“It would be difficult to exaggerate the spine tingling excitement and anticipation I feel every year on the eve of the Cheltenham Festival. The four day extravaganza in the Cotswolds is the best race meeting of the year AND the best racing party of the year. Of course it helps that Prestbury Park racecourse is situated in a stunning natural amphitheatre at the foot of Cleeve Hill and the history of the Festival – which dates back to the early 20th century – matches the beauty and grandeur of the setting. To be hailed as a true jump racing champion – an Arkle or Golden Miller, a Desert Orchid or a Kauto Star – you have to win at Cheltenham in March and the fact that so many great horses have won there, some returning season after season, imbues the occasion with an incomparable aura and back story.
I have no doubt that Patrice des Moutis, the flawed hero of Monsieur X, would have been in his element at Cheltenham. Patrice loved the atmosphere and camaraderie of the racetrack, the smells of crushed grass and cigar smoke, the champagne bubbles and fat bundles of cash, and it was a bitter blow for him when he was banned from all French racecourses in 1953 due to his illegal bookmaking activities. He often compensated by going racing in Britain in the late 1950s and 1960s but mostly to flat racing fixtures near London like Ascot and Sandown Park. All of them enjoyable in their way but lacking the epic, bacchanalian quality of Cheltenham. Afficionados plan their annual trips to the Festival months in advance, not just for a day but for the whole week, to enjoy heartfelt reunions with old friends and share a deep and passionate reverence for the beauty and spectacle of jump racing and the courage and skill of the horses and riders. But what’s unique about the Cheltenham Festival, and would have been seized on eagerly by Monsieur X, is that it’s also a rip-roaring medium for a gamble.
With crowds in excess of 260,000 over the four days and so much money in circulation, the on-course betting market is the strongest of the year. This favours knowledgeable punters who can get on much bigger bets at favourable odds than at less well attended run-of-the-mill meetings. It also suits what I call proper bookmakers. Not the big high street betting shop chains but the real independent bookies who are prepared to pit their judgement against the punters and stand a serious wager. It would have seemed like paradise to Patrice des Moutis, constrained as he was by France’s rigid gambling laws which prohibited all forms of fixed odds betting and insisted that all bets had to be struck with the rigidly bureaucratic state run Tote or PMU. Instead of being deemed a renegade and outlaw, Monsieur X would have found himself in the company of like-minded mavericks and over-reachers, many of whom I have seen and known first hand over the last forty years.
Irish racegoers, proud of their country’s fabulous rapport with horses, love Cheltenham with a passion few can match. And the most consistently successful Cheltenham gambler of the modern era has been the legendary JP McManus, nicknamed (long ago by Hugh McIlvanney) the Sundance Kid. The softly spoken JP started out as a racecourse bookmaker in Limerick and first rocked the ring at Cheltenham in the late 1970s and early 1980s. By no means all those early plunges were successful but gradually the winners started to flow and JP began owning horses, most memorably the peerless Istabraq who made the hair stand up on the back of my neck when he won the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham three years running between 1998 and 2000.
One bookmaker who was not afraid to take JP’s business was the Scotsman Freddie Williams, a miner’s son and self-made millionaire from Ayrshire who never flinched when the big money was down. In March 1998 McManus staked £100,000 each way with Williams on his horse Shannon Gale in Cheltenham’s Pertemps Hurdle Final, a valuable and extremely competitive handicap. If Shannon Gale had won Williams would have been looking at a pay-out of nearly £1million. As it was the gamble finished fourth which meant Freddie Williams only had to pay out £175,000 on the place part of the bet. As he said afterwards, he had ‘looked down both barrels of the gun’ and survived.
Freddie Williams died of a heart attack in his sleep after a day’s racing and bookmaking in 2008. He was succeeded by his daughter Julie who will be laying bets as usual from the family pitch at Cheltenham this week. JP McManus has long become a billionaire businessman with homes in Ireland, Switzerland and Barbados. But he will be at Cheltenham as always this week too, hoping to see his horse Buveur d’Air win Tuesday’s Champion Hurdle for the second time and no doubt contemplating more audacious coups in the big handicaps.
There is one thing above all other that Patrice des Moutis had in common with JP McManus and Freddie Williams. Like them Monsieur X was a gambler playing for the highest stakes and of course he wanted his bets to win and he wanted to enjoy the fruits of his success. But underpinning his wagers, and those of Cheltenham’s Irish punter and Scottish bookie, was a sang-froid and attitude to life summed up by Steve McQueen’s bank robber hero in the 1969 version of the film The Thomas Crown Affair. ‘It’s not about the money,’ he explains to his insurance investigator lover played by Faye Dunaway. ‘It’s about me… me against the system.’”