Nor does it often happen that I leave a race meeting financially ahead of the bookies; the best I have achieved down the years is the delusion of having broken even, a delusion that does not survive a subsequent audit of wallet and loose coin.
Until now it had seemed that almost any horse found my money an intolerable burden. At Kelso a friend hosting a party to his private box once invited a well-known tipster to mark our cards. The curse of Kemp was operating that day, and he tipped not a single winner.
There was the odd exception to this habitual tale of losers — Mr What in a Grand National, a tip from an Edinburgh tram conductor — but on the whole my luck was execrable. This week it changed. On a sunny if chilly evening at the Saints and Sinners meeting at Hamilton two splendid nags, Percy Braithwaite and Sir Arthur Hobbs, obliged, streaking home in a most thrilling manner.
Percy Braithwaite was pretty well fancied, and my investment paid out modestly. But Sir Arthur Hobbs was a complete outsider. For a small stake I was up to my oxters in siller. As I shouted Sir Arthur home I became aware of a glum silence around me and I realised my enthusiasm would not guarantee popularity.
Afterwards an experienced punter, looking rather fed up, asked why I’d picked him. Because of the sonorous magnificence of his name, I replied. The same reasoning, or lack of it, had led me to Percy. As a theory for picking horses it leaves much to be desired but seemed to work as well as any.
Who Percy and Sir Arthur were I do not know, but with names like these they must surely have been distinguished fellows. The biographical dictionaries are silent and our library could find no reference to them.
My colleagues on the sports desk collected some anecdotal evidence of an inconclusive character. Percy Braithwaite is an Irish horse, certainly, but with a very English name. One theory was that he was a Yorkshire cricketer, though Wisden does not mention him. Another was that he was an early aviator, and crossed the Atlantic soon after Alcock and Brown.
Sir Arthur sounds as if he might be named after some squire or general (the cricketer of whom everyone first thought was Jack Hobbs). In the Dictionary of National Biography there is a Brigadier-General Reginald Francis Arthur Hobbs, DSO, (1878-1953). He served in the Boer War, the Somaliland Campaign, and the First World War but was not knighted. I will think of Sir Arthur as a a kindly high-complexioned old chap well fed and watered on beef and claret. Whoever he was, Sir Arthur the horse did me proud.
It has been my good fortune that of all the vices gambling has had the least appeal. Indeed, it usually brings out the puritan in me. During a visit to Las Vegas I refused to gamble; in the casinos I was appalled by the sad blankness of the croupiers and the empty faces and listless demeanour of the gamblers. Moral despair hung in the very air. The late Sir Hugh Fraser lost an empire to the roulette wheel. They say the true gambler enjoys losing as much as if not more than winning; that lets me out.
Yet of the ways of betting on offer, race-going seems by far the most agreeable. There is so much to enjoy apart from the racing itself, it is well conducted, and the time speeds by as you shuttle about from course to paddock.
The sun was setting and a sharp little wind had got up as I collected my winnings, survived the hazards of pickpockets said to be operating, and presented myself at the bar for a celebratory drink.
Alice and Elaine, coiffed and showing a lot of leg and shoulder, were among the racegoers ahead of me in the queue. The barman sloshed out their vodkas and tonic and took the money. ”Nae ice?” said Alice, pointing to the empty bucket. Turning to me, she added: ”Disgusting, int it?” My own youth was innocent of refrigeration but to the modern palate ice is indispensable.
With a gallantry worthy of a Percy Braithwaite, or even of a Sir Arthur Hobbs, I raised my hat and intervened. ”Barman,” said I, ”kindly bring the ladies some ice.” And he did. It was my lucky day.