Picture it, its November 2005, the location, Cheltenham racecourse, time, about an hour prior to the first race of the day, its opening day of the Paddy Power Gold Cup meeting. Under a grey sky with steadily dropping temperatures the crowd gathers thru the gates. In the betting circles, the bookies are pitching. Pompous men such as Barry Dennis, noticeably having his leaving the provision to his people, flings louder enquiries back and forth. Gregory and John Hughes are there; Andy Smith and John Christie are there; Mickey 'The Asparagus Kid' Fletcher, face like a 'Wanted' poster, scowls from the sidelines. But Scotsman Freddie Williams, a famed drama actor, hasn't yet arrived. Somewhat miniature in stature he may be, yet he's known as the biggest bookmaker at Prestbury Park.
Freddie delaying his entrance sits comfortably in his Jaguar hundreds of yards away in the members' car parking lot. His daughter Julie, and other members of his on-course team are already in place on the pitch. Freddie The softly spoken boss confers with them by phone, always monitoring the early activity and estimating the moves of the day.
At the Cheltenham Festival in March 1999, JP McManus, the Sundance Kid of racing legend, a colossal £100,000 each way at 7/1 on his own horse in the Per tempts Hurdle Final. This wasn't some transaction by chance. It was a very deliberate, planned action in the hand-to-hand combat in the heat and gun-smoke of the Festival. Shannon Gale, trained by Christy Roche, finished fourth and JP collected £175,000 from the each-way part of his wager. If he had finished first, Freddie Williams would have had a payout in the ballpark of the £900,000. To clearly understand what makes him such an accomplished man we need to take a look at his whole life. What makes his story so interesting is not just his enthusiastic embrace of customary betting and his detest for the cautious, corporate approach of the big betting-shop chains but also credit that this is a man came from a modest beginning and earned the right to be a player on the greatest racing stage of them all.
Freddie was born in 1942 in Cumnock, East Ayrshire. His father was a miner, like his father before him. Freddie, like the rest of his male relations and colleagues, would have gone down the pit himself had he not failed the medical exam at the age of 15. Instead he became a mining engineer.
After a few years Freddie went to work for a soft drink company. Everyone knew bet in those days, and the backbone of gambling in the mining communities was 'pitch and toss'. Horse racing, especially jump racing, was exerting a far greater allure.
I was lucky to earn a pound a week at the time. I kept my money in a tin box. There were illegal betting offices all around Ayrshire and I put every dime I could on Pas Seul. He made it to the last stretch but then he fell.' Williams laughs sorrowfully at the memory. 'Kerstin stayed on to win the race.
Pas Seul made no mistake the next year, though.' Freddie's was not alone in his love of a punt.In fact it was shared by his workmates at Currys.
He bought his first bookmaking pitch at Ayr in 1974, followed by one in Hamilton and one in Musselburgh. He would go on to own seven betting offices. After Currys was bought out again in 1991, Freddie, already worth over a million, started his own bottled-water business called Caledonian Clear.
Some of competitors like to say that it must be very nice to try bookmaking when you have another job paying your bills.However, Freddie emphatically denies racing job is some sort of sideline. 'Bookmaking is my livelihood and my passion in life.' Freddie has said.
The enthusiasm and nerve Freddie brings to his job is something the Southerners had not witnessed for themselves until the massively overdue reforms that allowed racecourse pitches to be bought and sold at public auction in the late 1990s. The old-fashioned system of Dead Man's Shoes, the bookmaking pitches were restricted to successive generations of the same family, was a sort of Masonic protection swindle that shut out new money and new faces from the ring.
The Scotsman got an early start on 1st January 1999 and again in March. It didn't take McManus to seek him out. As well as conflicting Shannon Gale, the bookmaker also accepted Nick Dundee. Dundee was the Irish banker of the week. The young novice ran in the colours of McManus' close friends John and Sue Magnier. But Freddie didn't fancy Nick Dundee. 'I was going 11/8, One gentleman wanted £80,000 on, and I laid it to him, but I didn't take down the price. He looked at me for a moment then asked for the bet again. So I laid him another £110,000 to £80,000, but I still not taking down the price.'
It was a close-run race. Then it happened Nick Dundee's legs buckled landing over the third last fence. Plus, presumably, the sound of one Scottish heart beating faster. Freddie was not always so lucky.
Although the bookie and punter seem to be natural enemies, they also tend to respect each other alot. 'We're friends,' says Williams sincerely. 'John was in business as a bookmaker for 15 years. He had a good bet on Dawn Run when she won the Gold Cup in 1986 and that helped him to change his life. However, he told me that if she'd lost, he'd have been skint the following week.'
Freddie admits, 'Festival trading is totally draining, which is why I stay in a nice, quiet hotel. When you get back, all you want to do is eat and sleep. I'm afraid I'm well behind in the entertainment stakes.'
There was plenty of entertainment on November '04, though: The Rising Moon, running in the McManus colours, was the medium of a £100,000 plunge at 3/1. Half an hour later, JP's Spot The Difference won the Sporting Index cross-country chase. Someone stuck on £28,000 at 7/1 for a payout of nearly two hundred grand.
Next year at the Festival? JP will be there, as will Freddie Williams. It just wouldn't be Cheltenham without the champions of the betting ring.