Professional punter Harry Findlay: ‘I didn’t have the train fare to see my mum’ | Donald McRae

Croak

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Authors: Rio Sports

‘I am a gambler,” Harry Findlay says as if, after talking for three hours, the stark truth needs to be heard again. “If I had £1,000 left and there was a two‑dog race at the bottom of my road and I didn’t know the form, but I could get almost evens on both dogs, I’d put £500 on it. So I’m a bloody gambler. That ain’t changing.”

On his front room sofa in Axminster, Devon, Harry the Dog, who knows what it is like to lose a £2.5m bet, rallies his fellow hustlers. “If there’s a message I could pass on, it would be to all those who’ve dedicated their life to gambling and sport. Maybe they’re thinking about family and reflecting: ‘Perhaps all this gambling wasn’t such a good idea?’”

The 55-year-old pauses, as if considering a fleeting doubt, and then says: “Don’t fucking believe it. You’ve done the right thing being a punter. You’re a better person for it. We all know money can’t buy happiness but gambling is about much more than just money.”

Every day of Findlay’s adult life, apart from the darkest times, he has watched sport and gambled on it for a living. He has met his sporting heroes – from Roger Federer and Martina Navratilova to Lester Piggott and Jimmy White – and won more than £20m while gambling on games and races that enthralled him. Findlay has now written a book with Neil Harman, the former tennis correspondent for The Times, which captures his biggest victories and surreal scrapes. But there is a seriousness at the book’s heart, for, beyond opening with a quote from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Gambler, it uncovers Findlay’s consuming defeats and depression.

It echoes my conversation with Findlay’s wife, Kay, who has been with him for 28 years. Kay has enjoyed the good times but she offers a sobering view of her husband’s heartache. Other people have hurt him but gambling underpins everything. His woes are a reminder that this addiction ruins lives.

“Absolutely,” Findlay says. “But I’m a Dostoevskyite and there is no choice. You do it all the way.”

Findlay’s reckless streak came to a head in 2007 when he wagered £2.5m on New Zealand to win the Rugby World Cup. He booked a box at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff to watch them romp home in a quarter-final. Findlay only felt a quiver when he realised France were the unpredictable opposition.

At half-time, with New Zealand leading 13-3, Findlay called for more champagne. He loved the All Blacks and his huge gamble was driven by emotion – and a desire to lessen his stress by securing a windfall that would look after Kay, himself and their daughters for years. “When you’re 50 you have to become healthier. So I wanted to take the stress away.”

Harry Findlay
Denman and Sam Thomas with owner Harry Findlay after victory in the Gold Cup at Newbury in 2007 Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/PA

Findlay could not curb a niggling worry that the mercurial French might drive him to the brink. Before the second half started he stepped outside for a smoke. “That gave me time to think I had better cover myself.” He placed another bet – which would have cost him only £18,000 if New Zealand won but reduced his loss amid a shock French victory from £2.5m to £1.9m.

Dread churned inside Findlay when France were 18-13 down. They then scored a try from a forward pass allowed by the referee, Wayne Barnes. France led 20-18 and two million pounds were torched. “Wayne Barnes?” Harry the Dog barks. “I hated him like a Kiwi for a long time. But I watched Barnes do a game this year and I’d never seen refereeing like it. He was great.”

Findlay does not harbour a grudge, but the last 10 minutes of that game must have been agony? “They were. It was a big fuck-up – but these things happen.”

Twelve years ago Findlay could shrug off catastrophe but many of his non-gambling friends were wounded. The most upsetting was the fate of Charlie – Findlay’s former gardener. Charlie the Gardener was not a betting man but one morning, having listened to Findlay for weeks, he left an ice-cream tub on the gambler’s desk. Findlay opened it and found £28,000 “in ice-cold cash”. Charlie had handed over his life-savings for an All Black punt.

Findlay writes of “a different kind of pain … the numbing realisation that I’d cost a lot of other people money.” How did Charlie take the devastating result? “Like a total man,” Findlay says casually. “And he had his last £1,000 on South Africa [the eventual winners] as a saver and got some money back. Charlie was really philosophical.”

Findlay backed New Zealand again four years later – betting £230,000 [60% of his wealth at the time] to win £210,000. In the 2011 final they played France again and were rocking for the last 30 minutes, clinging to an 8-7 lead. “I remember going to a steam bath afterwards. I sat for 40 minutes in the steam thinking: ‘Fucking hell. One penalty and I’d have lost 200 grand and a big chunk of my wealth.’ I had a drink with [the All Blacks coach] Steve Hansen three days later and he said: ‘We were fucked.’ No one knew this but he told me that half the team had flu that day.”

Gambling takes its toll but Findlay says that, until 2013, “I’d never been depressed. No matter how bad the lost fortunes. The way I live my life, with my philosophy, there is no way money alone would make me depressed. But the combination of horse racing and the dog stuff was brutal. I felt like a mug.”

Findlay fulfilled the ultimate dream in National Hunt racing when his horse, Denman, won the 2008 Gold Cup – but that was dwarfed by the elation of his greyhound, Big Fella Thanks, winning the Irish National Coursing Derby in 1999. “I was always a dog man,” Findlay says.

He was an outsider in horse racing – a loud and flash Harry the Dog – and he felt the establishment looked down on him. In 2008 Findlay wagered £80,000 on his horse Gullible Gordon to win at Exeter. But just before the race, when he thought trainer Paul Nicholls had given the wrong tactics to his jockey, he laid £18,000 on his own horse to lose. Findlay would have made far more money had Gullible Gordon won.

Findlay was investigated only when a similar pattern of bets involving the horse occurred in October 2009 at Chepstow. The gambler himself alerted the authorities to his previous use of the strategy at Exeter. In 2010 he was warned off for six months. A subsequent disciplinary panel upheld the BHA decision that the rules had been broken on a technicality but found that “there has never been any suggestion that Gullible Gordon did not run on its merits or that there was foul play on anyone’s part”. His punishment was reduced to a fine but Findlay’s reputation was “blitzed”, even when defended by AP McCoy and Clare Balding. “I don’t want a badge of bloody honour but I was good for racing. I also know gamblers have an integrity that some businessmen wouldn’t know existed. Why did they do it? Was I too anti-establishment? Who knows?”

As some of the men who ran British Racing in 2010 have left the sport, could Findlay return as an owner? “I’d never go back to racing in a million years.”

Findlay was hurt even more by the Greyhound Racing Association. In 2013, back in the sport he adored, he tried to establish Coventry Stadium as the centre of greyhound racing. He spent £1.7m of his own money but he believes the GRA never supported the venture. His inability to earn an official BAGS [Bookmakers Afternoon Greyhound Service] contract severely impeded his chances of making Coventry profitable. “When Clive Feltham took over the GRA they had eight tracks left and they now have two,” Findlay stresses. “The racing I put on at Coventry was sensational but it sent me over the cliff. I’d run out of money and was going to sell my daughter’s flat to keep it going.”

Harry Findlay
Harry Findlay, pictured at home in Axminster, Devon. Photograph: Jim Wileman for the

Findlay surrendered before making that mistake and, “since then, [tracks at] Wimbledon and Hall Green closed. The sport’s run so badly, I thought it was my destiny to save it.”

Once the dog dream died in 2014, Findlay became seriously depressed. “The fact I nearly knocked Kay into oblivion scared me shitless. I’d lost the family everything and put £1.7m down the drain. I didn’t have the train fare to see my mum and had a bit of a breakdown. Kay had it worse [when her credit cards were blocked] but she would try to sort it without telling me.

“The mornings were so bad I wouldn’t get out of bed. Kay would bring me scrambled eggs but I couldn’t eat. I’d come down in the afternoon and watch Pointless and programmes where they buy antiques. It was a nothing life. I started betting again to survive and had to win two grand a month. A late goal could mean that instead of winning £1,200 I lost two grand. It aged me. I was sure it would knock me out – and it would’ve done but for the Rabbitohs.”

Australia’s National Rugby League, and Sam Burgess’s South Sydney Rabbitohs, rescued Findlay in the British autumn of 2014. “When you’re depressed and NRL is your favourite sport, it’s amazing to watch it in the mornings. Even feeling shit, when you’ve got 700 quid on the Rabbitohs against the Roosters it’s a lot better than watching fucking Victoria Derbyshire.”

The Rabbitohs had not won the NRL since 1971 but Findlay put everything he owned on them becoming champions. “We had over 70 grand on one match. It felt like seven million. So it wasn’t just the fact the Rabbitohs won and gave me 70 grand when we had nothing. It made me feel like a young sports fan again – even though it was life and death.”

He is less enamoured by the ubiquitous presence of Ray Winstone peddling Bet365 while fans watch football on TV. Findlay talks directly into my recorder as if the meaty face of sports betting might be tucked inside. “With all disrespect, Ray, your last advert is really glossy. You’ve got people on surfboards and traipsing through the mountains. You should be ashamed of yourself, mate. He wants you to join some glamorous club but it doesn’t exist and he definitely ain’t a member.”

Findlay lets rip with an amusing rant against cash-outs and the current betting industry which is too libellous to be repeated here, but he does make a salient point that it is “wrong that, as every winning bet pays Betfair a commission, small players should have to pay 5% while big players only pay 2%. It’s nearly impossible to win over a long period of time if you’re paying 5% rather than 2%. We need a new betting platform.”

I ask Findlay about corruption in sport, often driven by gambling syndicates. “A lot goes on. They bet on Futures [tennis] matches and lower leagues. No tennis reporter says: ‘You were 75% favourite and it was 25% the other guy an hour before the game. Then, just before you started, the odds go the other way. Did it change because you stood on glass and shouldn’t have played or someone heard you had a terrible headache? Tell us the reasons because the maths don’t lie.’”

Sport can be crooked and gambling is often ruinous. But Findlay now follows a quiet routine. We are interrupted just twice by calls from his best friend. “Glenn [Gill] is the best horse judge I’ve ever met. He tells me what to bet and how much. To have won over £250,000 the last two years betting on small stakes is amazing.”

Enthusiasm is surging because of Harry’s latest sure thing. “I’ve wagered £30,000 on Melbourne Storm winning the NRL. That would make me £43,500 which, apart from backing Mayweather against McGregor, is three times bigger than any bet I’ve had the last year. The fact £30,000 feels like a million quid makes it even more exciting.”

Over the next few days he messages me often, sending news of the great Melbourne team, even when the Storm survived a scare last Saturday against the Parramatta Eels. As the texts and storm emojis fly in, Findlay is happy again. The battered old gambler is still working. Harry the Dog is still hustling.

Gambling For Life: Harry Findlay by Neil Harman is at www.guardianbookshop.com

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