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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 79

III.—Of Racing Literature

page 14

III.—Of Racing Literature.

At this point, and more especially in view of what is to come, I think it well to step aside from my main theme and say a few words about racing writers, concerning whom I do not appear to have been complimentary to any fulsome extent. I can only say that those whom I have met have been exceedingly pleasant fellows, from whose companionship I have derived an amount of genuine pleasure and entertainment greater, I fear, than I have been able to return. And, if my remarks should appear censorious it is not the supply that I have any quarrel with, but the demand. If these gentlemen appear to me to write column after column of abject nonsense, they do not in that respect differ very widely from some of our most prominent writers on political and philanthropic questions.

I am one of the few inhabitants of this terrestrial ball who do not consider that they could run a paper better than those who have undertaken to do so. If much that is printed appears to me to represent the uttermost limits of fatuous imbecility, I realise, too, that a great deal of what I am interested in is regarded by many as stodgy and uninteresting beyond endurance. A newspaper is a commercial undertaking. It is started to supply a long-felt want. And a successful paper is most unquestionably a reflex of the intelligence of the public, or of that portion of it to which it appeals, and successfully, for support. Thus the amount of space devoted to sport by a country's press is an indication of the amount of interest which the public takes in such matters. In the same way it must be assumed that the intellectual standard of the matter supplied may be accepted as the standard of that intelligence for whose consumption it is provided. Nothing, I am assured, is more fatal to journalistic success than to write over the heads of your readers. Nor should our racing writers be hurriedly accused of disregarding this principle. The plain truth is that there would be no horse racing if there were no betting, and it is the unhappy lot of racing writers to cater for those who think that they can make money by backing horses. If there is anything lower than this in the scale of human intelligence it has escaped my notice.

And now we have reached the question of betting. Of course, I have betted in my time, and for that matter still do so upon occasions. The horse comes from this district, it may be, or, perhaps, belongs to a neighbour; possibly I have friendly memories of the old mare, his dam. Or it may be that yesterday in a longer race I noticed that he ran very well for the distance of this one. Whatever the reason, I have a kind of feeling that it would pain me if he were to win without me being associated page 15 with his success. So I put my pound on. What most frequently happens, however, is that I watch two such horses win, unbacked by me, and then back the third, to find myself too late. But this form of backing a horse is a very different thing from the betting I used to indulge in away back in the years that the locusts have eaten.

Then I felt that I should stand dishonoured as a sportsman if I failed to invest on every race. What? Distrust my judgment? Tamely admit that I could not pick the winner? Oh, come now, really! Of course, I am not in the confidence of owners. Influences may be at work which will determine what horse shall win. That is what adds the spice of uncertainty to what otherwise would be a tame and uninteresting proceeding. But as to what can win—why, look here! At Dunedin Bootjack gave Bootlace five pounds and ran him to a nose. Today they meet on level terms. Anyone can see that The Cobbler is not ready, and yesterday we all saw Highlow stick his toes in. The top weight? Not this journey. To win under that weight is not his party's form, and the distance is a bit far for Balmoral. Yes, you are quite right, Shoestring reads well, if it were all live weight, but a stone and a half of lead is steadying. Why isn't Jones up, even at a couple of pounds overweight ? And so on. The type is by no means extinct.

Of course, there is betting and betting. For instance. You and I are looking at a pen of sheep. You put them at 601bs. freezing weights, while I assess them at 58's. A spirit of antagonism obtrudes itself, which need be no more unfriendly than that engendered by a game of chess. Finally, I offer to bet you a fiver on it, and, the offer being accepted, we arrange that the factory weights shall be supplied to us. When a note arrives indicating that they have gone 57½, and I pocket your five sovs., I do not say that I am wholly blind to their monetary value. But, beyond all that, I regard them as counters, so to speak, indicating that my judgment has been vindicated when personally and intimately pitted against yours. In the same way I may bet you that my horse is faster than yours, or that any one horse is faster than some other one. The issue is a direct and personal triumph for one of us.

But when I go to a bookmaker to back a horse I am simply engaged in a sordid attempt to make money. He does not back his opinion against mine. He has no opinions. As soon as he begins to think he can pick winners, and to frame his book accordingly, he is very apt to come to grief. He regulates his prices according to the opinions of others. Although he knows that some horse must win he will cheerfully lay against them all. Certainly, I do not want him to learn to respect my judgment, for that would shorten the prices I could get from him page 16 in future. On the contrary, if I want to back my own horse, I get some other person to conclude the transaction. In any case, I want no personal triumph over him; I simply want his cash. And when we speak of betting, of betting in the mass, of the betting which moralists rail against, the betting which confers upon us our sporting character as a nation, the betting without which there would be no horse racing, we refer to betting with a bookmaker, or, in the alternative, through the totalisator. And that is all that racing amounts to as a whole.

Upon his return from the course, ask a sport what sort of a day he has had. Does "Tip-top" mean that the weather was perfect, that he met a lot of friends, that fields were large, the starting good, the finishes exciting? Does he elaborate about the excellent quality of the two-year-olds, the great performance of the principal winner, the records that were broken, the horsemanship that was displayed ? Or does "Rotten" imply that the weather was most disagreeable, that he was not very well, that bad starting deprived the racing of a great deal of interest, that some horse he particularly wanted to see was scratched, that the course was in bad order, that times were slow and finishes hollow? Pooh! That was not he went for. He has made twenty, or lost a tenner, and nothing else signifies. And be sure that the newspaper report, which commences with congratulations upon unprecedented success, will at once explain that the totalisator receipts exceeded all previous records. That is always the first item. Lower down, among the letter-press, it may be mentioned that some very notable performances were put up, but you have to read patiently to reach such purely incidental occurrences.

Of every race you are informed that some horse "held pride of place," "closely followed" by some other, while "solid support was forthcoming" for a third. At times, indeed, some spirited writing is indulged in to describe the incidents peculiar to this most important phase of the proceedings. "At the outset Staylace was in strong demand, but shortly a pronounced move was made in favour of Shoestring. Supporters of the son of Bootjack, however, were not to be denied, but, rallying to his support, reinstated him at the head of affairs, until a strong demonstration in favour of the representative of St. Crispin (the periphrastic method is highly favoured) placed the bay gelding ahead of the brother to Bradawl"; and so on and so forth. Let our racing authorities hang up eight prizes of a thousand apiece, for as many races at weight-for-age, from half a mile to two miles and a quarter. Let six or eight of the best horses in Australia come across in search of them. Of course, we should all be present at one or other of the meetings; no sport could afford to lose or damage his reputation as such page 17 by absenting himself. But how many of them would feel sufficiently repaid for their attendance by inspecting the various horses and watching the race? How many could watch the race without having that something on, avowedly "just to give me a little interest in it, you know ?" And that is why I can only read with a curling lip these continual references to sport and sportsmen. That we have sportsmen in our midst is, of course, undeniable. But it is equally certain that they are by no means sufficiently numerous to make racing possible without the assistance of that innumerable horde of sordid, soulless, greedy, grasping, fools who "follow up racing."

Yes, fools. I am no moralist. Whether it is sinful, or merely human, to try to get something for nothing, as the moralists so ignorantly put it, is no concern of mine. All I do know is that, take him by and large, the person who thinks that he can make money by backing horses, and they bet for no other reason, is by long odds the biggest fool beneath the bending vault of heaven.