Decamot of the month

30 Jun 2020-Against the Odds

A young widow masters the art horse race betting, but nearly comes a cropper when she bets against the odds.

Betty Bardwell was a familiar figure in Boose's Green. She had lived in the village all her life and had married a local man. Their first daughter, Abigail had been born within a year of their marriage and their second, Lucy, a year after that. Both girls were the spitting image of their mother and caught the attention of many a boy at the local school. The family were well liked and respected throughout the neighbourhood; they took part in all the local events and were regulars at church on Sundays.

Whilst far from wealthy, Betty made sure the family were comfortable and that the girls were never left wanting. She also made sure that the house was always kept in excellent order, paying as much attention to the outside as to the inside. In summer, the front garden was a joy to behold, with flowers of all colours bursting into bloom. In the autumn, the back garden was alive with vegetables of all types, which were enjoyed by the Bardwell s and, in times of over-abundance, graced the dinner tables of many of their neighbours. Betty's horticultural prowess was well regarded throughout Boose's Green and surrounding villages.

Sadly, tragedy hit the young family in the seventh year of Betty's marriage. One afternoon, shortly after her fifth birthday, Lucy was sent home from school with an extremely high temperature. Not having a car, Betty called for a taxi to take her to the nearest hospital where Lucy was admitted and subjected to a battery of tests.

After an agonising week, during which time Betty visited her daughter daily, Lucy was diagnosed with a rare kidney disease. In the short term she would have to undergo dialysis regularly but would ultimately have to have a transplant. The consultant said that the operation should be performed by her eighteenth birthday at the latest, but much sooner if possible. He went on to add that the NHS would be unlikely to perform such an operation any earlier. They would first have to monitor her progress for a period of about three years and then perform a cost-benefit analysis of her case bearing in mind that Lucy’s condition was “non-life threatening whilst being maintained within recommended parameters”. Furthermore, her case would be “competing with others in more advanced age categories”. The consultant translated this for the distraught parents: as far as the NHS was concerned, Lucy was not a priority whilst dialysis could keep her alive.

The family had two options, either pay for a private operation now or wait until Lucy was 18. Financially, a private operation was an impossibility. Harry Bardwell 's earnings as a postman barely covered their living expenses let alone the frequent expensive trips to London that Lucy’s medical condition demanded.

After struggling to make ends meet for eighteen months, Betty decided to abandon her life as full time housewife and mother. A large Garden Centre had opened in nearby Halstead and Betty successfully applied for a position; the manager was most impressed with Betty's botanical knowledge. He felt that her wealth of gardening experience would be an asset to the company. To her utter surprise, she fell in love with the job. Her interest in horticulture, combined with an easy manner with people, quickly established her as a vital and trusted member of staff.

Just as they were in a position to start saving for a transplant for Lucy, a second tragedy befell the family. Harry was on his way home from work when a drunk driver crashed into his car; both men were killed instantly. Naturally Betty was devastated, but somehow she coped magnificently. Her job proved to be a godsend in more ways than one. Apart from the money, it gave her a routine by which to conduct her life, at a time when many weaker souls might have fallen apart.

As a single parent, Betty was up early five days a week, organising her two offspring for school before walking to work, a distance of nearly two miles. With her red scarf, copper beech coloured, naturally curly hair, tied in a ponytail, and flowing country casual clothes, Betty became a familiar sight striding purposely through Halstead. Where once she had been well liked and respected, now she was positively admired. Every evening, a neighbour collected the children from school and fed them whilst awaiting Betty’s return. This left Betty free to concentrate on her job without neglecting her maternal responsibilities.

On arriving home, she always managed to spend quality time with the children, reading, watching TV or helping them with their homework, before settling them to bed. Only then did she relax, take the weight off her sore feet, and curl up with the daily newspaper, which she usually read from cover to cover before retiring herself. On one such evening, she got to the sport section and was about to discard the paper when the names of two horses running the next day at Lingfield Park caught her eye simply because they reminded her of work: "Rub of the Green" and "Sand and Gravel". She made a mental note to see how well they did when she read the paper the next night.

The following evening, she was thrilled to see that Rub of the Green had won at odds of 7 to 2 from the favourite Purple Hearts at 6 to 4 on with Sand & Gravel in third place at 10 to 1. Betty could not resist seeing what she might have won had she put some money on both horses. She opened her purse and saw she had a ten pound note. She quickly calculated that had she put £5 on Rub of the Green to win and £2.5 on Sand and Gravel each way, she would have won £23.75 before tax and got £7.5 of her stake back. Of course it was one thing to calculate theoretical winnings in hindsight, quite another to make a prediction in advance.

For a bit of fun she decided to select two horses running the next day and make a note of what she would have won had she put money on them. By the end of the week, from 10 races she had picked three winners, two seconds and a third. Her theoretical tenner had grown to over one hundred pounds. Not bad, she thought, for someone who chose horses entirely at random, and wondered how good she could get at this if she studied the form of the horses, jockeys, trainers and venues. Next day, she forewent her usual newspaper in favour of the Racing Post. Once the children were in bed, she studied the races being run the next day at Southwell. She imagined herself at the racecourse placing bets to win on short odds and each-way bets on longer odds. When she looked at the results on Sunday, she found she was up £37 (in theory) in a single day; not bad she thought. That night she started to make a note of hypothetical bets in the back of her diary. Following race meetings became her regular hobby.

One Sunday morning in church her diary fell from her bag as the vicar was passing down the aisle. She was mortified to notice that it had fallen open at her betting ledger. Worse still, the vicar had spotted it and bent down to pick it up.

"They're not real bets," she said apologetically as the vicar handed back the diary. "I just like the mental challenge. Some people do crosswords; I like to study racing form."

"That's quite alright, you don't need to explain to me, my brother-in-law's a bookmaker," replied the vicar. "By the way, you could be more efficient with your beeswax." Seeing Betty looking blank, he added, "Betting tax! If I were you, I'd pay the tax on the stake rather than your winnings; that would improve your balance. And given the number of winners you pick, you should consider the odd double or treble." Relieved, Betty smiled back appreciatively.

Soon she taught herself about breeding, training methods, the importance of the going and race tactics generally. Above all, she became extremely knowledgeable about betting. The mathematical permutations of various doubles, trebles, accumulators and Yankees all became as familiar to her as bingo. Her first taste of spread betting came at Ascot when she bought theoretical £5 per runner at 448; there were 454 runners and she won £30.

She gave herself a theoretical budget at the beginning of each week, "invested" daily, and calculated her revised position late on Sunday evenings. She kept meticulous records. In her first full season of flat racing she had made a profit, on paper, of nearly £10,000.

Betty’s turf accountancy might well have remained a theoretical exercise until Ladbrokes opened a new betting shop within walking distance of the Garden Centre. Her daily routine soon incorporated a lunchtime visit to the snake pit (as she knew her late husband would have called it). At first she only placed her low risk, low odds bets, but still kept details of the riskier bets in her virtual ledger. Over time she gradually started to take more, albeit calculated, risks.

At 12.15 each day, Betty would leave her checkout till, gather up her sandwiches and a coffee flask, walk up the eastern side of the High Street, enter the betting shop at around 12.30, place her series of bets (which were often quite complicated combinations, involving several horses at different meetings) retire to an adjacent kiddies playground to eat her lunch, and return to work via the western side of the High Street.

Every evening after work, at around 5.30-5.45 p.m. she would return to the betting shop to collect her winnings on the way home. Because of the complexity of her system, she invariably had money to collect, even if she did not always make a profit on the day. Needless to say, she became a very familiar and respected figure with Ladbrokes manager and staff. Unlike most other regular punters, she had her obsession under strict control. She derived enormous pleasure from the mental exercise and slowly began to generate a reasonable additional income from her activities. She only ever dealt in relatively modest cash sums and consistently refused the manager’s overtures to open an account.

During one week in June the lives of the family were once again turned upside down. On Monday she received a letter from Great Ormond Street Hospital stating that after three years of treatment, Lucy’s condition had stabilised. Whilst this was good news (Lucy would not need a transplant immediately) Betty realised that this mean that the NHS would now not schedule an operation until her eighteenth birthday. Lucy would have to endure another 10 years of dialysis.

She telephoned the consultant they had originally spoken to three years before and asked how much a private operation would cost. His response was about £37,500. She thanked him and hung up. How long would it take to save that sort of money? she wondered. Up until now she had been relatively conservative with her betting and was only winning enough to make their lives a little more comfortable and to save a little. What if she went for some of her more risky wagers that had always worked out well on paper? How much could she reasonably expect to win on a regular basis? She thought she could regularly bring in an extra £300 pounds a month. At that rate it would take just over 10 years to save enough, by which time Lucy would be 18 anyway. Was there any other way of getting the money?

The only other post she had that Monday morning was junk mail. She was in the process of throwing it all away when she noticed that one envelop stated: No loan too large or too small - lowest rates – guaranteed – offers (subject to status) within 48 hours – first time loans and high risk loans a speciality. She ripped open envelope and read the contents with interest. First Finance Ltd were offering loans of £500 - £50,000 with terms ranging from 12 months to 12 years. They had tables illustrating various payment plans. All you needed to do to apply was complete your name, enter the amount of the loan, sign and post using the postage-paid envelope.

This could be the ideal solution. If they accepted her loan application, Lucy could have the operation now and she could repay the loan by the time she was 18. She had nothing to lose – the worst that could happen was that they could refuse her application. She completed the form without delay and posted it on the way to work.

First Finance Ltd were as good as their word – they responded to Betty well within 48 hours. When she returned home on Wednesday, she found a letter from them waiting for her:

“Congratulations, your loan application has been accepted. Unfortunately, we are unable to offer you the full amount that you asked for, but can offer £1500; we feel this an appropriate amount given your circumstances. Call now to have the funds transferred to a current account of your choice.”

£1500? Was that all that they thought was appropriate? She would rather have been refused outright than be offered so little. Together with her savings from the bets, all she would have would be £1875; the operation was 20 times that. Borrowing the money was obviously not a viable option.

She decided to take her mind off it by studying the form for the next day’s racing. She had barely opened the paper when a horse caught her eye: Kempton Park, 2:40, Lucy’s Lad, 20-1. A thought struck her immediately: Why not borrow from First Finance and put it on Lucy's Lad? She felt her heart flutter and forced herself to calm down. It was a coincidence, an incredible one, but a coincidence nonetheless. Putting any money on a horse because of coincidence was destined for trouble. Compounding that by borrowing the money from a bank to pay for the stake, that would be sheer lunacy.

To satisfy her curiosity, she leafed through several back copies of the Racing Post. She was amazed to find that Lucy's Lad had had a short but solid career to date: It had not won a race yet, but had finished a close second on a number of occasions. Betty was a little surprised that the paper had predicted such long odds. Given the competition, she would have thought 5-1 more appropriate.

Betty did not sleep much that night; her mind kept returning to Lucy's Lad and the race. By the morning she had convinced herself that Lucy's Lad was going to win at Kempton Park. She had also come up with a compromise: She would bet all her savings, but not the bank loan - £375 was a lot to lose, but if it won, she would have an extra £7500 towards the operation. When she left for work, Betty made sure she left the acceptance letter behind so that she would not be tempted to call the company during the day.

She could think of nothing but the race all morning. Just before 12pm she was about to put her coat on and hurry down to Ladbrokes when a middle-aged man presented himself at her checkout till. He was buying a high-torque, cordless power drill, heavy-duty visor and several other items that totalled £1498.

“Cash OK love?” he asked quietly.

“No problem at all,” she replied.

Betty watched mesmerised as he slowly counted out thirty £50 notes. She took the notes and opened the till. Unseen by the customer, who was now talking quietly on a mobile phone, and unseen by the security camera, that was momentarily pointing in the opposite direction, Betty’s hand returned from the till still holding the bundle of notes. On a sudden impulse she tucked the money into her bag. She rang up the total, handed the man his change and receipt, and closed the till. Within a few minutes, she was marching purposefully towards Ladbrokes for her daily flutter with a roll of £50 notes burning a whole in her handbag. As she hurried along, she refused to allow herself to think about anything other than the name of horse and the racecourse, repeating to herself, over and over like a mantra, "Lucy's Lad, Kempton Park. Lucy's Lad, Kempton Park."

"How much is the bet?" asked the bookie.

“Oh I'm sorry, I was miles away. £1875."

The manager looked up in surprise.

"My accumulated season’s winnings" said Betty without waiting to be asked. "I thought I'd go out with a bang."

"Knowing you, Betty, it must be a racing certainty."

"It is" she replied. "See you at 5.30. Have my money ready please as I have an important appointment at 6.00 and I can’t afford to be late!"

They both laughed nervously.

Walking slowly back to the Garden Centre with a betting slip in place of the roll of bank notes, the enormity of what she had just done began to sink in. Even though everything was right – right horse, right race, right conditions, right jockey – she was extremely worried. She had made thousands of bets before, both real and imagined, but none of this size and never with someone else's money. What would she do if Lucy's Lad lost?

The answer was obvious – she would come clean at work and repay the borrowed money by accepting the loan offered by First Finance Ltd. Having worked out a possible contingency plan, she began to relax a bit more. Funny how your perspective changes, she thought to herself; only a few hours before she had rejected out of hand the thought of a bank loan to pay for a stake, but now she was contemplating it as a back-up plan. Even if it won, she still had to make sure that she got the money back in the till by 6pm before it was missed during the nightly reconciliation. As she was nearing the Garden Centre she vowed that, win or lose, Lucy's Lad would be her final foray into the world of horse racing.

Betty made sure she took her afternoon break at 2:40 so that she could watch the race on the television in the staff room. Lucy's Lad was not doing particularly well in the early stages of the race, but put on a spurt in the final two furlongs, overtaking the rest of the field and romping home two lengths clear. Oddly enough, as Lucy's Lad crossed the finishing line, Betty did not experience the normal exhilaration of watching a winner she had correctly selected; instead she was overcome by a feeling of quiet satisfaction at a job well done. Now all she had to do was return the borrowed money to the till and the whole matter would be resolved by 6pm.

Betty left work promptly at 5:15pm and headed for the bookmakers. Her winnings came to £37,500. She approached the counter with a broad grin on her face at 5.25 pm. She was immediately invited into the manager's office as a security precaution.

"We prefer to settle amounts in excess of £2000 by cheque," the manager explained "Is that OK?"

Betty’s heart skipped a beat, but she kept her cool.

"Not a problem," she said "but I would appreciate £1500 in cash, if you don’t mind."

"Fine, I will ask my chief accountant to gather it together. Take a seat for a moment, Betty" said the manager indicating a leather armchair against the wall.

Betty sat down. She glanced at the clock on the wall above the manager's desk. It was approaching 5.40 pm. If she walked quickly, she knew she still had time to return the money to the till by close of play at 6.00.

Suddenly, the imposing frame of Detective Inspector Frank Williams filled the door of the manager's office.

"Mrs Bardwell? Could I have a brief word with you, before you go?"

Betty held her nerve. "Of course, what's the problem officer?’

It was now 5.45 p.m.

"Can you tell me where you got the cash from for your bet today?"

"From the till at the Garden Centre – a man paid for a number of items with cash earlier this morning, I cashed a personal cheque. It's one of the perks of the job. Is there anything wrong with the bet?"

"Not as far as I know, love, it's the banknotes I'm interested in. Let me explain: Most of the notes were specially marked by my colleagues in CID as a part of a covert operation. You are not a suspect in any way, but any information you can give us about the man who gave you the money would be greatly appreciated. There may even be a reward in it for you if it leads to an arrest."

"If you think it'd help, I'm pretty certain I could give you a description of the man who paid for his purchases with the money," said Betty calmly. "But I promised I would meet my childminder’s husband back at the Garden Centre at 6.00 pm. If I'm late, my life won’t be worth living. I won’t bore you with the details, but I will come straight back here or I can meet you at the police station at, say, 6.30, whichever you prefer."

Inspector Williams himself drove Betty back to the Garden Centre in an unmarked police car. Whilst he waited in the car, she was able to replace the money, use up a few extra minutes to cover her meeting and was driven down to the police station. The description she gave led directly to the arrest of the man from the Garden Centre and his accomplices.

The next day, Betty opened her first bank account and put in the cheque from Ladbrokes. Six months later, she added a cheque from the Essex Constabulary for £5000 which was the reward offered for "Information leading to the arrest of …"

That was the last time Betty Bardwell put money on a horse. She still keeps her ledger of theoretical bets and does well at finding places, but since that extraordinary week in June, she has never picked another winner.

Inspired by the following Decamot items: rub of the green, Purple Hearts, garden centre, snake pit, gravel, red scarf, computer literate, £10,000, bingo, sore feet