn’t take me long to realise that if you could regularly identify which horse would be in front on the stands rail with 3f to go on the straight track at Lingfield, you would back a lot of winners. By the most rudimentary and unsophisticated application of pace and track bias, I did far better in my first few years’ betting than should have been possible from my decidedly limited understanding of handicapping techniques.
The real pay-off wasn’t my winnings; I was able to ring Colin, who by now was in his 70s and no longer attending race meetings, and tell him I was making money from betting. He was fascinated; I had worked out that he was never a long-term winner, a suspicion confirmed by the fact that he always said that if he had his time again he would have been a bookmaker.
He didn’t go out much at this stage, but he had a friend who went to the bookmakers, and he started getting him to put bets on for him. He was tickled pink that he was finally winning from the bookmakers, and at this stage of his life it wasn’t anything to do with the money.
Colin died in 1994, and one of my few regrets is that he wasn’t around when I started working full-time in the horseracing media. There’s barely a day goes by, however, when I don’t think about the impact he had, and continues to have, on my life.