HARRY Findlay has never been in much danger of emulating Flann O’Brien’s wise old bird and its long odds against that he’ll be doing it anytime soon. In fact, he has the opposite problem.
If the spoken word was electricity then Findlay would be a power station and his conversations run like half punctuated streams of consciousness in which time is not necessarily sequential.
He nurses an early evening pint in a Ballsbridge pub where he has arrived directly from the airport.
One of the sport’s most familiar and fearless professional gamblers he’s has been less in the limelight in recent years but the accent is still the same cockney hybrid of old despite being born and bred in Buckinghamshire.
It doesn’t take too long for him to show that he remains as spikily opinionated as ever. “You wouldn’t f***in’ believe it,” he says, incredulous. “They booked on to Ryanair and now into some f***in’ budget hotel. I changed that. Not havin’ that!”
Ten Years After
It’s late autumn and the air is beginning to cool, the ground is getting softer, the winds stronger and the leaves browner. The National Hunt racing season hasn’t quite stretched itself yet but it has opened its eyes, checked the time.
This time ten years ago Denman was hard into a pre-season training regime for a jumps campaign that would stamp him as one of the greatest staying chasers since Arkle and his joint owner, Harry Findlay as one of horse racing’s most vocal and combustible owners.
The decade since then has been turbulent for Findlay and he is in Ireland to tell a tale he has documented in a recently published memoir, ‘Gambling for Life.’ Ireland generally has always been important to Findlay and he is glad to be back and he still reveres Cork in particular as his comfy spiritual nest.
One mention of the place and he drifts easily off into fond memories of times past.
“The warmth of West Cork,” he remembers misty-eyed. “The happiest days of my Jack the Lad life. I’ve lived like a lunatic, but what I do know is that I have never ever been happier than when I was coursing in Cork and not just because of the Derby win.”
His win in the 1999 Irish Coursing Derby with his beloved greyhound, Big Fella Thanks, trained by Denis O’Driscoll in Skibbereen, is by far the most emotionally charged passage of the book. But his remembered lunacy wasn’t just confined to dogs and hares.
“One of the best buzzes I ever got was when I once won £1,400 in Rosscarbery on the road bowling and it was in Bandon that I had my unluckiest loser ever. They used to have this road racing around a bale of hay, Curly (O’Driscoll) was marking my card and he said the 1/5 favourite should be 1/500. It always rains in Cork and there was a monsoon that day and I’m standing in a hedge with £1,500 to win three but at the off my horse just stood there, didn’t move. When he eventually started they were almost at the turn at the bale of hay and he was only beaten a length and half. I couldn’t even buy my daughter a bar of chocolate.”
In those two West Cork gambling memories lies Harry Findlay’s life in microcosm, rolling along steeply like a silhouette of a mountain range. Up and down, up then down, up and down again and again.
Solid childhood, hard-working parents, loving family, football fanatic.
Disinterested and bored in school, wayward teenage years.
Intellectual youthful curiosity, circle of interesting friends, form savant at dog tracks.
Wrong crowd, credit card fraud, prison. Broke, begin again.
Marries Kay Duggan, gambling successes, extravagant lifestyle, Big Fella Thanks wins the Coursing Derby. Down:
Loses €2 Million on the All Blacks in the 2007 Rugby World Cup. Broke, begin again.
The Denman years, an exuberant man of the people in an elite and tweedy world. Millions won on Asian handicap football betting. Another fortune won on the ‘Scoop Six.’
Banned from racing for a breach of betting rules.
Declared bankrupt for non-payment of daughter’s school fees.
Loses a fortune on a dog track business.
Depression. Broke, begin again.
So many recent downs - so what happened? He starts near the back of his story, about three years ago.
His attempt to corner the British dog racing market has gone down in flames, he’s recently lost his splendid Wiltshire mansion to creditors and is living in a small house near Axminster in Devon. Kay, as always, is at his shoulder but apart from her usual solidity the rest of his world has been tipped upside down.
“I was gone,” he says. “I wanted to die, I had no money, I collapsed. I am an optimist by nature and I always thought that if you could measure happiness through index that I’d be among the happiest people in the world. Everything was level but after the BHA thing (British Horseracing Authority ban, subsequently revoked and converted to a fine) all that changed. I became aggressive, drinking a bit more. Then after the Coventry thing, that changed too, I became depressed. I wanted to die.
“The only thing I lived for was to try get back some solvency for Kay, get her some readies. I was unemployable, it was the only time ever that I lost my self-respect, putting my family in such a vulnerable situation.”
Tilting at Windmills
The ‘Coventry thing’ refers to his most recent and spectacularly disastrous tilt at another of those big fat windmills he likes to challenge.
Known since his youth by the nickname ‘Harry the Dog’ his betting excursions into football, rugby and snooker were merely supplemental to his one true passion - greyhound racing.
“I only ever bought horse to start with because of my Mum who’d retired and I wanted to get her an interest in something,” he asserts, “then Denman come along and couple of my good mates loved it a lot more than me, buying the horses, enjoying the company. I never felt I didn’t belong, never thought about it because honestly, I never gave a f***.
Here is the publishable version of what happened at Coventry. Findlay acquired operational control of the existing dog track in an arrangement with the leaseholder where he would take care of the day-to-day costs of running the place and then ultimately kick back 50% of profits back to the owner.
In addition to making some money, his motivation was to rescue his beloved sport which he thought was being destroyed by a cartel of vested interests and that the only way to salvage things was to take a lump hammer to the status quo.
He visibly tenses as he recalls how it all panned out. “I know the dog industry in Britain and Ireland for that matter, is in trouble and I know my knowledge is far superior to anybody else. I felt it was my destiny to save it,” he explains.
“Greyhound racing had become worthless and needed a good product and a strong betting package. What I did was brilliant. I did the programmes, the commentaries, the race cards. I put together a great betting algorithm with seven different variables. I did everything right and I still got shafted. They played me along all the time, they gave me their word, they said they wanted me. I was strung along by some of the top businessmen in British sport.”
His business model was both innovative and simple. Create a fair track with good facilities and then build a strong and transparent betting market. Package it all up tidily and sell on to satellite and ‘on line’ sports channels. He ploughed every remaining penny he had into the project, a personal commitment of almost £1.6 million stg, coincidentally a figure roughly the same as he blew on the All Blacks.
“Yeah, but it wasn’t like losing £1.6 million quid on a bet trying to win £700,000 on rugby. I could have said that to Kay, who would know that we are in this together,” he says. “But losing £1.6 million on trying to build and own a dog track without ever having the possibility getting a penny back, that’s different. Effectively I put the last of the family’s money down the drain, left myself without a shilling the only thing I owned was a retired greyhound.”
Things began to go awry when he failed to secure any of the broadcasting contracts that he badly needed, despite what were, in his opinion, solid verbal promises. The coup de grace came when the track owner informed him that the ‘free’ leasehold would now, in fact, cost him half a million pounds.
One of his strongest industry supporters and long-time friend, John Boyle of Boylesports then asked to meet him at his company’s offices in Dundalk. “I sat talking to John,” he recounts, “then when he said he knew a good psychiatrist near Southampton I knew I was f***ed. I thought his behaviour was strange and I got the distinct impression he was trying to warn me of worse news to come.”
He took the steer, returned immediately to Coventry only to be told of a price change to the lease which was a deed of execution. “When the owner said he wasn’t going to put a charge on the lease I believed him.
Every ticket is a piece of hope
Harry Findlay believes that a combination of vested interests in the British greyhound racing deliberately played him along with false promises and then dumped him to eliminate him as a threat to their turf.
They gave him just enough rope to hang himself and he bounded both gleefully and stupidly up every booby-trapped step of his own gallows.
Gallows seemed to be on his mind a lot in the aftermath. “Suicide.” He says the word and reflects on it, his conversation slows for once. “I’d stay in bed until two in the afternoon, wouldn’t eat, never left the house for five months. I’d gone from being the happiest man in the world to wanting to die. It was terrible. I just didn’t know what to do. Somebody sent me to the best doctor in London and he told me that I had to stop smoking weed and start taking the tablets. Then my Mum got worried and begged me to come off the tablets and get back in the game.”
Gradually he began to listen to Mum.
“The World Cup (2014 Brazil) was coming up and I always win in big in the World Cup, but I’d no confidence, I had lost it all. So one day I sat down with Kay, talked it through and we decided to sell the Fiat we owned for six thousand, a watch for five grand and we put most of the money into a betting exchange account. I had two grand of it on a horse to win five and it ‘shit’ up. I now had sixteen thousand for the World Cup. I turned it into £74,000.
So: financial ruin, a long history of heavy gambling, overuse of alcohol, cannabis, depression, prescription medication and now it seems logical to sell your only remaining possessions of any worth and dump the proceeds into a betting account. Harry, wasn’t this just plain dangerous?
“Dangerous?” he replies. “Gambling, cannabis, drink? That’s the thing, isn’t it? I didn’t care, did I? I has spent fifty years of my life thinking that I wanted to live till I was a hundred but going from being such a positive thinker to not caring – there are some advantages to that you know.
“If I keel over or get cancer I’ll be upset, at least I’ve had the buzz of winning.
“If I work hard winning five thousand on a Saturday I feel like a millionaire on the Sunday. When you’re a gambler you don’t have to be a millionaire to feel like one. Every ticket is a piece of hope.”
This is the vindication he seems to be searching for still. That feeling that he’s right, that anticipation of success.
“Let me take you back to a night at Slough dogs when I was 17 or 18,” he continues. “Saturday night, great track, full house, great atmosphere. I knew that in the last race the (trap) one dog would go three or four lengths clear at the first bend. I had it as a 1-2 shot, but it was even money on the boards. I had £200 in the world and I had it all on. It was moderately away and I wasn’t sure it was far enough clear to hold on, but it won a short head and that was like winning the Gold Cup, I promise you. I remember that night like it was yesterday, the feeling I got when I won the two-hundred, the feeling I got from knowing I was right.”
A Good Place?
At the height of the Denman years, Harry Findlay lived in a luxurious mansion on the outskirts of Bath.
When he was at home his work days were spent in an annex in the garden that looked like bridge of a spaceship. Screens and technology were on every wall, no sporting event inaccessible, no gambling opportunity unconsidered and no expense spared on the most modern of information technology.
Nowadays, at 55, his life is has downsized to more modest and simpler proportions.
The man who once loved to spend a king’s ransom on a single meal says he is now content to stroll most days to the local fishmonger for the day’s supper and wash it all down with a bottle of wine for seven quid.
“Me and Kay are getting on great, she’s like Benjamin Button, better looking than she was 22 years ago. But I will never, ever own a dog or a horse again.
I still need the betting to make my brain work, even though I know gambling is such a massive thing. I have one bet today, £600 on a 7/2 shot (it lost). I can’t explain my body, we all get different hits.”
“Look,” he emphasises, “here’s the bottom line, I made £20m and I spent £20m and people accuse me of losing it all, but this I know. I have spent twenty million quid and have never done a normal day’s work in my life.
“Patrick Veitch (professional gambler) says he won ten million and everybody thinks he’s a genius. I won twice that and everybody says I’m an odds-on idiot. I used to let people think I was an idiot. But not anymore. Not anymore.”
These sound a lot like the words of a wise old bird after all. Harry the Dog, slayer of bookies, scourge of the authorities, media darling, friend of the common man settled at last.
It’s priced up at 33/1 against.