Friday, July 30, 2010

The Hurricane Blows Out...

I was saddened this past week to learn about the death of Belfast-born snooker legend Alex "Hurricane" Higgins. My family is from Northern Ireland and my dad, like Higgins and much like many born and raised in Belfast, had an acute interest in both horses and snooker. My love of both these fringe sports I earned through heredity and proximity at a time when television coverage provided a perfect storm of promotion.

Though I was born in Canada, my family moved "back home" in the early 1980s and I quickly dropped my hockey stick and picked up a snooker cue. Hurricane Higgins, so named for his free-flowing, knock-em-in and get on with it approach to the game was the celebrated 'People's Champion' of the sport. Where other snooker players agonized over shots, continually measuring and checking angles, Higgins would simply lean in, shoot and move. Higgins popularity grew snooker into one of the most televised sports in the United Kingdom. A sport where the participants would drink and smoke openly, and now, on reflection, the images of Higgins sipping a glass of Guinness and holding a cigarette and cue seem more aged than the nearly 30 years that have passed.

Alex "Hurricane" Higgins

(Photo: Snooker147)

I was eight years-old when Higgins won the World Championship in 1982 defeating Ray Reardon 18–15 with a 135 total clearance in the final frame. The year was an important one in forming much of the foundation of my sporting life - Higgins won the title, Liverpool won the league, the 1981 Epsom Derby winner Shergar was a star to be celebrated. I was daft for snooker, football and horses. (Let's be thankful the music didn't sink in too deep as Dexy's Midnight Runners topped the charts in '82 with Come On, Eileen - to be fair, I'm still a bit fond of the song.)

At any rate, I'm well off course here but I thought readers might enjoy some of the more equine bits of Higgins trivia. For instance, Higgins first love was horse racing and his true ambition was to be a jockey. As a teenager Higgins left Belfast and found a place at a stables in Berkshire and worked at becoming an apprentice. The dreams never came to fruition as the Hurricane's fondness for Guinness and sweets wreaked havoc on his weight. The thought of Higgins in silks holding a whip in one hand and a glass and a ciggy in the other is terrifying. Fortunately, the man was a genius at snooker.

Higgins funneled nearly all of his accumulated snooker fortune into gambling and much of it onto horses and on one desperate occasion was reported to have lost £13,000 on horses in one day. In the documentary posted below the narrator is heard to say, "Most of the money he was receiving went on horses and if he won on the horses perhaps he spent a bit more on drink. He had just the three vices: gambling, drinking and women."

Alex Higgins - I'm No Angel

(Link to the Youtube video and the rest of documentary by clicking here.)

This following excerpt is from a brilliant piece by Dave Fowler for PokerPlayer.Co.Uk where the writer drops into Higgins local, The Royal in infamous Sandy Row, and talks horses while playing snooker with the champ:

'Well, I love a bet,' admits Higgins, in the most unstartling admission of the afternoon. 'But I couldn't bet on things I can't watch, though, like greyhound racing. I don't do spread betting, football or who's going to be the next Pope. I don't go to casinos. I don't like sitting down. I've got ants in my pants!

'Contrary to what people have said,' he continues, picking up the cue again, 'I've never been a ridiculous punter. My biggest ever punt was in Australia. I loved going racing there; it's so civilised. My ex-wife is Australian and her father was a racehorse trainer. He even trained a Sydney Cup winner. Rosehill Gardens (in Sydney) is probably my favourite course in the world. I had $8,000, which I screwed there one time on a single horse. Don't forget, I used to be an apprentice jockey before I was a snooker player, so I love horses. When you see some of the classy horses, flat or jump, they really are exquisite. Athletes really are pretty mundane compared with horses. A jockey and horse in unison is a work of art. Obviously, we're all mugs for punting. I wouldn't say it's in our genes, but don't forget that racing is the sport of kings and queens - it's passed on to us by nobility.

'My biggest ever winner was in Australia as well,' he adds, slotting another couple of balls. 'I won $46,000 in an afternoon on the horses. It must have been the early 1970s, so that was a decent amount. The money wasn't very big in snooker then - my first championship winnings were only £480. Back then you did it for the love, really. Anyway, I went to the races with $2,000, and kept losing. Then I tried to do a Trifecta on a 24-horse with the Tote, but they wouldn't have any of it, so I put two lots of $50 on the roughies. That's what they call the outsiders out there. I got 58/1. I was a young pup of 24, sitting down with a beer and a whisky when the result came in. I had another four winners that day, and figured life couldn't get any better.'

The Hurricane - 1949-2010

(Photo from the Belfast Telly)

Higgins lived a troubled, but exceptional, life and ultimately succumbed to throat cancer. His Wikipedia entry describes him as, "a heavy smoker, alcoholic and obsessive gambler who admitted to using cocaine and marijuana." At the time of his death he was found to have just £80 to his name from the millions he made at the sport he loved. His condemned condition reminds me of a famous quote by another Belfast legend, the footballer George Best: "I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars - the rest I just squandered."

Rest In Peace Hurricane...(March 18 1949 – July 24, 2010)

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