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Strai(gh)tened Times - Gambling
By David Walsh

Speedway - Japanese Style

Go on, have a gamble. What could there possibly be to lose?

Who remembers this?...

Motor sports are DANGEROUS and all persons attending this meeting do so entirely at their own risk. It is a condition of admission that all persons having any connection with the conduct of the meeting are ABSOLVED FROM ALL LIABILITY arising from accidents causing damage or personal injury to spectators or ticket holders. NO PHOTOGRAPHY without written authorisation. BETTING IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED AT THIS MEETING.

Variations of the above notice, including, yes, upper-case type, used to be carried by every single speedway programme in Britain, and all included a line declaring the prohibition of gambling at the speedway. This was before the blanket ban on betting was lifted in the 1990s. The reason for the lifting of the ban presumably had something to do with the sport needing to generate more income during 'straitened times'.'I do not know to what extent the change has been successful in subsequent years. However, I'm pretty sure there were good reasons why the ban on gambling was imposed in the first place.

I assume everyone reading this is in some way familiar with speedway Japanese-style. It is organised along similar lines to horse and greyhound racing, i.e. it's a gamble-fest. Each rider competes as an individual and it's odds on that most, if not all, of the crowd have a direct financial stake on each race's outcome.

But speedway bikes aren't horses or dogs and neither are Japanese speedway riders. They are people subjected to the same flaws and temptations as anyone else. Consequently, punters in Japan don't enjoy the same access to their heroes as speedway supporters do in Europe. No, Japanese riders are kept apart - caged in isolation before and during each speedway meeting to prevent any gambling-inspired corruption taking place, or at least for that to be seen to be the case.

Is speedway in Britain heading in the same direction because of the gambling culture that has been unleashed on the sport here? I don't know. Let's hope not. After all, a cage is no place to keep such as a 'Tiger' Louis, Lyons or, heaven forbid, A. Pander!

All that aside, lots of people around the world love to bet on the horses or dogs. Perhaps even more indulge themselves with casinos, lotteries, village green tombolas, etc. - all places, I would suggest where, if anywhere, gambling actually belongs rather than at the sporting arena. Even so, I wouldn't be the one to pour scorn on any of the fun. Not reeeaally...

Horse-racing in particular enjoys mass appeal, though I can never quite work out if being known as the 'sport of kings' imparts an element of nobility on proceedings or not. All will be aware of the history of scandal that casts a shadow over the gee-gees, whether in the form of a nobbling or a nod and a wink, and which begs the beggars rhetorical question: what is it, exactly, this 'sport of kings' (and queens, for that matter)? Frankly, I've never seen the appeal, though I must admit on one level the creatures on parade are magnificent specimens: on another, an unnerving testament to a doctrine of selective breeding. However, mustn't be a hypocrite - I have gambled on the horses myself.

The occasion was one of only three in total where I have ever gambled on sporting events and each happens to serve as a warning, in one way or another, as to the wisdom of such an enterprise. Under the circumstances, i.e. me writing this, it's only right that I should share those three occasions with you along with the concomitant warnings. But first a caveat...

I am well aware that the worst possible strategy for getting someone's attention is probably the "I want you to learn from my mistakes" gambit. Indeed, I rarely listened to my own father whenever he uttered those words to me. But no matter, I certainly don't mind stepping into my father's shoes now and so I more than happily declare that where gambling is concerned, at least, I want you, yes you, to learn from my mistakes!

Ok, I have no doubt you will now completely ignore what I've just written and perhaps go and make yourself a nice cup of tea while I recount those three occasions when I went against my somewhat flimsy principles and gambled on sport. But don't get carried away and have a tea party, or anything so consuming, because you need to make sure you're back in time for the postscript. That's the best, most creative bit, you see. Right-oh, see you then!

* * *


The Grand National, 1979

As a fifteen-year old in 1979 I qualified to take part in my school's fifth-year Grand National sweepstake. Coming way down the alphabetical pecking order I watched in dismay as all the fancied horses were pulled out of the hat one by one by the other boys and girls who, like me, felt like a flutter. Eventually my turn came for the lucky dip and it was with not an inconsiderable degree of horror that the horse I chose was a 25-1 outsider that went by the name of Rubstic.

Now, in a room fizzing with the fevered imaginations of pubescent, spotty adolescents you can imagine the universal reaction, mirth and derision, that accompanied the unveiling of my horse's name. Why, you'd have thought I'd been caught indulging in an indecent act with the Aintree finishing-pole itself, or something. Rendered red in face and troubled by how cruelly the stars can align at times, I cursed the moment I'd ever heard of Valentine's Brook!

Anyway, I thought I actually had the last laugh because Rubstic only went and won the National, didn't he, and I pocketed thirty bob-or-so for my troubles. Alas, I didn't have the last laugh at all. You see, on the Monday back at school I was affectionately mocked by my peers, those who truly understood the reason why, for being the Champion T***er of Sowerby Bridge Grammar, the boy who won with a Rubstic! There will no doubt be those who believe I've held a firm grip on that title ever since with great aplomb. Well, I do try my best: just ignore the syntax, follow the semantics!

I have never bet on the nags since while everyone else should heed this warning from me:

Gambling on the horses may seem like fun, but it sure can be embarrassing when you win!


The Adelaide Cup, 1989

My one and only greyhound meeting happens to be one of the biggest in Australia, not only in terms of prestige but in track size - the circuit the race takes place on is a huge 457 metres. I attended Angle Park for the Adelaide Cup with a good friend of mine and a group of his fellow greyhound racing aficionados. These lads followed the dogs closely, knew the form and a number even part-owned greyhounds themselves. I was in the best possible company for my debut at the dogs.

Of course, I knew diddly-squat about any form but I did know I wanted to pick a runner to have a gamble on. Of all the greyhounds to have qualified for that year's Adelaide Cup, the name of one in particular leapt off the programme's page at me and veritably licked my face off, so to speak. The name? Kuriarkin. So exotic sounding. So...licky! It also reminded me of David McCallum's pragmatic, ice-cool character, Illya Kuryakin, from the classic 1960s TV series, The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. Oh yes, Kuriarkin was the one for me alright, I confidently declared to all those present.

However, my declaration was immediately pooh-poohed, or ought that be dog-doed, by my companions for the evening. Apparently, Kuriarkin, although a bona fide qualifier over the season, was only good enough to win on smaller courses. He was known to be great over a relatively short sprint but had no chance of lasting the distance at Angle Park. It was a waste of money to back Kuriarkin, it was counter-declared. Well, I bowed to experience and decided to switch my rather fickle loyalties. You could say I became The Man From A.N.T.I., anti Kuriarkin, that is, and in the end put my money on the evening's equivalent of Ballyregan Bob. I then awaited the starter's bugle-call in a state of humbled circumspection...

The moment of truth came, and...the traps were up, the dogs were off and the lads around the table were certainly right about Kuriarkin over a short sprint - he shot from the start. A marvellous sight, a greyhound in full flight and Kuriarkin, my dog...yes, my dog...my dog that I hadn't backed, aargh, my dog led them all into the first turn. And then guess what happened? Yes, that's right...all the other dogs, the dogs with the stamina, the favourites who were destined to kick sand into 'my dog's' face by the end of the back straight; those dogs all ran into each other after the one in second-place slipped in the first corner. Not one other dog in the whole field managed to avoid the melee. It was THE Mary Decker moment of dog-racing, seven-times over, though no blame could possibly be attached to my new shoeless, bare-pawed bud, Kuriarkin, who waltzed off into the sunset to take the Adelaide Cup at a canter. He absolutely...licked 'em! The result of the race was certain by the time he'd entered the back straight. No sand in the eye for Kuriarkin, oh no, only fresh air in his nostrils and the mesmerising bob-bob-bob of a fake hare's bottom, just for him and him alone. Someone in the crowd, i.e. me, was even convinced they'd seen the two of them stop and get married on the fourth-turn before blithely deciding they may as well shimmy the first dance down the home straight together and, to the sound of Everybody's Happy Nowadays (Buzzcocks), accept the spoils by the grandstand. I was convinced I'd seen that, I really was, but then again my vision was somewhat impaired on account of the fact that by then they were completely filled with tears. It was, just let's say, emotional.

So, he took the spoils, did Kuriarkin, my little licky spoiler. My magnificent little, licky, lucky, spoiling, little spoiler Kuriarkin...what a little s**t!!

And the moral of my second stab at gambling on sport?

You may convince yourself you know what you're doing by studying the form, the odds and the dogs, just don't get carried away. Always back the trapper!


The Hull Vikings, 2001

Hull started the 2001 season somewhat patchily but after team manager, Eric Boocock, made changes in May the Vikings became clear favourites for major honours. The league was the main prize and while steadily picking up points away from home throughout subsequent months, the feeling grew on Humberside that the spoils would be heading Craven Park's way. I was a team-member that year and my own optimistic sense of where we were heading led me to do something that I always thought wrong: I gambled on speedway. But it was worse than that. In an act of unforgivable arrogance I bet that by the end of the season I, as a Hull rider, would be in possession of a Premier League winners medal. But it wasn't quite what you might be thinking: no money was involved and I was moderately drunk, or ought that be tipsy, when the bet was laid down. Actually, being tipsy was probably the only mitigation. What was most enjoyable, though, were the circumstances under which the bet came about.

Sometime past mid-season at home with dear friends, two of us were enjoying one of our occasional games of chess long into the night, a bottle of bourbon 'oiling the gears' as we pondered, plotted and pawned within the chequered confines of one of life's more perplexing conundrums. Those who've seen Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal will be familiar with the grave allegorical potential of a seriously contested game of chess, not that that's remotely related to the game in question here. Nevertheless, eventually I lost our little game and instead of considering any metaphorical implications of the defeat, I promptly engaged with my friend in a conversation about speedway where I came up with the splendid idea for a wager: "a bottle of whisky says Hull will win the league!" A handshake sealed the deal.

Speedway is a team-sport and as good team-managers will always say, those involved at the sliding edge "win and lose as a team." In other words, in victory or defeat no one individual can ever claim to have won a match or be blamed for one lost. However, the greensheet averages for that August meant that I had already dropped down from a heat-leader position to second-string, a status that was not covered by the guest facility. At the beginning of September a crash occurred at Craven Park in which I broke four vertebrae, my season over and my team place from that moment needing to be covered by rider replacement with only the third of the new trio of heat-leaders eligible for a ride. With the fullest respect to all my former team-mates at Hull, I don't think anyone would disagree that the new circumstances made the team weaker, but who can really say? After all, my own form had taken an incontrovertible dip, hence the diminished role of second-string.

Whilst having an interest in the metaphysical but without being at all superstitious, when Newcastle won their league match at Hull right at the death and pipped the Vikings for the title, my mind couldn't help but drift back to that night of whisky, hubris and chess. If there was such a thing as karma, I thought, then in a real personal sense it had certainly done for me, though, given many other examples of post-checkmate fecklessness, why my injuries weren't even worse remained a mystery. Perhaps, then, my bad judgment wasn't so bad after all, and karma had actually let me off the hook? Worth thinking about? No. All nonsense! This is the lesson...

It's never wise to do anything counter to your own principles, and especially when the fortunes of yourself and others are tied up in the mix. I gambled on the sport I loved and my own success within it, and in the process of losing a bet I careered into a fellow competitor which brought an abrupt end to my career (and his, as a matter of fact). This, more than anything, I think, led to the loss of the league title for the people of Hull, and lost for myself a rather potent bottle of bourbon. Therefore, given the nature of my grand gamble, you could say the calamity at Craven Park left me craven, i.e. spiritless, and I've gone to extraordinary lengths since to try to fill the void and recover the situation. Why, For a spell I even tried drinking brandy (to begin with, Calvados)..

So, the warning to you from my third and potentially fatal stab at gambling on sport is this:

If the thought of developing an uncontrollable urge to write third-rate poetry horrifies you, then you really ought to make sure you don't become 'The Gambler.' Take it from me, it's a curse!

* * *


Despite all I've written here in Part III, I still wouldn't advocate the re-banning of gambling at the speedway. After all, our 'curved' world is increasingly becoming something of a free-for-all, is it not? Well, no actually, it isn't. But everyone ought to be aware of the potential costs and what stands to be lost, and it's more than just the shirt off your back. Therefore I'm tempted to say that even if the dice are loaded in your favour, gambling is still a mug's game. But those already in gambling's thrall won't be in the slightest bit interested in what I have to say, except perhaps this:

By all means, even meagre means, gamble away! However, when your fortunes go down to the wire and the outcome really matters the most, you'd just better make sure it's the right one who is tipping you the wink! Aye!


P.S. Hi, welcome back. That's taken a while. You had a tea party, didn't you? How was it? Weak and lots of floaters with half-baked tablet, eh! Damn, you must've rushed it! Well, I did warn you. Now, where were we? Ah yes, the postscript...

If you are truly interested in British appropriations of Japanese culture, there's really no need to go a-gambling at the speedway. As an alternative there's the art of two of 'The Glasgow Boys' to explore, George Henry and Edward Atkinson Hornel. Their Japonisme works are freely available to view at Glasgow's Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, The Hunterian Gallery at the University of Glasgow, and The Hornel Library, Broughton House, Kirkcudbright. Why not check them out and ponder some images like you've never pondered before?

Next: Part IV - Pornography


This article was first published on 30th December 2012


  • Ivan Blacka:

    "This is why the Japanese are so good, they hone their skills on a bicycle first. The guy in the picture is superb."

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