Fearless Freddie Williams: the legendary layer who took on the biggest punters
Peter Thomas speaks to Julie Williams about her father's reputation in the ring
This article was first published in the Racing Post on October 19, 2011
Fearless Freddie they called him. He liked to see the whites of a punter's eyes before he took their money and the bigger the backer, the better he liked it. It takes a certain kind of man to handle the hand-to-hand combat and the juddering financial impact of the ring, but Williams claimed he had a crucial physiological advantage over mere mortals when it came to coping with the pressure.
"He once joked with me," recalls his daughter Julie, "that there's a little valve in your heart that gets the blood running and gives you palpitations. He insisted that his valve was on the other way round, which was why he didn't feel palpitations the way the rest of us do, didn't get the repercussions inside him as his heart started to beat faster. I thought he was teasing me, but now I'm not sure.
"The thing was, he loved the cut and thrust. On racedays you could feel the excitement generating from him, especially when it came to the big meetings. Without racing he wouldn't have been the man he was because it brought out so much in him, so much passion. It was his life."
Williams had betting shops, a handful of them dotted around his Ayrshire homeland, but it was in the racecourse betting jungle that he made his name and built his legacy. His legendary, unflinching duels with big-hitting punter JP McManus have already passed into the folklore of the turf little more than three years after Williams' death from a heart attack in June 2008 – some of them still beggar belief in this age of bookmaking accountancy.
He was an old-fashioned layer with strong opinions. If he disagreed with you, he'd accommodate your wager until the cows came home. He was right to the extent that, when he died, he left an estate worth £8 million. But he was also wrong on several momentous occasions, when his long-running war with McManus, among others, threw up battles that left Williams bloodied but never bowed for very long.
In March 2000, at his spiritual home at the Cheltenham Festival, Williams famously laid a bet of £110,000-£80,000 on the John Magnier-owned favourite Nick Dundee without so much as wiping his board and, when the punter went straight back for a second helping at the same price, took the bet before watching the horse fall at the third-last when vying for the lead.
At the big meeting six years later, Williams laid McManus a bet of £100,000 on Reveillez at 6-1 and, when that horse won, boldly accepted £5,000 each-way on another of the owner's runners, the 50-1 shot Kadoun, which also obliged. Owing more than £1m to his old adversary, Freddie left the course in his car with Julie and her boyfriend, only for the three to be attacked on the way back to their hotel by armed robbers, who made off with an estimated £70,000.
For many, the multiple losses would have all been too much, but Williams was made of sterner stuff than most. He had fought tooth and nail to drag himself up from a life of hard knocks in a Scottish pit village, had waited impatiently for the end of the 'dead men's shoes' system of pitch allocation before finally buying himself the right to take on the heavy-hitters from the No.2 spot at Cheltenham and he wasn't the kind of man to surrender those gains willingly.
"After the carjacking, at first he was so upset and disgusted with what had happened," says Julie, "but you just have to brush yourself down and get on with things – that was his view, it was all character-building stuff.
"When the pitches came up for sale, it was just a few weeks after he'd had a triple heart bypass [Williams admitted to 'bad eating, bad hours and 70 cigarettes a day'] and I think he literally crawled along the airport corridor on his way to the auction. When he had his hip done in 2006, it was only four weeks before the festival, but there was no way he wasn't going to be there, despite the pain he was in. That's the kind of man he was."
That was Frederick Sidney Williams, born in 1942 in the coal mining stronghold of Cumnock, South Ayrshire, bedridden as a child by polio, deprived of several years of formal education and barred on medical grounds from life down the pit, where his great-grandfather had lost an arm before recovering to make a living as a coal merchant.
Freddie began his working life sweeping floors in the local lemonade factory but rose to manager and, following a management buyout, ended up making the first part of his fortune as a big player in the fizzy pop business. It was always betting that stirred his blood, however, from the days when he laid odds at the miners' pitch and toss games to the formative years of his racecourse career, beginning at the local dog tracks and leading to the purchase of a pitch at Ayr in 1974.
Even in those early days, he had a reputation as a betting maverick. The really major skirmishes were yet to come, but in any arena, with any size of backer, he would relish the eyeball-to-eyeball conflict and be ever eager to put his beliefs and his hard cash on the line.
"In the old days, he was certainly very entrepreneurial, let's put it that way," says Julie. "I remember he built a little train and he'd drive it down to the seashore. It would take five hours to get there and he'd take the kids on rides to earn some extra money.
"At the pitch and toss schools, which were fairly big in mining communities but totally illegal, he started off as a lookout when he was very, very young, but after that he was involved quite heavily and one night he lost all the money that was meant to buy my mum's engagement ring. I think she understood what she was getting into, even then.
"The stakes were raised when he went to Cheltenham, but even at the Scottish tracks before that he would have laid heavily if he really didn't fancy something, because he'd very much bet to opinion. If he didn't fancy something, it wouldn't matter what the person was doing next door – he'd be two, three, four points bigger but, equally, he wouldn't lay you tuppence on something he did fancy."
With his finances and his reputation firmly in place, Williams embraced the deregulation of pitches to leapfrog over the slow-moving queue and buy into the big time. The established big layers moved aside under the force of the tidal wave of bookmaking energy coming down from the north and, in January 1999 at Cheltenham's traditional New Year's Day meeting, the newcomer had his first meaningful encounter with McManus. The intrepid punter put £90,000 on the Queen Mother's Buckside at odds of 2-1. The horse led at the last but faded up the hill, sparing the bold layer's heart and wallet another pounding.
Soon, even that wager would pale, if not into insignificance, at least into normality. McManus was a big backer by habit, not on an occasional basis, and was to provide another early test of Williams' bookmaking prowess, although perhaps not in the expected way. It wasn't so much carrier bags of used bank notes, more a nod and a gentleman's agreement, but the drama between these friendly arch rivals was none the less for that.
"The first time he came to us with a bet of more than £100,000 chaos erupted on the joint," laughs Julie. "All Dad wanted was a quiet few seconds to think about it, but there was a technical problem. Dad thought his clerk wasn't working the machine properly, but it turned out the computer wasn't programmed to take a bet of that size. The pair of them together managed to beat technology.
"But Dad loved that kind of challenge. He was part bookie, part gambler and there were days when I would look over what our liabilities were and there would be one horse in the whole race that could win for us and everything else was a really big loser, especially at Cheltenham. Obviously, he'd made a very clear decision that he thought this horse was the winner of the race and he was happy to lay everything else and take that risk, that gamble."
Williams once tried to steer his daughter away from the family business by buying a restaurant for her to run, but it was to no avail and to this day she stands in his shoes at the track, although not on such a satchel-exploding scale as her old man.
"The restaurant was never really an option," she says. "He forgot he'd given me a taste of his life, so the choice was a bit of a no-brainer."
A life based on hard graft
At the height of his laying fame Williams embraced the media exposure he received, on the television and in the newspapers, ever happy to share his passion for racing with anybody who showed an interest. Mostly, however, his was a life based on hard graft and the assurances of the form book. He died of a heart attack on June 21, 2008 after a day spent working at Ayr racecourse and an evening shouting the odds at Shawfield.
In an age of growing restrictions and regulations, he plied his trade in a manner that was refreshingly personal and to the point, never forgetting his days among the Scottish pitmen, for whom racing was as much a passion as it was for him.
"When all's said and done, he absolutely loved the horses, he lived and breathed it," concludes Julie. "When you're in a village coming to do the same job day in and day out, you need something that excites you and takes you out of yourself. In the factory and the mines racing took people into fantasy land.
"Coming from where he did, I don't think he ever thought he'd see Cheltenham, never mind stand and work there, so it was a dream come true for him and he always wanted to make the most of it."
The life of Freddie Williams
Dates Born Cumnock, Ayrshire, October 28, 1942; died Cumnock, Ayrshire, June 21, 2008, from a heart attack.
Modus operandi A daredevil on-course layer prepared to accommodate the heaviest hitters in amounts the high street layers mostly abandoned a generation ago. Loved the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation and the psychological warfare.
Best of times Made his first million in the fizzy drinks business but his life was changed by the democratisation of the allocation of on-course pitches – legislation that allowed him to fulfil his potential as the bravest of layers.
Worst of times March 16, 2006, the Cheltenham Festival. Williams ended the day owing in the region of £1 million to JP McManus after the successes of Reveillez and Kadoun and was then attacked by armed robbers on the drive home and relieved of another £70,000. He bounced back, needless to say.
What he said
"I get a real buzz from the betting ring. There is a constant challenge. The reward is not always important. The betting shop is just like selling Mars bars. People come in and give you money. Cheers. The only decision you make is whether to open the door in the morning" – Williams describes his motivation
"I work hard and study form, watch the racing and then watch the big backers in the ring. I see what they know, against what I know. It's a pitching of wits, yours against theirs. That's what I love" – Williams on his passion
"I have a feeling John wants to be the first punter ever to have a million pounds on a horse at the festival. I love the guy to bits, don't get me wrong, but he's given me a lot of sore heads" – Williams on his nemesis JP McManus
"There is no last race" – Williams on the never-ending game
What they said
"We had some jousts over the years at the Cheltenham Festival. Racing has lost a colourful and loving character. The betting ring will be a much quieter place without him" – JP McManus mourns the passing of his friend and rival
"When he was working, he was a giant of a man – impressive and aggressive. But off the stool, he was a fantastic loyal friend and great fun" – bookmaking colleague Bert Logan
"He was as happy taking £100,000 bets at Cheltenham as he was taking £2 off wee Shuggie at the dogs in Glasgow" – friend Alan Thomson on the man with the common touch
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