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Chubby rides The Carousel – with a little help from his friends

January 10th, 2024 | Ian Carnaby's Racing News

For quite a long time I couldn’t work out why Charles Benson entered my thoughts as often as he did.

He’s been gone for several years and it wasn’t as if we had a great deal in common, though we were both racing journalists who enjoyed a bet. We got along rather well, the Old Etonian socialite who rubbed shoulders with the Aga Khan and Robert Sangster and the son of a quiet Geordie miner who’d have spent his working life down the pit but for his younger brother joining Southampton from Blyth Spartans in 1937. You know most of the rest.

Charles, known as ‘Chubby’ by pressroom die-hards who appreciated the better class of champagne served up by Sangster and Barry Hills at home and on the racecourse, joined the Daily Express in the mid-1950s when it was still a broadsheet and a quality newspaper. The racing team comprised the formidable pairing of Clive Graham and Peter O’Sullevan, who doubled up on the BBC in the halcyon days when the Corporation still cared about the sport. Now that I think about it again, this is when I first became aware of Charles because he eventually took over as The Scout, the main writer and tipster, when Clive passed on.

For sure, we remember clearly enough the things which shaped our lives. I followed the tips and the tipsters, not only in the Express but also the Daily Mirror  –  Newsboy and Bouverie long before I discovered that Bouverie Streer was a narrow thoroughfare running off Fleet Street itself. I wasn’t a convert, I was a willing volunteer barely out of short trousers. Captain Heath in the Daily Mail, 78 points a pretty accurate indicator of the ‘best in’; the hapless Morning Star with its stoical determination to turn society on its head matched only by its daily assault on last place in the national tipsters’ table; and Richard Baerlein’s well-considered recommendations in the Guardian, even though the paper saw no need to print the cards themselves.

I should imagine Benson and O’Sullevan got along all right, though their lifestyles could hardly have been more different. All these years later we can smile at Chubby’s free-wheeling, high-spirited enjoyment of racing’s bright carousel appearing alongside the older man’s more conservative Derby assessments, his trips to France for key information duly passed on to ‘Bert at the garage’. Bert may or may not have existed but, for readers in Stockton-on-Tees and Accrington, he occupied one of life’s magical, mysterious spaces, a mews in Chelsea. Thus the latest information from Chantilly passed through Bert on its way to England’s heartlands and a thousand five-bob bets. Peter was no fool.

He did allow himself one slightly waspish remark when Chubby published his autobiography, No Regard For Money. ‘No regard for the truth either, old man!’ was the reaction gleefully reported by hacks here and there. Well, all I would say is that ‘No Regard’ is both informative and highly entertaining. It’s also one of the few racing books I’d lend to someone wholly uninterested in the sport. Chubby got around a bit, from racetrack to London nightspots to the West Indies. What a gift he must have been to the Mail’s gossip columnist Nigel Dempster, who enjoyed racing and the company of racing people; all Nigel needed was a quick look at the Benson appointments book, always assuming one existed.

Chubby came into SIS in 1988 when the book was launched. There are various moments I shall never forget, starting with his departure from the Express.

‘They’ve given me the sack but we won’t say that, will we? Just need to tone it down a bit.’

‘Of course. Mutual agreement, pastures new, that sort of thing,’ I said.

‘Yes. They gave me £100,000, you know.’ Slight pause. ‘Trouble is, I owe William Hill £95,000 of it!’

Now, I have not the slightest doubt this was all true. The Express would have offered him three years’ salary, plus a few bits and pieces. And Hill’s would have let him go on punting. With Sangster as a close friend, he’d settle up eventually, which he always did.

What I don’t like is the way some people thought less of him because of the handy, maybe vital, support of his well-heeled friends. I can’t, for the life of me, see how anyone managed to fall that far behind with Sangster and Barry Hills offering advice. But, as the old saying goes, one half doesn’t know how the other half lives. No mere name-dropper, Chubby regularly met up with Mick Jagger, Jerry Hall and many top names from the worlds of tennis and cricket. How much was claimed back on expenses and what the humbler members of the pressroom made of it all are matters for consideration. It follows that he often needed to be right about horses well beyond the confines of South Bank Stables and Manton. Sadly, he loved the game without being a particularly good judge. Indeed, he was a much better backgammon player and would organise tournaments for American tourists in London as well as taking on some of the familiar faces on lengthy pleasure cruises. He was too good for them (just as Omar Sharif, who suffered from the same obsession, was too good at chess.) Just about my favourite Chubby story concerns the day there was a line of bookmakers on the quay at Southampton, waiting for the liner to come in after their man had cleaned up in a major backgammon tournament.

He charmed his way through the SIS interview and wondered how to get back to Curzon Street and the Clermont Club, where he and the Lord Lucan set lunched most days. Silly mistakes can trip us up and I nearly suggested the Piccadilly Line and a short walk from Green Park. I’m not sure he’d ever been on a tube so we ordered him a taxi. I found myself wondering how things would have gone if we’d recorded the piece in the Clermont, one of London’s smartest clubs. Claimers are a bit better than sellers and I suppose I’d have been regarded as a pleb rather than an oick but owner John Aspinall would almost certainly have said no to the cameras. He and his friends were world-class snobs but what made Charles different was his ability to fit in elsewhere. He never looked uncomfortable.

There is little more to be said about the Lucan affair and there are now many people around who were born long after his disappearance. Chubby told me he had no doubt that Lucan (‘Lord knows why he was called ‘Lucky’, he was the worst gambler I’ve ever known’) fled to the coast, made one stop along the way, put out to sea in a small boat and drowned. He emphatically denied that the Clermont set had settled for an ‘omerta’-style silence to frustrate the police but added that he found them incompetent.

As I say, No Regard For Money is very entertaining. Chubby had no illusions about himself, often leaning quite heavily on Sangster for financial assistance. If he couldn’t live the high life he was probably ambivalent about living at all and if you disapprove (as Sir Peter did, in his own wry, restrained way), you will not be alone. But we’re all biased in one way or another and I couldn’t help liking him. Also, in his raffish, Old Etonian way, he got things done. In 1977, when the Aga’s Blushing Groom could finish only third to Sangster’s The Minstrel in the Derby, Chubby had organised celebrations for both parties at the same London nightclub. Probably the only time in his life he played at odds-on!

And he wasn’t a ‘hanger-on’. He didn’t play tennis with Bryan Ferry or Vitas Gerulaitis to be the butt of jokes, he was a well above average player himself. It’s easy enough to see why Gerulaitis, who looked like a sun- and sand-bleached Greek god but was actually a New Yorker of Lithuanian parentage, warmed to him. I once interviewed Gerulaitis for the BBC and we needed a quiet room in the London hotel where he was staying. In the end we gave up and sat down on the floor in a corridor, a solution he seemed to find perfectly reasonable. He was a superb player and would have won more titles but for entertaining friends and socialising far too close to important matches. This often counted against him around the three-hour mark. After several years of trying he finally had the better of Jimmy Connors and sat down at the press conference afterwards, announcing that ‘Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row!’ He was a lovely man who died tragically early. He and Chubby might have been cut from the same risk-taking cloth.

Chubby lasted 30 years at the Express and it hurt when they let him go. He died six years after that, at 66, and the last time I saw him I was allowed a glimpse of an angry, jagged scar from groin to chest, an operation that delayed his premature demise. It reminded me of the day he told me, in that matter-of-fact way of his, about the £95,000 debt when the carousel was in full swing. He was still riding it when night closed in and the fairground barker cried enough.

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