TUESDAY: Universal


Copyright is held by the author.


“What is?”

“The system,” George said in an earnest voice. “Can’t fail. Proven.”

I hadn’t seen George for ages, on account of having been away for a while, working for Her Majesty’s Government. Not my first time, neither, but you can’t have everything. It’s what you can expect sometimes for a bit of petty larceny gone wrong. Freelance retailing of cigs and Scotch, mostly. The last haul was off the back of a hijacked lorry in Walthamstow. Scotch for ten bob, half what you’d pay in the off-licence. Players or Senior Service for half a crown, Benson & Hedges for two and nine pence, a shilling under the going price anywhere else.

I should never have tried to flog the stuff to an undercover rozzer.  

When I got out I left what I hadn’t sold where it was for a few month seeing as how I reckoned the boys in blue would be following me for a while. Just as well. I bumped into the arresting officer at Haringey while I was earning an honest living at the dog track. Tried to arrest me for loitering with intent.

“Intent to do what?” I asked, all indignant-like.

“I’ll think of something.” He tapped the side of his nose, and went off to harass some other poor punter.

I drained the last of my pint of mild and bitter and ordered a refill.

“Thought you might be interested in a small business venture,” George said, “seeing as you have no visible means of support now you’ve quit working for the government.”

“And why would I want to lift a bloody finger to help you, George? You didn’t even visit me.”

“Didn’t want to be reminded. I have an aversion to walls and bars. Are you in?”


“Your loss, mate.”

“I’ll live.”

“It’s up your alley. And legit.”

“So why would you think I was interested in anything legit?”

“’Coz Old Bill’s got your dabs and he ain’t going to let up riding you ’til he finds out where you’ve got the rest of your stash.”

“And I’m not about to tell you neither. Besides, the fags’ll be a bit on the stale side by now.”

“I suppose. It’s been a while. Still, you can probably sell them at your cost to some unsuspecting sod. And the Scotch’ll still be good.”

“Maybe.” I shrugged. I saw his jar was empty. I signalled to the barmaid and pointed to George’s pot. She pulled another pint.

“Ta,” I said and gave her my best smile. Didn’t work.

“Two bob,” she bounced back at me. “And we’re not running a tab for gents we don’t know.”

“It’s one and 10 pence next door.”

“If you want to drink in the public bar, you’re welcome. It’s two bob in here.”

I gave her half a crown and told her to keep the change.

“You’re generous,” George said.

“Got a winner at the dogs last night. Paid eight to one. I had a fiver riding on it, so I don’t need one of your unbeatable systems, thank you very much.”

“This is better than the dogs. Never let me down yet, not like the favourite at the Catford track you’d probably choose. Put him in the trap, a quick squeeze of the equipment and he doesn’t feel like chasing anything once the gate’s open.”

“So, why the generous offer of a business partner I don’t need?”

“It takes two to tango,” George said with an air of mystery. “Cheers.” Two gulps and half the glass was gone.

“Okay, I’ll take the bait.”

“The gee gees.”

“What about them?”

“I can beat the system, every time.”

“Right. Pull the other one, it’s got bells on.”


“If there’s one thing you ain’t George, it’s honest.”

“I’m offended, Brian. Mortally. And coming from you . . .”

“Birds of a feather, George.”

We set our glasses down on the sticky bar top and waited each other out.

“Like I said,” George said after he downed the last of his ale. “Can’t lose. I’ve proved it time and time again, but I needs a little help placing the bets.”

“Using my money, I suppose.”

“If you’re in, yeah. Otherwise I’ll go it alone and you’ll be the poorer for it. A lot poorer. Not that I’d tell any interested party where your lock-up is, or anything.”

“You know what’d happen to several of your valuable body parts if you did, George, and that’s a fact.”

“I’m not daft,” George said. “We was in that one together. You got careless and I got lucky. You didn’t squeal and I appreciate that. Which is why the offer’s on the table.”

“I haven’t heard the offer yet.”

George craned his neck to see who might be eavesdropping on their business conversation. Satisfied, he lowered his voice. “Over to the table in the corner. My turn. Mild and bitter, isn’t it?”

I took my mac off and hung it over the back of the chair. George brought two pints with him and placed them on the beer mats without spilling any.

“Off track betting,” he said.

“What about it?”

“I can use the shop or one of the two accounts I have for phone bets. Joe Coral and William Hill. They legalized it while you was inside.”

“I heard.”

“Here’s how it works.” George dropped his voice. I leaned forward to catch what he was saying. “You buy the Evening Standard racing edition for the tips every day as soon as it comes out.”

“The tipsters are as crooked as the dog tracks.”

“Not all, and you don’t have to read what they say or try to figure it out for yourself.”

“Then how do you do it?”

George sat back and took a long pull at his beer. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and looked me square in the face. “I don’t,” he said. “They do it for me. That’s the beauty of the system.”

“I don’t follow your drift.” I decided to finish my pint, then split. The last thing I needed was to try to game the system on the ponies. That was for mugs like George.

“How many race cards a day on average?” he persisted.


“And there’s always one that’s the big one.”

“Yeah.” I sounded doubtful.

“And six races on a card. The tipsters do their homework on the main card. Up to the minute stuff from trainers and jocks. Likely odds. Who’s a mudder and who likes it dry and firm, who’s on the take, that sort of stuff.”

“Go on.”

George took a deep breath. “This is strictly between the two of us, right?”


“The paper lists all the tipsters’ tips for you. You see which horse they tip the most on the first race on the main card and bet on that one.”

“And when they’re wrong? I thought you said it was foolproof.”

“It takes a while, but you win every day. You place your bet, either in the shop or over the phone, half a minute before the off. Not much chance of the odds changing in the last few seconds. You bet enough to win what you set for yourself for that day, say ten quid. It’s just a number, Brian. Easy to work with. The odds come in at say, four to one. Second favourite. You bet two pounds ten to win. The nag wins, you get 10 quid for five minutes’ work, you walk out of the shop and go home. You don’t bet again.”

“And if the nag loses, then what? I thought you said it was foolproof.”

“You hang around for the next race. Now you’re down two pounds 10, so this time you have to make up what you lost plus the ten quid you set out to make, so 12 pounds 10. The next race is a bigger field and your horse is six to one. So you do the mental arithmetic and come up with the right answer, put your money down and three minutes later walk out with your bets back and ten quid in your pocket.”

“What happens if you go through all six races and don’t pick a winner, George? You could be a hell of a lot out of pocket.”

“The longest I’ve had to go the past two years is the fourth race. Think of it, Brian. Ten quid a day, six days a week is three thousand nicker a year. Three square meals a day and no heavy lifting. And no sewing mail bags neither. All legit and above board. You even pay the government the five percent betting tax up front on the bet rather than on the winnings. Five percent on two quid bet’s cheaper than five percent on ten quid won.”

“What’s the catch?”

“There isn’t one. It’s simple and foolproof.”

“Idiot proof would be better.”

“That too. Are you in?”

I nodded. In for a penny, in for a pound. Why not. It wasn’t as if I had great employment prospects lined up. I could work as a postie for seven quid a week, heaving the mail bags I used to sew on and off trains, but that didn’t appeal. No heavy lifting sounded good.

“Okay, I’m in.”

“How much you got up front, Brian?”

“Enough.” I tapped the side of my nose.

“How much do you want to make every day?”

“How about 100 a day?” Think big, plan bigger, as my old man used to say. It didn’t work for him neither. Lived in a council flat in Wapping to the day he died and never worked a decent day in his life once the war was over. And then I don’t think he did half as much as he bragged about.

“You’ll need quite a bit to tide you over ’til the three o’clock,” George said with a grin. “If it ever goes that far.”

“Give me a week to test it, George,” I said. “I want proof for myself before I throw good money away. Otherwise I’ll have to go back to receiving and retailing.”

“I’ll give you a bell, then.” With a nod rather than a handshake, he left me to finish my beer.


That week I placed imaginary bets and never went more than the third race without a winner. The next week I placed real bets at the local shop.

“Up 60 quid in the week,” I said when George phoned.

“We’ll need to get you a couple of accounts so you can phone the bets in like I mostly do. Takes too much time to patronize different shops even if they’re next door to each other. Besides, your face gets known and they won’t want your custom after a while when you keep leaving them out of pocket.”

“Already done, George. So, 100 a day, 50 each okay with you?”

I heard him gulp and wondered then if the system was as foolproof as he said. “Are you in, George?” It was my turn to put the squeeze on him.

“I’m in, but I might need a bit up front. For good faith, you know?”

“A couple of hundred okay?”

“Yeah. See you Monday, eleven o’clock with the paper.” He hung up.


It worked like a charm. We made 50 a day each, six days a week that first year. Small enough bets not to raise suspicions. We even got a telephone of our own rather than use a call box. We upped the take home to 100 a day each the second year and got an account with Ladbroke’s as well. I stopped renting and bought a flat and a Ford Zephyr, new, for cash. In five years we were making 10 grand a piece a year and had runners on payroll to place bets in shops in case we drew too much attention to ourselves. In ten years, double that, easy.

Then came Universal.

Universal was the only nag in the race with four legs and looked like he was going to start at odds of ten to one on. Worst of all, it was the sixth and last race on the card and the system had let us down. For the first time, no winner in the first five races and we were out of pocket several hundred quid already. I looked at George. “Infallible, you said.” As if he needed reminding.

“Have faith in the system, Brian,” he countered.

“It’s going to take 5,000. Are you in?”

“Christ, it’s a lot of money to put on a horse.”

“No more than the toffs put on the favourite at Ascot or the Derby. And they don’t know what they’re doing. Not like us.”

I picked up the phone and dialled William Hill’s. Eight to one on, they told me, and shortening fast. George was on another line to Coral’s. Ten to one on, he mouthed. I took a breath and saw my hand shake. “Five thousand to win on Universal,” I said. “Yes. At starting price.” I heard George say the same to Coral’s. We put the phones down at the same time. I phoned Ladbroke’s, gave the account number and placed the same bet. No runners out at the betting shops for this one. Just the two of us. The bookies. And a horse named Universal.


“Never again,” I said.

“Not on an odds-on favourite,” George replied. “But it worked. Who dares, wins.”


We downed our beers in three swallows and, without another word, marched arm in arm out of the pub and into our matching Bentleys.

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