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Sunday, 09 December, 2018

Monsieur X: a dazzling tale of glamour, riches, violence and tragedy

Award-winning author Jamie Reid returns with his latest racing thriller

Patrice des Moutis, the obsessive big-time gambler, at home in Saint-Cloud
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Patrice des Moutis was a handsome, charming and well-educated Frenchman with an aristocratic family, a respectable insurance business and a warm welcome in the smartest Parisian salons. He was also a compulsive gambler and illegal bookie.

Between the late 1950s and the early 1970s, Des Moutis made a daring attempt to beat the French state-run betting system, the PMU. His success so alarmed the authorities that they repeatedly changed the rules of betting in an effort to stop him. And so a battle of wills began, all played out on the front pages of the daily newspapers as the general public willed Des Moutis on to ever-greater success. He remained one step ahead of the law until finally the government criminalised his activities, driving him into the arms of the underworld. Eventually the net began to close, jockeys and other high-profile characters found themselves the target of the state’s investigation, and people began turning up dead.

As the French settled down to celebrate New Year 1962, Patrice des Moutis was preparing to launch his biggest coup. Trotting racing in France was a bit like greyhound racing in the UK. Colourful, cheaper and more egalitarian than the Flat but not without its share of demi-mondaine high rollers and swells, and just as popular as Flat racing and steeplechasing with punters nationwide when it came to trying to win the Tiercé.

The premier trotting track in France was Vincennes situated in parkland outside Joinville-le-Pont about ten miles southeast of Paris. They raced there regularly throughout the winter months and on 1 January 1962 the main event was the Prix du Croisé-Laroche over 2,000 metres. Conditions were dry, sunny and bitterly cold but with a bumper crowd on course and thousands if not millions of café-tabac punters looking forward to a bank holiday bet, the pool was expected to be one of the biggest of the year. With that in mind Patrice rang round his connections on 30 December attempting to glean information about current fitness and form. Then, believing the prospects were set fair, he decided to hit the Vincennes Tiercé with everything he had.

If Marie-Thérèse des Moutis hadn’t fully realised it when they first met or after Patrice’s racecourse ban in 1953 she must have known by now that she had married more than just an ardent racing lover. Her husband was an obsessive gambler in thrall not only to the adrenaline rush of a successful coup but intoxicated by – and addicted even to – the audacity of his battle with the Pari-Mutuel. With each new enterprise the stakes were rising, perhaps dangerously so, as the PMU director general André Carrus had warned. But there was no stopping Patrice now. If the PMU and the government were continually going to try to clip his wings, that challenge had to be taken up. Friends could see that he was on a journey with no end yet in sight and, with his confidence surging and the enemy in his sights, he was determined that each new Tiercé gamble should be bigger than the last.

Patrice spent New Year’s Eve alone. Edith Piaf was performing at the Olympia Music Hall in Paris and Charles Aznavour was at the Alhambra but there were to be no Bonne Année concerts or dancing for Patrice. He had withdrawn hundreds of thousands of francs from his bank account and bought half a dozen books of Tiercé tickets from a café-tabac. And while others saw in the New Year at parties and in clubs and restaurants he was at home in Saint-Cloud working out his selections, filling out his Tiercé bets, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes like a cool and solitary existential hero.

Limelight II, the favourite for the Prix du Croisé-Laroche, was a popular and well-known horse who had won the corresponding race 12 months earlier. Back in August he had triumphed in a similar Tiercé race at Enghien-les-Bains. Limelight’s driver was also a popular if controversial figure. Roger Vercruysse – or ‘Green Thighs’ as he was nicknamed – had a reputation for sometimes inexplicably losing races when he appeared to be on a good thing, and for equally unfathomable victories on rank outsiders. Expecting his horses to always run to form was not advisable.

After discussions with his sources, Patrice gained the impression that Limelight was neither as fit nor as fancied as some correspondents believed. Indeed Des Moutis concluded that 1 January was not going to be Limelight’s day and that he would definitely not be in the first three. Buoyed by a contrastingly strong message for the second favourite, Loustic II, who had finished runner-up over the course and distance on Christmas Day, Patrice struck out the favourite, along with ten of the other 19 runners, and made Loustic II his base. He also liked a mare called Lobelia, another Vincennes regular with winning mid-winter form, and decided to back Loustic and Lobelia in multiple combinations with the other six horses.

Patrice was going to wager 24,000 francs on each combination, multiplied by 25 as decreed by the new PMU limit. But that was only the beginning. The gambler had pinned a giant map of Paris to his office wall and equipped with a list of PMU outlets that he’d acquired from Monsieur Calmels, owner of the Café Lutetia, he’d proceeded to underline 100 of the cafés with a red marker pen. The bureaux were mostly on the western and south-central sides of the city, and on New Year’s Day Patrice planned to visit as many of them as he could on foot, betting 24,000 francs times 25 on one of his permutations in each one of them. If he could reach anywhere like 100 offices he would have bet in the region of sixty million francs and comfortably, but legally, exceeded the PMU shop limit that had been designed specifically to stop him.

Trotters at Vincennes, which was at the centre of Des Moutis' audacious coup
Des Moutis set his alarm to go off at 6.30am on 1 January and by 8am he was showered, dressed and breakfasted and had driven down to his office in Neuilly and parked his car. The PMU Café Sainte-Foy was only a few steps away, and two minutes after the 8am opening time Patrice had placed his first 24,000-franc bet and had his yellow ticket punched by the machine. Then, with the list of PMU offices in his pocket, he set off. The hours he had spent running, skiing and cycling proved invaluable as he hurried from café-tabac to café-tabac. From Neuilly to the Porte de Saint-Ouen to the Place Clichy – headquarters of the gambling police, the Police des Courses et Jeux; from La Villette to Pigalle and the Grands Boulevards; from Les Halles to the Champs-Élysées.

The sun was shining but there had been a hard frost, and the streets were almost deserted except for a few early risers enjoying a New Year’s Day constitutional, and little groups of exhausted revellers wending their way home. As he hurried up Avenue de Wagram towards the Arc de Triomphe, Patrice passed the entrance to the Club de l’Étoile where youthful partygoers, or ‘twisteurs’, who had spent the night dancing to Chubby Checker, were just emerging on to the street, refreshed by the hot coffee, croissants and brioches supplied free of charge by the management.

At 11am Des Moutis stopped at a café for a rum St James but there were still 24 more PMU bureaux underlined in red on his map and he couldn’t linger. By midday he was working his way from the Place de l’Alma to the Trocadero and back up towards Place Victor Hugo and the 16th arrondissement. As the 1pm cut-off time approached, he realised he wasn’t going to get to all of the 100 bureaux on his list. But he’d only left out eight, which wasn’t bad going. Wagering a grand total of 55,200,000 francs, he had backed his main baseline combination over 1,300 times, comfortably exceeding the PMU’s ineffectual limit.

Cold, tired and hungry he might normally have gone on to lunch at his favourite café-restaurant, Le Flandrin. Half a dozen oysters maybe, from the Marennes-Oléron Basin, and a choucroute garnie or paupiettes de veau. But he had promised Marie-Thérèse that he would be at Brignogan, her family home in Brittany, in time for dinner that night, and he wasn’t joking when he’d told a friend that his wife would lay him out with a rolling pin, or worse, if he was late. There was just enough time for him to dash home, change and pack an overnight bag before getting back in to his Mercedes and heading west.

It was five o’clock, the light fading fast, and he was driving past the entrance to the Haras du Pin, the National Stud in Lower Normandy, when he heard the Tiercé result on the car radio. Maurice Bernardet, the announcer, reported that Loustic II had won the day’s big race, the Prix du Croisé-Laroche at Vincennes. An outsider, La Coulances, had finished second and the mare Lobelia was third. Patrice heard later that the favourite, Limelight, and his driver Roger Vercruysse, had dropped back after the first quarter-mile and, in racing parlance, had ‘made no show’.

La Coulances was another one of Patrice’s selections; the mathematician had done it again. Working it out swiftly in his head he calculated that he’d won approximately 492,660,000 francs or roughly £4.9 million in British money. Never before had one player won such a colossal sum from the PMU. Half a billion francs. It would take an average white-collar worker in France 25 years to earn that much in wages. It was more than eight times the prize-money for the 1961 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, and it was more than half the total pool gambled on the Tiercé of 1 January 1962.

Patrice stayed one night at Brignogan. He embraced his wife and hugged his children. He saluted his parents-in-law and welcomed in the New Year, and he ate and drank his fill. And in bed that night with his arms wrapped around Marie-Thérèse and feeling her ‘froideur’ thawing by the minute, he told her they would be going on a vacation very soon. To the sun. Or to the ski slopes. And only to the very best hotels.

They could go anywhere they liked.

Monsieur X, by Jamie Reid, published by Bloomsbury, is available on at £18.99


Never before had one player won such a colossal sum from the PMU
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