Sunday, March 10, 2013
A staggering £500 million will be bet over the four days of the Cheltenham Festival (12th-15th March) and one woman who will be at the sharp end of it is bookmaker, Julie Williams.
The daughter of the legendary ‘Fearless’ Freddie Williams, Julie will be setting up her pitch on track for what is, “The year’s most exciting place to be in terms of betting. The stakes are high. As a bookie if you ‘only’ lost £10,000 across each of the 27 races you could still come out more than a quarter of a million pounds worse off.”
For, in amongst the more modest bets of the occasional punter are some monster wagers to make mere mortals tremble as hundreds of thousands of pounds are staked by the big hitters of the betting ring.
And, if you think such bets are struck in the presence of lawyers with a load of legally binding paperwork, you’d be wrong. As Julie recalls: “On the whole, if Dad were laying an £80,000 bet it was usually with someone he knew and it was done on the nod of a head. The amount of trust was phenomenal.”
Nor do you necessarily expect a bank transfer or a neatly written cheque. “One day at the Festival a guy walked up to us with an Asda plastic bag and said, ‘There’s £50,000 in there. I want it on the favourite.’ The horse won and we had to pay him out £120,000 which we counted out at our stand. The next day he came back and said we’d paid him out ten pounds short. You can imagine our response…”
As for this year’s Festival Julie reckons punters are in for a good time. “The bookmakers have had a good couple of years but this year I think all the favourites look pretty strong. Sprinter Sacre looks impossible to beat and so for us it’s a case of working out which horses to properly lay. If all the fancied horses come in, we’ll be holidaying in Bognor, not Barbados this year.”
With so much money at stake is Julie nervous about the week ahead? Not a bit of it. “I can’t wait, it’s very exciting. It’s one week which can make or break your year.”
Here are some of the legendary gambles of the Festival:
In 1999 Freddie Williams laid £80,000 at 11/8 on Irish banker of the week, Nick Dundee and, without flinching, immediately took another £80,000 from the same punter at the same price. The horse was travelling well and Williams stood to lose £220,000 before falling at the third last fence. He also laid £100,000 each way on Shannon Gale at 7-1 and ended up paying out £175,000 when it came fourth, rather than the full £875,000 had it won.
In 2006 he was less lucky. Williams laid two horses owned by legendary punter and racehorse owner J P McManus. The first was £100,000 on a horse called Reveillez to win £600,000 in the first race of the Festival, which won. He then laid £5,000 each-way on 33-1 shot Kadoun in the last race of the day. By the end of the day, when it too crossed the line first, Williams owed nearly £1million.
Nicky Henderson’s stable lad Conor Murphy placed a £50 accumulator on five of the stable’s horses in 2012, including Simonsig and Sprinter Sacre and when they all won he found himself £1 million richer.
Legend has it that an Irishman won enough in 1998 on Istabraq in the Champion Hurdle to pay off his mortgage. But he then went on to lose his house on Doran’s Pride in the Gold Cup a couple of days later. “It was only a small house anyway,” he is reputed to have said.