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Alastair Down on Friday: Back on the rails, where Mike belongs.

YOU may have noticed an on-course scarcity in recent weeks of colossally crude, deeply tasteless, mind-bogglingly explicit and usually very funny jokes.

As a rule, the originator of such stories is the (hopefully) never-to-be-repeated Mike Burton who, at 5ft not much, until a few months ago was best known as the eyes, ears and mouth of William Hill on the rails.

Then suddenly in early May, Burton was gone. `Internal politics' were held to blame. It is no secret that Burton decided that he had put up with enough of Hills supremo John Brown, though to be fair to a very tough boss the feeling probably cut both ways.

But as of Tuesday at Goodwood, Lazarus Burton was reborn as the rails representative of Victor Chandler, a job in which his buccaneering talents will be allowed full rein, as he tries to maintain an honourable Chandler tradition of betting like a grown-up.

Burton, who admits to being "54 going on 24", says: "I started with Hudsons in 1961 and they were taken over by Hills in 1967.

"But by the end, increasing pressures to take on more of an office-based, report-writing role were getting to me and, like everyone else in the game, the travelling was driving me mad-particularly with the prospect of 14 seven-day weeks to come.

"To be frank, I thought I could get out and not miss it. But I went to Royal Ascot as a spectator on the Friday and it was impossible.

"Although all the beautiful women provided some consolation, I looked at the betting ring in full flow and thought: `That's where I should be.'

"Lots of men live a lie and go through life doing jobs they detest, but the betting ring is where I have spent my time and I missed the cut and thrust of it. Sitting at home watching the Racing Channel all day, every day, was giving me brain damage.

"Above all, I missed the black humour of the racecourse and the awful jokes.

"Even on the worst days, like Frankie's seven at Ascot, there's some brilliant graveside humour. If you forget how to laugh at this game, you're finished. There's always some poor sod who's had an even worse day than you have and that never fails to cheer me up."

But beneath all the patter and showmanship, Burton is possessed of a shrewd racing brain. Even those in the ring who are not his greatest fans will concede that he is very good at his job.

Furthermore, in an age when the representatives of the Big Three were steeped in a culture of the bland, he made sure he stood out. If Burton found a rough edge on himself he wouldn't smooth it off-he'd sharpen it.

One long-time friend of his says: "He is garish, over the top and coarse. But he's also a cracking bookmaker and a real human being, to whom you'd turn for help if you were ever in trouble.

"What's more, that ghastly roguish charm has some of the grandest members of the peerage eating (and betting) out of his hand on the rails, because they love the banter and the mischief he brings to the fine art of losing money."

Part of Burton's agreement with Hills means that his hands are tied when it comes to touting for business from former clients. But there is nothing to stop loyal friends and punters going to him, and Chandler's signing is likely to prove a shrewd one.

Burton is a more probing thinker about the betting market than he lets on and has analysed the way the on-course market has changed in recent years with great precision.

He says: "You have to be very firm at the moment. You have to sit back and let some races go by because, with such small percentages, it's cannibalism in the ring.

"Those who stand there like dustbins, taking everything thrown at them, are running high risks, and there is some more backlash and fallout to come from the last 18 months.

"A lot of the deadwood has already gone, but there are some more who will have to go. The new age of information technology means that punters are better informed than ever before and there is no doubt that the serious punter has never had it so good."

So who are the good judges that Burton has respected?

"You have to go back a few years to the likes of Alec Bird, Harold Dixon, a shrewd northern punter at the top of his game in the 1950s and '60s, Topper Robson and Danny Cooper-Smith, who all knew what they were doing.

"Interestingly, those old on-course names and characters have never really been replaced by the next generation. A lot of the liveliest minds sit at home, feeding off all the available information-the sort of people who can get a 10-runner race at Folkestone down to just two and play accordingly.

"The best judge on a British racecourse by far is Timeform's Jim McGrath, but for God's sake don't tell him-he takes a big enough size in hats already!"

Burton is one of those folk with a permanent suntan that has less to do with the pub window being open, more with frequent visits to exotic parts. He travels a lot, too.

As with so much of Burton's conversation, his exact explanation for his tan is not repeatable in a family newspaper and would struggle to get into some of those publications that lurk on the top shelf.

Since racing's cheekiest chappie went in May, the racecourse has been a much quieter, cleaner and more respectable place. Thank God the little so-and-so is back-abnormal service has been resumed.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Sports
Author:Down, Alastair
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Aug 4, 2000
Words:952
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