Tenby and the Oyster Maid Affair.

Where do you draw the line between sharp practice and a genuine coup? A 'stroke' as our Irish friends would have it.

I think we can all agree that cutting telephone wires is out. Apart from being criminal damage it could cause great harm if there were an emergency. Doping is beyond words, in fact any harm to the horses is beneath contempt, after all it is not their decision to be at the races.

Something along the Gay Future line though? A 'dark' horse genuinely winning and fetching the bookmakers what one of the organisers called 'A right sickener'. Sadly for all those who thought up the scheme they happened to pick on an Englishman to be involved in the coup and he messed it up. Messed it up to the extent that the bookmakers did not pay out and a trial ensued. Had the two 'non-runners' been put in a horse-box and driven out of the yard, to anywhere, the cash would have been paid out and a high court judge not have had his knowledge of racing considerably improved. The man in the wig seemed to get on rather well with the defendants incidentally.

So lets come to poor departed Tenby. Departed from the calendar that is.

It was never a course that drew large fields. Looking through the returns fields of half a dozen or less were the norm. There was a good collection of selling hurdles and chases at the two day annual fixture and it was decidedly 'modest' in character. It was kept going by the generosity and hard work of George Lort Stokes.

George Stokes was very much a man of his times. He had ridden as a gentleman rider at many of the 'Hunt' meetings in Wales. Born in Tenby in 1876 he was a solicitor and had a wide ranging practice at Stokes and Stokes who had offices in Belle Vue Chambers in Tenby. As a public servant he was Town Clerk from 1914. Town Clerk was a much envied position which carried great respect in the time before Local Government became the lavish, costly, mess that it is today.

David Harrison, on the other hand, born just a year before Stokes was a sort of poor man's James Machell. He lived on his wits. From the time he left his birthplace of Staleybridge he made a living out of riding, training and betting on horses. It was a living that lasted just about up to the outbreak of the second world war. At the time with which we are concerned he had stables in the quaintly named Upper Frog Street and trained a good deal on the nearby sands.

The 'Coup' took place at the meeting on Thursday 13 January 1927. The event was The Licensed Victuallers Handicap Hurdle for which there were eight runners three of whom were trained by David Harrison: Oyster Maid a four-year-old, Billy Stott in the plate, Bubbly, F Rees and Fairy Light owned by Harrison and ridden by Tom Duggan. Bubbly had run no less than 23 times the previous season winning four modest races.

Other runners were the ex-Irish Paddy Milestone, who had the assistance of Joe Canty when in Ireland. Sir J Grey's Any Excuse, in the eye catching blue, gold hoops on body and black cap. Baalbek, Cheekily and Orange Plume made up the field.

The bookies shouted 'I'll take two ponies Bubbly' as the betting opened, a price that was swiftly taken and shortly you would have to lay 50 to 20 on if you fancied the favourite. The other runners were on the drift. Unwanted was Oyster Maid and the chalked up opening 10/1 soon became 100/8, then 100/6. you could have had 20/1 for asking but nobody was. One man did back 'The Maid' on course, Harold Sandercock, but his modest five shillings at 100/6 was hardly likely to move the market.

It was not a great 'seeing' afternoon with blustery winds sweeping rain and snow over the course, but good enough. At half way Bubbly took up the running to the cheers of the punters but Oyster Maid was seen to be in close attendance and the pair drew clear. Turning in it was evens each of two, but coming to the last Oyster Maid drew ahead and won by five lengths. 100/6 the winner, 5/2on the second both from the same stable. But seeing that no-one had backed the winner, apart from Harold, it was just one of those things that happened in racing.

BUT OYSTER MAID HAD BEEN BACKED. The SP offices in the minutes before the off received a rush of business for Oyster Maid and the phone bookmakers had also been hit. The problem was that there was, as in the Gay Future coup, no way of contacting the course to 'lay off' the money. The course did not have a phone. It is said the nearest phone was half a mile away at Bryn Hir where a tic-tac man was stationed to relay any urgent message to the ring. In fact it would have taken Admiral Rous's telescope to see the white gloves of the tic-tac as Bryn Hir was considerably further away than four furlongs and the weather was hardly in a co-operative mood.

How much was taken from the bookmakers? There were large tales told at the time of the money won and these tales have grown over the years. In the eighties it was said a publican, the same publican that appears in all these stories no doubt, won some "60 - 70,000 on the race". The absurdity of the bookies allowing 4,000 credit on a 'no limit' basis to one man, on an obscure race, on a quiet day in January! It wouldn't happen now, and it couldn't happen then. It may have cost the books 10 - 12,000 in total. Not a bad sum in 1927. In buying power that would be half a million in today's terms, not bad at all.

David Harrison found that 'The Maid' was just that bit ahead on ability and that's all you need, if you have the skill. The filly was partly owned by a professional backer, Ben Warner, who knew how to get the money on and no doubt he and his contacts had a good 'touch'.

You cannot defame the dead, in legal terms that is. Some people should be heartily ashamed of themselves for the stories that were, and are circulated about the people involved. Firstly 'The Affair' was said to be arranged to benefit George Lort Stokes who 'had fallen on hard times'. Hardly, the practice was ticking over nicely. Two amateur riders were said to have been stopped on the far side of the course during a blinding snowstorm during the race, and all the riders were paid 'odds to 50 the winner for their co-operation'. Apart from the fact that seeing foul riding during a 'blinding' snowstorm seems odd, it’s odder that they had to be 'stopped' if they had been promised 800 each.

The stewards were also said, in the same piece, to be on at the same terms and so too the SP man who returned Oyster Maid at 100/6 instead of the 8/1 that was the ring price. It is absurd is it not? We have a conspiracy of at least 15 people, not including the publican. Why not include the starter, Prince Edward and the Bishop of St Davids?

So racing stories go. My grandfather said to me when I was little "You know the first rule in bookmaking Eggie? If two people know something it’s not a secret". So forget the vast conspiracy theories, forget the immense winnings. This was a nice little stroke pulled by a few of the clever people who no doubt enjoyed their winnings and perhaps handed most of the money back to the books before the Lincoln was run.

George Lort Stokes died a few years after Tenby Racecourse's famous day. Without his patronage, money and work the meeting slowly died too.

Just spare a thought for poor Oyster Maid and others like her.

With very grateful thanks to Eric Graham for this article.