Tinkering with outright certainties – or are they?

September 25th, 2020 | Ian Carnaby's Racing News

The other day I was trying to remember why Glastonbury reminded me of Coppermill Lad. I must have found a connection between the pair and thought about including it in a column, though how there can be any sort of link between a music festival where the visitors and I have so little in common they (or I) might just as well be aliens, and a tough sprint handicapper trained by the late Jack Holt is hard to fathom. ‘Mud’, I thought, it has to be mud. Old Coppermill loved it hock deep and Glastonbury, well, we’ve all seen the pictures.

It wasn’t mud, though. I wouldn’t have found enough to fill a column, once I’d suggested that your mother would have taken one look, waited for your garb to dry out and then consigned the whole lot to the clothes bank outside Tesco’s up the road. Nicky Adams’ Goodwood valet might have wrinkled his nose but Coppermill Lad’s colours  –  all one colour after the race  –  would have to be washed, dried and pressed before his next autumn engagement.

And then, because it bothered me, though not quite as much as the day I  couldn’t remember who played Tinker in Lovejoy  –  lovely actor, dark beret, enjoyed a drop  –  I worked out you had to concentrate on ONE of the items and let the other take care of itself. Brilliant. When would Glastonbury or its music have crossed my Ella-fixated mind. Answer? Whilst playing for Jim Old’s team in a mega quiz in support of the IJF a while back when a certain question came up. Which NH track is closest to the Glastonbury Festival?

A straightforward match bet, of course, but I remembered a train leaving for the festival from Bristol Temple Meads and going through Castle Cary. Therefore the answer had to be Wincanton (faulty logic, as my old mentor ‘Basher’ Barnett, incapable of hurting a fly, would have instantly pointed out) and I struck a large imaginary bet. Well, it IS Wincanton but the margin over Taunton is only five miles. It’s a good day when you learn something and the money, imaginary in this case, is safely in your pocket, even if your judgement is some way adrift. Be honest, you thought of all the fields and hedgerows and willow-winding paths heading for the Somerset levels and made Taunton not the biggest outsider since Vakil-ul-Mulk in the Derby but layable even so.

Then someone around the table counsels caution, pointing out that Castle Cary and Wincanton are in Somerset, too, but you have this mental picture of binocular-carrying escapees, still in that pre-novice hurdle mood, joshing with complete strangers and sharing a taxi to the course. A taxi! How far can it be, then? Up the hill and round the corner, maybe a few more corners than you thought but from the sound of him the cabbie has been doing this run for quite a while, these hedges and ditches are so similar and you were busy talking about Dickie and Philip Hobbs getting you off to a good start.

Now the answers to the quiz. Let’s be honest, you were just a little too insistent. Why do you now ask yourself ‘if they’re so far apart, what was the point of the question?’ whereas twenty minutes ago it never crossed your mind? But it’s Wincanton, it really, really is and there are murmurs of approval around the room because everyone else has got it right, as well. And you smile your quiet smile and shrug modestly. It’s not as if they need to know about your heart.

Many years ago, let’s say 45, I sold drink around Hounslow and Isleworth in west London and a very likeable man called Jimmy Deans had a couple of pubs, including one out Heston way.

Jimmy was a very good publican and talked racing with the regulars, although his real passion was blackjack. In the days before there was afternoon opening, he’d sometimes close the pub at 3pm, make a West End casino by four, and play for an hour or an hour and a half before returning to the pub, where a well-rewarded number two had opened up.

Jimmy was a fine blackjack player but the simple truth is that even the best in the world would be at least one per cent down on the house, mainly because, in this slightly fancy version of pontoon, the player, when making his decision, sees only one of the dealer’s cards. I shan’t trouble you with the rest although it’s worth noting that, when the big American casinos saw a greater number of clever mathematicians playing than before, they either banned them or started returning the ‘dead’ cards to the shoe before it had run its course. So, any advantage the player had when there were more high cards than usual still in the shoe disappeared. The trouble with too many punters is that they still think it’s a nicey-nicey game of soldiers. It isn’t. It’s a business.

Jimmy was the kind of easy-going guy who could drop a couple of hundred, return to the pub and listen sympathetically to an old boy who’d had one let him down in a 10p Yankee. He was Hemingway’s ‘grace under pressure’ personified and I liked him very much.

The first time he hit the skids, Coppermill Lad was due to run in a decent six-furlong handicap at Goodwood. It was around 1989, I guess, and I must have had a day off at SIS. It rained and rained, which old Coppermill loved, though I’d only have mentioned him in passing when Jimmy smiled sheepishly and said: ‘Can you help?’

Even with people who will never mention the matter again (which is the way it ought to be, really, like a barium enema one of your friends has endured) I’m uneasy in this situation, because we aren’t talking about a couple of hundred. But I looked at Coppermill Lad, who adored Goodwood, a bit like Pettochside today, and had this mental picture of him coming towards the stands’ side, which Nicky would know all about, and gradually pulling clear. Well clear, in fact. I thought he’d win by three lengths.

I told Jimmy and didn’t waste advice like ‘don’t go potty’ and, with a rare day off, I realised I could go to Goodwood and watch it all unfold at the furlong pole, my usual place. It never stopped raining and if it wasn’t ‘heavy’ as opposed to ‘soft’ I am the proverbial Dutchman.

The first thing to say is that, inside the three, Coppermill Lad, 5/2 favourite, isn’t going to win easily. I see Nicky start to drive him along but he is gradually wearing down Chummy’s Favourite (N Callaghan, 14/1  –  ‘Don’t you do me now, nasty Neville, don’t you dare do me now….’) with Green Dollar right there. I’m hoarse and can’t shout any more, even on someone else’s behalf.

In the end, giving his best Pat/Lester impression, Nicky forces Coppermill Lad in front on the line, beating Chummy’s Favourite and Green Dollar by a head and the same. It’s the happiest I’ve ever been in a drenched shirt. The rain had something to do with it, probably.

‘Thanks for that,’ Jimmy said when I saw him at a John Smith’s pub do at Brighton some time later. It’s ok. We live for the good times and the memories. I knew there’d be no lasting relief from the blackjack (there wasn’t) but we all suffer in different ways and at least it gave him a breather.

Incidentally, Coppermill Lad went to Scotland just six days later and finished 4th  in the Ayr Gold Cup off a 6lb higher mark. He thought the soft ground up there quite wonderful. You’ll like this. Chummy’s Favourite won the Group 3 Diadem the following week and went on to finish eighth in the Abbaye. Green Dollar did not scale those heights but picked up a Great St Wilfrid at Ripon. And you’re reading the genius who thought old Coppermill would beat them by three lengths at least! Actually, I wasn’t entirely sure Castle Cary wasn’t in Wiltshire, so you must never listen to me again. Anyway, the connection  –  and therefore the piece which never saw the light of day  –  was going to be about a gambler’s sheer relief outweighing the uncomfortable knowledge that his cogitations were a little wide of the mark.

Sorry, I nearly forgot about Tinker in Lovejoy. Well, first name a town in the West Midlands, second name a town in Surrey. Big clue: starred with Rita Tushingham in the film The Leather Boys, set around the bikers’ A1 cafe on the North Circular Road.

The answer is in my book The Long Road From Portman Square, due out on December 1. Please buy a copy. I am much too old to go to work.