Remember much about 1991? This was the year of ‘Desert Storm’, the USSR was dissolved and Terminator 2: Judgement Day was the year’s highest grossing film.
Bryan Adam’s Everything I Do I Do It for You spent an unprecedented 16 weeks as No.1 in the UK’s singles chart, selling 1.8 million copies. Need I remind you that at the time it only came on seven-inch vinyl or cassette tape?
Furthermore, media tycoon Robert Maxwell was found floating in the Atlantic Ocean, sinking £480 million of looted pension funds in the process.
New inventions included airbags for cars, Microsoft released MS Dos 5.0 and British Telecom rebranded as BT, introducing ‘phone cards’ which could be used to make phone calls in phone boxes without the need for cash. Groundbreaking stuff.
Of course, these were simpler days, especially in the betting industry.
There was no Sunday horse racing, betting shops had limited and stringent opening hours and punters had next to no chance with legal restrictions meaning you could not have a single bet of any kind on a football game – football betting had to be ‘trebles minimum’ in fear of match fixing.
Oh, and there was also a 10 per cent betting tax for customers to contend with.
Simpler days but not easier times – unless you were preparing a golf betting coup that would sting independent bookmakers the length and breadth of England for over £500,000.
Enter former betting shop manager John Carter and Paul Simons, an on-course bookmaker’s clerk. Both were in their early 30’s and from Essex.
This dynamic duo were genuine grafters who diligently did their homework on pinpointing and exploiting an old-fashioned rick.
A reminder, this was a time when you could not simply revert to Google to get an instant response to any question ranging from “what is the winning-most age of Grand National winners” through to “what is the meaning of life?”
Their study began at the British Newspaper Library where ‘Hole-in-One Statistics’ was their chosen subject.
Newspaper headlines quickly showed them the major firms had a long history of burning their fingers in novel ‘hole-in-one’ markets in major golf events.
In 1979, Ladbrokes laid and lost an £8,000 to £800 in the Benson & Hedges and then a whopping £40,000 to £1,000 when another hole-in-one fell at the second hole (155 yards) at the World Matchplay in Wentworth.
Amongst other big pay-outs, Coral did their cobblers when laying £10,000 to £300 in 1984’s Lawrence Batley Golf International at the Belfrey, a course which had a 194 yard 14th hole.
Further study, this time in specialist golfing magazines, showed that at most European Tour events the statistical likelihood of a hole-in-one hovered around even-money (1/1).
But they delved even deeper to pin-point five major 1991 events where they believed the likelihood of a hole-in-one was odds-on. They were the British, European and US Opens, the Volvo PGA and the Benson & Hedges International.
Phase two involved finding bookmakers which would give them odds in excess of even-money. Knowing the ‘big three’ firms – Ladbrokes, Coral and William Hill – were wide awake to the probability of a hole-in-one and would offer only the going rate for relatively small stakes, they had to source the independent firms which were, thankfully, plentiful at the time.
Betfred, Paddy Power et al were still decades away from gobbling up the privateers.
Back to the library they went, Ilford’s Public Library this time, where they photocopied the addresses of two thousand independent bookmakers from 50 regional volumes of the ‘good old’ Yellow Pages.
Further hard work followed, collating these bookmakers, from two hundred towns and cities, into some kind of order and then buying two-dozen ‘A to Z’ roadmaps in order to create itineraries allowing them to visit as many betting shops as possible during the course of a day. They hoped to visit 35 daily during shop opening hours.
Their military-type operation was scheduled to begin in the immediate aftermath of the Cheltenham Festival in mid-March and conclude in Manchester in June. By then they would have visited every independent betting shop in England and Southern Wales. Sussex was to be the starting point.
Phase three was deciding on the best possible bet types. Technically, receiving ‘odds against’ about a hole-in-one in any of their pin-pointed competitions was a result, but maximising potential profits was vital.
And so the ‘cluster bomb’ was born, multiple bets that had the potential to pay massive dividends if a hole-in-one occurred at two or more of their five ‘pin’ competitions.
Finding a bookie that would give you 10/1 about a hole-in-one was the stuff of dreams, but the potential returns from them accepting five winning £50 win singles paled into insignificance against a successful £10 hole-in-one treble.
It would pay a mouth-watering £13,310 and Simons and Carter knew it was really only a 9/2 shot to prevail. With 2,000 bookmaker doors to walk through would they find any that would give them such outrageous odds? Indeed they would.
Day one, bookmaker one, and immediate success. The Chichester-based Gunning Bookmakers accepted a heap of doubles on the outcome at each event at 5/1 apiece. Should just two of the five come off, they would be returning a full six months later to collect on a slip worth 36 times its face value.
But, in truth, there was no saying what odds they would get and what bets would be accepted. Later that afternoon they found a bookie that had no interest in laying multiple bets but he was happy to take singles and offered odds of 25/1 on four events.
Furthermore, he was happy to lay Simons and Carter £250 on each, it was a potential £25,000 win for them.
Not every day was as successful for the duo and it would appear only one shop in ten would entertain them in any way shape or form. But for those that did, it was like a game of mystery Bingo, they simply never knew what they were going to get. 7/4 was the shortest price they ever took placing a five-fold acca. 100/1 was the greatest odds they were given and that particular shop accepted five £50 win singles!
A 30p super-yankee was amongst the best ‘cluster bets’ they got on with all events priced-up at 7/1. But by the time they had finished their bookmaker tour of the country they had a suitcase full of slips ranging from a £200 single at 66/1 to a tenner super-yankee on the five ‘pins’ at 3/1 apiece.
At each and every shop where they were offered favourable odds they carefully observed the shop’s pay-out limit which was, for the most part, £25,000.
By the time tens of thousands of miles were put on the Hole-in-One gang’s car and they had spent more nights in roadside hotels than Elvis had in Vegas, they were looking at an enormous potential windfall.
Just one winner, considering their 100/1 and 66/1 win singles, would put them ahead and if it came at the first event, the 1991 Benson & Hedges International Open, they would be freerolling for a fortune.
Ever heard of Jay Townsend? Probably not, but after the little-known American golfer aced the 202-yard 11th hole at St Mellion, Simons and Carter will never forget him.
The boys were off to a flier and while it was time to celebrate a perfect one-from-one record their professionalism remained intact.
They stayed at the course long after proceedings had finished to collect an official copy of the player’s scorecard as documented proof of his achievement.
The next day they purchased a copy of every national and local newspaper (looking for a report on the feat) and sent the news along with a photo-copy of the scorecard to the Sporting Life newspaper and golfing publications. They wanted no squabbles when it came to collecting and this proof was vital to them.
As it happens, they had no problem and a round of funding (visiting shops which had taken win singles on the Benson & Hedges) actually saw them invest yet more money.
Spectrum Racing, based in Brighton but with a shop in Southampton, had particular suicidal tenancies. Paying out £660 for a successful £60 win single they allowed the Hole-in-One gang to reinvest their winnings with six £50 doubles on the next four ‘pins’ – offering 10/1 about an ace happening at any one!
By mid-August, bookmakers were screaming. The first four ‘pin’ tournaments had all resulted in a hole-in-one and many bookies were crying their eyes out while also having a hissy fit.
The Sporting Life, who ran an arbitration service (the Green Seal Service), reported a mass of phone calls from independent bookmakers who said they were duped and were not going to pay.
The Sun newspaper jumped on the bandwagon, cheering Simons and Carter all the way while discrediting the bookmakers who already said they were only going to honour wagers at the ‘correct odds’ of 6/4 or 7/4.
And Don Butler, then Director of the National Association of Bookmakers (NAB), said he was going to open up a national helpline to assist his beleaguered members.
Of course, the sh*t hit the fan on August 29th when Miguel Angel Jimenez dropped in a hole-in-one at the 17th at Walton Heath, home of the European Open. The fifth and final leg was home, hosed and cluster bombs were landing in little betting shops all over the country.
Ultimately, The Hole-in-One Gang won in excess of £500,000 (worth approximately £1.3 million in today’s money) when Jimenez’s ball went straight into the cup and after a little wrangling, in most cases Simons and Carter got paid their full legitimate winnings from scores of small shops who handed over winnings with red faces and a congratulatory handshake. There were several hit for over £20,000.
Alas, some did not fare quite as well with the loss, such as Spectrum’s six £50 doubles at 10/1 (after it was blatantly obvious they were offering incorrect prices), it proved too much for them and the owner fled the business without paying.
In total almost £85,000 in ‘winnings’ proved to be unrecoverable despite long legal battles and help from organisations such as the National Association for the Protection of Punters (NAPP).
To this day, gambling debts are not retrievable by a Court of Law in the UK and so Simons and Carter took the last resort of objecting to the annual renewal of shop licences of a handful of blatant dodgers in pursuit of their winnings.
In a 1993 book, ‘The Hole-in-One Gang’ pair wrote: “Some people may wonder why we should pursue bookmakers when, in some instances, little cash was involved? There were many points of principle at stake, the main one being … why should reputable bookies pay-up and the whingers be allowed to escape?”
The Hole-in-One Gang – true gambling heroes.
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