‘I didn’t even have the train fare to go and see my mum … I had a bit of a break­down’

The Guardian - Sport - - Interview -

Don­ald McRae

‘Iam a gam­bler,” Harry Find­lay says as if, af­ter talk­ing for three hours, the stark truth needs to be heard again. “If I had £1,000 left and there was a two-dog race at the bot­tom of my road and I didn’t know the form, but I could get al­most evens on both dogs, I’d put £500 on it. So I’m a bloody gam­bler. That ain’t chang­ing.” On his front room sofa in Axmin­ster, Devon, Harry the Dog, who knows what it is like to lose a £2.5m bet, ral­lies his fel­low hus­tlers. “If there’s a mes­sage I could pass on, it would be to all those who’ve ded­i­cated their life to gam­bling and sport. Maybe they’re think­ing about fam­ily and re­flect­ing: ‘Per­haps all this gam­bling wasn’t such a good idea?’”

The 55-year-old pauses, as if con­sid­er­ing a fleet­ing doubt, and then says: “Don’t fuck­ing be­lieve it. You’ve done the right thing be­ing a punter. You’re a bet­ter per­son for it. We all know money can’t buy hap­pi­ness but gam­bling is about more than money.”

Ev­ery day of Find­lay’s adult life, apart from the dark­est times, he has watched sport and gam­bled on it for a liv­ing. He has met his sport­ing he­roes – from Roger Fed­erer and Martina Navratilova to Lester Pig­gott and Jimmy White – and won more than £20m while gam­bling on games and races that en­thralled him. Find­lay has now writ­ten a book with Neil Har­man, the for­mer ten­nis cor­re­spon­dent for The Times, which cap­tures his big­gest vic­to­ries and sur­real scrapes. But there is a se­ri­ous­ness at the book’s heart, for, be­yond open­ing with a quote from Fy­o­dor Dos­to­evsky’s The Gam­bler, it un­cov­ers Find­lay’s con­sum­ing de­feats and de­pres­sion.

It echoes my con­ver­sa­tion with Find­lay’s wife, Kay, who has been with him for 28 years. Kay has en­joyed the good times but she of­fers a sober­ing view of her hus­band’s heartache. Other peo­ple have hurt him but gam­bling un­der­pins ev­ery­thing. His woes are a re­minder that this ad­dic­tion ru­ins lives.

“Ab­so­lutely,” Find­lay says. “But I’m a Dos­to­evskyite and there is no choice. You do it all the way.”

Find­lay’s reck­less streak came to a head in 2007 when he wa­gered £2.5m on New Zealand to win the Rugby World Cup. He booked a box at the Mil­len­nium Sta­dium in Cardiff to watch them romp home in a quar­ter-fi­nal. Find­lay only felt a quiver when he re­alised France were the un­pre­dictable op­po­si­tion.

At half-time, with New Zealand lead­ing 13-3, Find­lay called for more cham­pagne. He loved the All Blacks and his gam­ble was driven by emo­tion – and a de­sire to lessen his stress by se­cur­ing a wind­fall that would look af­ter Kay, him­self and their daugh­ters for years.

Find­lay could not curb a nig­gling worry that the mer­cu­rial French might drive him to the brink. Be­fore the sec­ond half started he stepped out­side for a smoke. “That gave me time to think I had bet­ter cover my­self.” He placed an­other bet – which would have cost him only £18,000 if New Zealand won but re­duced his loss amid a shock French vic­tory from £2.5m to £1.9m.

Dread churned inside Find­lay when France were 18-13 down. They then scored a try from a for­ward pass al­lowed by the ref­eree, Wayne Barnes. France led 20-18 and two mil­lion pounds were torched. “Wayne Barnes?” Harry the Dog barks. “I hated him like a Kiwi for a long time. But I watched Barnes do a game this year and I’d never seen ref­er­ee­ing like it. He was great.”

Find­lay does not har­bour a grudge, but the last 10 min­utes of that game must have been agony? “They were. It was a big fuck-up – but th­ese things hap­pen.”

Twelve years ago Find­lay could shrug off catas­tro­phe but many of his nongam­bling friends were wounded. The most up­set­ting was the fate of Char­lie – Find­lay’s for­mer gar­dener. Char­lie the Gar­dener was not a bet­ting man but one morn­ing, hav­ing lis­tened to Find­lay for weeks, he left an ice-cream tub on the gam­bler’s desk. Find­lay opened it and found £28,000 “in ice-cold cash”. Char­lie had handed over his life-sav­ings for an All Black punt.

Find­lay writes of “a dif­fer­ent kind of pain … the numb­ing re­al­i­sa­tion that I’d cost a lot of other peo­ple money.” How did Char­lie take the dev­as­tat­ing re­sult? “Like a to­tal man,” Find­lay says ca­su­ally. “And he had his last £1,000 on South Africa [the even­tual win­ners] as a saver and got some money back. Char­lie was re­ally philo­soph­i­cal.”

Find­lay backed New Zealand again four years later – bet­ting £230,000 [60% of his wealth at the time] to win £210,000. In the 2011 fi­nal they played France again and were rock­ing for the last 30 min­utes, cling­ing to an 8-7 lead. “I re­mem­ber go­ing to a steam bath af­ter­wards. I sat for 40 min­utes in the steam think­ing: ‘Fuck­ing hell. One penalty and I’d have lost 200 grand and a big chunk of my wealth.’ I had a drink with [the All Blacks coach] Steve Hansen three days later and he said: ‘We were fucked.’ No one knew this but he told me that half the team had flu that day.”

Gam­bling takes its toll but Find­lay says that, un­til 2013, “I’d never been de­pressed. No mat­ter how bad the lost for­tunes. The way I live my life, with my phi­los­o­phy, there is no way money alone would make me de­pressed. But the com­bi­na­tion of horse racing and the dog stuff was bru­tal. I felt like a mug.”

The dog days are over Harry Find­lay’s at­tempt to ‘save’ grey­hound racing left him de­pressed – ‘It sent me over a cliff’ – but the worst is be­hind him now

Jim Wile­man for the Guardian

Find­lay ful­filled the ul­ti­mate dream in Na­tional Hunt racing when his horse, Den­man, won the 2008 Gold Cup – but that was dwarfed by the ela­tion of his grey­hound, Big Fella Thanks, win­ning the Ir­ish Na­tional Cours­ing Derby in 1999. “I was al­ways a dog man,” Find­lay says.

He was an out­sider in horse racing – a loud and flash Harry the Dog – and he felt the es­tab­lish­ment looked down on him. In 2008 Find­lay wa­gered £80,000 on his horse Gullible Gor­don to win at Ex­eter. But just be­fore the race, when he thought trainer Paul Ni­cholls had given the wrong tac­tics to his jockey, he laid £18,000 on his own horse to lose. Find­lay would have made far more money had Gullible Gor­don won.

Find­lay was in­ves­ti­gated only when a sim­i­lar pat­tern of bets in­volv­ing the horse oc­curred in Oc­to­ber 2009 at Chep­stow. The gam­bler him­self alerted the author­i­ties to his pre­vi­ous use of the strat­egy at Ex­eter. In 2010 he was warned off for six months. A sub­se­quent dis­ci­plinary panel up­held the BHA de­ci­sion that the rules had been bro­ken on a tech­ni­cal­ity but found that “there has never been any sug­ges­tion that Gullible Gor­don did not run on its mer­its or that there was foul play on any­one’s part”. His pun­ish­ment was re­duced to a fine but Find­lay’s rep­u­ta­tion was “blitzed”, even when de­fended by AP McCoy and Clare Bald­ing. “I don’t want a badge of bloody hon­our but

I was good for racing. I also know gam­blers have an in­tegrity that some busi­ness­men wouldn’t know ex­isted. Why did they do it? Was I too anti­estab­lish­ment? Who knows?”

As some of the men who ran Bri­tish Racing in 2010 have left the sport, could Find­lay re­turn as an owner? “I’d never go back to racing in a mil­lion years.”

Find­lay was hurt even more by the Grey­hound Racing As­so­ci­a­tion. In 2013, back in the sport he adored, he tried to es­tab­lish Coven­try Sta­dium as the cen­tre of grey­hound racing. He spent £1.7m of his own money but he be­lieves the GRA never sup­ported the ven­ture. His in­abil­ity to earn an of­fi­cial BAGS [Book­mak­ers Af­ter­noon Grey­hound Ser­vice] con­tract se­verely im­peded his chances of mak­ing Coven­try prof­itable. “When Clive Feltham took over the GRA they had eight tracks left and they now have two,” Find­lay stresses. “The racing I put on at Coven­try was sen­sa­tional but it sent me over the cliff. I was go­ing to sell my daugh­ter’s flat to keep it go­ing.”

Find­lay sur­ren­dered be­fore mak­ing that mis­take and, “since then, [tracks at] Wim­ble­don and Hall Green closed. The sport’s run so badly, I thought it was my des­tiny to save it.”

Once the dog dream died in 2014, Find­lay be­came se­ri­ously de­pressed. “The fact I nearly knocked Kay into obliv­ion scared me shit­less. I’d lost the fam­ily ev­ery­thing and put £1.7m down the drain. I didn’t have the train fare to see my mum and had a bit of a break­down. Kay had it worse [when her credit cards were blocked] but she would try to sort it with­out telling me.

“The morn­ings were so bad I wouldn’t get out of bed. Kay would bring me scram­bled eggs but I couldn’t eat. I’d come down in the af­ter­noon and watch Point­less. It was a noth­ing life. I started bet­ting again to sur­vive and had to win two grand a month. A late goal could mean that in­stead of win­ning £1,200 I lost two grand. It aged me. I was sure it would knock me out – and it would’ve done but for the Rab­bitohs.”

Aus­tralia’s Na­tional Rugby League, and Sam Burgess’s South Sydney Rab­bitohs, res­cued Find­lay in the Bri­tish au­tumn of 2014. “When you’re de­pressed and NRL is your favourite sport, it’s amaz­ing to watch it in the morn­ings. Even feel­ing shit, when you’ve got 700 quid on the Rab­bitohs against the Roost­ers it’s a lot bet­ter than watch­ing fuck­ing Vic­to­ria Der­byshire.”

The Rab­bitohs had not won the NRL since 1971 but Find­lay put ev­ery­thing he owned on them be­com­ing cham­pi­ons. “We had over 70 grand on one match. It felt like seven mil­lion. So it wasn’t just the fact the Rab­bitohs won and gave me 70 grand when we had noth­ing.”

He is less en­am­oured by the ubiq­ui­tous pres­ence of Ray Win­stone ped­dling Bet365 while fans watch foot­ball on TV. Find­lay talks into my recorder as if the meaty face of sports bet­ting might be tucked inside. “With all dis­re­spect, Ray, your last ad­vert is re­ally glossy. You’ve got peo­ple on surf­boards and traips­ing through the moun­tains. You should be ashamed of your­self, mate. He wants you to join some glam­orous club but it doesn’t ex­ist.”

Find­lay lets rip with an amus­ing rant against cash-outs and the cur­rent bet­ting in­dus­try which is too li­bel­lous to be re­peated here, but he does make a salient point that it is “wrong that, as ev­ery win­ning bet pays Bet­fair a com­mis­sion, small play­ers should have to pay 5% while big play­ers only pay 2%. It’s nearly im­pos­si­ble to win over a long pe­riod if you’re pay­ing 5% rather than 2%. We need a new bet­ting plat­form.”

I ask Find­lay about cor­rup­tion in sport, of­ten driven by gam­bling syn­di­cates. “A lot goes on. They bet on Fu­tures [ten­nis] matches and lower leagues. No ten­nis re­porter says: ‘You were 75% favourite and it was 25% the other guy an hour be­fore the game. Then, just be­fore you started, the odds go the other way. Did it change be­cause you stood on glass and shouldn’t have played or some­one heard you had a ter­ri­ble headache? Tell us the rea­sons be­cause the maths don’t lie.’”

Sport can be crooked and gam­bling is of­ten ru­inous. But Find­lay now fol­lows a quiet rou­tine. We are in­ter­rupted just twice by calls from his best friend. “Glenn [Gill] is the best horse judge I’ve ever met. He tells me what to bet and how much. To have won over £250,000 the last two years bet­ting on small stakes is amaz­ing.”

En­thu­si­asm is surg­ing be­cause of Harry’s lat­est sure thing. “I’ve wa­gered £30,000 on Mel­bourne Storm win­ning the NRL. That would make me £43,500 which, apart from back­ing May­weather against McGre­gor, is three times big­ger than any bet I’ve had the last year. The fact £30,000 feels like a mil­lion quid makes it even more ex­cit­ing.”

Over the next few days he mes­sages me of­ten, send­ing news of the great Mel­bourne team, even when the Storm sur­vived a scare last Satur­day against the Par­ra­matta Eels. As the texts and storm emo­jis fly in, Find­lay is happy again. The bat­tered old gam­bler is still work­ing. Harry the Dog is still hus­tling.

Pro­fes­sional punter Harry Find­lay on beat­ing de­pres­sion and how it feels to lose a £2.5m bet

I couldn’t eat. In the af­ter­noon I’d get up and watch Point­less. It was a noth­ing life

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