Fitzdares' Rory Fairfax recounts how the 2007 Grand National winner Silver Birch, trained by Gordon Elliott and ridden by Robbie Power, prompted the end for an independent bookie in Wimbledon Park
When bets flooded into a Wimbledon Park bookies for the eventual 2007 Grand National winner Silver Birch, it took a while for the owner to realise why the 33-1 shot was proving so popular. Fitzdares’ Rory Fairfax recounts the story.
Bookmaker Fitzdares rounds up the fairy tale stories from jump racing’s showpiece the Grand National as well as those against-the-odds victories.
When sculptor Philip Blacker retired as a jockey, his involvement with racehorses was far from over, as he explains to Janet Menzies.
SILVER BIRCH AND THE 2007 GRAND NATIONAL
Forty horses, 30 fences, two circuits and one winner. The Grand National is the betting event of the year – you don’t need a bookmaker’s insight to tell you that. Every year, we pick up the phone to voices we haven’t heard since the previous April. In the background you hear families shout out random horses’ names, asking for a fiver here, a tenner there. Mostly without rhyme or reason.
Everyone wants a tip, but it’s the only race where a tip means nothing. You’ve got as much chance backing the winner on its name as its form. As a bookmaker, that knowledge reassures us. All we have to do is stay busy and take bets. They’re never all on the same horse. Not unless you’re as unlucky as a certain independent bookie in Wimbledon Park.
In 2007, the high-street bookmakers hadn’t quite monopolised the market. There was still room for the odd independent, and one such shop had been changing hands regularly for a few years.
A local man called Ivor Heller took it upon himself to pick up the mantle and run the shop. It was a duty to the community more than anything. He wasn’t turning a profit every week but enough to keep the doors open. With no website, he relied heavily on big events to get people through the door. Employing one floor manager for support, he was just about keeping the shop above water. Aintree would surely give him the lifeline he needed.
As a director of the football club AFC Wimbledon, his priority was often going to the games. On the day of the Grand National, there was a clash. He decided to leave the responsibility of managing the book to his shop manager. He made it crystal clear – if they had a big, single liability on a horse, he should call Ivor – all the one and two-quid bets didn’t matter. The great thing about the Grand National is that there are 40 runners, and everyone has a different reason for backing a different horse. Ivor wasn’t expecting any trouble ahead.
He got a call, almost halfway through the race, from the manager. It was bad news. The shop had been inundated with customers and he hadn’t had time to tot up the liabilities. When he finally got round to doing so, slip after slip had the same two-word name written on it. Silver Birch. It didn’t matter that the biggest single bet was a fiver each way: there was an avalanche of bets. At first, it didn’t make sense. Why Silver Birch?
Then it clicked. He remembered that one of the more prominent families in the area were called Birch. Then he also thought about the local crematorium, which was lined with silver birch trees. The horse’s name had been an omen for the community. As the horse Silver Birch eventually crossed the line, there died Ivor Heller’s independent bookie. A cautionary tale for any bookmaker.
If there is a lesson for Grand National fans, just know that it’s the hardest race in the world to back the winner. Our advice: if you don’t know your racing inside out but you’re still keen for a bet, the best way might be to just pick a name. Otherwise, it’s fun enough to just watch and enjoy.
Historical odds: 90/1
When it comes to well-named horses beating the bookies, it doesn’t get much bigger than dual Grand National winner Tiger Roll. His success in 2019 led to one of the most popular long-shot doubles of all time. Just a week later, Tiger Woods slipped on the green jacket after mastering Augusta National for the fifth time to complete the now infamous ‘Tiger double’. There were some whopping 90/1 odds available, although luckily just one client backed it with us. What names will inspire the 2022 Grand National backers?
Fitzdares, Racing Bookmaker of the Year 2020 (fitzdares.com)