The death of the Grand National

My two favourite days of working at Ladbrokes were the 2013 and 2014 Grand Nationals. It was the one time of the year where we could take a break from the machines and concentrate on promoting an actual horse race. For a week or so before the race you’d see new people — civilians, we’d call them — coming into the shop. You can spot a civilian a mile away — they’d tend to come in groups, they’d dress like a grown up, they’d be polite, and they’d all ask the same adorably inane questions.

The day of the National itself is a mix of dealing with hundreds of slips at a time — capturing, scanning, re-scanning, showing how quick slips work — and a dash of explaining to the civilians how bets work, how the National works. Get ready to explain to 1,000 different people what an each-way bet is and to tell them to go for an each-way bet.

It’s incredibly fast-paced, it’s exhausting, but it’s a rush. You need to coordinate your floor runner to watch for underage gamblers and to hand out quick slips to the newbies. You need to make sure the civilian has marked the right boxes. Make sure they know how to stake the bet. Make sure they don’t give you a plain slip with only the name of a jockey (I loved that guy).

2013 was a great National for me. It was my first and it was lots of fun. It felt like we were actually in a decent job, actually doing something. People were having fun. During and after the race they were screaming, singing, shouting, hugging, jumping, kissing. People who lost didn’t go into a rage and start spitting at me, or smashing a machine up. People who won took the money with a smile and a thank you and left, never to be seen again. It felt like a proper job.

Then 2014 rolls around. A few days before the National, we’re told to take down all the marketing. We’re going to be promoting a machine tournament on the day instead. I ask my manager if this is a joke, he shakes his head, and we spend the next 20 minutes furiously tutting. Down comes the marketing, up goes the posters for the latest and greatest slots tournament for Inca Hoots, or some other stupid slots game.

The day comes and goes. It’s okay. It’s not as busy as the year before. The rush isn’t the same. I ask a manager who worked in shops before the machines and he said the atmosphere just isn’t comparable. After the race the shop is dead. In a rare case of the company making a sensible decision, I’m asked to stay so the manager doesn’t have to single-man until close. With the greatest of respect to my manager, they’re probably the four longest hours of my life. No one puts any bets on over the counter. The shop is dead. The odd machine customer comes in, silently plays, loses, walks out.

I imagine what a shop without FOBTs would be like. I look at the figures and the massive pile of money we made today and wonder why it can’t be like that every day. The next day is like any other. Shitty virtual races, shitty real races, shitty machines. Same old customers, same old complaints, same old abuse.

But for one day in 2013, it was grand.

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