The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 79
The Sport of Kings
The Sport of Kings
As long as you pay your money it is a matter of indifference to me whether you take your choice or not.
But, of course, you know what I am referring to. Racing. Horseracing, for that matter. The Turf. The last word in sport, sportsmanship, and matters of that sort, or so I used to think. But one after another our most cherished illusions fade and sicken, grow dim and die, and among the most faded, of what once were the most brilliant, those concerning racing certainly occupy a prominent position. Not that I have lost all interest in racing. By no means; it has merely changed its nature. Nor that I no longer go to race meetings, but merely that I go for different reasons, and in a very different frame of mind.
Though one cannot go a-racing without going to race meetings, one can, as I do, go to race meetings without going a-racing. And I think that I enjoy my present visits to the racecourse quite as much as, on the average a good deal more than, those of a few decades ago. At all events, I never fail to get what I go for, a circumstance which places me upon a pinnacle of success such as but few attain who go a-racing. In point of fact, then, I have long ceased to look upon racing as sport, or racing men as sportsmen. The efforts of racing men to look like sportsmen, the attempts of racing writers to foster this delusion, superimposed upon a realisation of what it all amounts to, supply me with a never-failing source of such genuine amusement as I can get from nothing else, with the exception, perhaps, of some of the minor phases of politics.
Man is, practically always, at least a dual, in most cases a multiple, entity. Massey, the Premier, grows no turnips. Massey, the farmer, is unknown in London. That a sportsman should add racing, philately and the violin to his other interests page 6 does not bring such matters within the category of sport. Scores of sportsmen enlisted who need not have done so, married men to wit. Racing men, both physically and financially fit for service, are still racing behind the protection of their marriage lines. It is the sportsman, not the philatelist or owner, who enlists, though all three may wear the same hat. It is as well to be clear upon this point. Otherwise I may be told that I am insulting a lot of men—using the word in the sense of Vir rather than Homo—who are men first, sportsmen in the next place, and several other things incidentally.
I do not wish to be misunderstood. I do not say that it is impossible for a racing man to be a sportsman. I do not say that he never is. But I do say that an owner very seldom, hardly ever, is in a position to exhibit any sportsmanlike qualities, and the average racegoer gives no evidence of possessing one drop of sporting blood. And that is why I derive so much amusement from "sporting" notes, which I read with avidity, and from the pose and bearing of those whose antics are based upon the assumption that racing and sport are synonymous expressions.
Of course I have raced. If to be accounted wise it is but necessary to have tasted of every kind of folly, I may be accepted as a kind of Solomon at six stone seven. Nor was my racing wholly devoid of incidents which bore a sporting complexion. My first day, for instance, will bear thinking about. At the urgent request of a neighbour, whose horse had gone wrong, I entered a horse for each of the three local events at our forthcoming meeting. True, there was but a bare month in which to get him ready, but in his absence these races were at the mercy of two stables whose heads were already booking bets with the local greenhorns. Even though I failed to upset their certainties, at least I could steady them, and restrict the scope of their operations. On the day the old horse won the three events, and when the crowd realised that he had the last one in hand, and the clever lot scraped to the bone, they put up a demonstration which for sustained vigour I do not think I have seen equalled. Never has virtue won a more signal triumph, or vice been more utterly crushed.
Of course, after that I kept on, but there is a great difference between a local meeting, where one knows every-body, and an open meeting in a strange district. Still, I kept on for a time, until it began to dawn upon me that I was getting precious little out of it. I am not referring to the pecuniary aspect of the thing. The man who proposes to race will be wise to put aside, and regard as lost, five or six pounds a week for each horse he intends to run. If money is of no object to him he probably will pick up some decent stakes, and there page 7 may even be years in which he will pay expenses; nay, instances are recorded in which a profit has accrued. But what I am trying to say is that a man who goes in for racing, in the expectation that he will win enough to pay expenses, is a good deal more sanguine than I ever was. As far as that goes, I got my share of what was going, and it was not the question of finance that led to my retirement, but simply a sense of boredom. I could not muster up enough interest in the thing to make it sufficiently exciting. And that is true of perhaps ninety-seven per cent. of our racegoers, apart from owners. Prom racing, as racing, they are incapable of deriving enough interest or excitement to make it worth while, any more than they could eat an egg without salt. They are obliged to have money on "just to give me a little interest in the thing, you know." But that was not my trouble. If it came to that, I had all the money interest I had any use for, in the shape of expenses on the one hand and the stake on the other. No, it was quite a different want that I experienced.
In every other kind of sport, or sporting enterprise, that I had sampled, cricket, shooting, hunting, fishing, deer-stalking, my success depended in great measure, when not exclusively, upon my own personal skill, strength, activity, endurance. In some of them there were elements of danger, at least to limb, in others discomfort, cold, fatigue, or weary waiting, had to be encountered. In all of them I could feel that I had a voice in the issue, and had earned any success that came my way. But as an owner I simply paid one man to train my horse and another to ride him, and beyond that had neither lot nor part in the matter. A man who trains, and even rides, his own horse—ah! there I grant you is a chance to taste of sport if you like, but if racing were confined to that kind of man it would not bulk so largely as it does in the public eye; in fact, it would not be the racing that we are thinking about. If you could inaugurate a state of affairs in which every man rode his own horse, and betting was impossible, you would be putting racing upon a sporting plane, and incidentally would attract a crowd equal to that which now attends an amateur athletic meeting. But racing, as at present conducted, is based upon conditions which render it possible for the Epsom Derby and Melbourne Cup to be won by a spinster of ninety-five lying bed-ridden in Peru. Such a person could be "hailed as victress," could have her name "emblazoned on the deathless roll of winners, and would, most unquestionably, be quoted as an instance of rare judgment, combined with indomitable pluck, and all the other elements which go to make a sportsman of the racing type. And because that kind of role presented no attractions for me I pulled out.page 8
On the other hand, I can imagine nothing more delightful, or more satisfying, than to be trainer in a well-appointed stable. To rear, perhaps from birth, the young ones, to handle them, to watch their progress, to try them out, to nurse them along, to grasp their different peculiarities, to overcome their natural and varying tendencies, to humour the shy feeder, to keep the doubtful legged one going, and finally to see his number hoisted, that, beyond doubt, is to drink deep of such joys as a sports-man may delight in. And when I see a jockey returning to scale I have a feeling that he, too, has lived the last two or three minutes. So, also, with all those who have been associated with the horse. But, upon the most liberal estimate, such as these constitute but an infinitesimal percentage of that vast crowd of "sportsmen" who throng our racecources, and build up by their numbers that reputation for sporting proclivities to which we point so proudly as one of our great national characteristics. What I have said about the trainer applies, of course, with even greater force to the owner-trainer, but from the number of owners which this class supplies must be deducted those who are completely destitute of the sporting instinct, and simply regard a horse, not with any pride or affection, but merely as a pawn in one of the dirtiest games on earth. It is characteristic of the turf that there is no clearly defined understanding as to what constitutes dishonesty in racing. "A cleverly executed coup" is an expression which covers much that has nothing in common with sport, unless indeed we accept the theory that custom has invested the word with a meaning widely at variance with its original significance. For my purpose it is enough to assume that although a thief may be patient, daring, clever, resourceful, all the rest of it, he is not a sportsman. That he risks exposure, disqualification, disgrace, is no proof of courage such as would proclaim him a sportsman. He is merely a sporting man, or sport.
It is not so much the actual racing man who excites my annoyance and derision as the being whom we are asked to accept upon the authority of the racing press. And, if there is not after all a great deal of difference between them, yet the racing press has, to a large extent, created the racing man, and determined his characteristics. We often read about a given novel holding the mirror to nature by the accuracy with which it depicts certain phases of character, but is it not equally true that numbers of people endeavour so to live as to reproduce from novels certain scenes and descriptions which have taken their fancy? And is this tendency wholly confined to little boys in suburban back yards who seek to live again the lives of Leather Stocking, or Captain Kidd? So, too, I cannot help thinking that I very often have a chance of noting the page 9 sportsman who has read "Ouida," and knows pretty well the part that has been allotted to him by racing writers. His importance, his inscrutability, his determination not to smile, his silence—lips tightly closed over scerets—ah! if he would but tell, we all know the type, and he supplies me with much more amusement and interest than the average person derives from a visit to the racecourse. So when you find me haunting the enclosure and peering about, or hanging on to the rails of the saddling paddock, do not hastily suppose that I am trying to find out anything that I can turn into cash at the totalisator. That is the last thing I would dream of. No, I am merely enjoying the atmosphere of vast and solemn importance in which the whole thing is enveloped.
But surely, you rejoin, there is something to be learned about racing, something that one has to know. At the very least surely one man may know more than another. About a horse, now? Do you mean to tell us that one man may not be a better judge of a racehorse than another? May he not be a more successful breeder? Does not one man win more races than another? And does not all this imply that there is something to learn, and that one man has learned it? Most unquestionably it does, but not to the extent, nor in the sense, that racing writers would have you suppose. All this stuff you read about a keen judge of a racehorse, a student of pedigrees, an authority on breeding, is, nine-tenths of it, pure unadulterated piffle. As a means of realising this, let us go a-racing. We can do this either by buying a few horses or by breeding some, and as buying will enable us to start the sooner, suppose we contemplate the purchase of a few yearlings, by way of seeing to what extent judgment is going to help us.