Sunday Supplement: Of British Sports and Sporting Spats

Sunday supplement

By Tony Stafford

It was Steve Gilbey’s 60th birthday on Thursday, duly noted in the Racing Post and, for the first time, he was no longer an owner with Nicky Henderson, but part-owner of Know The Law and Triskaidekaphobia, both with Raymond Tooth of course.

He very kindly the next evening took Ray and me to Simpson’s in the Strand (number 100 to be exact) and now apparently owned by next-door Savoy Hotel where I always loved to be summoned for big racing dos. I wonder do they still have them and how can I get back on the invitation list if they do?

Still Simpsons was handsomely good enough. I’d been in the wonderful old room only once before an age ago and Raymond, surprisingly for a regular at many of London’s finest eateries, had a similarly small tally in the Strand. The beef was great, the gravy even greater and Steve reckoned the bill was considerably less extravagant than expected.

It meant I couldn’t be at the Foal Sale on Friday when the appetites were as sharp as ours in Central London, especially for sons and daughters of Dubawi, who has even supplanted Galileo as most sought-after stallion. He’s pretty much matching him for results on the track too.

Steve doesn’t read these words each week, but he did ask me to mention the irritation that one of their fellow regular Betvictor pals suffered last week.

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It was Bobby the cabby, who has to be well connected – brother an ex-jockey, wife gets Wimbledon semi- or final tickets every year, and niece works for Micky Quinn – to get the Invitation Only access to the shop behind the Dorchester.

He’d sorted out a nice £15 each way double, but slightly off with his timing, needed to place it away from his normal punting emporium. Ladbrokes looked at it, sniffed and said: “No dice”. Along the road William Hill were similarly unbowed. No doubt the biggest of the old big three could not countenance having to pay out around £50 if the two were placed – one of them wasn’t. Apparently he’d have got on at BV, but that was a slightly one-eyed opinion based principally on the fact that it had already lost!

There is a real issue here, though. In the bad old days when betting shops first opened half a century ago, we used to get a quarter the odds a place 1-2-3 in all races of eight or more runners and one-third for 1-2 in 5-7. Place bets of any magnitude (though hardly 15 quid, surely), get the panic buttons going in the shops nowadays even at the less generous fractions, fifth and a quarter respectively.

This protectionist policy, along with the age-old practice of closing unprofitable accounts, must be among the most annoying aspects of a cash-rich industry which is fundamental to the crisis of funding for racing. If Hills, Ladbrokes, Corals and Betfred ever forgot, it’s the sport that enabled the multiples to grow, even if betting on football has taken away much of their focus.

Thus we have the Approved Betting Partner issue that is causing certainly the main firms and Betfred, owners of the Tote – I think it was an absurd decision when Fred got the nod – to lose the right to sponsor certain races when they come up for re-allocation.

There is nobody more extreme about others’ smoking around him than a former smoker. I’ve never smoked and it was only when someone blew the smoke in my face that it registered how awful and smelly it was.

The poacher turned gamekeeper syndrome, you could say. Well the BHA has its own former poacher in ex-Ladbrokes big-hitter Nick Rust. I’ve never met him but no doubt, as we used to say, he knows where the bodies are buried. Not those referred to in Jamie Reid’s great book “Doped” – when’s the next one coming out, Reidy? – but certainly the mid- to recent past activities in the case of minimising payments to racing’s Levy.

But this is the time to put to one side such issues and instead celebrate a wonderful British sporting weekend. Firstly Tyson Fury – what a perfect name, any relation to Billy? – maintained his unbeaten record by ending Vladimir Klitschko’s decade as triple World heavyweight champion with a unanimous points verdict. Amazing!

Then Andy Murray and older brother Jamie put GB on the brink of a first Davis Cup win since 1936 – even I wasn’t around for that – by winning their doubles on the least suitable surface for either, on the clay court in Ghent.

It should never be under-estimated just how difficult it must have been for Andy Murray to have been just about the only proper British tennis player for the last decade. Indeed if it goes on Wimbledon and other major championships, he is pretty much unique. He’s been around at the same time as Federer, Nadal and Djokovic and though he has an overall losing head to head with all three, he has deserved status as a near-equal.

To win Wimbledon and also a US Open was something. To win an Olympic Games Gold medal having beaten both Federer and Djokovic again at Wimbledon, where Jamie Murray has won a Mixed doubles title, was perhaps even more meritorious. If he can beat David Goffin today he will deserve praise even from Oz in the café, who still chooses to compare his record with Federer’s. Unfair, Oz. In my teens, everyone had Fred Perry shirts and he’d won Wimbledon and, with Bunny Austin, the Davis Cup 30 years earlier. Will they still be wearing Andy Murray’s in 2050? If he wins today I’m sure they will.

The other excitement for me has been the Jamie Vardy achievement of goals in 11 consecutive Premier League matches. Manchester United next, or maybe Chelsea? Then there’s Harry Kane, whose first goal last weekend was the perfect striker’s strike. With his back to goal, he showed strength to withstand the defender’s challenge, manoeuvred it to the right, swivelled and cracked it into the net from the edge of the area – with his wrong foot! All of a sudden we have two great strikers and both English.

Steve’s a Spurs fan and for the first time in years he actually believes his team could get back into the Champions League. They will, I’m sure, and even possibly as champions. Funnily enough, I’m one of very few Arsenal supporters who would not mind that for one minute. I still hanker after the old days when the man in the red morning suit and top hat used to parade around the ground before the start at Highbury with a board pronouncing, “We Arsenal supporters say, may the best team win”. Then at half-time, as the St John’s Ambulance man used to pass mugs of hot sweet tea to the freezing hordes at the side of the Clock End, the Metropolitan Police band would march around behind a 6ft plus giant who every few yards would launch his long baton into the air and to hearty cheers catch it as it fell perfectly back down to earth. Then Constable Alex Morgan – he of the red hair – would belt out ballads in his strong tenor voice.

Those were the days when opposing supporters would mingle with ours and accept what happened with none of the tribal hostility. That was more like the late 50’s, but only a few years later I used to go occasionally to Spurs because they were miles better to watch than us. Thus I was at the 13-2 massacre of Crewe in an FA Cup replay on February 3rd 1960. I went along hoping for an upset, but it was 10-1 at half-time with Bobby Smith, Les Allen and Cliff Jones running riot. I wanted them to make it 20. Typical Spurs, they never tried in the second period! Now in Harry Kane, they’ve got a mixture of Bobby Smith and Les Allen and he even looks like a 50s throwback!

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