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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 79

VII—On Turf Morality

VII—On Turf Morality.

I knew it. It was inevitable that, at this stage, some keen-witted person would arise with a bland enquiry as to where he may obtain copies of my two masterpieces upon the Swiss Navy and The Snakes of Ireland. But let it pass. I hate a cynic.

At an earlier stage of our investigations we glanced at some of the differences which exist between racing and all other forms of sport—nay, at this stage I will accept an amendment "that the word 'other' be omitted." Other points of divergence will in due course be presented for examination. For the present it suffices to point out that racing depends exclusively upon the one element which, above all others, sportsmen are bent, at any cost, upon excluding—money. Out of the fullness of a bitter experience sportsmen will assure you that so soon as money presents its face at the door sport flies out at the window. And that is why they are so extremely careful—as the uninformed are prone to put it, so pernicketty—in framing regulations, to define the status of an amateur. They know what money spells. They know what money has done for bicycling and foot-racing. Where is now the merry foot-race I remember long ago? Where are the Botany Handicaps? page 35 Where the Austral Wheel Race? Gone where the woodbine twineth! Yet all racing is purely professional. When you have said that you have stated a truth which is incontrovertible, and calls for no further remark.

But surely, it may be urged, the vast sums which are offered as stakes, and the still greater sums which a winner can take out of the ring, supply the best of all imaginable inducements for the most sordid of owners to run straight. Quite so. But, while they offer me inducements to run straight, they supply you and twenty others with equally solid inducements to stop my horse by any means that can be devised. No. I am not straining the case, nor submitting any figment of the imagination. We have seen that an owner "simply pays one man to train his horse and another to ride him." He is in their hands. Owner after owner has chucked up the game because of the impossibility of controlling the movements of his own horses. He is absolutely powerless. I know trainers upon whose absolute integrity I would stake my reputation, and a goodly slice of my possessions. But there are others. The owner who has a string large enough to maintain a private trainer is usually all right. But the smaller man, who only can afford a horse or two, which he has to send to a stable which serves a number of other, and perhaps more important, patrons, may regard himself as fortunate if he does not find himself and his horse involved in some desperately shady and scandalous transaction. Dismissing the owner as a mere payer of expenses, the trainer, who comes next, loses all control over the horse the moment it leaves the saddling paddock. When you see, or read about, some thirty horses starting in a race on a cramped course with awkward turns—the particular course I am thinking about is not situated in New Zealand, but that's a mere detail—are you credulous enough to suppose that every one of them is expected or intended to win? I am anxious to win both stake and bets. But if my horse is a bad one for the ring, how many horses would it take to stop him, pocket him, get him on to the rails and keep him there? And at what cost? Did it ever occur to you that for every big race a number of horses are nominated by the ring, or at its behest, that they may stimulate the betting, and, if necessary, be available when wanted? (*)

Of course, I am writing in general terms. In New Zealand, as we all know, the bookmaker is extinct. I could tell you some interesting stories of what used to take place when you could back a horse away from the course at tote odds. Thanks to an upright Legislature, an honest and fearless Administration, such things to-day are impossible. But even here the personal honesty of the owner is by no means the only factor page 36 which has to be taken into account. "Yes, it was a bit unexpected. But he's always been very decent to the boys, and they thought it was his turn," was the generally accepted explanation of a comparatively recent "turn-up." The matter may be summed up by saying that if a small stake may offer inducements to an owner to stop his horse, for value received, a large one prompts others to do so for him. In both cases the owner is helpless, anyhow, whatever his intentions may be. There are few situations more poignant than that of an owner who is congratulated upon a win which has resulted because the boy was having a bit on his own.

My remarks about the helplessness of the most honest owner are supported by the action of an organisation to which I cannot make more than this passing allusion. Upon the racecourse it is the rule that when an owner has two or more horses in a race they shall be coupled upon the machine. Upon the Trotting Track this rule is extended to embrace horses trained in the same stable. So that, while a couple of horses may be owned by A and B respectively, the reporter refers to them, in the most matter-of-fact manner, as C's pair, C being the trainer. You can draw your own inferences.

But, of course, it may be urged that, although these things are incidental to racing, they are not inherent. I do not see that it makes much difference whether you injure or annoy me intentionally or unavoidably. My case is the same in either event. And racing must be judged by its results and its surroundings. Nor can it be denied that racing has an ethical code peculiarly its own. We are invited to regard the racing man as something rather ultra in the way of a sportsman. A fine, free breezy chap, don't you know, clean shaven, pink in the gill, suggestive of a cold tub, and wearing a bird's-eye necktie-tied in a bow—upon occasion I can manage this last bit myself—perfectly Quixotic upon a point of honour, and in a general sense the sort of character who might be expected to spring from the marriage of Squire Wardle with a sister of Colonel Newcome. But the very pens which supply us with this attractive picture sometimes run just a little too fast. You do not read of a cricketer that he never sold a match. But it is quite common to read that some given owner is a fine specimen of the "straight-going type," and always gives the public a run for their money. A run, yes, but a straight run, how often? It is not enough that we do not see a jockey finishing with the reins wrapped round his hands and his head a foot behind the saddle. Does the "straight going" owner never give the public a run for their money with an animal which he knows is not ready, and is neither expected, nor intended, to win? Do we never read—of course after the event—that Shoestring page 37 obviously was not ready, and that Staylace will see a better day? The horse and the boy may have done their best, but what if the stable knew perfectly well that the horse was not, could not be, at his best? Is that giving the public a run for their money? And of course it will be noted that the existence of even this kind of owner is deemed worthy of remark.

The plain fact is that this practice of starting unfit horses is recognised as perfectly legitimate and part of the game. Which brings us back again to the question of penalties. You have a horse in the big race, and a month or so before it comes off there are some races down the country. If you venture to win one of them, of sufficient value, you horse incurs a penalty for the big race, in which the stake is much larger, apart from any bets you may have made. The race is over a shorter distance, and your horse has been handicapped by a different official, who has taken a more lenient view of his capabilities. All the same, if he wins under 8st. over a mile and a half, you will have a penalty clapped on to the 8.5 which he has been allotted in the big two-mile race, although in the minor event he may not meet a single horse engaged in the other. What do you think yourself? Still, a race will sharpen him up. A taste of the real thing with colours up, and a turn at the starting gate, will do him a lot of good. He is a horse who thrives on the bustle and excitement of a trip. So upon the whole you decide to take him down. And the crowd, knowing that you are one of the "straight going" type, and considering that at the weight ho ought to have an excellent chance, plank their money on, and—you take them down, too. But they have had a run for their money; it has been an excellent betting race; thanks to your appearance, as a liberal patron of the club, the investments, and consequently the sum divisible among owners in the future, have been sensibly augmented. You did not pull the horse. He could not have won. As you knew perfectly well, he was not ready. And it is possible, at all events, though bookmakers have been there before, that his price may lengthen a point or two for the big race. What about it? On the other hand, but for the impending penalty, you might have given him a bit more work, and had a genuine go for it. But, of course, if you could win a race without incurring a penalty you might paralyse the betting. How much oftener must I remark that this would never do ?

Admittedly, I only have touched the outermost fringe of a large if not particularly complex subject. But if I have given you an insight into what is meant by straight going and giving the public a run for their money; if I have explained and exemplified the attitude of the controlling authorities to one who breeds a decent horse and wishes to run him out whenever page 38 he is started; if I have offered you some fruit from the top of the basket; I am content that you shall form your own opinion of the lower strata, of which I have neither the time, nor the space, nor the patience to write.

* Appendix E.—Page 50.