Updated: Dec 14, 2022
It all started with a rustling in the undergrowth. Coleen McLoughlin, set to marry footballing legend Wayne Rooney, had, in anger, tossed her engagement ring into a forest. A short while later, scrummaging in the leaves, racing enthusiast Richard Brocklebank, believing he'd found it, excitedly called a group of Sun journalists on the story. They included fellow Scoop6 fan Charles Yates. Building a friendship (while ignoring the ring) Yates and Broklebank would embark on a gambling adventure that saw them rake in a fortune. The full story has now been told by the pair in a new book, £3m in 3 Weeks – The Squirrel Syndicate: A Gambler’s Tale, available with a foreword from Frankie Dettori.
Over a pint, the two men decided whenever they, or a handful of other Scoop6 players, had a winning ticket, they’d get the others on board, increasing their chances of landing the bonus. “It was a pivotal moment,” Yates tells me on the phone, “when we tried it at Goodwood. Not least because Richard had picked Pivotal Point, who duly won the Stewards' Cup.” Counting their winnings, and having employed a squirrel costume to great effect, the Squirrel Syndicate was born. And up to Newmarket the group headed, where they landed a first seven figure sum in the 2007 Cesarewitch meeting.
“We placed a perm,” Yates explains, “relying on mudlarks early on. We knew Barry Hills liked to target the opening race with longshot fillies, so we chose his 25/1 Miss Lucifer. She won, but we knew our chance of getting the Scoop 6 was now down to just 2 per cent. Anyway, as they came out of the dip, each of the leading horses had just one ticket on them… and they were all ours.” Back in Stockport, usual euphoria at the group’s adopted home – the Three Tonnes – was replaced with stunned silence. The unbelievable had happened: the million drawn in.
And so, buoyant from success, it was up and on to Doncaster. The group met for a curry the night before, but Yates says there was only one thing on the menu: a horse of Richard Hannon’s by the name of Malt Or Mash. In the November Handicap, at 3:10pm the next day, Malt or Mash came home from last, heading right round the field to beat Sambuch, a star of Luca Cumani’s. A second million earned (or three million, with other successes factored in), it was another long journey back to Stockport, where the pub was duly drunk dry once more.
Of course, the pair’s book comes out as the government’s gambling ‘white paper’ rolls through parliament, as public tolerance of gambling advertisement weakens, and as some – albeit limited – calls go up to remove the betting selections from Radio 4’s Today programme. But when I ask Yates whether his book is an attempt to quash this unease, he’s quick to butt in. “Absolutely not,” he interrupts. “That wasn’t our aim. I don’t doubt there are people for whom gambling causes huge problems, and that’s very sad. But most punters go the track, enjoy the ambience, then return home to their normal jobs and hobbies. Was Bob Blackhurst’s two quid on the Scoop 6 going to kill him? Well, as he proved, quite the opposite.”
Blackhurst’s story, indeed (along with similar stories from other syndicate members) forms the book’s backbone. “All Bob wanted to do,” laughs Yates, “was buy his wife a Ford Fiesta. Safe to say, by the time we’d finished, he could have bought a fleet! What’s more, Bob had undergone triple heart bypass surgery just before the three million came in. We had a doctor in the group, and he looked Bob over, giving his body the all-clear. We couldn’t have hoped for better news.”
And so, with that example, comes surely a reminder that gambling can be – if not a force for good – then a force, at least, of excitement. With the book comes another opportunity for this band of brothers to look back at the exploits of times gone by. For this was a time of camaraderie to cherish, of adventure to savour… of madness to remember. And, for the retelling, we’re all invited.
'£3m in 3 Weeks – The Squirrel Syndicate: A Gambler’s Tale' is available to buy now.