Cheltenham Dreams

His heart pounded, the sweat began forming at the edge of his hairline, as he chewed vigorously on the last remaining piece of nail on his now worn out fingers. They were just three fences from home and his horse was in third place, looking very strong.

At 9/1 this bet would be the one that would recoup his losses, the one he had been waiting for all week. The text had come through at 12.00 p.m. and it brought a smile to his face. “No more heroes running today, getting a lot of tips here at the race course.” It brought a sense of relief reading it, he knew that this had to be the one. He was €5000 down for the week, €5000 more than he could afford. Cheltenham had always been good to him, but this year had been a bad one.

And even though Gerard was a school teacher, he had over extended himself to the point where he was starting to sell off his belongings to feed his addiction. He had to ask another teacher to take his class, while he went in search of a bookie, that was willing to take the €1000 bet that he wanted to put on.

The local bookie only paid out €5000, so he needed to go to one of the bigger branches in the town, where his bet would be accepted without a problem. It was also better that no one would see his betting behaviour, something he was now acutely aware of.

He found the Ladbrokes betting shop on the main street. Packed to the rafters with eager punters, many of whom were novices at this game, seeking help from the hardened regulars, who were only too happy to help.

He strolled in, with the cash tucked safely in his coat pocket. He looked at the plasma TV to see what price was on offer. He took three betting slips, putting €1000 on ‘No More Heroes’ at 9/1 in the 2.40 novices’ hurdle. He also put a €100 accumulator on ‘Peace and Co’, ‘Wicklow Brave’ and ‘No More Heroes’, which would pay out at €45,000, which would cover all his betting losses for the past few years, leaving enough for a nice holiday. He thought that maybe this could be the lucky day, maybe this would be the last bet he would place.

He handed the slips and the €1100 to the cashier, who was used to seeing men handing over their week’s wages in one go. He took the receipts and said a silent prayer that this would be his day. He text another colleague, who agreed to take his next class, but who knew what Gerard was up to. “You’re a wild man Murphy, you owe me one.”

Gerard put the phone back in his pocket, forgetting about his work, concentrating on his one true love, gambling. He looked around at the other faces staring at the screens. So much anticipation and hope, masking the misery and desperation that was lurking beneath. Gerard knew only too well, because that’s exactly how he looked. Winning had always been so easy. He was always the ‘lucky’ one, his friends told him. That was because he always celebrated his winnings, but he didn’t acknowledge his losses. No one knew what was really going on in his life.

Those sweet victories early in his betting career had left him wanting more. He always questioned himself, ‘why didn’t you put more on?’ and that’s exactly what he did. The bets got bigger and bigger, but so did the losses. And when he hit a lucky winner, it was always used to put on another bet, to try to gain back some of his losses. Since his first foray into the world of horses and football betting, he had lost upwards of €30,000. He never acknowledged that that was the amount, he tried to convince himself that other people spent money on drink and holidays, something he didn’t bother with. He was borrowing money from friends and family and in the worst moment of his life, pawned his mother’s wedding ring. That was the first place that he was going if he had any winnings left that evening.

The 1.30 race was merely a formality with the favourite ‘Peace and Co’ romping home to an easy victory, the first of his accumulator was ticked off the list. Gerard was now more confident that this was going to be a good day. The punters in the betting shop celebrated their first win of the day across the road with a pint, something Gerard wasn’t interested in. He took a stroll down the street, trying to calm his nerves, before the next race, trying to get his mind off the financial troubles in his life.

Gerard lived with his dad, who was a widower, but he also owned a house, which he rented in town. He was now three months behind with the mortgage, even though the rent more than covered the mortgage repayments. He was always borrowing money from his father, who often questioned him about his lack of money, considering that he had a fairly well paid job as a teacher in the local secondary school. He could never bring himself to telling his father about his problems, the shame and the embarrassment were too much for him.

He got back to the betting shop just in time for the 2.05 handicap hurdle, where his money was on a 25/1 shot called Wicklow Brave. He had taken a punt based on the name, something he normally didn’t do, but his gut instinct had drawn him to this horse. He was biting on his nails nervously as he watched as his horse was held up towards the rear for the first few fences. He thought that it was another hard luck story, but all of a sudden with three fences to go, the Willie Mullins’ trained horse started to make great headway, and as he led over the last fence, Gerard couldn’t believe his eyes, as the 25/1 shot held on to win and set him up for the biggest win of his life.

The thirty five minutes until the next race were the slowest minutes of Gerard’s life. He kept adding up the winnings in his head and on his calculator on his phone. If his next horse won, he would be cashing out €55,000 and paying back a lot of people he had recently been avoiding. The next horse was the one he had been given the tip about and after his 25/1 shot came through, he was certain this was his day. He started cursing himself that he didn’t have more to put on. He could have had two grand on and it would have doubled his winnings. It was these lingering doubts that had got him in trouble, and yet he still allowed them to surface each time.

He watched as the greyhounds ran erratically after the rabbit and he thought to himself that if his horse loses, he would be the rabbit, running for his life, as his debts mounted up. On each screen was a different race, greyhounds, horses and virtual horses, for when there were no live races. In the corner were slot machines and roulette wheels. All you needed to win and lose a small fortune, and normally it was the latter.

The agitation got worse and worse as 2.40 slowly approached. The horses were all given the once over by the commentator and Gerard was pleased with their assessment of his horse, who was now one of the favourites for the 2.40. Wearing the maroon top with the white star, Barry Cooper strode confidently towards the starting line. The three mile race would be a tactical battle as much as anything else, and Gerard was hoping that Cooper was bringing his A game.

As the horses took their first gallops, the butterflies began in his stomach. He was jumping up and down, without actually moving, as he clenched his fists, praying that this would be the one. He was happy that Cooper had not tried to lead them out, that was not where you wanted to be in the first part of the race. As it was, he sauntered midway, letting the others battle for supremacy. With each jump, Gerard’s heart raced a little more. He was fearful that another horse would knock him off his stride and force him to fall, it had happened before. But Cooper looked in control at the halfway stage, sitting in seventh position, but well within touching distance of the front runners.

As they came towards the sixth last hurdle, he began to make his move. He pulled a little left and started to put the pressure on. Leading at this stage was ‘Milsean’, a stable mate of ‘No More Heroes’ who was also in the maroon and white colours. Gerard was sure that Milsean would soon run out of steam and allow his horse through to win. With three fences to go, the noise in the bookies got louder and louder. A crescendo of ‘Go on’ through clenched teeth reverberated around the room, as the tension rose to a cacophony of nervous encouragement.

‘No More Heroes’ was now in third, with Milsean leading and Martello Tower in second. Just as they jumped the third last fence, he made his move. Coming from the left, he swung towards his right, towards the inside track. He was now in position to put the foot down and romp home and make Gerard a happy man. Gerard watched as he saw the kick from the horse, a smile appearing on his face. He looked ready for action, but suddenly from nowhere, his stable mate, Milsean veered ever so slightly to his right, cutting off Cooper and halting his progression. Quickly, Cooper swung rapidly to the left, towards the outside, to try to make up the ground.

Gerard’s face dropped. It would take a miracle for Cooper to turn this around. But it looked like he could do it. He slowly made up some ground on the front two, but to no avail. Martello Tower was now in the lead and the two stable mates lagged further and further behind. Gerard turned around, put his face in his hands and tried his hardest not to let a tear fall from his eye. He thought of his mother and he felt ashamed. He thought about all that he had lost, all the money he had wasted and that sick feeling that he felt at the bottom of his stomach returned.

It was a long drive back to his house, one filled with despair and anguish. Never again, he thought and this time he meant it. He got out from his car, walked up towards the door, opened it and looked his father straight in the eye.

“Dad, I have a problem.”

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