A few minutes before the train reached the racetrack the Butterfly's friend leaned across the table and said, "Oi say, John, d'yer know 'ow to mike a small fortune on the 'orses? Yer start wiv a big fortune!"
John Mort Green, who calls himself the Butterfly, emitted a guffaw that was slightly larger than life, even though he himself had told me the same alleged joke the day before. Still chuckling, the Butterfly returned to the pleasures of his steak and Stilton, his lager and lime, and the green-on-green English countryside flashing by the window. As the train pulled in, the friend leaned forward confidentially and said, "Now, John, be sure to let me know if yer 'ear anything, won't yer?"
"Of course, mite," said the Butterfly in his strident, high-pitched, Australian-accented voice. "You're entitled to know. You'll be the first told, private, O.K.? We'll bet well and come home early!"
It is part of the Butterfly's modus operandi to collect information and at the same time try to create the impression that he is sharing valuable information in return. This, plus a certain natural Australian joviality, makes him laugh at jokes that he has already heard and appear to enjoy people more than they deserve, while all the time he is listening, always listening. "If they operated on me," he said recently in a moment of candor, "they'd probably find a stomach full of ears." In his business John Mort Green can use every one of them. He is that rarest of all sporting phenomena: the successful professional horseplayer.
August 8, 1965
On the surface of it (and on the surface is precisely where the Butterfly's life is lived), his is a happy lot. As a London telecast put it a few weeks ago:
"Every punter dreams of easy money, living like a lord. Few ever do, but this man does: John Mort Green, alias Butterfly. Butterfly is 34 years old and lives entirely by gambling. He goes racing six days a week, and sometimes seven. He flies to Paris on a Sunday. Butterfly has a chauffeur-driven Rolls to take him to the track, a luxury flat, Savile Row suits and handmade shoes. He earns an average of ¬£200 a week, and it's all tax-free. He chose to live in Britain because in this country gambling on horses is completely untaxed. Butterfly cashes in. He's a systematic gambler and insists he can stop whenever he wants to."
The American bettor, still blighted by the Damon Runyon pronunciamento about elderly horseplayers, is under the impression that nobody makes a living at the track except jockeys, horses and flamingos. But that is because the American bettor understands only American racing. The English variety is as different as football is from soccer, or Levittown from Hyde Park Corner. In America one fights the pari-mutuels with their relentless one-sixth off the top. In England one fights the bookies, who are only human, their own protestations of infallibility notwithstanding. "On the American tracks I'm a derelict," John Mort Green admits.
The largest reason for the Butterfly's success lies in the peculiar nature of English racing. It tends toward naughtiness. Things happen. A horse with a lock on a race goes around the track like a somnambulist and finishes eighth. A horse nobody ever heard of, with six consecutive out-of-the-money finishes, wins over a strong field by 10 lengths under a fierce drive. Sick horses suddenly get well, and well horses suddenly get sick, and over it all hangs a cheery atmosphere of boys will be boys, everybody has to make a pound and let the bettor beware. As a result, successful punting in England becomes more a matter of information than a matter of handicapping. What horse is being held back intentionally, being "stopped"? What horse is really trying? Do the trainer and the owner want to win the race, or have they bet their horse to lose? (You can bet a horse to win or lose in England.) Enter John Mort Green with his stomach full of ears, his mysterious phone calls, his close liaison with the corps of Australian jockeys, England's elite. "I may not win every race," the Butterfly says with becoming modesty, "but I pride myself on one thing: I'm never on dead meat. Oh, I might bet 10 horses a year that are being stopped. The average punter might back 300 and never know that his horses were dead from the beginning. Sometimes the trainer or the owner is in on the deal. Sometimes the jockey stops the horse for his own purposes. Some of 'em here'd stop a locomotive.———would stop the Constantinople Express, that bostid! To me, that's the worst thing can happen to a punter, when you have your money on a dead horse. Oh, I spit blood when that happens! You have to know your jockeys. Take Hutchinson R. [The Butterfly always refers to a jockey's last name first, followed by the first initial.] Hutchinson R. always rides to win. The Happy Horseman, we call him, always grinning, rides for the Premier Duke and Earl of England. A lovely little boy is Hutchinson R., never had a bet in his life. He has a beautiful wife, a nice family, doesn't drink too much, likes a party occasionally, dedicated to his job. Not a good judge, but a tradesman. Well, we know all about Hutchinson R. for a start, and we can be fairly sure his horse is trying. But now take———. He's a good thief. If he stole apples when he was 12 he'd steal 'em now, wouldn't he? If he was stopping horses in 1948 and getting plenty of money for it, he'd still be stopping them now in 1965, wouldn't he? So when———is on a horse we have to be careful."
Understand, the Butterfly takes no moral position about stopping horses. To be blunt about it, if horses were not being stopped in England, John Mort Green and his stomach full of ears would be out of business. Our hero does not create the chicanery, but if he happens to hear about it who is to blame him for getting a bet down, or perhaps a dozen bets down? And there is an element of risk even in a fixed race. The Butterfly recalls an example (only the names have been changed to protect the guilty):
"There was a deal one day to let Jack Olsen's horse win the race, see? Everybody else's horse was dead, all our friends': Doodles' horse, Brighton's, Blond Viking God's, Under the Bed Stewey's and the Butterfly's. Jack Olsen is gonna win, y'understand? And what happens? Bloody Jack Olsen's horse isn't good enough! Five horses are being stopped, and the sixth horse isn't good enough to win! Oh, I enjoyed that. It was so funny. One of those races where the idiots win the money and the smarties get bloody nothing. I went straight to the bar and had a laugh. I had ¬£2,000 on that horse altogether, but when you've lost your money you have to forget about that right away. You have to laugh about it, think about something else. You can't go around saying, 'Oh, my God, I've lost me holidays in New York.' Oh, yes, these boat races—these stews as they call them here—they come unstuck now and then, but not as often in England as other places. I remember a race in Australia where they paid off the starter. When the right horse was on the tape he suddenly lifted it and the horse was down the track with a 25-length lead. And it got beaten! Fair play is bonny play. Remember that, me lad!"
Stopping horses here is much more prevalent than it is in the U.S.," a British turf editor informed me when I recounted a few of the Butterfly's more astounding stories. "Frankly, it's considered less of an offense here. And it's very seldom proved; the British stewards and judges are so lax. For the last two years in the Schweppes trophy race, worth about ¬£5,000 to the winner, a horse named Rosyth came on to win. His record before that had been terrible. After the 1964 race there was an investigation, and the trainer was stood down for about six months and the jockey for six weeks. But it's seldom they take action like that. In the same race this year a horse named Elan won. Before that, he'd been on the track four times and had done nothing. He paid a good price and the bookies around the country lost about ¬£200,000 on him. The trainer got off with a reprimand. So don't be surprised if it all happens again next year."
The same editor also informed me that the bookmakers, in the long run, gain more than they lose from such jiggery-pokery. "They get the word, too, don't forget that," he advised. "The bookies have a remarkable system of intelligence and espionage. Let us suppose that the Butterfly comes along the line and is making bets against a horse ridden by a certain Australian jockey at short odds. The bookies will soon realize that this horse is being stopped. They'll adjust their prices accordingly, and the few hundred pounds they lose to the Butterfly will bring them back that much and more from the bettors without information."
The Butterfly does not demur. He sees the bookies as his friends: "They want me to bet with them. I'm a challenge to them. And another thing: they know I get a bit of information. And they want to know my judgment." The bookmakers are going to win in the long run and so is the Butterfly: an entente cordiale exists. But other professional bettors are a nuisance to John Mort Green, because they are always sniffing around to find out what he is up to. "They'll do anything. They have to know everything. If you went up today and bet a grand on a horse, they'd say, 'Who's that geezer?' But the moment the horse won they'd be watching you, and they'd know who you were; you're Jack Olsen, you're from New York City, what time you get up in the morning, when you get your underwear washed and everything. They'll tail you all day and night to find out who you're betting for.
"I do all sorts of things to fool them. Sometimes I ask bookies not to write my bets on the books, just keep them in their heads. Or I'll say to a bookie, 'Now, I'm gonna have four bets with you today, and all of them are gonna be void.' So I'll stand back and I'll shout, 'Binns, 5 to 80 on Dogsbody!' Then these parasites will rush off to follow my bet, but it won't be my real bet. They'll tell their pals, 'Butterfly's backed Dogsbody.' That little trick of mine is called somersaulting."
Many owners and trainers also practice somersaulting, simply to confuse big bettors. If Butterfly and his coterie of Nathan Detroits and Nicely Nicely Johnsons find out how a stable is going to bet, they will move in and ruin the price for the stable's own bettors. "So they'll stop at nothing to fool me," says the Butterfly with glee, for he relishes this sort of intrigue. "I remember an owner who was stopping one of his horses: it absolutely was not going to win. But nobody knew this but the owner, and we're all waiting around to see which way he bets. He got all his own bets down secretly, so none of us knew he was betting against his own horse, and then he sent his wife over to one of the bookies to put five more pounds on the horse—to win! One of my colleagues came running, and he said, I saw Mrs.———back the horse! She had a fiver on!' So to check it, I looked at the book, and sure enough she's down on the horse. Well, we figure this owner's not gonna dump his own wife, is he? We know he's a crafty bostid, but surely his wife must know. They sleep in the same bed together, don't they? The horse lost. He had dumped his wife, just to fool us."
To understand the atmosphere in which such happy skulduggery flourishes, one must go back to the differences between British and American racing. It would be a joy to report that the contrasting cleanliness of American racing is simply a reflection of the purity of the American spirit, but then Billie Sol Estes and Bobby Baker might be thrown in my face. The simple fact is that the pari-mutuel system keeps American racing relatively antiseptic by taking its money off the top and creating a vast dollar pool for decent purses, insuring ample rewards for jockeys, trainers and owners. But in England the profits go to the bookmakers, and they put hardly anything back into racing. The result is small purses, low jockey fees, lack of incentive for owners. The solution is to bet, preferably on sure things, and it is considered a coup to hold your horse back in five or six races and make a killing in the next, or bet your own horse to lose and get away with it. Nobody gets excited, least of all the stewards, most of whom are horse owners and horseplayers themselves.
To add to the flavor, there is the antic behavior of the nobility, which has found horse racing a profitable sideline. It is not easy to be an earl or a duke these days, what with the government nipping away at the castles and vassals and serfs that used to be all that made life worth living, not to mention the beastly income tax and surtax that take as much as 18 shillings and threepence out of the pound, or about 91%. But horse-race winnings are tax exempt; there is no beady-eyed little man from the Queen's Inland Revenue Service waiting to demand your name if you win a bundle. Certain members of the nobility have taken full advantage of this friendly arrangement. No need to look askance: put yourself in the position of these poor aristocrats. If you had a choice between stopping your horse in a few races so that you could make 5,000 tax-free pounds the next time out, or of allowing some horrid American colonials to stomp through your old homestead at six shillings a clip, dribbling mustard all over your Persian rugs, why, by jove, what would you do?
Not long ago I had the pleasure of watching a betting noblewoman in action. Her horse was not reckoned to have any chance in this particular race and was carried on the bookies' boards at 14 to 1 ("fourteens," as the British put it). Just before the start Lady Avarice plunked ¬£200 on her horse to win, causing the bookies up and down the line, through their semaphoring "ticktack" men, to knock the price down to 8 to 1. It seemed to me that slicing the odds in half just because of one $560 bet was a bit drastic, but then the bookies knew Lady Avarice better than I did. On form, her horse would have figured to run dead last in a potato race in Kew Gardens. But this time he roared home, trying for his life, and Lady Avarice had ¬£2,800, or $7,840, to show for her trouble. How did Lady Avarice know her horse was going to win? I do not pretend to know, but the manner in which she laid her bet and the manner in which the bookies reacted makes one wonder. This sort of situation is usually money in the bank for John Mort Green, but he was standing out of the betting ring, protecting himself from a chill rain, when the action occurred. "That's the thing about being in the right place at the right time," he said later, laughing at himself and boldly maintaining his perpetual good spirits. "Sometimes things change sharply at the track, and most times they change for the good. In the last few minutes before a race you get your most important information. If one big bet goes down in the last few seconds, that changes everything. That's why you have to be in the center of the action, somewhere near Hill's or Ladbroke's, where the big bets are gonna be struck. Now, if I'd been there to see her make that bet, I'd have been set on fire! I'd have rushed off to another bookie before the word was out. I might not have got fourteens, but I'd have got twelves or tens. When Lady Avarice bets I'll follow her to the grave!"
One of Butterfly's cockney friends took a dim view of the coup, piping up: "What d'yer think'd 'appen a me if Oi did sumpin loik 'er? Why, Oi'd be boiled in oil and executed in the Tower of London, Oi would!"
"I don't talk about the nobility, my boy," said the Butterfly, who knows which side his scone is buttered on. "You're on very tricky ground there, my boy."
But while he will not talk about the upper classes, Green studies the nobility's behavior assiduously. He knows exactly which persons are making bets for which noblemen, and if you should see the niece of the Duchess of Trifle wander over to the bookies' ring, look sharp and you will see a tall, skinny man with a red butterfly on the back of his Tyrolean hat standing nearby, counting the house and studying the weather.
It would, nevertheless, be a disservice to John Mort Green to characterize him merely as a man with rabbit ears. He is also a consummate handicapper, a brilliant analyst of all sorts of disparate material and a competent administrator who directs a team of "sprayers," or helpers, or flunkies. His father was an Australian bookmaker, and when the Butterfly was 16 Green p√®re gave him binoculars and a betting allowance of ¬£l per day. Within a few years young Green was a bookie, and after that a bettor. "But they only race two days a week in Australia. When I saw the situation here, with racing six days a week, I said, 'This is for me: the Mayfair area at night for pleasure, and the racecourses in the daytime for business.' I knew I had found my land: 'This little plot in a jewelled sea, this sceptred isle, this happy breed, this England!' That's Keats or Yeats or somebody.
"But my first year I had a big thing to overcome. They all thought I was a flyweight. They said, 'Look, an Australian! See? A bloody Oswald! Don't give him any credit!' But in my second year they said, 'What? He's back again!'
" 'And why not?' I'd say. 'I'm making a bloody fortune here.' Finally I brought them all to order, and now they can't be courteous enough. It's 'After you, sir' and 'Can I help you, Mr. Mort Green?' Men like that are low mongrels. They're bloody small men, that's what they are."
For a few minutes the Butterfly allowed himself to muse on what he regards as the essential English character: "The British are happy sufferers. They've been destroyed by two wars, oppressed and oppressed and oppressed, and they adore hardship, standing in queues, shivering in their homes, being turned out of pubs at 11 o'clock at night. Why, if I get up in the morning and I can't put some hot water on my face straight away, I'm through for the day! But the English thrive on adversity. This makes them good workers, good followers. Now, in Australia you've got to beanindividualist to survive in racing. You've got to say to yourself, 'Now, this horse is a good thing today,' and believe in your own judgment. You can't be waiting around all day for somebody else's opinion, like the British. It takes confidence. Money lost is nothing lost. A tenner is just a piece of paper with a one and a nought on it, nothing more. But confidence lost is everything lost. Once you'ye lost your confidence you lose your reasoning. Then you start making these 100-to-16 bets that never win. You try to force matters, win money on horses that normally you wouldn't fancy. I've never in my life seen a fellow that's mortgaged the furniture to bet on a good thing or sold his car for ¬£200 and put it on a good thing—I've never seen them win a bet like that. If I'm gonna make one bet that could break me, I'm gonna go broke on class, on Man o' War or Citation, on Arcaro E. and Shoemaker W. and Hutchinson R. Stay with the class; you don't want to go off and bet Billy Puddins on a horse you never heard of down at Folkestone."
When the Butterfly talks about himself in public he is quite capable of sounding like an insipid braggart, but it is my impression that this is a cover, that he is trying to project an image of bumbling idiocy and that underneath it he is genuinely and uniquely skilled at playing the horses. "And why not?" he asks with typical brassiness. "I had horses as a kid. I'll go up to a horse and pull out its tongue and put me hand in its mouth. Some of these racecourse characters in England don't know a thing about a horse. I can pick up a horse's leg and show you hock, coronet, hoof, frog, cannon bone, stifle. I used to ride, and I drove trotters when I was 16. I've never worked a day in my life, never cleaned a car or a pair of shoes. I hung around with my father and his friends, hearing the conversations of men over 40, all about horses, and I'm only a boy of 16! I lived with these older men for so long that I became a lot smarter than the boys who hung around with other boys.
"It's all I've ever known, the racecourse. A fellow said to me, 'How did you become a racecourse layabout?' I said, 'I'm too frightened to thieve and I'm too tall to sell newspapers.' I could be a taxi driver, but who wants to be a taxi driver? I'd rather be a pickpocket or a turf editor or something on that order. It's like Shakespeare said: 'And man shall leave a celestial paradise with angels all about, to prey on garbage.' That means you can live in a beautiful house on a hill and still you'll leave it to do things like drinking, running with women, betting on horses. I'll tell you: I can feel like a derelict one minute, terrible! And then I place a bet and I hear the announcer say, 'They're under starter's orders,' and I'm exhilarated. To see two horses go to the line nip and tuck is like watching Nureyev and Fonteyn doing 14 encores. That's why I don't do any other kind of gambling. There's not the beauty to it."
At the track the Butterfly is on the move constantly, collecting information, passing on a soupcon less than he receives, picking up signals from his jockey friends and, as he puts it, "looking cunning." ("If you look cunning, people tell you things, trying to find out why you're looking cunning.")
The race day starts at 8:30 a.m., when he has one large cup of milk coffee and begins his study. John Mort Green reads absolutely nothing but racing material. He buys three newspapers in the morning and throws away everything that does not pertain to his craft. "I don't even so much as look at a headline or a soccer final," he says proudly. "It takes away from my concentration. I must spend the morning studying, thinking, 'sussing things out,' as we say."
To suss things out, a British horseplayer has at his fingertips an assortment of printed material that would tax the medulla oblongata of a quantum theoretician at Caltech. To begin with, the Englishman has the same sort of statistical information available to the American bettor in The Morning Telegraph. But he also has tome upon tome of variegated material such as Timeform, a sort of loose-leaf book to which one adds new information as it is provided during the season. Timeform includes the performances to date of every horse and every jockey in the season, plus a short biography of each horse, plus the home phone number of every owner, trainer and jockey, plus assorted other information. As of early May, when the British flat racing season was only six weeks old, Timeform was already 416 pages long, and by the end of the year a serious punter has to hire a batman to carry it around.
Raceform Notebook is another add-a-page work; it contains a brief description of every race at every course in England, up-to-date, with comments on the performance of the first six horses in each event. ("Ran much better than the final placing suggests. Pulled back on the final bend in order to get the rail position, he ran straight into a pocket from which he failed to extricate himself. Nine to four.") As if all this were not material enow, the Butterfly and his colleagues feel naked without various racing magazines like The Racing Week, a publication devoted to news, advice and nuggets of inside information from owners and trainers about their horses. Sample nugget: "I bought Cold Henry at Doncaster. It's rather an extraordinary name; his owner lived at a place called Cold Henley, and he said he's always getting letters addressed to him at Cold Henry, so he thought he'd call this horse Cold Henry. He's been coughing on and off for a hell of a long time. I thought, perhaps, as he'd had a cough and a dirty nose before, he wouldn't be infected with the last epidemic, but he got it with the rest. We shall have to wait and see about him." By the time one has looked up all the references to Cold Henry in Timeform. Raceform Notebook, the newspapers and the magazines and learned about his performance in every race, his jockey's and trainer's phone numbers, his breeding and coloring and general attitude toward life, his nomenclature and his dirty nose, one begins to feel that one is learning more about Cold Henry than one cares to know. But not the English bettor. "Your betting in America is a craft," says Green with Britannic pride, "but here it approaches being an art form, and we need everything we can find."
British bettors like Green also must consider such esoteric matters as the nature of the horse's stable. Is it a betting stable and, if so, is the stable betting on its horse to win or holding it back? One can learn something by following the changing odds. "Here's a certain horse that's owned by a betting stable," the Butterfly explained. "Today he's 20 to 1, so I know he's not going to be trying. But the moment he becomes a 7-to-1 chance or a 5-to-1 chance I know the stable has sent him out for the biscuits. He may not win, but he's trying, and that's the trick; to be on live horses, on horses that aren't dead meat."
Listening to the Butterfly running over the form is a study in stream of consciousness. He sits on the edge of his bed, his long, bony finger tracing down the page, muttering aloud: "Hm, the key to this race is Blarney Beacon.... Got no weight on his back, seven stone seven.... Proven Valour is ridden by Williamson W., top-class jockey. Beat nothing much last time.... At the present time I'd say Gurkha with a question mark on Blarney Beacon.... The 7 o'clock race, that's a good hard race to pick. I reckon at the present time Close Call is worth watching. He's a winner on the track, but he hasn't had the run. Eight stone 12 on his back, a lot of weight.... Milesius? Captain BoydRochfort is the trainer. Grand old man, the Queen's trainer, but he's old.... You've got to give way to youth. I dismiss his horse.... I like Close Call and Directory."
When all this sussing out is completed and Green has a rough idea how the races should go, he picks up the phone and begins calling bookies around the country. "They can tell you not only what horses are getting the play but, more important, who's making the bets. That's what you want to know. But there's a protocol about this. You don't ask the bookies anything. You allow them to volunteer. The rule is if you ask a question you're entitled to be told lies. But information volunteered must be true. That's the code. Violate it and you're out; they'll never tell you another thing. So I'll be having a friendly little chat with a bookmaker, and somewhere along the line he'll say, 'Jack Olsen's got a big bet today. He bets for the Earl of Kidney Pie.' And then I'll crash in on the earl's horse. At least I know he'll be trying."
To supplement all this morning information, the Butterfly maintains an unknown number of "sprayers," racecourse layabouts on retainers, to provide him with information. "Brighton is my best; he gets ¬£5 a week," says the Butterfly, "and then I have Cambridge Snowy at New-market. He gets about ¬£12 10 shillings a month. Very reliable, an ex-jockey and a member of all the enclosures, a quiet, ordinary old man but a great fellow. He might give me only one tip a week or one a month, but then it's 'Up lads and at 'em!' because he's always right."
On the subject of jockeys and how much information they give him, the Butterfly is somewhat cagey, partially because the feeding of information by Australian jockeys to Australian bettors is an old story in Britain and one that annoys the English. Publicly Green will make such statements as these: "Certainly, I talk to Hutchinson R., Williamson W., Pyers W., Breasley A. and a few others. They may tell you whether a horse is trying or not, and if he's fit or not. But outside of that they're the worst judges in the world. They can give you a very false impression. They get too enthusiastic about their own mounts. Just consider this: if jockeys were 12 stone there'd be four million of them, wouldn't there? But because they're little seven-stone midgets they become glorified altar boys or something. They reach the hearts of thousands of people, these little uneducated things. These little pinheads, how can you have any confidence in them once you see them?"
Some think the gentleman doth protest too much. Says a British turf writer: "We know these Australian jockeys stick together, and it's caused some bad feeling in the jockeys' room as well as in the bookies' ring. They suspect that if one Australian jockey plans to win a race the other Australians in the race will get together and stop one of the English jockeys getting through. It's deeper than just information. A very unpleasant situation."
It is true that the Butterfly's own actions sometimes belie his avowed contempt for jockeys. Not only does he discuss races with them in the morning and drink with them in the evening, he also has developed a set of signals for communicating with them at the track. "If his horse is going to try," Green explains, "a jockey will rub his finger across his upper lip or his cap to give me a sign. He's 'casting me,' and it means bet the horse. But if he rubs his finger across the coat, if he 'gives me the coat,' that means the horse is dead. It's not done blatantly; it's very quick."
Last year, just before the saddling-up for a big race, the Butterfly happened to walk by one of his jockey friends slated to ride a mediocre horse that day. "He made a motion across his top lip and that meant bet the horse," the Butterfly recalls. "I was astounded. I thought he'd made a mistake or something. The horse didn't have a chance. So I leaned over my friend, and I said, 'What?'
"He said, 'Find bookies.' I still looked surprised, so he said, 'Find bookies!' louder, through his teeth. The horse won and I made 2,200 quid on that race. It was one of my big coups of the year."
One morning the Butterfly telephoned me and, in his usual bubbly manner, went over our plans for the day: "Olsen J.?" he said. "This is Mort Green initial J bidding you a bright good morning on this beautiful spring day and hoping that you will find it a happy and rewarding one. We're going racing at Ally Pally. A regular timothy of a place, a brothel. All set? We'll bet well and come home early! It's up lads and at 'em! Over and out."
We drove to Alexandra Park, nicknamed Ally Pally and also known as "the cockneys' own racecourse," huddled on a dreary edge of London. The Butterfly was wearing one of his racing uniforms: dark suit, blue-and-gray-striped shirt on a white background, a rose in his lapel and a gold watch chain leading from his buttonhole to his breast pocket, a silk foulard peeking discreetly out, a bowler on his head and an umbrella dangling from his left wrist. En route he fell to talking about his social life. "Frankly," he said, "I prefer the rich. They have more money. Take people like my friend———. He calls and says, 'Let's take my plane and fly to the races at Deauville, old boy,' and the next thing I know we're off, with two pretty girls. At first this sort of thing made me nervous. When I came here I had to change my whole life, didn't I? Because I'm mixing with the Eton man, the Harrow man, top-class people, eating caviar and sipping champagne.———is a millionaire; his grandmother left him ¬£220,000, and his father left him more. He lies back in a ¬£20,000 penthouse and belongs to all the clubs and goes to Claridge's or Annabel's or Grosvenor House, you know. So he takes me to the races at Deauville, and we have a wonderful day, sitting under the umbrella drinking Dom Pérignon. I've won about 60 quid on the day, and he won't let me pay for anything. So I say, 'Tell me,———, who is allowed to eat in this palace?' He says, 'Any mug with ¬£50 can have lunch here, Mort Green!" Imagine that! He says, 'Any mug with ¬£50!"
"Well, that's how it is with the rich. They make you feel good. Of course, I had to start slowly with those people. I had to learn about clothes, for one thing. In my dress I've always been a radical; that's another way I get confidence. Now, sometimes you'll see me dressed like a banker: plain white detached collar, detached cuffs, gold cuff links, maroon tie, pearl stickpin, a foulard to match my tie, lizard-skin shoes, silk socks, black coat with velvet collar, pinstripe suit and a bowler. Makes me feel like a millionaire. I only have six or seven suits, but I'm careful in my selection. If I had a hole in the elbow of my shirt or the wrong color socks, even though nobody'd ever know, I'd know and I'd feel rotten. Everything has to be perfect. When you're dressed up, you're gonna kill 'em at the racecourse. You don't want to go out there looking like a bloody bagman. But I had to learn this slowly, the hard way. When I first got here a millionaire called me one day, and he said, 'Do come on, we're going to Paris on Sunday. Come down to Brighton for the day tomorrow and meet us. We'll be leaving the hotel at half noon for Paris, love to have you join us. But don't wear that ghastly suit!' "
Ally Pally proved to be a journey backward through time. I was prepared to see something different from that big outdoor betting parlor called Aqueduct, but not so different as it turned out to be and not so naively pleasant. As we entered, a newsboy straight from Henry Fielding collared the Butterfly and whispered: "It's Sweet Worry in the first; the word is Sweet Worry."
Inside the gate, Green said, "He gives me a horse every time and he's right once a year, and then he comes up and says, 'See, Guvnah, Oi knew Oi was roit.' I don't pay the slightest attention to him. Now if you'll excuse me I've got to go look over the heads, see who's looking cunning," and he was off.
The day had turned wet and chilly, and through the haze I discovered that spectators at Ally Pally can see only the last two furlongs of a sprint race; in a distance race they can see only the start and finish. In the old British tradition of having tracks in all shapes and sizes (which, incidentally, makes for more interesting racing and more difficult handicapping), Ally Pally is built something like a frying pan, with the finish line at the end of the handle and the grandstands removed from the pan itself. This puts the crowd at the mercy of the caller, who is not in too good a viewing position himself, at the top of a rickety tower. He makes announcements like: "Overcoat has taken the lead. I think it's Overcoat. No, it's Tom Thumb. At least as far as I can see." This makes the crowd at Ally Pally strangely quiet; if they cheer for their horses they miss the call.
Across the stretch and paralleling it is a long dismal row of houses; at the end of the track is a marshaling yard for trains; and in the far distance, when the haze lifts, one can see the shadowy gray-brown of North London: stacks and tanks and sheds, yellow lights and shoals of houses climbing the low hills. The spectators' area is an etude of anarchy, an African village. Grandstands are perched haphazardly; they are small and unkempt, unpainted, with facings ripped away to show the structure's underwear in spots. Right in the middle of everything is a long, low building that dates back to the time when such things were called Nissen huts. There is a tiny shack with a sign saying "Findley's Tobacconist," and a slightly larger one with a placard announcing: "Tote Investors, Ltd." There is a trailer parked on the grass, an awning draped in front to protect against the elements, and a big sign: "Guinness." Alongside stands a man in a bowler and pinstriped suit, thoroughly protected from the driving rain by an umbrella and a glass of stout. There are scattered booths and bars, and people are eating Scotch eggs, pork pies, egg-and-tomato sandwiches, sausage rolls, ham and cheese and biscuits. The betting area, "the ring" where the bookmakers assemble, is a cauldron. Bookies scream their prices, trying to outshout the competition. The man from Ladbroke's changes his price on a horse, and the man from Jack Bevan & Co. rushes to change his, and the man from Bill Pobjoy's is a few seconds late and gets stuck with a bet at the old price. The bookies start to shout something that sounds like a foreign tongue, "Vy da vaw da veel," but they run it all together: "Vydavawdaveel," which turns out to mean "five to four the field." which turns out to mean—well, it really doesn't matter.
Ticktack men perch precariously on skinny boxes and wave their arms to signal changes in odds to other bookie outposts in the far stands. Mickey Fingers, a beefy florid man who is one of the best of the ticktacks, waves for attention to a bookie 100 yards away. Mickey Fingers taps his head with his white-gloved hands: that means that what he is going to say will pertain to the No. 1 horse. Now he holds his hands high above his head, with the fingertips touching. That means 11 to 10. So the whole message, transmitted in about two seconds, means, "Change your price on the No. 1 horse to 11 to 10."
While all this was being explained to me by a patient little ex-bookmaker, the Butterfly came striding up, winded from his travels, and said. "I just have a second. I think it's Shylock to win. But I still have some walking around to do. It's a busy time. I can't be socializing or drinking. I can't relax. It all happens so fast. See this?" He was wearing a red leather glove with the fingertips cut out. "That's so the bookies can see me when the action gets hot. There'll be people milling around the bookies" stalls and the odds are changing fast, and everybody's trying to put a bet in and I shout a bet and shove in my red glove. 'It's a bet!' they'll say. The glove stands out. Sometimes bookies want to give away money, but you have to be fast. When I come back from holidays I don't even bet for a few days. My reflexes are too slow. It helps to have a nickname, too. They call me Butterfly because I'm here, there, everywhere. In France they call me Papillon. In Australia they called me Soup-bones because I'm skinny. Brighton says Shylock is fit and trying. I'm crashing in on Shylock to win the biscuits!"
The race was five furlongs, which meant that it would be started on the backside of the frying pan, well out of sight, and would finish in front of the stands. The Butterfly and I moved to the rail, binoculars hanging uselessly around our necks. The Butterfly was beside himself with excitement and good spirits. He turned to a total stranger and said, "Winning lots of money?"
"Oh, sure," the man said disgustedly. "Hundreds of pounds."
Green turned quickly to a girl on the other side and said, "No good for the hair, this rainy weather, is it?" Then the caller informed us, "They're under starter's orders."
"Isn't it exhilarating?" the Butterfly said, flashing a happy smile. There were no further reports until the announcer informed us that "the delay is caused by Shylock, who's playing up a bit."
"Bad news," said Green, the smile vanishing, and then a dirty white flag was dropped and the caller said, "They're off. The leader is Cortachy Boy from Shylock and Bas Dimanche."
"We're in business!" said John Mort Green.
There was no change in the positions until the horses came into sight for the two-furlong drive to the finish. "He's in trouble," Green said, peering through what he calls his "bins." "Ah! Now he's running better." Shylock moved into a short lead. "He's got the biscuits!" the Butterfly shouted. "Hard at 'em now. my Shylock! Hard at 'em! Up! Up! Up!" And then, just as the herd passed in front of us, a horse named Warsite came from out of the pack to nip Shylock at the wire. The Butterfly was not exhilarated.
"Sixteen wins the biscuits." he grumbled. "There you are, see? Shylock's got 'em all beat but this bloody Warsite. Twenty-three horses and all beat to a frazzle! Look at his record, this bloody Warsite. He's never been there before. But he was there today. From now on it's 'Up lads and at 'em!' This is the time when you get up off your left knee!"
He did indeed get up off his left knee and finished the evening's racing slightly in the black. But his chance for a big killing had ended the instant Warsite moved on Shylock. Later, in the cool calm of retrospect, the Butterfly waxed philosophical about such occurrences.
"The day after something like that happens, it's completely gone from my mind," he said, "and all I can remember is being there, the beauty of it all. your mates about you and the setting and the excitement. Every race is like St. Crispin's Day to me. That was the day of the Battle of Agincourt, when 10,000 Englishmen beat 50,000 Frenchmen. The English had no money and very few friends, but they had their confidence, and confidence is everything. When I'm at the racecourse, I'm Henry V at Agincourt. 'We few, we happy few, we band of brothers: for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.' That's Shakespeare."
"I thought you said you didn't read anything but the horse news," I said.
"I learned it in school and it stuck with me. That part about: 'For if it be a sin to covet honor, I am the most offending soul alive,' meaning no matter who's left with me, I want to be the singular person. I remembered that because I want to be the singular person, too. Racing needs individuals, don't you think so, Olsen J.?"
Olsen J. said he thought so.