For the Cheltenham Festival I received the customary tipster circular from my pal Soapy Joe. Soapy’s most convincing credential as a horse-racing tipster is that he is banned from every high street bookmaker in the land because he takes too much money off the poor souls. I slept with him once. I woke up in an upstairs bedroom of a Gloucestershire stately home on the second morning of our week-long Cheltenham Festival house party, pieced together where I was, and why, and saw, sitting up in the next bed, Soapy in his stripy pyjamas listening to the commentary of a horse race in Dubai or somewhere on a pocket radio. ‘Good morning, Soapy,’ I said. ‘How did you get on yesterday by the way?’ He squinted up at the ceiling to make a quick calculation and said that he had finished the day roughly £67,000 to the good. Among Soapy’s emailed tips for Gold Cup day was a horse running in Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle called Black Hercules.
Soapy never claims that if such and such a horse doesn’t win he’ll eat his trilby. He merely points you towards horses that have betting market ‘value’. His emails are clinical and unemotional. If there is a red-hot, nailed-on, odds-on favourite in a race, he will say that while he placed his own bet on the horse the day it was foaled, and is therefore riding on astronomically favourable odds, unfortunately they have now shortened to the point where you have to bet the farm to get back the price of a round of Guinness, and his best advice is to steer well clear. I had a look to see what the Racing Post had to say about Black Hercules, however, and I was encouraged to read that owner Graham Wylie expressed high hopes for his entry’s chances in the gruelling three-miler because, he said, the horse is a ‘monster’. So why not, I thought, trot down to the nearest betting shop, for a laugh, and stick my little all on him.
This wasn’t as easy as it sounds because I was in Paris. For all I knew the aesthetically fastidious French did not allow their elegant arrondissements to be disfigured by some Gallic version of Betfred. But my hostess swallowed her implacable hostility to horse-racing, and to sport in general, and conceded, with a fabulously contemptuous moue, that if I was that desperate I would find a betting counter in any tobacconist with a PMU sign (which stands for Pari-mutuel, which is the French equivalent of our Tote).
So off I cantered and lo! the first tabac I saw had a PMU sign in the window. It was a busy, lively bar and tobacconist with a betting counter at the rear of the shop full of Arabs looking very much at home. The telly was showing some sort of light chariot-racing, which I couldn’t help thinking looked very tame compared with the blood and thunder of Cheltenham. I approached the man standing behind the counter and laid down a freshly minted 50-euro note. So far so good. But after that the mutual incomprehension that will always exist on every conceivable level between a native English speaker and a native French speaker arose between us. ‘Cheveux,’ I said, punctiliously announcing which sport I wanted to bet on. Cheveux means hair, I now realise. The man patiently asked whether the word chevaux was what I was looking for. ‘Hippique?’ he added.
Now we understood each other on this crucial point. I pressed on. ‘Hippique. Exactement. Hippique en Angleterre. Cheltenham?’ I said. This drew a complete blank. ‘Shelten Ham?’ I said, trying him with my best French accent. ‘Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle? Trois heures moins vingt. Black Hercules.’ He folded his arms and looked at me steadily. ‘Hercules Noir?’ I offered, executing a sort of Bruce Forsyth parody of a bodybuilder pose. The guy had not the faintest idea what I was going on about. With a humorous parody of someone being patient with a simpleton, he very slowly and pointedly slid a betting slip towards me.
Finally, and with help, I managed successfully to parier (bet) 50 euros gagnant (to win) on Black Hercules and scurried back to the flat in time to watch the hippic monster under starter’s orders then set off with all the fluidity of a nudist climbing through barbed wire. MyRive Gauche feminist intellectual nymphomaniac hostess deigned to watch the vicissitudes of my 50-euro note with me. She watched with her arms tightly folded and unalloyed contempt written all over her chic Parisienne boat race. ‘What is this bullshit?’ she said. Black Hercules crossed the finishing line seventh. I ripped my betting slip into tiny pieces and showered her with confetti.