Eric’s big gamble

Another story and a story within it, both loosely based on true events:

Come on, Cowboy, put your money down,” Darkus nudged him towards the bookie.

Donald, known as Cowboy, looked at the race card, there it was Jelly and Custard, 15 to 1!

“I have it on good authority that it might not be the favourite, but on the QT it bloomin’ well is!”

“Whose good authority?” Donald looked round at the crowd, everyone in a jolly mood, and why not, the war was over, the lads were mostly back home, Jerry and the Nips put firmly in their place…

“Just say, I’m in the know, a pork pie slipped to Genius Boy and he’s out, and Blue Genie is limping…”

Donald looked down the list, Jelly and Custard, Blue Genie, Lively Girl, Scaramouche, Needles, The Major of Glengarry, Turpentine… Not exactly inspiring…

His thoughts drifted back to Cambridge, his home before the war and his friend Eric… now if it had been Eric advising him, but Darkus…. well, not the most reliable bloke… if you had him beside you and a Sten gun in your hand, going forth he might be the man… but on a wet afternoon at a Lincolnshire dog race…

Each week Eric, having studied form, would put money on a couple or so of horses, limiting himself to 1 shilling, never any more; living near Newmarket as they did there was plenty of advice on offer, owners, trainers, jocks, the horses themselves, the breeder, what stable they were out of, yes plenty of “expert” advice.
It was the Epsom Derby, the year before the war, 1st of June… a Wednesday… Eric and Don should have been at work, however, one way and another they contrived to be at the Portland Arms, the home of Donald and his family. All the regulars were there, mostly old boys, listening to the radio. Eric was well-known in the pub for his interested in the gee-gees. His knowledge was encyclopaedic and he followed every last detail in the press and listened to every story told in the pub over pints.
‘Young Eric’ was deemed to be quite an expert, and was often asked what he fancied in a particular race. Eric however never strayed over his 1 shilling. All in all he did well, and any winnings he put aside and never reinvested… so when he declared he had such a hot tip that he was going to put his whole purse, five hard-earned pounds plus a few bob, on a horse in the Derby, the pub was agog. After his announcement, pints were downed in shock and Reuben and Maudie began refilling as fast as the pumps would pull.
It went round like wildfire! Young Eric was putting a fiver on the Derby! A whole five quid! All his winnings! All, the lot! So what was the horse, someone asked and the pub went quiet. Everyone looked at young Eric, with his dark hair and friendly brown eyes, a serious young man, a man not accustomed to wild bets…
Bois Roussel, he announced. There was a silence because barely anyone had heard of Boys Russel as they heard it. So who’s the trainer he was asked, Fred Darling… 
Well, he was sound, a good few Derby winners under his belt… Yes indeed, Eric hastily agreed, Darling was sound – not just the Derby’s,  Captain Cuttle in 1922, Manna in ’25) and Coronach the following year, but also Cameronian five years ago… and also the 2000 Guineas, and the 1000 Guineas… and of course the St Leger…
The Portland regulars were impressed by Eric’s knowledge, and by Fred darling’s pedigree… but Boys Russel? Who’d heard of that? A three-year-old, Eric told them, as they sucked on their pipes, chewed they baccie, spat in the spittoons and supped their pints. A three year-old? Hmm, what’s his pedigree? By Vatout out of Plucky Lierge? Well the dam was sound, but the sire? Vatout? Never heard of it.
So, on that Wednesday afternoon, the pub was unaccustomedly full, and Reuben had the wireless on and the regulars, mugs charged, sat waiting for the big event, with Eric, looking pale and anxious stood at the bar… Five quid, he’s placed a whole five quid on one horse…
“I’ve got faith in you old man,” Donald said.
“It says in the paper its only Bois Roussel’s second outing,” someone remarked. “And who’s his jockey? Charlie Elliot? Well, he’s nobody’s fool… if he’s riding then the horse will have its best chance… What are the odds?”
“Who’s the favourite?” asked someone else.
“Pasch – and he’s got Gordon aboard!” Gordon Richards… the celebrated Gordon Richards…
Eric barely heard the discussion about owners and riders, people poring over the sports pages, the Aga Khan’s got two runners… Lord Astor… Herbert Morris… Jack Crouch the king’s jockey…

“Come on Cowboy,” Darkus urged, “Put your money on Jelly and Custard, guaranteed to win!”

Donald dragged himself back from the Derby eight years before, his life another life… He must meet up with Eric next time he was home, remind him of that Derby, remind him of the silence as the regulars crowded round the wireless turned up to full volume so all could hear…

“Come on Cowboy!”

They went up to the bookie and Donald placed his bet… thinking of Eric and his £5 he handed it over…

Bois Roussel had come romping home, the pub had erupted, Eric looked on the point of fainting, Reuben took a bottle of White Horse off the shelf and poured tots all round, and later, much later, Donald and Eric had walked along to the bookies to collect the £105… a fortune, a bloomin’ fortune!
“So what will you bet on next time, old chap?” Donald asked.
“Nothing, that’s it…I’ve had my luck, I’m done with betting, done with the horses…this will be the deposit on a little place for Audrey and me.”
And Eric had stuck to his word.

The dogs came out and Darkus pointed out Jelly and Custard, prancing, his tail in the air…

“We’re onto a winner here, just look at him! Jaunty, eh?!”

“Good lord, what’s that poor old fellow,” and Donald pointed to a black dog, its head low, tail down who crept along reluctantly towards the gates. Darkus consulted the card… the black dog was Needles, and the white one was Lively Girl who was not living up to her name, Blue Genie was limping, The Major of Glengarry looked keen, barking despite being yanked along…

Donald interest had waned, he leaned on the rail and looked at the track, thoughts of home intruding, thoughts of the pub, his parents, his friends… of a time before war had stolen seven years of his life, seven of what should have been the best years… he and Darkus had come though, others had not been so lucky…

“Bugger it!” Darkus shouted, slapping the rail. “Bugger the damned hound! Bugger Jelly and bloody Custard, whoever said that was a lucky name?”

Donald roused himself. “Who won?”

“Needles! They must have slapped mustard up his bum! Damned dogs… bloody animals… Well, let’s go and drown our sorrows, I’m glad I didn’t put all my winnings on damned Jelly and Custard.”

Eric had put all his carefully accumulated and saved winnings on Bois Roussel…

“Come on then, Darkus…” said Donald. “I’ll go and collect my money first… I put it all on Needles…”

© Lois Elsden 2019



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