Here is the free sample of great book “Harry Findlay – Gambling For Life” written by Neil Harman. The full version you may by on Amazon.com
I have written about professional sport since I was 16 years old. It is safe to say that in decades of newspaper work, able to brush shoulders with so many personalities and indulge in adventures, stories, scrapes, staggering emotional highs and lows, meeting triumph and disaster, I haven’t come across anyone quite like Harry Findlay.
He was first in my company when, on a fake pass, he gate crashed a tennis press conference at the 1986 Pretty Polly Classic at the Brighton Arena, sat in the front row next to his mum and asked a question of a very young Steffi Graf.
Subsequently, I would see Harry at tennis events – Monte Carlo on quarter-final day with a glass of champagne in his hand springs to mind – and wonder who the hell he was. Amid physically honed athletes, he did look a little incongruous.
One day in Melbourne in 2007, we talked at length and discovered we had something much in common, a fixation with so many sports – I wrote about them; he bet on them.
It wasn’t easy to persuade Harry to engage in this enterprise. He has told me a hundred stories – many of which I initially thought were too far-fetched – but as the months went by, I realised that for him to have done all that he had in his life, a total and utter adherence to the truth was vital.
When I first discussed the project with him, Harry was suffering, and in that respect, we were brothers. He had spent his last brass farthing trying to resurrect British greyhounds and I had lost a job that was a consuming passion. We were both in a bit of a tailspin. This has been a cathartic venture for the pair of us.
The fact that Harry has been with Kay for almost three decades speaks volumes for her remarkable patience. And devotion. People who gamble to Harry’s extent don’t usually have – or keep – a partner. To Kay and his daughters, Jade and Ella, a tip of the hat for being so nice and normal.
To Harry’s mum, Margaret – who is a remarkable character – and younger brother, Gordon, special thanks for their time and reminiscences.
When we set out, we didn’t know how many people would participate, but the response was overwhelmingly positive. A debt of gratitude is owed to Will Beedles and Paul Dove at publishers Trinity Mirror Sport Media for believing in us. It has been an interesting ride as I’m sure they will agree! To Adam Oldfield, also, for his meticulous editing and revision.
Harry has an incredible network of friends and acquaintances. The loyalty of Glen Gill, Jim O’Rourke, Frank Harvey, Grant Devonish, ‘Fat’ Barry Pennery, Bradley Montague, Julian Snow and Alex Williamson is without equivocation. Julian Richards and Alan Farthing told some lovely stories of Harry in his youth. Claude Thompson has to be the most gracious ex-armed robber I’m ever likely to meet. Thanks as well to Bob Webb, general manager of Coventry dogs, for his valuable contribution.
Eamonn Willmott, an old friend of both Harry and mine for many years, spoke eloquently, as did the redoubtable Philip Davies, the Conservative MP for Shipley, who I was delighted to see returned to Parliament this year. Andrew ‘Chubby’ Chandler was his usual effusive self. Thanks, Chubby.
I’ve twice been to Clonmel, Co. Tipperary, for the Irish National Coursing Meeting, and met a load of remarkable people, especially the O’Driscoll family from Skibbereen – Curley; Denis; dad, Noel; and mum, Nora – who took me under their wing and fed me from their table. Thanks also to Denise Lyons for her translation skills, ‘Fierce’ Pierce Connolly for his company, and to all at the Jeremiah Moynihan pub.
Eddie Donnelly and his brother, Terry, gave me a fascinating insight into the betting world, and their sandwiches! To Pat Morris at the Brighton House, Clonmel, grateful thanks for the terrific hospitality and especially the white puddings. Hope to see you all again in 2018!
From the world of horse racing, there was nothing other than warm hearts and warmer expressions.
To Paul and Marianne Barber, Anthony and Angela Fortescue-Thomas, Clare Balding, Brough Scott, Brian Meehan, Sir Mark Prescott, Sam and Guy Sangster, Tim Vaughan, Barney Curley, Mick Channon and his sons – Michael and Jack – Claude Charlet, the Daily Mail’s Marcus Townend and Lydia Hislop, a heartfelt thank you. I sat down with the legendary jockey Sir AP McCoy and met the equally legendary Denman. That doesn’t happen very often.
I appreciate the fact that Tony Bloom gave up some of his time, and his acknowledgement regarding the Asian Handicap chapter.
If there are a couple of regrets they are that I didn’t get to meet Big Fella Thanks. He was clearly an incredible beast. Veterinary surgeon Andrew Chivers spoke movingly about the dog’s final moments.
And I truly wish that Alan Lee, a longtime colleague from The Times, who was a wonderful man and fabulous writer, especially on horse racing, was still with us to have seen this project come to life. He was a staunch supporter of Harry’s and believed a real injustice was done with his warning off. Alan would have been more than a little rib-tickled at the thought of Harry and I in collaboration.
Harry had a decent relationship with many in the racing media. Among Alan Lee’s colleagues, we are especially indebted to the quality of the work of Greg Wood of The Guardian, Chris McGrath of The Independent and Peter Thomas of the Racing Post. Donald McRae of The Guardian writes beautifully on anything. Matt Chapman, now ITV Racing’s betting expert, and Jeff Stelling, such an outstanding stalwart on Sky Sports, offered their unequivocal support.
In the past few years, I’ve seen Harry on high highs and at low lows. My wife, Maureen, and I were once invited to his box at Royal Ascot and were stunned at his generosity and fervour – though I’m not sure Maureen ever forgave him for taking our frugal winnings and ‘investing’ them on some donkey at Kelso that barely broke into a canter.
I tried to come to terms with the complex world of gambling, though I rarely indulge myself and won’t start now that we have completed this stage of the journey.
Of course, this book couldn’t have been written unless Harry engaged fully, and there were times he doubted he could. But as the winning line approached, he finally got the bit between his teeth and his only regret was not being able to mention two unbeaten equine superstars, namely Frankel and Black Caviar. When 16-time world darts champion Phil Taylor was told about this venture, he exclaimed: “I’d better be in it, I saved his life twice!”
That’s not far from the truth, but even ‘The Power’ didn’t make Harry’s Reflections at the back of book. It only goes to show that, as I realised halfway through this journey, Harry has enough material to fill three books. Probably half a dozen.
“And what if I had lost heart then? What if I had dared not to risk it? Tomorrow, tomorrow, it will all be over!” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Gambler, originally published in 1867.
Harry Findlay was 16 years old when he looked down at the betting slip in his hand, ran it through his fingers and never wanted to be parted from the sensation. He said it was as if he had been handed a free pass to the Magic Kingdom. He has been in the costly thrall of that magic ever since.
The allure of a simple piece of paper would open for Harry an absurd, compelling, one-off, once-in-a-blue-moon lifestyle. He rubbed shoulders with princes and sheikhs, lords and ladies, bookmakers and kingmakers, and connected in a telepathic way with sporting stars on whom he gambled sums large, small, and more times than he cared to count, life-changing.
Harry was never one to worry about a rainy day – “Otherwise, what do you do when there’s a monsoon?” he said. He had a wonderful time spending his money and does not expect to be pitied because he indulged it. He chose the life. “All I used to get told as a kid was: ‘Never a borrower or lender be’ – do me a favour,” he said. “Fifteen minutes later, the same people would go to the bank and borrow £120,000 over 25 years to pay for a £23,000 house!
“When you’re traveling around the world, you’re winning; when you can’t afford a decent bottle of wine, you’re losing. When gambling goes wrong, it’s a terrible thing, but a gambling man’s word is worth ten times the word of any so-called businessman. In business, if you do a bad deal, you move on and do more bad deals; but if you’re a gambler, it’s such a small world, everyone knows if you’re a wrong ’un. Gambling is full exposure, there’s nowhere to hide.”
Harry was baptised into the thrill of the gamble at the John Hampden Grammar School in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, by Eamonn Willmott, a fellow pupil, who was a bit of a playground legend. He was the best there was at ‘pennies against a wall’.
Harry watched in awe and couldn’t wait to have his turn. The pair have remained friends from those days of adolescent adventure. Willmott said: “Harry’s an alchemist. The force you picked up from him was his absolute love and passion for every element of gambling. There is no one in the world quite like him.”
Harry Findlay has lived entirely on his own extraordinary wits, an innate ability to spot a champion and to back those instincts with hard cash. He has run with the hare and been chased by the hounds. In the early years it cost him his freedom, more recently his integrity, and when the crisis was at its worst, almost his sanity.
Now is the time to tell his tale. It is not one without blemish. He has not pleased everyone. He knows he has not always been a saint. Telling it from the extremes of his point of view did not sit well, especially when he entered the gentrified arena of horse racing. But Harry’s moral compass has sustained him through the rough and the smooth. He is honest, opinionated and very plain-speaking. He could not have gambled the way he has without being straight with himself and the many people – punters and non-punters alike – whose paths he has crossed in four astonishing decades.
“When I was bang under pressure as a gambler between 16 and 19, driving my Mum and Dad mad for readies and then robbing Peter to pay Paul in order to have a bet, Sundays were always a day for reflection,” he said. “Thirty-five years ago on the Sabbath, there was nothing to bet on, and all you had for teatime TV was Harry Secombe on Songs of Praise.
“One Sunday evening, all I was wishing for was that by the time Harry was back on the following week, I wouldn’t have to, nor would I, tell any more lies. Sure, I wanted to have more money and still be in the game, but most of all, no more lies. Once you tell one, you’ve got to tell another one. It was a catastrophe for your brain, and as a gambler, you can’t have any brain damage. I’d told enough lies before I was 20 to last a lifetime.”
The stories that unfold here are all told with the self-deprecating sincerity that is Harry’s hallmark. Even when he was winning fortunes, he never took himself too seriously, though if his good name was impugned, he would challenge those who did it without reservation or a backward step.
Ask those who have spent most time in Harry’s company for a single word to describe him and if the first one they use is almost always ‘loud’, the second is invariably ‘generous’.
In these pages, you will read how Harry fell in love with greyhound racing on his first night at Slough dog track; the credit card fraud for which he was imprisoned; how he turned his life around winning the lion’s share of £2 million betting on the newly-formed Asian Handicaps through the 1998 World Cup; took the Irish hare-coursing world by storm; became a member of the Australian cricket team; wagered and lost £2 million on a single rugby tournament; co-owned one of the greatest of Cheltenham Gold Cup winners; fought for his good name after an unwarranted warning off from horse racing; tried in vain to preserve the British greyhound industry with his own money; and how a simple, signed Rugby League shirt saved him.
Barely a waking moment in his adult life has gone by without Harry thinking about where he would next score. Gambling is an addiction – a dangerous one. You don’t have to tell him that. He has never been a follower of convention, just his own conviction. He knows the odds as well as anyone, has worked them out as well as anyone, and in the billion-pound frenzied competition of today’s computerised betting world, he has trusted to his own remarkable judgment.
He always knew he had the nerve, the patter, the instinct and the nous for picking more winners than losers, and backed that with his own (and other people’s) money in the absolute belief that he knew the true odds.
This book is for all of those who have entered a bookmakers’ premises, heart going pit-a-pat, shuffled nervously towards the counter and pushed a scrawled note and a fiver across the desk, trying not to make eye contact with the person behind it for fear they had recognised a mug punter who wouldn’t know odds-on from Sod’s law.
It is for those who have spent hours poring over newspapers pinned to the wall, been captivated by the commentaries from the rows of TVs, and clung to the belief that the next bet was the certainty of which they dreamed.
It is for those who thought that they can handle the pressures and discovered – often at an awful cost – that they couldn’t. Harry’s life has been an exception, because he did what he did and survived. For many more people than we care to imagine, gambling cost them all that they had. There are many tragic cases where individuals lost so much money they couldn’t live with themselves any more.
The next race or the next match could make or break, and they came every half an hour of every day, every week, every month of every year. Imagine your life depending on that? Harry’s did, and still does. And while this book will chart and challenge the extremes of his lifestyle, he tries to use it to educate the ‘ordinary’ punter as to how best to play the odds.
For anyone who has ever made a bet, has lost a bet. Harry certainly has. But there are not that many who bet as much as Harry, as often as Harry, as emphatically certain of himself as Harry, as indulgently as Harry.
In his youth, he mucked out kennels and hired out tools, he worked part-time for City Index and talked himself into a newspaper column on greyhounds and a stint as a Sky TV commentator, but he never had a real day job. These were time-fillers. As a kid needing ready cash because there was a dog he had to back, he once persuaded a potential employer that he was a dab hand at hod carrying. After five minutes in agony, he realised he couldn’t even raise the bricks off the ground, let alone over his shoulder and up three flights of stairs.
He quit there and then. “I got the biggest bollocking of my life that day, on a building site in the middle of nowhere.” Harry’s life was not meant to be one spent in physical labour.
In so many ways, he is larger than life. He will swear like a trooper one minute and the next indulge in the most sincere acts of generosity, which hardly befits the recurring image of the gambler as someone who thinks only of themselves. He has loved nothing more than for others to share in whatever good fortune has come his way.
Many of the stories he relates will seem too far-fetched to be real but are readily endorsed by his friends and sportspeople – some of whom tell more outrageous tales about Harry than he can remember about himself.
It has taken a lot of strength for him to engage in this enterprise – an uncharacteristic show of restraint brought on by the decision of the British Horseracing Authority in 2010 to disqualify him for six months on the charge that he had – in layman’s parlance – backed horses in which he had a personal stake, not to win. “They ruined me, they took my life away,” he said.
He will go to his grave believing the inquiry was nothing more than a trap designed to bring down a personality who had grown too noisy for the high society patrons in the upper echelons of the Sport of Kings. But he has been able to bounce back, starting from the bottom and building once more on nerve and gut instinct.
A lot of people who play sport have taken Harry under their wing, told him their troubles, their weaknesses, their foibles, though as tales of match-fixing have taken stronger root in recent years, so professional athletes under constant forensic scrutiny have been less inclined to want to be seen in the company of someone who they know will have wagered money on them.
Harry called it the ‘Hansie Cronje Effect’. Before the late former South African cricket captain was implicated in match-fixing allegations and subsequently banned for life from the sport, a number of sportsmen Harry had befriended were more than happy to let him mingle with them and share their secrets. It has become very different these days, less open and far less fun, much like the world of gambling.
To bet significant sums now is not just a matter of using one’s instinct – the distinction that has marked Harry out so decisively across a range of sports – but by following carefully manufactured algorithms designed by companies who employ computer geeks hunting in packs, where every sport is televised. And when the action stops, the screens are flooded with advertisements which have (very successfully) made gamblers appear like people you would like to share an afternoon with. They are almost to be admired.
Tap. Tap. Boom! There goes your life, son.
Harry speaks of his devotion – personally and financially – to Roger Federer, Tiger Woods, Martina Navratilova, Lester Piggott, Jimmy ‘The Whirlwind’ White, Frankie Dettori, South Sydney Rabbitohs from the Australian Rugby League, the New Zealand All Blacks, Big Fella Thanks (Ireland’s celebrated coursing greyhound), Denman (the legendary Gold Cup winner from 2008) and many more.
To have got to know and bet on these stars were the moments when he was truly free, bigger than life, and in his very special element.
When the BHA’s decision robbed him of that freedom, he was crushed. He would resolutely turn his back on horse racing, a sport in which he was beloved by many but sneered at by the hierarchy. A lot of them wanted rid of him, and they got their way.
He has always been unmistakable has Harry Findlay. In recent years, he has dispensed with the youthful trappings of grandeur. The loud, lairy coats and the hat subtlety tipped at an angle of his teenage years have been replaced by a polo shirt habitually hanging loose outside a pair of shorts and open-topped sandals. He will climb into the passenger seat (he has never driven a car in his life) and you become immersed in the day’s ups and downs.
There never seemed to be enough air in his lungs for Harry to complete a sentence, for the words spilled out like ketchup from the nozzle when you have turned the bottle upside down and tapped on its base.
It is not easy to keep up with Harry once he gets started. A big, effusive man with plenty to say and never, it seems, with quite enough hours in the day to tell you all his stories. He will start on one and then a memory is stirred and he’ll go off at a hurtling tangent about a horse’s colours he’s suddenly recalled, or a specific dog on a specific night at a specific track over a specific distance.
The stories will flow and he will be amazed at his own powers of recollection. He rarely requires recourse to a fact-checker. They come out in a jumble – the odds, the weather, the opposition, the journeys, the rises and the falls.
When he did break the law, he had a lot of fun doing it. But in the end, he couldn’t wait to get caught. The stories that unfold about his time at Her Majesty’s convenience at three of this country’s prisons are riveting, haunting and often amusing. If you had told him when he was sent to HMP Brixton in October 1983 that, within three decades, he would be in the executive box at Royal Ascot next to The Queen’s and would own two winners at the meeting, he would have dismissed the notion as entirely too fanciful, even for someone with his imagination.
Today’s Harry Findlay has had to eschew the five- star lifestyle he once enjoyed. He knew it would not last forever, nothing does in the perilous, surrealist world he’s inhabited. The days of being lauded for owning a great racehorse, a feted greyhound, for knowing how to play and exploit the Asian Handicap as well as anyone alive may be gone, but he is not yet out of the game.
He said: “I live in a modest home now, but I’m still winning. I’m surprised. Two years ago, part of the reason I was so depressed when I lost everything and thought there was no moves left was I didn’t think I could still win.
“Johnny ‘Lights’ Herndall, a great gambling philosopher, said when you get over 40, you automatically start to lose your arsehole.
It’s a lot harder now the computers are taking over. But I still win. Even if I run out of money, I sell something else and I start winning again.
“I don’t want to sound flash, because I’m going to take great joy in this book telling people how many times I’ve been skint. It’s not being skint through gambling. Yes, short term I might have a terrible weekend, a terrible week and sometimes a terrible month at the most. One of my sayings is that when you’re doing well and winning, you’re never as good as you think you are; but when you’re on the floor, you can’t pay the rent, you’re starving, you think you’re a complete arsehole, you’re not; you’re a lot better than you think you are.
“Just because you’ve won a few million over a period of time, doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve always got loads of money, especially when you’re buying horses or lending people stuff all the time. I’ve made a lot of mistakes but my philosophy has always been that you can’t have it back.
“Even as a young lad I used to read the obituaries in The Telegraph and go to the bit about how much money they’d made. Surely it would have been more interesting telling us how much they’d spent. When Warren Buffett dies, he’ll be worth over $80 billion, but he’s spent less than $2 million. I’ll have 80 pence in my will and have spent £20 million. Who do you think got the maths right?
“I’m 55, my missus is 48, and sure I’d like to get some more security for Kay and my two daughters in case I keel over. We’ve done so much travelling and so many things, we don’t need tons of money. If I had all the money in the world now, I wouldn’t own a horse or a racing greyhound again, I’ve never driven a car and I don’t want to live in a big house, so all I really want money for is to turn left on the plane and carry on fine dining. Everything is relative, and that’s the great thing about being a gambler.
“When you’re used to an exuberant lifestyle, you can’t change completely. I spend a lot, lot less than I did, but I still want to have Eggs Benedict three times a week. I still want to go and do what I do and, touch wood, that’s never changed. I’m now an absolute expert on Riojas at under a tenner, and Macon has always been the best value Chardonnay in the world anyway, so I haven’t suffered too much!
“But if people are going to open this book and be happy that I’ve gone skint, forget it. I’ve never been able not to do what I wanted to do and no one is better at juggling money than me. I ought to be in the fucking circus.”
Exactly 150 years on from the publication of Dostoyevsky’s novel, which the Russian wrote to a strict deadline in order to pay off his gambling debts, it is time to enter the mind of another man who always dared to risk it all.
The All Blacks
No one knew what to say. Most couldn’t speak anyway. The drinking had long since stopped. Half-empty glasses stacked up. Harry Findlay was too busy screaming for the All Blacks to go for a last-ditch drop goal to notice exactly what his pals in the corporate box at the Millennium Stadium were doing.
Nearing the bitter end of the 2007 Rugby World Cup quarter-final in Cardiff between New Zealand (upon whom Harry doted) and France (not the opposition he had been expecting to see at that stage), it was clear that the £2.5 million he had wagered on the All Blacks had gone.
Paul Barber, a Somerset dairy farmer, co-owner with Harry of a very special horse called Denman and one of the invitees for the night, had seen a lot in his life but struggled to relate to the atmosphere in the glass-fronted area that isolated the Findlay party from the rest of the world.
“For months before the match, all we heard about was this great gamble of Harry’s. As the match wore on, you could just tell the French were going to beat them,” Barber said. “I’d never seen a sight like it – grown men so distraught. Some of them were crying! We dispersed very quickly at the end. I couldn’t take it any longer.”
The final shocking score was France 20, New Zealand 18. Harry had done his bollocks and, as a consequence, had brought a lot of people down with him. “It was the sort of atmosphere you had to escape from,” he admitted. “If I’d been an innocent bystander, I’d have wanted no part of it either.”
Harry, as usual, felt more for all those he had persuaded to part with their cash on the All Blacks than he did for himself. Everyone in the company had sacrificed a lot of money – the shock was palpable. But Harry’s loss absolutely dwarfed anyone else’s.
His whole life had been shaped by the need to bet, and here he was, at 45 years of age, knowing that the largest sum he had placed on the outcome of a single sporting event was in someone else’s pocket rather than his. More than half of his entire worth had been obliterated.
Regardless of the manner by which the mighty New Zealanders had fallen foul of the flaky French (the conclusive try was shaped by an illegal forward pass), Harry was suffering. How could anyone, even someone as unrelentingly positive as Harry Findlay, possibly recover from such a catastrophic blow?
“I was asked dozens of times in the aftermath what was it like to lose £2 million on a rugby match,” Harry said, “but it was difficult to explain. I remembered many times when defeat was harder from both a mental and personal finance point of view. This was a different kind of pain, and with it the general numbing realisation that I’d cost a lot of other people money as well.”
A gambler attracted polar opposite characters, with very little fudging in the margins. Harry knew them as ‘the funkers’ and ‘the begrudgers’. “The funkers wanted you to win; the begrudgers hoped you’d lose. A or B, simple as that,” he said. “Charlie, who helped look after our garden when we lived in Bath, was a funker.”
Charlie the gardener – Harry never did know his surname – tended the sprawling Rowas Lodge landscape a couple of times a month, trimming the lawn and shaping the trees before popping into Harry’s office for a cup of tea and the latest gambling gossip.
Invariably, talk would turn to the bets of the moment, and if the discussion centred on a horse, Charlie said he would follow it with interest, though mostly with support more moral than financial.
“Now and again I said: ‘Charlie, this is a nap, have £20 or £30 on,’ and he would, but in general he was happy enough just cheering them on for me,” Harry said. “Bath is one of the few towns in England where a pub is more likely to show rugby union rather than football, and like most men in the area, Charlie knew his rugby union.
“When I kept harping on about what absolute moral certainties the All Blacks were to win the 2007 World Cup, he didn’t disagree, and, like me, he was a fully paid-up member of the Dan Carter fan club. Carter was the best fly-half in the world – we all knew it.
“About a week before the tournament began, Charlie asked what were the best odds available on the All Blacks. I said that the Corals price of 4/7 was the way to go. I thought no more of it until I walked into my office the following morning and found a big frozen ice-cream tub on my desk.
“There was no mint choc chip inside, just £28,000 in ice-cold cash. After my missus, Kay, drove me into town as quick as she could, I swapped it for a betting slip, which was Charlie’s voucher for his £28,000 to win £16,000 on the unbeatable All Blacks.”
Eamonn Willmott woke on the day of the match and was gripped by a sensation of nausea. “I was going to go to Cardiff but I had a weird feeling about the day – as if something not good was going to happen,” said the man who first introduced a 13-year-old Harry to the rudiments of gambling. “I decided to pull out of the trip. All of Harry’s winnings over the past year had just been doubled up. He’d win 50 grand on a horse, then another, and it would go straight on the All Blacks.”
On the train from Bath to Cardiff, Harry was doing what he did every day, on his mobile betting the horses as the journey unfolded. There was nothing different in his demeanour, he was the usual upbeat, confident Harry.
New Zealand were rugby union’s unstoppable force in 2007. Every reliable signpost acknowledged the likelihood of a black-shirted romp through the World Cup. They possessed in Carter the world’s pre-eminent player, a fly-half of consummate handling skills who had radar in his boots, especially when it came to kicking goals.
Very few punters were backing against New Zealand taking the cup home, but when it came to supporting them with hard cash, no one was more convinced of their tournament-winning potential nor endorsing that judgment as extravagantly as Harry.
“In 2003, I had a hefty bet on them to win the tournament, but I was far from all-in,” he said. “I was a bit of a Carlos Spencer fan, the fly-half before Carter. He was brilliant, an extrovert performer. If the All Blacks were winning, he’d do his tricks – kick a ball over the other geezer’s head, run around him and catch it. He was a showboat. But if you wanted to win World Cups, he was a liability.
“I likened him to Titus Bramble, the old Newcastle United centre-half. He was a decent player was Titus, but whenever you watched him defend, you knew it was only a matter of time before he’d commit some reckless act. Spencer was the same, an improviser.
“It was 0-0 in the 2003 semi-final against Australia, he had the ball and wanted to do something clever, so he threw an arrow pass crossfield on his own 20-metre line. With New Zealand on top in the early stages, you couldn’t have had imagined a worse time to take such a liberty.
“Stirling Mortlock made the easiest of interceptions and suddenly the Aussies were 7-0 up. It quite simply changed the tempo of the game, put the All Blacks on the back foot and the Aussies ran out winners, 22-10.”
The first time Harry set eyes on Dan Carter was when he made his debut against Wales in June 2003. The kid scored 20 points and was a real revelation.
“He played a bit in the 2003 World Cup, but by the time the 2007 event came around, he was like the rest of the team, just about unplayable,” Harry said. “The fly-half position seemed even more pivotal in those days. He was the kicker and hardly ever missed.
“I watched a lovely documentary with his modest father, Neville, stood next to the goalposts he’d erected in the garden of the family home in Southbridge. He said that wherever he placed the ball, Dan would make the kick, and talked about just how much his son had practised over the years.
“In the two years leading up to the 2007 finals themselves, I thought the All Blacks were brilliant and timing their challenge to perfection. I also knew their coach Graham Henry wouldn’t leave a stone unturned in his quest for the Holy Grail.
“Over that period of time, I effectively used the All Blacks via Betfair as a high-profit bank account. They may have been 4/7 when the competition started, but I’d managed to have £2.5 million at the average price of 1.78 [just under 4/5]. It was the bet of a lifetime and, for sure, financially it would have put me in a very strong position. To be honest, as much as for the money, I was looking forward to the buzz of cheering them home.”
What Harry – and the legion of friends he told to back the All Blacks with as much as they could lay their hands on – had not bargained for was that their opposition in the last eight would be the tournament hosts, France. He had expected it to be Argentina, but the South Americans exceeded expectations by topping their qualifying group which meant that France, runners-up to them, would play New Zealand, the runaway winners of Pool C.
It was the one element of the day that kept nagging at him. New Zealand against Argentina was a nap; the French could throw a giant spanner in the works.
Even then, as stories of a niggling injury to Carter began to surface, it was hard to find many in the Millennium Stadium who could see any other result than an All Blacks victory. They had romped through their group, scoring 309 points and conceding a mere 35. Their play radiated confidence and the team looked buoyant to the point of being unstoppable.
“It did start to go wrong a bit when Argentina beat France in the opening match of the tournament. I thought: ‘Aye, aye, this is a bit naughty,’ but the Argentinians played really well and won 17-12,” Harry recalled. “Maybe then, yes, I should have by rights have cut it [his stake] down by five or six-hundred grand, which I didn’t – although I made up for it at half-time in Cardiff.”
That the quarter-final would not kick off until 9pm, served only to extend the nervous anticipation which gripped the group throughout the day. Harry’s box at the Millennium was at one end of the stadium, slightly to one side, giving the throng inside an expansive, diagonal view across the Cardiff pitch. Each of the friends Harry had invited were treated to a welcome bag as they arrived, inside which one of the gifts was a clock in the shape of a rugby ball, to have as a keepsake.
Charlie the gardener was in the company, as were Barber and Paul Nicholls – Denman’s trainer, who was in the throes of preparing the chestnut gelding for a massive tilt at the Cheltenham Gold Cup the following March.
Harry’s friends and betting buddies Jim O’Rourke, Glen Gill and Alex Williamson, and a few other mates from around the country, were stuffed inside, eager to participate in the extended celebration that would follow a New Zealand victory. In the early stages of the match, the All Blacks were dominant. Champagne reinforcements were being sent for.
“They should have been 14-0 up at half-time, but at 13-3, the enigmatic French had a squeak,” Harry said. “I was still smarting from them playing France was, even if they were shit, they still had enough ability to put in a good performance. From 1 to 15, they had bits of talent all over the place,” Harry said.
“Carter was off, his replacement – Nick Evans – was injured, and no one was prepared to go for the three points. Alex and I worked closely together at the time on all things sporting and we were pleading for the All Blacks to go for the drop goal. We knew the maths, and the probability factor favoured that option, but they seemed compelled to go for the try.
“We were behind one of the goals, not directly, but even from almost head-on you could see the forward pass for the French try. I wasn’t even bothered when they scored, I knew it would be brought back.”
But it wasn’t brought back. The try was awarded.
The French were suddenly on their toes, fluent and confident. They had become the immovable object.
In their match report the following morning, The Daily Telegraph reflected on the despair and disbelief engulfing so many in the ground, unaware of how much those inside one corporate box were particularly hurting.
“New Zealand regathered themselves. [Richie] McCaw decided to keep it tight. Rodney So’oialo plunged over, but McAlister pushed the conversion right, 18-13. The All Blacks remained on the offensive but could not capitalise. The suspicion increased that Wayne Barnes, the English referee, was not on their side. Then came a burst by Damien Traille.
“His pass to Frederic Michalak appeared forward but was not called by the officials as Jauzion scored with 10 minutes to go. Panic was slowly rising as Jean-Baptiste Elissalde prepared for the conversion that put France 20-18 ahead, ultimately the winning scoreline.
“Fear fuelled the All Blacks as they hammered through the phases inside the French half. McCaw remained wedded to the idea of the pick-and-go tactic that brought So’oialo’s try, but the French wall would not be breached. McCaw later confirmed that ‘a drop kick was never part of our plan,’ particularly since Evans had also been forced from the field. It was plan A or nothing.”
Jauzion’s improbable (and legally flawed) try brought the pall down on Findlay’s company. They knew that was that.
“I should have been a tad more professional in the first place, but I booked the box in advance thinking that New Zealand would have been playing Argentina and it would be a great night,” Harry said.
“If Argentina had been the opposition, the All Blacks would have been 1/11 or 1/12, but because it was France, they were five-and-a-half to win one [2/11]. That was a big difference. It was so much about Carter, and he was the best in the business by a fucking country mile. Even now people try to tell me that backing them wasn’t the right thing to do. But they were wrong, and there is nothing worse in gambling than the aftertime merchants!”
McCaw criticised tournament organisers in his book The Open Side, writing: “I don’t blame Barnes, but I do blame the people who appointed the most inexperienced referee on the roster to a World Cup quarter-final between the hosts [Wales staged four matches in the competition] and the favourites.
“My beef wasn’t with Barnes so much as with his inexperience. This was his biggest game by far. On the big stage, an inexperienced referee is likely to become so afraid of making a mistake that he stops making any decisions at all. By the end of it, I thought he was frozen with fear and wouldn’t make any big calls.”
Henry, the All Blacks coach, devoted a chapter – Train Crash at Cardiff – in his autobiography to the grievous experience. He went so far as to wonder if an element of match-fixing had been involved, highlighting the fact that in the last hour, his side was not awarded a single penalty.
Anton Oliver, the New Zealand hooker and a student of World War I history, evoked scenes from rather more bloody battlefields. “The feeling in the shed [dressing room] is like no-man’s land,” he said. “There’s a sort of desolate decay and – I don’t want to dramatise it – the smell of death.”
For Harry it was a familiar odour. “I’d have been happy to die in there with them,” he said. “I wouldn’t have said a word, and I’m sure it was the same for all of them. I know what it meant to the coach. It probably affected him the most.
“After the match, I was on the train home in a carriage crammed full of cheering Frenchmen. I was in a sort of surreal world. A part of me was thinking about all those London black cab drivers I’d been telling for the previous two years that the All Blacks were a certainty. I must have wiped out half the rank.”
Jim O’Rourke was with Harry on that journey, as he had been on so many sporting expeditions down the years. “Harry loved sport, loved it all with a passion,” he said. “If you love what you do, you take the winning and losing. If you get one wrong, you’ve got to get the next one right.
“The All Blacks bet was a long-term project. We knew they were unplayable, we knew they had Carter and we knew they’d win. In those days, it was largely about the kicker. And Carter never missed. We were Dan Carter before we were the All Blacks. He went off injured and then the match was a dogfight. It was like a kind of death at the end. The train ride back was horrible.
“But Harry got up the next morning and said: ‘Let’s go again.’ His mum, Margaret, once said to me that it was never about the money for Harry. Money was a chip and the more chips you had, the better you could play life with.
“The definition is: if you have – and lose – £2.5 million on the All Blacks, you don’t wake up the next day wanting £300k on the next thing; you go back to being a professional. If there were two horse bets – one was £200 and the other £300 – that was how he’d stake. It was irrelevant that he lost £2.5 million on the All Blacks. He warranted every race on its merits. He never over-staked.”
Four years later and still in thrall of the All Blacks, Harry’s wager on a New Zealand victory to win the 2011 World Cup was £230,000 – more than 60% of his wealth at the time – to win £210,000. For the last half hour, as they clung on against the nemesis French in the final, Harry could hardly bring himself to watch. “I was shitting myself,” he said. New Zealand won 8-7. Talk about fine margins!
A few days after the match, Harry shared a beer with Steve Hansen, the All Blacks assistant coach who rose to become their esteemed head coach. “I couldn’t resist asking him about the last 25 minutes as France continually piled on the pressure, with all of the play happening inside the All Blacks half where the concession of a penalty could well have been fatal,” Harry said.
“Steve’s answer blew my head off. He said some of the team were laid low with a flu-type virus in the days leading up to the game, nobody more so than Richie McCaw. Steve described Richie’s performance as truly heroic and said he had collapsed in his arms after the game as he escorted him across the pitch to the press conference. What a man.”
By 2015, Harry did not bet on the outright winner of the World Cup until New Zealand roundly trounced the French 62-13 in the quarter-finals – the largest winning margin in a knockout stage in the competition’s history.
“I wasn’t blown away by them in the build up to the competition, and to be honest, before they played France, the thing that impressed me most about them was the black boots they all wore,” he said. “Even the adidas stripes were blacked out and they looked like an army from the get-go. But they were sensational against their great enemy, and straight after the game, I had almost all I could afford at the time – £11,500 to win £10,000 – on them for the tournament.
“The next day, after reading Matthew Syed in The Times comparing their performance with a first-class rendition from a philharmonic orchestra, I had another £3,000, meaning the bet was £14,500 to win £12,500.
“If you’d seen the missus and me dancing around in our tiny front room when Ma’a Nonu powered clear for the try that put the title beyond doubt [the All Blacks beat Australia 34-17 in the final], you’d have thought I’d had another £2.5 million on them.
“But when it was the only £14,500 you had, and you were cheering on one of your favourite teams, that’s exactly what it felt like anyway. And I had a small fund to build on again.”
Over the years, many people asked Harry why he supported the All Blacks so fervently, rather than one of the home nations. “Most of the time it was because they tended to be in great form or were nigh-on unplayable,” he said. But with New Zealand, Harry’s devotion went deeper.
“It was all about their humility as people,” he said. “A story that encapsulates that happened during the 2015 World Cup, when they had booked into a hotel in Swansea to prepare for their quarter-final against the French.
“They’d played Tonga the night before in Newcastle and phoned ahead to ask the hotel in Swansea two things: that they brought their own slab of beer – as each player was allowed one beer per evening – and they didn’t want their own dining room or preferential treatment, but wanted to eat with the other hotel guests.”
According to a friend of Harry’s who was staying in the hotel, the All Blacks arrived fatigued after a long journey (their flight was delayed a couple of hours) and the players headed to their rooms. As their luggage arrived in two trucks, the hotel porters were sent to unpack them, only to be turned back by coach Hansen. Within two minutes, the entire squad was back downstairs unloading the lorries, not only carrying their individual kits, but everything else on them as well, before taking their personal bags back upstairs.
“It summed up everything I love about them,” Harry said.
The tale of the bet to end all bets had always been the one that garnered the headlines, took people’s breath away and provoked suggestions that Harry had been reckless – stupid, even. All he had done was recognise a team of all the talents and backed it with as much as he could afford. It didn’t bankrupt him.
Willmott, whose early-morning sense of dread was well justified, said: “No one born could do £2 million on a couple of bad calls on a rugby match and not be slightly off-tilt. You have to be at your very best to get back, and you ain’t going to be. You just can’t do it. You can’t trade fearful – you have to be brave.”
Harry admitted that recovering from this one would not be easy. “In my lifetime, I’ve known gamblers take real blows, and this was heavy duty,” he said. “Alex Williamson was crying for the last ten minutes of the match. Charlie the gardener had his rack on the match and took defeat like a real man, that’s an understatement. He knew his rugby, he knew all about it, he was there, he believed in it.
“Truthfully, part of the reason I had so much money on the All Blacks was that I was going to slow down a bit if they won,” he said. “I had that in my head. Not because of the finance, but the philosophy. I was thinking of my age, my weight; there’s a lot of stress involved in this life and I didn’t want to keel over. I wanted to look after my health a bit, and that’s why I was so annoyed at what happened.”
Memories of that night were branded on the minds of the occupants. Alex Williamson, hurting as much as many financially, recalled that, ten minutes after he had left the box, Paul Nicholls suddenly reappeared, looking for the freebie clock he’d left on the table in the middle of the room.
“I just remember thinking, given all that was going on, how funny that was,” he said.
Harry’s partner, Kay, hadn’t joined the group in Cardiff, she was used to watching big sporting events on her own and preferred to see the game tucked up in bed with her then seven-year-old daughter, Ella.
“When it started to go pear-shaped, I was really nervous, but at the end of the game, the first thing that came to my mind was Charlie,” she said. “Seriously, I just couldn’t believe it. He’d worked all his life as a gardener. He came in one day with ice-cream boxes that had been stashed in his freezer with all that money in them.
“I thought: ‘Oh my God, that man’s life savings have gone.’ Then Harry rang and he was just the usual Harry. ‘Oh, It’ll be all right, we’ll survive, we’ll come through.’”
The Young Philosopher
Henry Panther, the Head of Mathematics at John Hampden Grammar School in High Wycombe, was used to getting his own way. Mr Panther’s favoured form of corporal punishment against simpering scholars who stepped out of line was liberal use of his T-square against the soft cheeks of their backsides.
As the teacher doled out the weekend homework one Friday afternoon, Harry Findlay spoke up. Young Harry didn’t think logarithms should be taught as part of the maths curriculum. “Excuse me, sir. What do we need these for? Surely arithmetic and algebra are separate subjects,” said the 13-year-old. It was his Oliver! moment.
A hush descended on the classroom, but Mr Panther – “a Winston Churchill lookalike who drove a big old-fashioned, fat Saab and frightened us out of our wits,” according to Harry – resisted the urge to brandish his emblem of torture this time. Perhaps he saw the algebraic logic in his pupil’s logarithm argument.
Maybe it was because he had a grudging admiration for the boy.
Mr Panther had caned Harry on his first day at senior school, when the teacher walked into the classroom just as a satchel was aimed at Alan Farthing, a former junior schoolmate who happened to be sitting next to him as the desks were occupied in alphabetical order.
“I knew I was going to be whacked,” Harry said. “He was standing at the door looking like the Fat Controller in Thomas the Tank Engine. Henry Panther enjoyed the fact that he could do it, and if he had the hump, he could really hurt you.”
Alan Farthing would go on to become a highly successful businessman. Harry knew that would happen. “His dad took Alan and me to see Bambi at the cinema, and Alan had a real go after because I was in bits, crying at the story. I knew he’d end up getting chunks. He was a bit of an animal. If I picked one bloke in our class to succeed, it was Alan Farthing.”
Maybe if Harry had listened more intently in commerce lessons he could have earned a regular income in a manner less taxing than the one he ultimately required to make ends meet. The commerce teacher was also happy to administer leather to skin if pupils didn’t do what he expected of them. “He used to say at the start of every lesson: ‘Findlay, Tapping and Westland, and anyone else who hasn’t done their homework, step to the front of the class,’” Harry said. “He had this real hard shoe.
I guarantee all three of us got it before every single lesson.”
His teachers never knew quite what to make of Harry. Kids with a streak of independent thought tended to have that effect. In his first set of monthly exams, Harry finished seventh in his class. The next month he was 22nd and realised he was not going to be a scholar. ‘Let them have it,’ he thought of those kids who took their education terribly seriously. Harry would be in category ‘3D’, the lowest stream, along with Tapping and Westland. He never completed a single piece of homework. He never actually started one.
From the age of 13 and his first clash with Henry Panther, it was clear Harry could not be a slave to formality. “I was a bit of a philosopher even then,” he said. “Maybe a little early to fully appreciate the meaning of life, but I kept a diary from then until I was 16. I wanted to write everything down. The entries were personal and honest, and at the end of every day I would give that day marks out of ten.
“In my third year, Wednesday was maths, German, maths, double physics, followed by French. We had double games at the end of the day to look forward to, and if that was rained-off – and it always seemed to rain on a bloody Wednesday – the evening was shit TV and listening to Radio Luxemburg. That was a definite zero out of ten.”
The nine-and-a-half out of ten days were usually Saturdays, when Harry scored for Hithercroft Colts in the morning before sneaking off to Stamford Bridge to watch Chelsea, or walking to Loakes Park for a Wycombe Wanderers home game and was back in time to take a girl to the pictures or the disco. Though he was a regular at Chelsea matches, Harry never paid the fare to get there, nor the entrance fee into the raucous Shed End.
There was one particular bolshie inspector who worked the line from Buckinghamshire into the West End, but as soon as he was spotted, Harry would leap off at the next stop and wait for the following train. “Most of the inspectors ignored 14-year-olds, but not this old bugger,” he said. “Nowadays you try to go through a barrier without a ticket and fucking alarms go off everywhere. I think back now and wonder: ‘How did we get away with it?’”
From High Wycombe via Marylebone to Fulham Broadway, then a short walk to the ground, Harry mingled with the crowd, saw a friendly face, asked if they minded if he came in with them and squeezed through the rusting, heavy metal turnstiles not parting with a penny. “Everyone did it,” he said. “Not once did the geezer on the gate say I couldn’t go in. I saw Ray Wilkins make his debut against Norwich – I was 11. All that long hair he used to have. Everyone thought he was a God.”
The first and only time Harry was robbed was in the adrenalin-soaked forward rush of humanity when Chelsea scored five times against Hereford United at the Bridge in 1977. After one of the goals, Harry went to reach for his wallet and realised he’d been buzzed. From that day to this, he carried his money in his front right trouser pocket and vowed never to own a wallet.
His local team, Wycombe Wanderers, were a long way off their current Football League status in the 1970s. The first time Alf Findlay took his son to a match under lights against Enfield in the 1968/69 season was an incredible experience. An Isthmian League club back then, Wanderers were eligible for the old FA Amateur Cup, and in 1974, were drawn away to Evenwood Town (now Spennymoor Town) from County Durham. A cavalcade of five coaches left the gasworks 50 yards from the ground at 5pm the night before the match and reached their destination at 9am the following day. Harry was 11 years old and travelling alone. He was lost in the magic of it all.
“I needed permission from my parents to go, and I had to graft my balls off to get it. I was only 11, but they knew how much it meant to me,” he said. “There were all these older blokes around me talking football and nothing else, seasoned Wycombe fans who’d been to all the away grounds.
“Time just flew by, and before I knew it, we were at a motorway café at 3am having a full English breakfast. It was so exciting. We arrived in County Durham just as the shops were opening and all chipped in threepence each to buy one of those old orange Wembley footballs.
“The coach parked under an aqueduct and we played a match – a small five-a-side competition in a field where a bunch cows were grazing – and I was convinced I was the happiest boy in the world. Wycombe won the tie 3-0 and the whole experience had a marked effect on me. We got back to the gas station around 3am. Two older guys were supposed to take me home to Downley but I woke up on the coach on my own and had to walk home. Forty minutes later, I saw a silhouette of my dad outside the house smoking one of his roll-ups. He gave me a right bollocking, but I didn’t care. I knew I wanted to be around live sport forever.
“I was proper football crazy. I used to read Billy’s Boots in Scorcher and dreamt of the day I’d have a pair of magic boots. I soon worked out I needed them! If Shoot magazine didn’t land on the front mat before 9am on a Saturday, I’d go into meltdown. I went on the train at 10 years old on my own to watch Chelsea play Everton. My mate Graham Bullpet was an Everton nut – he loved Alan Ball. He didn’t believe that I’d been to the match, so I showed him the programme. I might as well have shown him a million pounds, his eyes were popping out of his head. Chelsea won 4-0, but he just wanted to know what it was like. He said: ‘Can I come next time – but my mum will kill me!’
“I couldn’t understand why there was no football on TV on a Saturday afternoon. This old fellow in a pork pie hat called John Rickman came on talking about horses and I used to hate him. I said to Dad: ‘Can’t we get this old sod off? Why’s there no football on?’ The whole week at school, to me, was about waiting for 3pm on a Saturday to come around. The four walls of my bedroom were plastered with memorabilia. I used to draw football pylons and stanchions on my general workbook at school.”
Harry never wanted for anything that wasn’t connected with football. He didn’t want Scrabble, Monopoly, or jigsaw puzzles. His idea of heaven was his parents buying him the Manchester City away kit of red and black stripes, or Birmingham City’s blue shirt with the white panel down the middle. “If I was in charge of Birmingham now, I’d bring that kit right back,” he said. “What’s the point of being plain blue like everyone else? I was freakish about my football kits and totally freakish about football.
“The only thing I saved for in my life was the fare for the coach trips to watch Wycombe away. I had a little piggy bank and would put pennies into it all the time. I went to Dulwich Hamlet and Walthamstow Avenue, Runcorn and Bishop Auckland, I watched Wycombe in the semi-final of the Amateur Cup against Hendon at Griffin Park where they lost 2-1 and were robbed by the most blatantly bad refereeing decision of all time. Hendon’s first goal was two yards offside. I watched more live football than anyone else I knew. Football was everything to me.
“I knew I’d probably never play the game when, during the first week at school, waiting outside Class 9, I saw a kid called Joe Blochel1 play keepy-uppy for five minutes with a fucking tangerine. From that moment, I assessed that my chances of being even a semi-pro footballer were about eight-million-to-one.”
If football had been Harry’s obsession since he was five, it was watching two sporting legends from another world that he was mesmerised beyond even his own vivid imagination. “Think of being an 11-year-old and seeing gymnasts Olga Korbut and Nellie Kim working their magic on the beam right under your nose,” he said.
“Our school got tickets for the Wembley complex. I walked out after the performance with all these girls and I thought about all my mates, the mugs, at home watching Nationwide, Z Cars, or some other crap, and I’d been to see Olga and Nellie. They were incredible.”
Harry – christened Henry McDonald Findlay – was born in Glasgow on January 20, 1962, and his first memories were being taken on the handlebars of his father’s push bike to stand and gawp at the planes as they landed and took off from Prestwick Airport, and staring in wonder at the fire engines as they roared through the streets of the city, the fireman on the steps at the front ringing the bell. Then there was the blue Mallard steam train his dad took him to see at the central station. “It was guaranteed to have been Salvador Dali’s favourite train,” Harry said.
The Findlay family – father, Alf; mother, Margaret; and younger brother, Gordon – relocated to South Ockendon in Essex when Harry was five. Alf and Margaret were both nurses, Margaret having been one of the youngest people in Scotland to qualify as a matron, while Alf specialised in helping anyone with mental health disorders.
-The End of free sample-
This is the free sample of the book – “Harry Findlay – Gambling For Life” By Bryan Law. The full version you may bay at Amazon.com