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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 79

VI.—The Object of Racing

VI.—The Object of Racing.

No, this "improvement of the breed" theory wont wash. It really wont. As I have said, the object of any racing club's ambition is not difficult to discern. Membership of a committee constitutes a remarkably easy way of acquiring a reputation as a prominent sportsman. You need not blister your hands, or fire a shot in anger. The mere act of holding down a padded chair for half an hour once a month confers upon you a sporting reputation which you could obtain in no other way. And the one thing which racing authorities are most concerned about money. Upon their own showing they wish to establish a fund, out of which certain public-spirited persons, patriotically concerned about the future of our remounts, may be recouped the expenditure which their devotion to great national interests has imposed upon them. Yet this worthy purpose is equivalent only to the chasing of a particularly elusive form of will-o'-the-wisp. For, in exact proportion to the increase page 29 in the number of races, and the size of stakes, we are confronted by a rise in the cost of producing and owning a racehorse.

It is the great number of richly endowed races, running up, in several instances, to £10,000 apiece, with any number worth one, two, or five thousand pounds, that justifies a breeder in paying four or five hundred pounds for the services of Prince Palatine, thus making him quite a reasonable business proposition at 45,000 guineas. And it is the multiplicity of race meetings that produces that army of bookmakers from whom an owner (thinks he) is able to win such substantial sums of money. If the winners of the Derby and Oaks, like the winners of the Clydesdale and Shire Championships, were content with a cheque for twenty pounds, plus a red card or a blue ribbon, you might have to strike a couple of noughts off Prince Palatine's sale price, and it would be as easy to make ends meet as it is to-day. Racing, in its relation to owners, would be confined to men of means possessed of sufficient sporting impulses to set the game before the prize, and willing to pay for their sport, in much the same spirit as you and I pay for our shooting or fishing, without seeking to recoup ourselves by marketing the spoils of our gun or rod. That some present owners would continue to race under such conditions I quite believe, and it is conceivable that others would race who now are repelled. But, of course, the idea is Utopian. It does not represent what is wanted. It would not produce a good betting race.

Now, one way of making money is to make yourself popular. And, from the racing standpoint, this means attracting the attention, and the attendance, of as many people as possible. In our annual reports and apologies we commend ourselves for catering to that eminently British characteristic, an over-weening affection for the horse. True, a large proportion of backers never see the animal upon whose chances they invest their money, while a considerable number of those who do could not recognise him ten minutes afterwards, and in any circumstances would be hard pressed to distinguish a horse from a mule. What matter? If our theory is opposed to the facts, so much the worse for the facts. The main idea is to create, to stimulate, to foster, a healthy interest in the horse. Oh, quite healthy, I can assure you. Strong, for that matter. Its smell leaves us in no doubt on that point. And the readiest way by which to create and stimulate that interest has been found to lie in the direction of affording unlimited opportunities for betting about the horse.

In the ordinary sense of the term there is no betting in this country, for by betting we mean betting with the book-maker.* We do not bet through the machine. We merely take a ticket, or invest, or support our opinion. Betting, as you all

* Appendix E.—Page 50.

page 30 know, has been abolished in this country, by a legislative enactment which has been fearlessly enforced. Upon that point all official publications are agreed. But the press, usually so well informed, labours under some curious delusions on this head. For no sooner are the autumn meetings disposed of than we begin to read that certain horses are being "nibbled at" in connection with some of the more important events in the spring. The numerous gentlemen who are associated with the control of racing are, of course, all honourable men, who would not lend themselves to anything which would suggest, or encourage, or provide a means for any flagrantly illegal practices. The law which confines—er—investments to the totalisator is not only one which, as responsible men, they are bound to uphold, but one which individually and collectively they warmly applaud. If there were any bookmakers in New Zealand, not one of these gentlemen—I am using the term in its old-fashioned Tennysonian sense—would ever dream of having any dealings with them. We might as well expect them to be found trading with Germany. So we can rest assured that these reports about horses being nibbled at*, these statements that this horse is favourite, that one has receded in the market, and another has come into favour, for an event weeks or months off, these apparently authoritative reports that a given horse has been backed by the stable, perhaps by one of these very gentlemen—all these, I say, may be dismissed as idle rumours. But what does stagger me is that the proprietors and executive of these papers should fail to realise that in publishing these statements they are suggesting, and if betting were possible they would be openly aiding and abetting (let it stand) flagrant infringements of the law. For if we had any bookmakers here, and it were possible to bet before the day, the bare announcement that a certain horse was favourite or was coming into favour, above all that it had been backed by the stable, would cause a lot of feather-brained fools to rush off and back that horse. How thankful we ought to be that such a thing is impossible in this country.
But in England, Australia, and other countries which have been unable to keep up with us in such matters as social regeneration and a general uplifting of humanity, and where, as a consequence, bookmakers still ply their unhallowed calling, it would almost seem that racing authorities were in league with them, and were bent on omitting no device by which money might be diverted into their pockets. Nominations are called for long before the day of the race, and no sooner are they published than a lot of silly fools make haste to bet about some particular horse, quite forgetting that the handicapper is paid for the express purpose of allotting the weights so that no

* Appendix D.—Page 50.

page 31 horse shall have a better chance than any other. Of course, an owner, especially if he has been bottling up his horse, may be excused for supposing that he knows a bit more about his horse than the handicapper can be expected to, but no member of the outside public, other than an arrant fool, would harbour such a belief. Our trainer friend has already explained to us some of the hazards which await a horse safely landed at the starting post. But, in addition to these, we now have to compute the odds about his receiving a satisfactory weight; his surviving the successive payments; his being finally paid up for; his being wanted to win, and not being started merely to make the running for some particular horse, or to impede some other one; and finally his being good enough to win. But as each successive stage is passed, and the information is published, betting breaks out afresh.

If your fancy receives more weight than you think he is entitled to, of course you must back something else; and if that horse misses the next payment you must pick another; and so on. And, in order that the bookmaker may have the freest access to your pockets, any item of intelligence which it will be of advantage to him that you should possess is at once imparted to the press. So to-day's paragraph, that Bootjack was scratched for the Cup at 1.23 (*), will assuredly be followed by to-morrow's announcement that Staylace has hardened for the same event. Thus the bookmaker, who already has pouched the money entrusted to Bootjack, is enabled to quote a shorter price about Staylace. And before the race is run, if the horse which you have supported should wander on to another course, and incontinently win a race under conditions which seem to show that he has the big race at his mercy, he is forthwith allotted additional weight, designated a penalty, about which I shall have something to say in a chapter devoted to "Turf Morality." In the meantime, it is sufficient to know that such a proceeding is imperative. For otherwise the success of the brute might paralyse the betting, which of course would never do. So the seething cauldron must be stirred afresh, that additional scum may rise to the surface ready for skimming. Otherwise the future supply of remounts would be gravely jeopardised. You would not like to see the cavalry of the future going into action on foot, would you? Very well, then. A good betting race is the first essential if such a spectacle is to be avoided.

But the hazards and contingencies of one race cannot be relied upon to produce a volume of betting commensurate with the requirements of a situation pregnant with matters of such national importance. So, simultaneously, or nearly so, with the issue of entries and weights for, say, a two-mile race, we publish

* Appendix F.—Page 51.

page 32 those for another important race of six furlongs. I have already compiled a scanty list of some of the more obvious contingencies which affect one's chances of picking the winner of one race. How much greater, then, must be those which attend the backing of a double, which is admittedly the most profitable form of betting—to the bookmaker.

And so the interests of the bookmaker continue to be guarded by every conceivable device, right up to the start of the race. If you or I were to enter a bowl of roses, or a pen of fat lambs, or anything of that sort, in some competition, and decided, at the last moment, to leave them at home and forego our chance of winning the prize, nobody would be greatly concerned about it. But when we have entered a horse for any event, and decide not to start him, we are bound by all manner of penalties to make known our decision. You see, if we simply allowed the race to start without him, and if other owners adopted a similar course, the uncertainty which our conduct gave rise to would paralyse the betting. And that, as we have seen, would never do. Nor can we escape the penalties provided simply by notifying the club a few minutes before the start, for in that case those who had backed our horse would have no chance to back something else.

Bookmakers must live. In New South Wales, with a population of under 2,000,000, a recognised sporting writer states:—"Figures available in connection with the betting tax prove that in the metropolitan area alone bookmakers paid well on towards £100,000 to the clubs and the Government in connection with their licenses this year, and that did not carry them inside the outer gate of any racecourse. It is not over-shooting the mark to say that before they stand up to bet at Sydney meetings alone, the bookmakers now collectively pay at least £125,000 in unavoidable initial expenses—not including the stamp tax—and on top of that fully 450 layers of the odds have then to get a living for themselves and their clerks out of the public." It is pretty safe to say, then, that the book-makers referred to take not less than £500,000 a year out of the public. And it is equally safe to assert that they could not do this unless the rules of racing had been framed upon such lines that a committee of bookmakers would find it difficult to make any additions or amendments in their own interests. Whereas a committee of shopkeepers, with ten minutes at their disposal, could certainly effect alterations which would largely reduce the volume of betting.

If any body of mine-owners, flour-millers, or the like, should be detected in any action which seemed likely to increase prices by £100,000 a year, rapturous applause would greet any politician who promised to introduce measures to grapple with page 33 such monstrous exactions. And, if I am to be told that the impost I have referred to is voluntary in its incidence, I can but reply that that aspect of the matter is not very apparent to the stinted families, and unpaid tradespeople, who pay it in the last resort. Let us, then, renew our expressions of thank-fulness that in this country we enjoy legislative protection from the bookmaker, and the sheltering influence of a newspaper press which rigidly observes alike the letter and the spirit of the law.

Ah! but in all this tirade about handicaps I have conveniently forgotten all about weight-for-age races. Dear me! So I have. A weight-for-age race, of course, is one in which all horses of the same age carry the same weight, while, if horses of different ages compete together, they carry such different weights as are calculated to put them all upon the same footing. The scale has been arrived at after profound consideration, and an exhaustive study of the capabilities of the horse at different ages. Although, of course, it may not be perfect, at least it represents an honest desire that the best horse may win. Yet even this benevolent purpose must needs be frustrated by the introduction, not only of penalties at one end of the scale, but of allowances at the other. So that, while some horses are putting up penalties, running up to fourteen pounds, and others are claiming five-pound allowances (*), a glance at the race-card frequently fails to reveal any material difference between a weight-for-age and a handicap.

One ealises that it would hardly be reasonable to expect that the best horse of his year should be able to win every weight-for-age race in the country; but, if it is the object of racing authorities to prevent this, might not something be done in the way of limiting the amount which any one horse could win, either in one season or in its lifetime? That would obviate the lamentable spectacle of admittedly the best horse in a weight-for-age race being beaten by something obviously inferior, in consequence of the system of penalties and allowances.

In any case, who can defend the granting of an allowance to geldings? The gelding question is not quite so simple as it looks, for in the case of most of them it would be a public calamity if they were otherwise. And a good many years ago I heard the "Father of the Turf" mention an aspect of the question which had not occurred to mo. A gelding (*) had just put up a somewhat notable performance, and a bystander had remarked that it was a pity the animal was a gelding. "Nonsense," was the reply; "wouldn't have been worth two-pence. Quite coarse enough as it is." But the weight-for-age race is the last ditch of racing apologists. It is a race, they

* Appendix G.—Page 51.

* Mate.

page 34 assure us, specifically designed to secure to the breeder of a first-class horse that pecuniary reward for his enterprise and skill which the hazards and contingencies of a handicap may deny him. That would be quite a decent argument if it were not refuted by the fact that geldings are not only permitted, but, by allowances, are encouraged, to compete against colts and fillies. Nor will it avail to suggest that the success of a gelding indicates that his breeding will serve as a guide, for we have already seen that the chances are in favour of his full-brother turning out a duffer, apart from the consideration referred to by the veteran I have quoted. In his relation to the remount question the gelding is clearly a negligible asset, especially if we accept the theory that it was necessary to reduce him to that condition as a precedent to his exhibiting any value even as a racing or gambling machine. We come back, then, to the conclusion that the policy of allowing, and indeed encouraging, geldings to compete in weight-for-age races can only be referred to a desire on the part of racing authorities to swell the entries, as a means of attaining what I began by describing as the goal of all their ambitions—a good betting race.