My French friend André speaks perfect English and is the kindest of men. After reading last week about my futile efforts to place a bet on the French state betting terminal in the village bar, he put himself out during the week to have a word with one of the bar staff. He gave her my description and told her to expect me to appear in the bar the following Sunday afternoon in time for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. And he drew an assurance from her that she would help me decipher the betting-form multiple-choice hieroglyphics. Or, better still, take a verbal betting instruction over the counter.
I know next to nothing about horses other than that they are frightened of crisp packets and can deliver a terrific kick if you loiter behind them. I should also face the uncomfortable truth that I have won more bets selected because I liked the horse’s name than by any other method.
The Sunday before last, my frame of mind had been oddly grandiose. I had felt inspirited, clairvoyant. I had only to listen to my inner promptings and bet large and the gods would smile and I would be rolling in doubloons and pieces of eight. Since then that particular manic or neurotic episode had subsided and I had returned to normal, which is to say slightly on the sceptical side of realistic. Meanwhile the seed of my earlier fantasy, a three-year-old wonder horse called Love, had been withdrawn from the race. In northern France the rain had come down in stair rods all week long, the Longchamp ground was ‘stinking’ soft, and Love’s trainer feared that her highly bred feet might stick in the mud.
But I wanted to honour André’s typical act of kindness. So on Sunday I trotted down to the village bar in a rainstorm with a new bet written down on a piece of paper. Being now of sane mind, I had abandoned the ludicrous idea of predicting the first three horses past the post and had plumped for a simple placé (each way) bet on the French late-entry horse Persian King, tipped by Colonel ‘bulging trousers’ Pinstripe on the Andrew Pierce show on LBC. This choice was another case of liking the name. Instead of a horse in the starting stalls I imagined Xerxes the Great at the head of a Persian host.
The barmaid hailed me with one of those French gestures of alert complicity of which they have such a lively repertoire. Only four other customers had braved the elements and she was at leisure to walk me through the process. I pushed my piece of paper across the counter. On it I’d written ‘Persian King, €20 placé, Arc, 4.05’. She picked it up and held it close to her face. Her brow furrowed and her lips moved doubtfully. Here we go again, I thought. Why the doubt? What was so difficult?
The horse’s name was irrelevant, apparently. What she wanted was a number. What number was this horse Persian King, she said? Lying on the counter was a sporting paper called Paris-Turf. Together we found the Arc de Triomphe line-up. But it wasn’t clear to either of us which column of numbers referred to the horse’s number and which to the horse’s draw for the starting line-up. Once again I had that sinking feeling of our adjacent countries existing on different planets.
She appealed to a sozzled old geezer welded to a nearby stool for a judgment. After a moment’s close scrutiny, he said: ‘The second column, stupid.’ A definitive pronouncement. Number seven, then. Now we were farming. She went to her betting machine, punched some buttons, and handed me a number seven gagnant (to win) printed betting ticket. On the TV screen the last horse was being pushed into the stalls. Oh well, at least I was on.
And they’re off. No sound commentary. The varying order of the pack leaders is indicated by changing numbers at the bottom of the screen. After some mystification it dawns on me that horse number seven is not Persian King but a horse called Sottsass. The number seven was Persian King’s draw for the starting line-up. Sottsass! What sort of a name is that? Horrible. In the final furlong Sottsass breaks clear and wins the richest race in Europe by a neck. Fifteen minutes later, the barmaid hands me €160.
So that, I can report, is the excellent kind of help your novice English better can expect at our village bar. You go in. You back a horse each way. Your choice is disregarded and you are given a ticket for another horse ‘to win’, halving your stake. You drink a beer, watch this other horse win the race and leave 15 minutes later, as Colonel Pinstripe has promised, with ‘bulging trousers’.