The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 79
IX.—Why all this Pother?
IX.—Why all this Pother?
Why indeed! When I hear men talking about action, there rises before my mental vision a picture of Welcome Jack, as he came bowling past the stand prior to winning the last C.J.C. Handicap in 1882. In the following year I saw Tasman win the same race under its new name of New Zealand Cup, and I have a perfect recollection of the dramatic incidents which terminated in his narrow win, as of the newspaper controversy which raged, almost uninterruptedly, from the appearance of the weights until the day of the race. Last year a horse of my breeding "rewarded his supporters with a substantial dividend." Last year, and this, several races have been won by a decent sort of plater out of a mare I bred.
So my outburst can hardly be attributed to the workings of a mind wholly dominated by ineradicable prejudices. Did I not begin by saying that I still go to race meetings? I did. But I was writing in general terms, and with reference to normal times.
Normal times! Ah! me, what fathomless oceans of blood and tears stretch between us and those normal times, those good old days of three years—or is it three centuries?—ago! Across how many more weary leagues of such multitudinous seas must the battered barque of civilisation pursue her groaning way ere she wins to that harbour where we fain would be, the haven of peace, of normal times! And those of her page 44 company who may gain the shore, possessed indeed of life, but bereft of aught which may render that life acceptable; those to whom the normal times of the past are but a haze of sacred memories; who must needs avert their eyes from the normal times of a future which for them can hold no hope—who shall dare to speak to such as these of normal times?
But in racing we are getting along quite nicely, thank you! Normal times? Well, I should rather say so. More racing than ever, dear boy, and the betting is simply glorious. All tote records smashed to spillikins! The war? Oh! damn and blast the war! The papers are full of the beastly thing. I tell you I'm fair sick of it. But, I say, old thing, speaking seriously, don't you know, talking as man to man and all that, what d'you fancy for the Cup? Eh? Know anything? Because I tell you what it is, I'm getting devilish anxious about it.
That is why. If these people could have pursued their pleasure in private; if we could have avoided the din and blare of their proceedings; if we could have picked up a paper without being confronted by columns of nominations, weights, acceptances, all supplied and published for no other purpose—for we have quitted the region of badinage—that that of affording facilities for ante-post betting; if we had been spared the daily invitation to rejoice over the fact that "the totalisator investments constituted a record for the course"; and, finally, if our intelligence had not been insulted, and our sense of decency outraged, by those fatuous attempts at explanation, justification, and apology, attempts whose only value or significance lay in their abject admission that something of the kind was necessary, and whose maudlin references to remounts and the sporting spirit were so wide of the facts as to be well-nigh traitorous but for their imbecility; if it had not been for such things my pen would not have left its scabbard.
That is why. Somebody or other once remarked to Dean Swift (*) that a parson ought to lead a very calm and equable existence, inasmuch as once a week he is able to get it off his chest, in the presence, and, if it please him, at the expense, of his congregation, or words to that effect. Once a week! For over two years I have been loaded for b'ar, and every time I have opened a newspaper the load has been added to and rammed a bit tighter. Spontaneous internal combustion has ensued.
That is how. My main task concluded, it remains for me to draw attention only to the case for racing in its relation to "the maintenance of that sporting spirit which is playing so important a part in the success which has attended our military operations." The first consideration which strikes one is that our enemies, upon the battlefields of Europe, have but little page 45 to fear from that form of sporting spirit which confines its activities to the racecources of New Zealand. But even that point of view concedes the theory that racing is a form of sport. Whereas to-day, after two and a half years of war, I cannot see that racing and sport have anything in common I have already pointed out that a sportsman has to win his own successes, whereas an owner simply pays one man to train his horse and another to ride him. But much more vital points of difference have been brought into prominence by the events of the last two years. All forms of sport cultivate, in varying degree, physical development, mental alertness, co-ordination of brain and body, coolness, courage, discipline, self-effacement. Racing is largely an affair of cheque-books, between paunchy persons seated on sofas. Did you ever hear of a racing man playing for his side? What is there in racing to compare with the case of the weakest, or least fit, man in a boat, over the last quarter of a mile of a gruelling finish? It is undoubtedly the pluck of the sportsman that has made the British soldier what he is. But the pluck of a racing man is gauged and attested by his ability to watch a given horse run outside the money without bursting into tears. And so it happens that while all forms of sport are largely in abeyance to-day, principally because sportsmen are in khaki, but also because sports-men in authority have suspended all championship and inter-provincial fixtures, the volume of racing has been increased, and all totalisator records have been smashed to atoms since the commencement of the war. Everyone engaged in any productive industry is hampered by the dearth of labour. But racing has not been affected in this way. While sportsmen of every kind have debarred the military efficient from such few competitions as still exist, racing authorities allow shirkers to compete upon equal terms with non-efficients. Indeed, while sport is largely in abeyance, racing men are the first to proclaim that to suspend or curtail racing would not help our arms in the slightest. Sport is winning the war.
Racing, it seems, provides employment. So does the Casino at Monte Carlo. It supplies a living. So do burglary and prostitution. Apart from such considerations, with sons in the trenches, I have had a feeling that when the inevitable telegram arrived—as it did—at least it should not greet me upon my return from the racecourse. Morbid, no doubt, sickly sentimentalism. Let us race and drink, though to-morrow they die, would be a robuster creed. Still, there it is, and I even allow myself to hope that, if I had been childless, my actions would not have unfitted me to meet the eye of my neighbour, page 46 whose son has fallen in my defence. And the lists of "those who were present," etc., are characterised by omissions which seem to show that, in thinking thus, I do not stand alone.
Finally, if there are those who, in the presence of a general sense of uneasiness, have nursed the generous suspicion that they were allowing their prejudices to override their judgment, I shall be content if what I have written shall convince them that they are under no obligation to deny to their opinions their natural and legitimate outlet.
* Twice winner of the City and Suburban.