[dropcap]F[/dropcap]or many betting shop punters back in the early 1980’s the racecourses that they backed their horses at may as well have been Portman Park as aspiration of ever visiting them was concerned. At least that was my experience, betting shop punters just liked to bet, dog, horses, football then go and have a beer. Many may not have even been aware that the prices at which they bet at were generated by racecourse bookies let alone what a racecourse bookie looked like.I’m happy to be corrected but as far as my memory goes I don’t think there was ever any interaction with on-course bookies on the television on either the BBC or ITV. Betting shop punters had no screens with TV pictures to watch so apart from a flashing glance of Tattersalls as the horses rushed to the post on terrestrial television on-course bookies were not in our consciousness. That is apart from fascinating little snippets in the Sporting Life authored by SP man John Stubbs entitled ‘Ringlets’ with betting ring stories and what I used to love, the list of ‘big bet’s recorded in the results but you had to be quite keen to find either of them.That all changed when a certain John McCririck burst onto our screens in 1984 broadcasting from the betting ring with the advent of Channel 4 Racing. Suddenly that vibrant, ever so slightly rakish world that came into our homes for the very first time. And what a world it looked too.One character that was brought to the public eye via the betting ring was a City whizz kid who pretty much epitomised the 1980’s, Terry Ramsden. You can be certain that the dyed on the wool racing establishment were horrified that this upstart with his long hair and shiny suits could helicopter into a racecourse and swank around the parade ring as an equal. He didn’t even wear a hat, the outrage, but he could buy most of the aristocracy out with his small change so to a certain extent they had to grin and bear it.There was one section of the racing world that accepted Ramsden with open arms, and satchels, the on-course layers. They had to have admiration for a man that would have £100,000 on one of his horses or indeed fancies, but they also reckoned that if they had deep enough pockets to survive any lucky streak he might have, they’d beat him in the end. It’s reported that they did to the tune of millions but at the time the betting public were behind this flamboyant backer who was making those bookies jump. At the time it was fantastic publicity and fascinating to know that such fortunes were bet on horses.Another rather more notorious figure who came into this author’s consciousness in the 1980’s was Barney Curley who eventually was reluctantly granted a UK training license in 1985. I don’t think I have been more affected by an image as that of Fedora sporting Barney Curley scowling out of the front page of the Sporting Life than the first time I saw a photo of 1955 era Elvis Presley. I was even more enthralled by this larger than life character when I read of his past record of relieving the bookmakers of their money. I was all for this because despite my love of my newly discovered betting shop world, losing most of my wages earned all week in a poultry processing plant was hurting. It seemed impossible to beat those ‘dastardly bookies’ but Curley was doing it, so was my hero. So much so that as a young squaddie he adorned my bed space poster area. It was considered a bit weird, after all your average young man would have preferred Sam Fox or Linda Lusardi to feature!Another legend to emerge at the time, albeit in a generally retrospective way was Alex Bird. His 1985 book ‘Life And Secrets Of A Professional Punter’ published after his halcyon days and near the end of his life was absorbed by me. I admit to being initially a little disappointed when I read that his fortune was largely made from backing horses in photo finishes and that he thought it impossible to win in the 1980s with betting tax imposed, but a hero none the less.Incidentally back in those days there were still decent gambling heats on photo finishes. One of my old bosses, David Phillips (who still stands today) used to love them when the judge ‘called for a print’. Going back to the old Alex Bird photo philosophy of beating optical illusion, there would still be punters still willing to bet well odds-on in a race where the judge can’t separate them from the best vantage point on the course with the help of slow motion pictures. David would go down the book with the odds-on shot. There was obviously a fag paper in it, if it was a dead heat and they bet odds-on he’d win, and if it bean beaten he’d win. Of course sometimes the punters were right but he’d had the value and over time he got a nice few quid at it. The photo-finish market is one of the many great things about the betting ring that the exchanges have robbed us of.In my mind if Barney was what one looked like, Alex Bird was what a professional punter was supposed to act like, drinking champagne and eating oysters while seemingly effortlessly relieving bookies of their money. He did blot his copy book with me when it was widely reported that he was going to have £100,000 on Dancing Brave in the Breeders’ Cup Turf in 1986. I thought to myself that if Alex Bird fancies it enough to have £100,000 on that’s good enough for me to have £100 on. The trouble was I was probably only bringing that home a week and ‘£100 win’ was easy to say when you were having a credit bet on the telephone. The rest is history, the wonder horse was beaten and the rest of my month after I’d squared up was a frugal one, but was put down to experience.I’ll finish where I started. John McCririck. He had evidently been around in the racing game for a while in various roles but when he appeared on our screens in 1984 he was a revelation to me. OK he was obviously still from a ‘posh’ background but there was none of the stuffiness previously associated with horse racing. He introduced the general public to bookmakers, proper ones that stood on racecourses in all weathers and took cash and paid cash, sometimes huge lumps of it.Not only was McCririck introducing us to the bookies and telling us of the exploits of Terry Ramsden and Barney Curley he was easing us into this mysterious world where it would have a taken a brave person to venture for the first time. For me he was the one TV personality that made the racecourse accessible to people at home and if they were anything like me, made them want to actually go to the races and get some of that betting ring action myself. It has to be said that John didn’t always ingratiate himself to the layers but he was the champion of the punters after all so if he upset bookies, who cared, at least that was my opinion at the time.The first time I went to Sandown Park was on the 30th November 1985, it was also the first time I had seen ‘Big Mac’ in the flesh. I got his autograph and stood behind him grinning to all my mates who I hoped were watching back home in Tiverton. After all, I had ‘arrived’ on the racing scene, there was me in the betting ring in a track near London ‘with’ John McCririck.We had those four very different punting heroes in the 1980s who though they were doing their bit to promote and enliven racing. Racing and especially betting isn’t supposed to be about sterile environments, it’s about larger than life characters, it’s about colour, the enhanced emotions that only a win, and yes, a loss can bring. I often used to wonder what people that didn’t bet did to get that feeling of being totally alive when the horse they had backed was neck and neck coming to the line. How life would be without those climactic highs and cruel low blows that only a punter knows. There are theme parks that earn fortunes trading on replicating such emotions, we have racing, what more do you need?Star Sports bet at the Oaks and Derby, Royal Ascot and Glorious Goodwood on course this summer, come and have a bet.Simon Nott.