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Monday, 10 December, 2018

The writing’s on the wall for punting superstitions

How to catch up with the day’s racing results Millington-style
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The other day I was walking along the street with someone and they changed course to avoid walking under a ladder. I was shocked. In every other sense he had always struck me as a sensible human and yet here he was swerving towards the gutter in case bad luck befell him.

It reminded me that, where real life is concerned, I am the least superstitious person on the planet and that there is no room in my mind to visualise the possibility that there could be such things as karma, reincarnation, heaven, hell and ghosts.

Basically, if it hasn’t appeared in a David Attenborough documentary it doesn’t exist so why anyone would throw spilt salt over their shoulder, refrain from putting new shoes on the table, refuse to open an umbrella indoors or any other irrational little act is beyond me.

But I realised last week that when it comes to punting I do have my own funny set of traits and behaviours that I somehow think and hope will give my wagers a better chance of winning. And having chatted to friends and colleagues it appears I am not alone.

Most notably in my case this includes ensuring all betting slips are kept in a left-hand pocket. This is partly due to a general obsession with pocket management and an aversion to wallets, but it has stuck with me ever since I used to put on small bets at Catford dogs before I was legally allowed to punt (“two quid the four, down to boy,” the bookie would say).

I would also religiously pay tax at the time of placing the bet, which for those of you under 30 meant if you put a pound on a horse you had to stake £1.09 otherwise the nine per cent tax would be deducted from your winnings. It is weird to think that betting tax was still a thing as recently as 16 years ago.

Equally weird is my methodology when it comes to finding out how a bet got on that I did not follow live.

I’m sure some people just ruthlessly click on their favoured results page and find out as quickly as possible whether they have won or lost but I like to drag out the suspense.

This generally means going on to the Racing Post app, accessing the relevant racecard and then, before clicking on the live tab, squinting so I am able to tell the live commentary has appeared but not so I can read the text.

I then scroll down to the start of the commentary and relive it, furlong by furlong, in the most low-tech, as-live experience imaginable.

It works for me. In the pre-internet era I would press the number of the appropriate Teletext page and cover the screen with a page from The Sporting Life. I would then expose the top corner of the screen that would show I had the right page up and frantically ensure I pressed the hold button to prevent having to wait roughly six minutes for the 2.30 at Folkestone page to reappear.

Once I knew the result was on the screen I would slowly lower the paper, uncovering a little more of the screen until I got to the first letter of the winner’s name, whereupon I would keep going, pixel by pixel, until I could tell whether the first horse home started with the same letter as the one I had backed.

It still goes on. If I have backed a football team I will put my hand over my face and move it horizontally to reveal how many goals the opposition team have scored, braced for the crushing revelation that they have banged in two or more, before finally allowing the full result to be taken in. It is ludicrous behaviour and if a family member walks into the room while you appear to be sitting on the sofa staring at your slowly moving hand they worry for you, but it gets me through life.

Those who do not bet may well consider punting, with all its odd language and its participants’ quirky mannerisms, to be among the more weird members of society but that doesn’t bother me one iota.

At least I don’t salute magpies or fear for the next seven years when I smash a mirror.

Rugby's shame game

The autumn internationals are nearly upon us, which means sanctimonious souls will be taking every opportunity to remind everyone how much more marvellous rugby and rugby players are than football and footballers.

There are, as this column has acknowledged a few times, three ways in which rugby union is better than football: the referee wears a microphone so TV viewers can hear him; the players are not allowed to remonstrate with the referee, and when a player is injured the game continues even when he or she is receiving medical attention.

Other than that, football is the superior sport, which is why it is more popular and its players earn more. And if any rugby fan does try to occupy the moral high ground when debating with football followers, the Times kindly published the perfect tool for getting them to zip their lips.

It took the form of an astonishing and shocking story highlighting a slump in player numbers as a consequence of hideous initiation ceremonies that new participants are forced to endure before they are allowed to play the game.

I had assumed tales of these hijinks were largely apocryphal and had long since died out anyway since the days in the 1990s when rugby boys marauded around the Home Counties swigging aftershave, singing absurd songs and crossing the line between ‘laddish’ capers and actual physical and sexual assault.

But no. According to the Times story this ridiculous and reprehensible behaviour is alive and well, with numerous either embarrassing or genuinely disturbing examples quoted.

These include new players having to fish dead rats out of buckets using their mouths, having vomit thrown over them, being urinated upon and having digits and vegetables inserted into their backsides.

Little wonder the number of people prepared to endure this kind of conduct is reducing to such an extent that the RFU is now expressing significant concern.

I was horrified to learn that rugby union still has a major problem with how players treat one another and particularly that the problem is still linked to university rugby even though these pitiful initiation ceremonies have been officially banned.

Football is far from perfect but at least when a player arrives at a club his initiation is generally limited to standing up in front of his new colleagues and singing a song.

Pochettino's perfection

Mauricio Pochettino is fast becoming managerial royalty

On the subject of football being the best sport in the world, am I the only one who thinks the standard of play at the top of the Premier League has got even better?

Obviously we all sit through some stinkers when two clubs from the wealthiest league in the world do battle, and even when members of the big six lock horns we can be disappointed, such as when the chronically dull Jose Mourinho orchestrated a woeful bore draw against Liverpool recently.

But more and more I find myself captivated by what I am seeing, mostly from the wonderful Man City but also from what might optimistically be termed their title rivals, and last Sunday’s two top-flight TV games exemplified this.

First Arsenal, who are apparently useless and managed by someone who should have been sacked ages ago, tore apart Everton in a beautiful display of slick passing, clever movement and the kind of lethal counter-attacking for which they were so renowned when they were winning the league.

Then Tottenham pulverised Liverpool in equally scintillating fashion, highlighting two points about their managers that most people are still slow to acknowledge, namely that Jurgen Klopp is far less successful than is accepted and that Mauricio Pochettino is one of the best managers in the world.

Sooner or later the love for Klopp will fade unless someone explains what a defender is and people will grasp what a genius Pochettino is as a tactician, motivator and recruiter.

The betting market remains a little slow to cotton on to how good Spurs are, as the odds for their game at Old Trafford on Saturday illustrate. The north London aces can be backed at 9-4 and better to beat Man United and that is too good to miss.

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Equally weird is my methodology when it comes to finding out how a bet got on that I did not follow live
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