The Coup

This story was written back in the early 1990s when bookmakers at Wentworth Park greyhound track in Sydney were plentiful. By the start of 2000, bookmakers were rarer than a Tasmanian Tiger sighting.

 

The telephone rang, and rang….and rang.

From somewhere deep in the dim dark hollows of his mind a shaft light of awareness crept into David’s clouded brain. His eyelids, heavy with a fervent desire to remain closed and ignore the intrusive ringing sounds, slowly and grudgingly opened.

Daylight.

The sun was up, although how far it had climbed David had no idea and the damned phone was still ringing. David eased himself out of bed, padded to the insistent receiver and lifted the handset.

The telltale ‘beep, beep, beep’ which signalled an incoming long-distance call sounded like miniature depth-charges designed to nuke the few remaining brain cells left in his throbbing skull.

“Yeah,” David’s voice sounded like it needed a grease and oil to return it to its natural timbre.

“Dave?” inquired the voice at the other end of the line.

“Yeah.”

“It’s Kevin mate. Sounds like you might have had a hard night on the tiles.”

The thought of the previous night and even earlier morning brought a groan to David’s throat.

“Scotch and Dry and Peppermint Schnapps. I got poured unceremoniously into a taxi at about six this morning. What time is it anyway?” David inquired blearily.

“Nine o’clock,” Kevin lied (it was just past eight-thirty), adding hastily, “Hey, I’m sorry for ringing so early, but I reckon you’ll be pleased when I tell you why I’ve rung.”

“Shit, I bloody well hope so buddy.”

The thought he’d had less than three hours sleep did not improve David’s demeanour. Another 24 hours of hibernation, undisturbed by the outside world, did not seem unreasonable.

“Mate,” said an obviously excited Kevin, “your dog is firing on all six cylinders. For the last couple of weeks he’s been blitzing every dog I trial him with and running super-fast times. I trialled him up the straight the other day and he broke the track record by about two-tenths of a second. I’ve nominated him for next week at Wentworth Park and if he draws a halfway decent box they won’t see which way he went.”

David’s erstwhile sour expression underwent a complete metamorphosis.

He had owned greyhounds off and on for some ten years and although other sports and other interests came and went, he always returned to greyhound racing. It is said that once racing is in your blood, you never really get it out.

“Broke the track record eh? God he’s never gone that quick before…” David said.

“Mate, I’m telling you he is absolutely flying, but we’ll have to wait until next Tuesday to see what box he comes up with and what the opposition is like. Listen, I’ll ring you again next Tuesday night to tell you what I think, but I reckon at this point you ought to start getting cashed up for a tilt at the bookies.”

After Kevin rang off, David went out into the kitchen, put the kettle on and made himself a cup of very strong coffee.

‘My God,’ he thought. ‘I’ve never ever heard Kevin so positive about a dog.’

Kevin had been a professional greyhound trainer for nearly twenty years. He was the type of man whose enthusiasm about his charge’s chances were usually couched in phrases like, “oh, if it wins the jump and can lead in the first fifty metres it should win” or “it’s drawn nicely and if the favourite misses the kick then we’ll be right in it”.

Even when he thought a greyhound had a strong chance of victory he would just say, “make sure you’re on”.

David sipped his coffee and decided not to tell his two partners in the dog about Kevin’s enthusiastic support, preferring to wait until after the trainer rang him on the Tuesday. Too many things could go wrong between now and then.

Racing is a fickle business and a cruel mistress. One day you’re flying high, the next sharing a foxhole with the fox.

David finished his coffee and then decided a few more hours of sleep would restore him a semblance of physical well-being.

***

As promised, Kevin rang David the following Tuesday evening.

His opening remarks confirmed his confidence of the previous Sunday.

“I hope you’ve got plenty of cash Dave, ’cause I reckon she’s the closest thing to a certainty I’ve ever seen for Saturday night,” enthused Kevin.

He explained the dog had drawn box two in race three, and from what he knew of the greyhounds opposed to him, he didn’t think there was much to worry about.

He thought they’d get a reasonable price with the bookmakers because he hadn’t raced for six weeks and failed to run a place at his past three starts. There had been good reasons for these failures, but they were unknown to the bookmakers.

“I suggest you keep as quiet as possible about this. We don’t want the bookies secret service getting a whisper about his real form,” Kevin counselled.

“Don’t worry buddy,” David replied. “We’ll keep this under wraps. I’ll wait until Friday to tell John and Bob. That’ll give ‘em enough time to get cashed up and hopefully not blab to their punting mates.”

“All right mate, I’ll see you and the boys at the track on Saturday night. I’ll ring you again if anything happens you should know about.”

On the Friday before the race, David rang first John and then Bob, both good friends of his and partners in the dog. He told them the dog was drawn for Saturday night and they should come out, armed with enough dollars to give the bookie’s heartburn. David tried to sound as nonchalant as possible and added Kevin would only give them the ‘thumbs up’ before the commencement of the meeting.

“So don’t go blabbing to your mates, ‘cause it’s not yet fully confirmed,” David admonished.

***

The three owners converged on Wentworth Park and met up with each other well before the first race.

After having dinner in the downstairs restaurant, they sidled over to the kennel complex that housed the eighty or so greyhounds racing in the ten events that night.

Standing outside the kennel block, intent on studying his formguide, was Kevin.

“The way the field is boxed he’s got average beginners drawn on his outside in boxes three and four, so if he begins OK and clears the dog in the one then they won’t see which way he went,” the trainer informed them.

“Do you think he’s fit enough to see out the 520 metres of the race?” asked Bob.

“Yeah. The last little bit will stretch him, but I think against this lot he’ll have too much of a lead,” replied Kevin. “He’s as fit as a Mallee bull and has never been run down once he gets to the front,” he added.

“I notice the market in the paper has him at 5/1,” said John.

“All the tips seem to be for the one and the seven,” said Bob. “So with luck we should get a good price.”

After further light conversation, the four conspirators trooped inside to the ground floor of the grandstand to check betting on the first event. They also began to plan the tactics they would use in the execution of their plunge.

In whispered tones David asked both John and Bob how much they planned to bet on the greyhound.

“I’ve got a grand,” said Bob.

“Same here,” replied John.

“Well, I’ve got two big ones to try and get on,” said David. Turning to Kevin he said, “I suppose you’d like us to put something on for you as well?”

“Most definitely,” Kevin answered. “I’ll give you a hundred.”

“Shit,” said David. “You really must be confident, I’ve never known you to have more than fifty on anything.”

“Mate, I think he’s a moral to win this. Only extreme bad luck will beat him.”

If the dog won then Kevin would do all right whatever happened. He would get his share of the winning prize-money and the three owners would give their trainer a nice ‘sling’ from their own winnings.

By this time bookmakers were setting their prices for the first event. The betting ring was becoming crowded with punters eager to snap up the best odds for their particular fancy.

“Listen guys,” said Kevin. “I’ll go upstairs and stay away from you until after the race.”  He quietly handed David two fifty-dollar notes and trooped off into the milling crowd.

“OK,” said David. “Between us we’ve got just over four grand to get on with the bookies. We’ll definitely destroy the price in this ring and make him favourite, but we should be able to get it all on.”

David continued, “What we’ll do is you go to one end of the ring and I’ll go to the other and we’ll start with hundred and two hundred dollar bets, depending on the price the bookies put up. If we do it quietly enough we shouldn’t panic them and hopefully get a good average price. It’ll mean carrying around a huge bundle of bloody betting tickets, but who cares if he wins?”

The partners nodded sagely in agreement.

All three decided not to bet in the first race which contained an odds-on favourite. They simply walked out of the main door and took seats in the grandstand.

In a very roughly run race the bookies cheered as the favourite got rolled at the first corner and the race was taken out by a 25/1 chance. The second race saw yet another good result for the bookies as an 8/1 shot just held on to beat the 6/4 favourite.

David, John and Bob had not bet in race two but as soon as the race was over they wandered inside the grandstand and took up a position near the centre of the ring. After a few minutes, the totalisator monitors placed around the ring began showing the opening prices for the greyhounds in race three.

Their greyhound, in box two, came up at 8.0 or a return of $8.00 for every one dollar investment. That meant he was a 7/1 chance if converted to bookmakers’ prices. With ten minutes left to race time, the first bookmakers began setting their prices.

“Shit,” muttered David, “that bloke’s only put up four’s.”

“There’s five’s,” said Bob.

“What’s favourite?” said David, and then, answering his own question. “Looks like the seven, it’s about 7/4 around the ring.”

By now the bookmakers had set their prices and the first tentative jousting with the assembled punters commenced.

Eight minutes to race time.

Suddenly, the whole betting ring seemed to spark with rapid movement as nameless faces scurried towards stationary targets. The favourite had been pushed out to 2/1 by most bookies and the assaults were clearly aimed at that greyhound. In what seemed a matter of seconds the favourite’s price had tumbled to even money.

The totalisator screens showed seven minutes and indicated number two’s price had drifted to $10.0 or 9/1.

The bookmakers’ boards were now showing 7/1 generally while some had put up 8/1.

David said to Bob and John, “All right boys, John you take the right flank, I will take the left and Bob you go straight up the guts. I’ll see you in the usual spot before the race.”

“Good luck,” said John as he disappeared into the throng of punters.

David hit the two bookmakers showing 8/1 on their boards before moving on to those showing 7/1.

He continued quietly, yet methodically, to work down the line, as did Bob and John.

With the eight contenders making their way towards the 520 metre starting boxes, the price of number two continued to tumble. David managed to place the last $100 of his money on at 4/1.

One minute to race time.

John moved through the ring and joined David.

“You get it all on?” inquired David.

“Yes,” John replied. “But I only got eights with one bookie and sevens with one bookie. The rest I got on at fours, fives and sixes.”

“The main thing is we’re on. Now all he’s gotta do is win,” David said emphatically.

They strode out of the main entrance and moved upstairs into seats positioned just to the left of the winning post. They found Bob already ensconced in a seat two rows behind them. He gave a brief but clearly nervous ‘thumbs up’.

The runners and their handlers had moved behind the starting boxes and were being prepared to move in. For three men in the crowd, the next minute would seem like an eternity.

“The runners move forward into the boxes…,” intoned the course race broadcaster, “…the favourite Soutine runs from the seven but Joy Division from box two has also been well supported.”

“All locked away now,” the broadcaster continued, “… there’s the green light through to the control tower, the lure is set in motion and they’re about to break in race three of the night from Wentworth Park…”

David, John and Bob all moved nervously forward in their seats and unconsciously held their breaths.

“All set…and racing…”

The lids lifted and eight very fit, finely-tuned greyhounds sprang almost as one from the steel confines of the boxes.

“From the inside, Joy Division was the best to begin and leads on settling down…”

All three men breathed an audible sigh of relief. At least he hadn’t miffed the all-important start.

“…into the back section and Joy Division has skipped away to lead by the best part of five lengths from…”

While John and Bob kept their eyes firmly on the tearaway leader, David calmly began to scan back through the field in an effort to locate any possible danger.

From among a cluster of three greyhounds, a sleek black greyhound carrying the number seven rug began to emerge and take off after the frontrunner.

“Onto the home corner and Joy Division by three..” continued the now-animated broadcaster, “…but here comes Soutine…”

It was now, as the gauntlet was about to be thrown down and the cheering of the crowd rose to a crescendo, that Joy Division’s fitness and heart would be put to the test.

“…into the straight Joy Division leads a length on Soutine as the favourite knuckles down to its task…”

Was he tiring? Was the favourite going to prove too strong?

“…Joy Division clear, Soutine lunges, they hit the line…photo…ooh I don’t know, I can’t split them…”

The two dogs crossed the line absolutely locked together, the one weakening, the other finishing strongly.

From their seats it appeared to David, John and Bob as though the favourite, on the outside of their dog, had just put his nose in front on the line. The angle was deceptive and no one was confident of the outcome. Nearly six hundred pairs of eyes were trained on the infield result board, awaiting a result for which some would cheer and others would groan.

After what seemed an eternity, the ‘Photo’ sign on the illuminated board was extinguished and for two seconds the screen remained blank.

Three numbers went into the frame: Two, Seven and Three. David, John and Bob cheered loudly and began to shake each other’s hands. Their plucky greyhound had managed to score by the shortest possible margin: a nose.

“Gee, he got the staggers at the finish,” remarked John, clearly excited.

“I really thought the seven had grabbed him right on the line,” said Bob.

“Well Kevin was right when he said he might be a bit weak at the finish,” replied David.

“Bloody hell, we’ve got some money to collect,” beamed John.

“It’ll be a great pleasure,” said David with a smug look on his face.

They sauntered downstairs and marched triumphantly into the betting ring, clutching a handful of tickets worth a small fortune. “See you down at the kennels,” said David, his grin still stretching from ear to ear.

“Yeah,” replied John. “Don’t drop any money on the way out will you!”

It was more than ten minutes before the trio had reassembled in front of the kennel block. Already the field for the fourth event was on its way to the boxes. David, John and Bob couldn’t have cared less.

They were soon joined by Kevin, sporting a smile bigger than the face of a circus clown. After handshakes and congratulations all round, the trainer asked what price they’d managed to get about the dog.

“Oh, the best they bet was eights, but we got most of it on at around the five to one mark,” replied David.

Between them, the three owners and the trainer had ripped over $23,000 from the hapless Wentworth Park bookmakers. As David remarked when the four men adjourned to the bar for a well-earned libation,  “Not bad for about twenty minutes of work and thirty seconds of nerve-racking tension!”

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