Mark Coton is one of Britain's best-known racing identities. He is a former president of the National Association for the Protection of Punters, he was a high-profile writer with UK Racing Post and he is the author of best-selling books on racehorse betting. This article was first published in Odds On magazine in Britain.

So to York in August. Perhaps the finest meeting of the season. My bags are packed, formbooks and binoculars tucked away. Yet I'm not heading north. I'm on the 10.45 from Paddington to St Ives.

Two days ago, scanning the entries, I found myself imagining the waves crashing onto Porthmeor Beach. "Go to St Ives," came an inner voice, "and study the form there. Maybe then your luck will change."

I arrived on the Monday afternoon, swapping stifling London for keen drizzle and overcast skies.

Next day I wandered around town and re-familiarised myself with some old landmarks, the betting shop, a favourite cafe (gone) and some new ones. I'd hoped to find a joyful holiday feeling, but I felt only restlessness and anxiety, those familiar bedfellows of betting.

Today the sun shone and the seagulls called and the harbour was peaceful and all but deserted, bar a couple of crusty-faced fishermen and a portly man in an ill-fitting Manchester United shirt.

I sat on a bench and opened my Racing Post. Four races with 6 to 7 runners, ideal for Placepot purposes. I guessed this would be the best chance of the three days to get the bet up, as I'd done last year for a few hundred quid. Two hours of in-depth research later, I had all but finalised the bet.

The final race of the six-race Placepot is the toughest. The more I look at this race the more I like Benatom. He is fast improving, will stay, act on the ground and track and represents top trainer Henry Cecil. The only doubt is whether he will be good enough. I'm sure he's overpriced at 7/1 to win the race and has excellent place prospects.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Coton lists the other two main chances as Celeric and Always Aloof. He pencils in Always Aloof, then pencils him out and decides to rely on Benatom.

I don't want to miss the afternoon sunshine standing in a betting shop, so I put my bet on at lunchtime after checking ground and non-runners, and set off on a long walk past Clodgy Point. The original intention is to be back in town for the Great Voltigeur (race 4 of the Placepot), but I misjudge the distance I have walked and my head is popped around the betting shop door with barely five minutes to go before the sixth and final Placepot race.

I scan down the list of results, mentally ticking off my horses one by one. All present and correct. It's all down to Benatom for a major payout, between $5000 and $7000. Leave the betting shop enveloped in tension, indeed gloom, because it suddenly seems such a mountain to climb, getting Benatom home.

Sit on a bench overlooking the harbour and rummage nervously through the Racing Post. Yes, it is indeed a sound selection, in winning form, on the upgrade, conditions to suit, trained by an authentic genius. Confidence develops. Yet I see how powerless, how alone, I am before the outcome.

Nothing to be done except wait. Will I watch the race? Decide I will just pop my head around the door and check the result. Then tell myself not to be such a wimp. Further remind myself I must treat the result with equanimity, not to get too carried away if he wins, or to be enveloped in depression and recrimination should he fail, which is still the more likely outcome.

Begin a fretful walk along the front, past Woolworths and the amusement arcade and the fish and chip shops, then back along the cobbled street. It is as if the gentle rhythms of a pleasant afternoon have died away and left me hanging in empty space.

Inside the betting shop. They are rounding the final bend. Benatom is second, going well enough, behind the predictable leader Grey Shot. It seems gloomy at York and I wonder if the rain has come to change the ground. The tempo increases over the final 600m and Benatom comes under pressure.

More pressure. Within a few strides it is clear his chance is slipping away like sand through the fingers. No chance with 200m to go as Celeric comes to challenge Always Aloof and Sanmartino. I stay with the race, half-willing Always Aloof to finish 3rd and hence avoid recriminations because he was the horse I had originally chosen then left out.

But Always Aloof comes 2nd. Behind Celeric. I leave the betting shop. Tell myself to accept the result with good grace and just get out and enjoy the sunshine. Am even able to smile to myself because it was all so bloody predictable in many ways.

Yet another near-miss to be chalked up to experience. Then the mental post-mortem begins and thoughts sweep over me like a strong winter tide onto Porthmeor Beach. I could reason with myself over the Always Aloof dismissal - one-paced, no more scope - but could not understand how I had given so little consideration to Celeric, who had won his last two races, was on the upgrade like Benatom and had much better form.

It seemed so obvious now. Grey Shot had too much weight, Sanmartino was out of form, Always Aloof vulnerable, the others up against it. That left Benatom and Celeric. Somehow Celeric had remained at the back of my mind, never properly considered.

I sat on a level stretch of ground on the Island, overlooking Porthmeor, and let the wind thunder around my ears. "Blow it all out of my head," I prayed, "all this resistance, this mental crap, blow it all away for the last time, blow it away."

Twenty years ago, almost to the day, I'd made my first bet.

Somehow I managed to persuade my mother to go into an identical St Ives betting shop and have a few pennies on Sir Montague to win the Ebor Handicap. I remember putting my head through the door that same afternoon and scanning the results on the board. Sir Montague had won. He was there in red ink capital letters. I stood there and blinked and checked I wasn't dreaming and then I felt the most tremendous sense of excitement and achievement descend on me, a kind of whole world-opening-up feeling to which I was a total stranger in those gloomy,
tensed-up teenage days.

Back then, in less than a fortnight, I spent my entire holiday money, indeed almost my life savings, in the amusement arcade, mostly playing the same fruit machine. Each day I rationed myself a certain amount, and each day I lost it, and most days I went back to our hotel to get tomorrow's rationed amount because I had in me the urge to play which I couldn't resist.

All of betting was there amidst the glitter of seafront distraction. The gloom, the longing, the recriminations, the hopeless optimism, the aching loneliness. Yet also the vertiginous excitements, the rampant adrenalin surges, the momentary feelings of wonderment, exhilaration, of a frenzy at once icy yet tingling with fire.

Both sides of a fearful equation were presented to me on that holiday when I lost everything, yet paradoxically was blessed with exceptional luck. Lucky not only to have discovered horse-racing, to which I would willingly thereafter commit myself, but also because I found a resolve in me never, never to lose so hopelessly again, a resolve which has never slackened, despite many temptations.

This exceptional luck, or grace, as I prefer to acknowledge it, has been with me ever since in my betting, though there have been many occasions when I have cursed it with fist-clenched fury, all the way to the last few seasons when, despite all endeavours, the winners have deserted me.

My response to this fallow period has latterly been to blame myself, to try to identify some fault in method, some lazy habit which has been leading me astray. I had hoped that by ironing out these habits, these creases, I would be able to get back into the groove and start to rack up the profits again.

Yet such an approach has been to go against the grain. I was an obsessive, but never a disciplined, methodical backer; never the professional, basically a streak player, a few grades above the mug if truth be told, which is perhaps the best place to be in betting because once you've stared into the abyss, once you've been down there a time or two, you know where your best interests lie.

I am, or should I say I was, a streak player who hit it lucky more times than perhaps he deserved. But then the gambling world is no respecter of such moral distinctions, just as it is no respecter of age or background, nor of conformist homilies like only gambling with money you can afford to lose.

I did my spadework first at Trainers Record and then at Ladbrokes the bookmakers, which might have been the worst year of my life only for it to blossom with a trainee journalist position at the Racing Post.

A year later there was my column Pricewise. The first three headline tips won at double-figure odds. I would like to tell you how these horses were shrewdly chiselled out after detailed form study but the truth is I hit a lucky streak. Somebody up there was smiling on me.

There was a glorious summer and into the autumn when it seemed I could do no wrong. Whence came Travelling Light. This was to be the bet to cap the season, to project me onto another plane financially, a space where one never has to worry again.

He was backed for the Cesarewitch at 50/1, 40/1, 33/1 and downwards. He was 9/4 favourite on the day. I watched the race in a Hills betting shop off Bond Street. I remember feeling emptied-out inside, and then just bored, as if I were waiting for a bus in the rain.

I took a position against the wall and held onto the counter. I felt utterly exhausted and heavy headed, yet my mind was closed. I tried to focus on the TV screen but no thoughts flowed in or out. I was empty of emotion, of any positive feeling.

The race started 10 gruelling minutes late and jockey Alan Munro began his run a stride or so too late and Travelling Light could finish only 3rd, beaten the length of a bicycle wheel, finishing fast. Another 10 metres and he would have won.

This was, I now realise, the definitive moment in my betting history. I saw, all too clearly now, how there was a burning need inside me for more and more action, more and more glory, more and more vindication. Had Travelling Light won, no doubt I would have kept on betting, hoping to top even that success.

Yet the horse had lost. And I realised there would never, or almost certainly never, be another bet like this, 50/1 into 9/4, nor like another big winner of mine, Nashwan, 33 / 1 into 11 / 8. It was greedy to expect it.

A voice kept telling me to quit.

And I did leave the Racing Post shortly afterwards. A new desire rose in me, manifesting in a will to perfection. It can be witnessed in my book One Hundred Hints, the notion that if all obscurity is cleared away, all hindrances removed, everything - specifically winnings - will flow easily and naturally.

"I have a deep conviction the game can be beaten," I wrote. "And beaten well." Maybe it can be beaten, but not any longer, it seems, by me. The Goodwood Placepot in 1993, the day I nearly won $38,000, is just one example of a litany of near misses, of costly late changes of mind, which have visited me in the last few years.

Plus the losing runs. The spaces between streaks, when nothing goes right. Forty-nine losers endured through the summer of 1990 being my unenviable record.

Yet you can feel lucky, even when the worst happens. Dostoevsky used to speak of the feelings of renewal he would experience after losing everything and maybe this is the true meaning, or purpose, of gambling, not in winning but in losing disastrously; when you are forced to confront yourself at the limits of your being, and to begin again.

Yet I never listened. Betting has gone on mattering to me, all the way up to that York Placepot, involving yet another near-miss, yet more post-mortems.

Again, I blamed myself. I told myself how a bit more work, a bit more time spent on the last race and I'd have nailed the chance of Celeric, added another eight lines to my bet and picked up two and a half grand. Or, then, maybe not ...

I took another walk, out again into the bracing sea air. Again I wandered over towards Porthmeor, then I took a back route into town. A feeling of deja-vu crept over me. Was this not the road on which our holiday hotel had been positioned some 20 years ago? My legs carried me there. Indeed, it was, though the Trelissick Hotel had become Trelissick Holiday Flats.

Intense feelings of melancholy swept over me, then of excitement, exactly the same vibrations I had experienced all those years ago when I would race down the first flight of steps on my short journey into town to play the fruit machines.

Then a stillness. I shut my eyes. Waited for a message to emerge from the silence. It came. "For 20 years," I was told, "you have gripped and grasped at this game until your knuckles are white. You have never once bet, never staked as much as a penny, without it hurting. You have fought it, sworn at it, loathed it, feared it."

Standing there, I was that 14year-old boy again, driven by an intense and secret longing, and all the sadness of the years welled up in me. "Let it free," the voice said.

Right then I realised I would never have another bet in my life, or if I did, that it wouldn't matter; just a fiver here or there, or a casual visit to the races. No more arcades, no more betting shops, no more credit accounts, no more anguish, no more clenched fists, no more disappointments.

It was all over, like a boat pushed out to sea which hits the current and swiftly drifts beyond a distant horizon. All the winners and the losers and the what-might-have-beens. All over. Gone.

I returned to town down the steep line of steps where I'd first made contact with gambling's unique and compelling rhythm. It was over and I was free - the beneficiary of one last slice of luck, of grace from a game which had always been good to me and now was releasing its grip.

It would never matter again.

By Mark Coton