I wasn’t quite 18 when I discovered the wonderfully seedy world of 1980’s betting shops. Soon after becoming a regular losing my wages week in week out I became enthralled by Barney Curley, my first realisation that there were professional gamblers. There were a few people in betting shops that said they made it pay, what with the combination of 10% betting tax and the prices coming from the racecourses they probably didn’t, but it was great to know that professional punters existed, it gave hope.
A new name came onto my horizon in the last year of my teens. The racing press were thrusting another professional punter out there, Alex Bird. The reason for this sudden limelight was the publication of his autobiography ‘The Life And Secrets Of A Professional Punter’. Alex was the polar opposite in looks to Barney Curley, in most of his photos Barney appeared as if he’d come straight from 1920’s Chicago. His unshaven, fedora sporting look complete with scowl was just missing the machine gun in violin case. Alex Bird on the other hand could have been anyone’s kindly grandad. Looks can be deceiving though, reading about Alex’s life, ghost written by journalist Terry Manners, it so became apparent that he was just as ruthless when it came to betting as Barney was.
I didn’t actually get a copy of the book for almost a year after it came out. Published in early 1985 I didn’t pull up the readies to buy one until the December. I do remember as it was at my first visit to Sandown Park from Turf Newspapers that used to have little kiosks on racecourses back in the day. It was the same day as John Francome had his first winner as a trainer with 25/1 chance That’s Your Lot. No I didn’t back it and invest my winnings in literature but did manage to bet a couple of other winners on the day so splashed out. I’m not sure why I didn’t buy the book before then but it was probably to do with losing my wages every Friday afternoon hours after I got paid. Still by December 1985 I was in the Army so that habit had stopped.
It was a wise investment in that the book was a great read. Alex was the son of a bookmaker, but he decided that from what he’d learned from his father he’d make more money becoming a punter rather than bookie. That despite inheriting his father’s successful business when still in his 20’s. Alex burned the midnight oil studying form books and was very successful betting in 2-year-old races, each-way and in multiples in a time when bookmakers paid 1/3 the odds a place. ‘Thieving Bet’s he called them. It didn’t take long to get his accounts closed down and even knocked, yes getting accounts restricted was even happening in the 1930’s!
Undeterred Alex Bird went on to be one of the most successful punters in the 20th century. He became most famous to betting on-course on photo finishes. Back in those days the photo used to take up to five minutes to develop so there was plenty of betting on the outcome of something that people only saw happen once in real time. Alex found a way to be certain of the outcome, he’d stand on the line, elevated, with one eye closed in concentration as they flashed past the post. In the early days the bookmakers would lay him what he wanted, one saying ‘If the judge doesn’t know, how the hell does Alex Bird?’. He did know though, and backed them fearlessly, one time famously betting £1000 – £50,000 on the outcome of a print.
One thing I liked about Alex was the fact he enjoyed the trappings of his success, including dining on oysters washed down with champagne in racecourse car parks in the shade of his Rolls Royce and living in a moated 15th century mansion. Alex died in 1991, six years after the publication of his book. There’s a whole lot more to his story, track the book down. It’s a tremendous read, there’s a lot of entertainment from days gone by and also some still relevant betting advice to glean, each-way thievery is not to be ashamed of is one of them!