3 February 2008

Harry Findlay is a fully paid up atheist believing that many of the worst events of the world have been brought about by religion. But he believes in people, in family, in dogs, in horses, in Gold Cup challenger Denman. And in himself. He has to, because more than once he has staked his life on it.

Not yet on Denman. But when the massive bay goes out for his final pre-Cheltenham race at Newbury next Saturday, Harry will not be afraid to wade in heavy. Harry cleared a million when Denman won last year’s Sun Alliance Chase at the Festival and he will be ready to roll again if the current price of 2-1 is still available.

“We all know the score,” he says, in that hustling trader’s voice that rushes from sentence to sentence trying to catch the ideas and numbers pouring in from the brain above. “Kauto Star is the speed horse, Denman the crusher. We will need to pressurise the pace but provided the ground is not too fast I think this horse is a monster. I feel sorry for Ruby – [Walsh, the stable jockey who has to choose between the two horses but is likely to stick to last year’s Gold Cup winner] – because I think he believes it too.”

At first sight on Friday, Harry was something of a genial monster himself. A huge, bespectacled Roman Emperor of a man clad only in wraparound white bath towel as he welcomed us into the multi-screen war-room from which he conducts his betting on racing and on anything else that moves. It is at the end of his gorgeous Cotswold stone house near Bath with the timeless beauty of the Avon valley beckoning beyond the garden. The biggest of the five flat screens on the wall is showing Tiger Woods putting in Dubai. That’s appropriate. The house, an earlier one-up near Sheffield, was bet on him once.

It was at the 2000 Open at St Andrews which Woods ran away with by seven shots. If Harry fancied Tiger beforehand he was absolutely convinced halfway through the first round. “Tiger made par-saving putts of over 10 feet at each of the first eight holes,” he says. “Then Garcia and Els could only do level par round the loop and the bookies still had Tiger at 6-4. I won £370,000, bought the house, got into Betfair and everything took off. Anyone who doesn’t think that Tiger is the greatest sportsman of all time doesn’t know anything about sport.”

If you think you come to Harry just to chat about Cheltenham, you would be grievously unprepared. Besides portraits of Denman, the only other racing hero on the wall is Lester Piggott. The others are Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Steve McQueen, Ronaldinho and Diego Maradona – “the greatest footballer ever, ever. When he was 35 he carried Argentina to the World Cup final and he was on ‘gear’.”

When Harry is in full flow, especially about his passion, greyhounds – “I have offered my services free of charge to greyhound racing, but no one will listen, these are the finest animals in the world and the sport has betrayed them” – he goes at such a rate that you fear he might have picked something from Maradona’s pocket. “Gamblers have to be brave,” he says. “All this talk about never backing ‘odds on’ is cobblers. If you are winning you have got to be prepared to back yourself.”

On the page it just looks like bombast, but in the flesh, with Harry sitting in his chair, watching the screen, answering the assorted phones and playing the Betfair odds on the computer screen in front of you, it is a lot more solid than that. The nurse’s son from High Wycombe may have left grammar school at 16 and even done a spell in Brixton for credit card fraud, but today he is an instant calculating machine with the courage and the resources to both back big at short prices and be prepared to lose. He lost over £2.5 million on New Zealand’s defeat in the Rugby World Cup but has got 40 per cent back already.

He had not backed a horse for five years until the arrival of Betfair – “no one is allowed to win at the bookies”, he says. And he had no intention of owning a horse until he met the hawk in old farmer’s clothing that is Paul Barber with whom he – or rather his mother, Mary – shares Denman and other Findlay runners. He still thinks that greyhound trainers Charlie Lister and Don Cuddy are the most tuned-in animal people he has ever dealt with but believes that National Hunt folk have the best lives of all.

Except for him that is. “All I ever wanted to do was to survive and watch live sport,” he says. “Everything else is a bonus. Racing is a tremendous game with terrific people. I have a wonderful house with a wonderful wife and two beautiful daughters and a horse that will win the Gold Cup. I must be the luckiest man alive. The bad times have made the good times even better.”

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