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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 79

IV.—Of Backing Horses

IV.—Of Backing Horses.

Viewed simply as a mathematical proposition, backing horses is a rank absurdity. In any country where the totalisator and bookmakers exist side by side the machine always gives better odds than the bookmaker. Even when the latter professes to lay totalisator odds, it is always with a limit. In this country he has never paid out more than ten to one, though the machine might be paying fifty or a hundred, and, inasmuch as those who wanted to back an extreme outsider naturally preferred to do so with the machine, the result was that when such an animal got home the books often had a skinner. Now, the result of backing horses through the machine is that the average man puts in eight pounds and draws out seven. Prom my point of view, it is hardly worth paying eight visits to the paying-in window, and one or two to the paying-out, merely for the sake of losing a pound. But, you see, the average man considers that in general shrewdness, judge of form, luck, or some other mysterious quality, he is so much superior to the general average that he can convert those eight pounds, not into seven, but into nine, nineteen, or it may be, ninety. And that simply proves what a fool he is. I once worked out some tables by which I sought to ascertain the odds against a man winning a given sum. They were very curious, and I need only submit the first stage in order that my readers may make their own calculations. Eight men each invest a pound apiece on eight races. One of page 18 them makes eight pounds. How much does each of the others lose? From this determine the odds against any given one of them making eight pounds.

Of course, the foregoing are dry-as-dust academical considerations, which, obviously, cannot be expected to appeal to your breezy, joyous sportsman, who is out for a day's sport, sah, and is glad to get away from the region of musty, fusty formulas and all that kind of thing. All the same, I have noticed that his professed contempt for money does not interfere with his active pursuit of it, and I have certain vivid and lasting impressions of the kind of being one is forced into contact with in the approaches to the machine. Indeed, you may say of the average backer that, when he is not boasting about his wins, he is acquiring a sportsman's reputation for ability to take his gruel by greatly overstating his losses, and, quite incidentally of course, his resources. I know one of this breed who attends every gathering in the province, and never loses less than twenty-five pounds a day. Or so he says. Just exactly what particular sporting attribute there may be about winning or losing a given sum of money I never have been able to understand, but it is obvious that the question of racing cannot be discussed intelligently in the spirit which shares my inability. All the same, let us proceed with our investigations.

The whole thing was explained to me, a good many years ago, by a trainer who has no superior in the Southern Hemisphere. Cocking his head on one side, and looking at me with a whimsical expression, he said that he always had a feeling that perhaps I might wonder why he never "told" me anything. I at once replied that I expected nothing of the kind. Racing was his business, and I could not expect it. "That's not it," he replied with a grin, "though I wish others would take your view of it. The fact is I don't know anything." Then, impelled, perhaps, by what he saw in my eye, he proceeded to enlarge. "Of course, I know a good deal in a way. I am on the track every morning. I am at all the principal meetings, and all that. I ought to know something about the game by this time, and I believe I do. But my knowledge is not of the kind that would be of any value to you. All I know for certain is that I do not know enough to pick winners. Nor does any man who knows anything about racing. If the best horse always won it would be different, but apart altogether from pulling and foul riding, it is pretty safe to say that half the races might just as well be won by something else, and that if you ran them three times you might get as many different winners." Then he lapsed into details. "Now I have a horse in the next race. If he draws a good place, and if he is not kicked at the post and if they do not keep him fiddling too long, and if he is on page 19 his toes with his nose the right way when the ropes go up, and if he gets well away, and is not pocketed, bumped, or galloped on, and if the boy remembers what I tell him, and if neither he nor the horse gets a lump of dirt in the eye, and if a stirrup leather does not break, and if none of a dozen other things happen, well, really, I don't see what is going to beat him. In fact, I'll lay you three to two shillings that he beats any other you like to name. But that's quite a different thing from backing him down to level money in a field of eight, as those fools will as soon as the machine opens. They may win—I think they will—but you want more than level money in this race to put you square over others." The common sense of all this is so obvious that one feels inclined to apologize for putting it into print; but his further remarks, while equally convincing, are quite worth repetition, as they embody a point of view which is not often alluded to.

"That's how it is with us trainers. Any one of them will tell you the same. But there is another fellow who is supposed to know more than the whole lot of us, and who, in fact, does know as much as it is possible for anyone to know. Yet, if you ask him all he can tell you is that, to the best of his knowledge and belief, the whole jolly lot of them must make a dead heat of it. He is the handicapper. He knows the horses. He has seen them run again and again. Any barber or barman in the country can give you the winner in one. But the handicapper cannot pick any one horse that has a pound the best of it with any other. His tip is a dead heat between the whole lot. If that does not occur it is not his fault. To give him a fair chance you must have a perfectly straight course, a perfectly even start, perfectly equal jockey-ship, and every horse must run in a perfectly straight line, as if between, strings, so as to ensure that they all travel exactly the same distance. We all know that not one of these conditions will obtain, so it is pretty plain that you can get no tips from the handicapper. A trainer may know that he has a pretty good maiden, or that his horse has come on wonderfully in the winter; perhaps he may have shaken off some ailment which kept him a stone and a half under his true form. These things happen to me, but they also occur in other stables, apart altogether from the bottled-up ones. No, Sir, I may put an occasional pound on for the wife, on some favourite of hers, but I don't bet myself.

"I realise, of course, that if you were to print the foregoing on a card, compel every backer to learn it by heart, and force him to repeat it aloud before every meal, you would not wean him from betting. His vanity would continue to assure him that he was the one bright exception to an all but universal rule. I am merely trying to convey to the ordinary reader some con- page 20 ception of what a backer amounts to, that we should be expected to suspend ordinary railway traffic for his benefit, and in various other ways regard him as a most important person, through whom our most highly valued national characteristics are privileged to find expression.

Being what he is, it need not surprise us to find the backer guilty of the most amazing imbecilities. A confident authority on form, he is equally sound upon the question of odds. And a pretty exhibition he makes of himself in consequence. Take an instance. Ever since the weights came out he has been, I will not say confident or persuaded, but absolutely certain, that Bootlace cannot fail to win the Cup. Performances, weight, track work, all point in the same direction, as does every bit of information our friend can gather. On his way to the train a bootlace lies across the path. A little further on his own bootlace comes untied, thus claiming his attention. In the train he sits opposite the most charming of boots surmounted by lace beyond compare. What more could you ask for? But upon arrival at the machine he finds that Bootlace is at little more than two to one. His language implies that this the the result of some concerted plan, on the part of the stewards, perhaps, devised for the express purpose of robbing this particular individual. But he lets you know that sees through it. They (whoever "they" may be) can't have him like that. He has seen too much of the game. Two to one! Not much! He is really affronted to think that anyone should presume to attempt such a thing with him. And finally, by way of showing what a keen blade he is, he proceeds to back something else, which, five minutes previously, he was perfectly certain could not win. That the odds about Bootlace are shorter than he expected is an excellent reason for keeping his money in his pocket, but, after he has formed the opinion that nothing but Bootlace can win, his action in backing something else shows that if he had just one degree less intelligence we should have to feed him with a spoon. Yet I venture the assertion that something like 98½ per cent. of those who back horses are guilty of this form of stupidity. That is what all these consultations mean, with these continual glances at the machine.

After all, what but imbecility can be expected in those whose mental status is sufficiently indicated by our racing literature? I have already glanced at "Stud Strolls" and "Paddock Rambles," but did you ever read those track items or training notes (*) of which we get a daily column or so for a few weeks prior to any important meeting? "Shoestring had the better of Staylace at the end of six furlongs, which were left behind in 1.18 3-5." Consider the kind of intellect for which such mental food is supplied. No mention is made of the

* Appendix B.

page 21 circumstance that Staylace was giving Shoestring a stone, whereas in the actual race these figures will be reversed. And note the metriculous precision of that three-fifths. Eighteen and a half, now, or nineteen, might produce an entirely misleading impression, and cause you or me to rush away and back Shoestring, or, in the alternative, abstain from doing so. True, we have seen the race won in less than thirteen, and it is long odds that the winner will have to show fifteen or better, a rate of progression which would find both Staylace and Bootjack anything from fifty to a hundred yards in the rear; but all the same, let us be precise, for there is much virtue in that three-fifths. Yet I am fully aware that no paper can afford to omit to supply such information. Full-grown men are torn untimely from their beds for the sole purpose of collecting such items for the perusal of other adult males, who will assure you that the intellectual status of woman is sufficiently attested by the contents of such periodicals as are published solely for her perusal. Frequently such matter is, not inappropriately, headed "Racing Intelligence," and upon the eve of an Australian meeting similar items are flashed across the Tasman Sea.

Consider, too, the question of newspaper tips. In this country an enlightened Legislature has made them illegal. Why, I cannot imagine, though its action has been attributed to a desire to limit incentives to betting. But that there is a keen demand for them is proved by the devious devices adopted by certain journals to get behind the law. Of course, they do not tip the winner. Oh, dear no! Nothing could be further from the intention of these virtuous, respectable, and essentially sporting publications. Because, you must know, it is a particularly sporting thing—I do not say sportsmanilke—to adopt any dirty device by way of gaining an advantage over some more decent rival who honourably observes alike the spirit and the letter of the law. If a paper chooses to publish on the morning of a meeting a paragraph about one, and only one, horse engaged in each race, what about it? Surely it is not tipping to remark, in the most casual manner, that Bootlace, who happens to be engaged in the Helter Handicap to-day, would have won the Skelter Stakes last week but for being most cruelly pocketed. Surely this is no attempt to take a sneaking advantage of a decent contemporary which plays the game I By no means; it is merely sporting, and would not be worth mentioning save as evidence of a demand for tips. Yet surely no two doctors could certify to the sanity of anyone who would pay the slightest attention to newspaper tips, let alone ask for them. Indeed, of all evidences of fatuous and maudlin stupidity surely nothing is quite so egregious as this. The demand for page 22 such tips rests upon an assumption so grotesque that all the uttermost resources of sarcasm, irony, ridicule, and contempt, are helpless in its presence.

I imagine there are not many sporting writers whose salary runs into two figures per week, or ever gets out of the teens. Yet the intelligence of backers supports the belief that these gentlemen are both able and willing to supply information out of which one easily could make a thousand pounds a day. You can't beat that. And these keen blades cannot restrain their laughter when they read of housemaids who spend an occasional half-crown with a fortune-teller. But the backer of horses is a firm believer in the value of tips and opinions other than his own. Even when he has formed an opinion for himself he has an idea that the animal selected is less likely to suffer from any of the hazards which our trainer has referred to if he can find someone else who shares his opinion. A newspaper tip which confirms his own opinion is regarded as something you could put your shirt on, while when they differ you find him remarking that, after all, these newspaper chaps cannot always be right. The correctness of this latter view may be gauged by anyone addicted to research. I have before me as I write a table* dealing with the tips supplied by eighteen English newspapers during the flat racing season from March to November. Those who followed the tips of the "Daily Express," by investing a pound on each of 969 races, were the richer by as much as £8, which does not seem to leave much for incidental expenses, always supposing, too, that at some stage of the game the backer was not so far behind it as to be unable or unwilling to continue. All the other seventeen landed their dupes in a loss from the £68 of the "Daily Mail," and the £91 of "The Standard," to the £203 of the "Telegraph." That is just what was to be expected, but these papers continue to tip.

But even of this form of credulity there are some examples more fatuous than others. In England there are scores, perhaps hundreds, of advertising tipsters, who, in return for a given sum, will supply a specified number of tips. By distributing the horses between their subscribers they naturally are able to refer to those whom they put on to a winner.

If twenty million persons engage in tossing pennies, it is, mathematically speaking, inevitable that a score of them will toss head twenty times in succession. It need not surprise us, then, to find that men have risen by betting from the position of stable boy to die worth six figures. Indeed, if nobody ever won there could be no bookmakers. But this does not affect the fact that the book must win in the long run, and so must the machine. With the latter you will be somewhat longer over losing a given amount, but that you will lose it is as certain as

* "Betting and Gambling," by B. S. Rowntree, p. 234.

page 23 the setting of the sun. Yet it is equally certain that fools will go on backing horses as long as there are horses to back.

In justice, however, to the backer, it should be remarked that he is by no means alone in his folly. Anyone disposed to gamble can always find plenty of assistance. The financial columns of many journals are quite as amusing as any Training Notes. I particularly enjoy those imaginary conversations between financial experts (on two pounds or so a week). Sometimes the scene is a railway carriage on the way to "Town," or it may be a smoking room, but wherever it is the various members of the gathering juggle with Kaffirs, and Home Rails, and so on, as lightly as Cinquevalli with billiard balls. In print that is. Market reports bear out their predictions no more frequently than racing reports agree with racing tips. But they have a steady job satisfying a perennial demand for their compositions, which merely shows that wherever you meet him your gambler is always the same abject ass. That men may make money on 'Change is no reason why complete outsiders should imagine that they can do so by following newspaper tips.