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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 79

VIII.—Some General Remarks

VIII.—Some General Remarks.

Since the other chapters were written, the question of racing, both generally and in its specific relation to the war, has been discussed in many of our newspapers, and, as is usual upon such occasions, racing men have been responsible for the publication of a great deal of the sorriest kind of nonsense. We have been told upon the highest imaginable authority that to suspend or even to curtail racing would seriously jeopardise the Allied chances of success. To me it seems that to suspend racing would be to increase the number of thoroughbred mares to be bred from in the ensuing season, and to increase also the number of thoroughbred stallions at the service of the general public. Considering, however, that it must be over five years before the resultant foals are fit for Army purposes, I do not see how they can have any marked effect upon Haig's chances of smashing Hindenburg.

But out of the great mass of verbiage in which the subject has been enveloped—and I do not pretend to have read a tenth of it—certain considerations have emerged whose discussion may be of interest.

We are told, for instance, that a great improvement has taken place in thoroughbred horses during the last hundred years, that Eclipse, if alive to-day, could not win a selling race, and that the world-wide supremacy of the British thoroughbred, a supremacy whose existence on the racecourse, I, at least, cheerfully admit, is due to racing.

It is curious that those responsible for the latter statement do not realise, or do not give the rest of us credit for realising, that the very wording of the statement contains the elements of its complete disproof. This admitted supremacy cannot be due to racing, for they race in other countries. Nor is it confined to thoroughbred horses, but extends to every other animal in whose breeding British breeders have specialised. The supremacy of the British thoroughbred is attributable, rather, to the fact that he quickly deteriorates when sent to any other country.

In Australasia, despite our blow, it has been proved to a demonstration that we cannot breed racehorses continuously, though we race their tails off. Three generations of Antipodean page 39 blood is as far as we can go without resort to British bred sires We have seen no more brilliant horse than Achilles, no more notable battler than Trafalgar, but no one in his senses would expect either of these to produce anything approaching his own form from a mare showing, like himself, three generations of Antipodean blood. Yet we race them hard enough.

The truth would seem to be that there is something about Great Britain which makes it the one spot on earth most suit able for breeding domesticated animals. Our sheep breeders, when they go Home, wax very sarcastic and supercilious about what they see. But they end by buying. They do, indeed. At our shows you will find that the winning draught horses, if not actually (imp.), are very close to it. When you read of fabulous figures being given for horses, cattle and sheep, in North or South America, you may be very sure that similar conditions obtain. Foreign Governments, in like manner, go to Britain again and again for thoroughbred sires, and have to keep on going back again for more. Indeed, it would appear that Britain could sell all her most successful racehorses, and all the winners at the Royal Show, and from what was left produce world-beaters, as of yore.

The suggestion that this remarkable fact is due to some peculiar qualities of soil and climate is negatived by what occurs in the case of animals not subject to direct human control. Our deer and hares attain to a greater size here than in Britain, while rabbits, etc, show no falling off. Painful as it may be to have to admit it, it is just possible that the slow-going, antiquated, sleepy-headed, inhabitants of the British Isles may know a few things about rearing and feeding which we, with all our progressiveness and intellectual superiority, have yet to learn.

If the racehorse has improved since the days of Eclipse he is not the only animal that has done so. What has man done himself? I suppose it is not more than twenty-five years ago since the A.A.A. admitted for the first time that a human being had run a hundred yards in ten seconds. Since then we have learned to take little notice of such a performance, which has repeatedly been eclipsed; indeed, we read of four hundred and forty yards in forty-seven seconds, which strikes me as a much more striking performance. Similarly, a high jump of six feel was for a long time looked upon as the limit. What is the record to-day? I know of six feet five inches, but probably that is not the latest.

What I want to say is that these human achievements do not represent, as far as we know, any general improvement in the human race, certainly nothing secured by organised effort, nothing having its origin in a study of pedigrees, nothing at all page 40 analogous to what breeders of racehorses claim to have done in their line. We know that in the days of Eclipse a doctor called in to a human patient inevitably whipped out a lancet and relieved his victim of a certain quantity of blood. We may reasonably assume that veterinary surgeons, and presumably trainers, adopted methods no less absurd from a modern standpoint. We know that trainers bled their horses periodically. It may be presumed that improvements in jockeyship have been introduced, and in a general sense it may be urged that if Eclipse had lived to-day he would have put up better performances than he did in his time. From these observations I am not disposed to draw any conclusions beyond the remark that finality cannot be attained by the bland statement that horses have improved since the times of Eclipse, and that the supremacy of the British thoroughbred is due to the manner in which racing has been conducted.

The question of sprint racing appears to occasion our worthy chairmen and presidents a good deal of concern. At all events they realise the propriety of putting up some kind of defence. They talk learnedly about action, and tell us that many sprinters are bulky, or, as they put it, powerful, and some have developed into decent hurdlers. That is all very well as far as it goes, but, like the animals it seeks to justify, it does not go far enough. It is the ostensible, obvious, and avowed aim of racing to produce the Derby colt. That is the goal of every breeder's ambition. And it must be admitted that under existing conditions, and by comparison with other races, it is subjecting a three-year-old to a pretty severe test to ask him to carry 8.10 over a mile and a half in the spring. After he has won the Derby we all want him to develop into a Cup horse capable of winning at two miles. No racing man will deny that this is the standard that has been set up. But in actual experience it has been found that a vast majority of such horses as are bred are useless beyond a mile, and more at home over six furlongs. The sprint, then, has been introduced for the dual purpose of affording some financial relief to unsuccessful breeders, who are by no means unrepresented on committees, and of enabling committees to eke out a programme. And, under the operations of the law of supply and demand, the great majority of the races and the money is now devoted to sprints. This is a caustic commentary on the theory that the racecourse is the testing ground. Instead of compelling owners to breed up to the standard, we lower the standard, and accommodate the programme to the powers of such horses as happen to be produced. The original sprint was in the nature of a consolation race, but it has developed into an affair of much importance. The winner of a sprint to which big money is attached is credited with page 41 "a sterling performance." Congratulations are showered upon his breeder, and we are strongly urged to patronise his sire. If there is such a dearth of stayers that it is impossible to supply a day's racing without resort to sprints, there certainly should be such limits imposed upon the stakes attached to such scrambles as would lessen their importance, and stamp them definitely as consolation races rather than as prizes to be sought after and bred for. That, at least, would impart an air of sincerity to all this chatter about the testing ground, which is lacking as things are. And something, too, might be done in the matter of weights. If a given number of races must be supplied to fill in the day, and if some of these must be sprints, the weights might be increased very materially as the distances became shorter. But I dream.

Personally, I find it annoying to be expected to gasp at the reminder that Carbine won the Melbourne Cup, of two miles on the flat, under "the staggering impost" of 10.5. Orthodox racing men profess to sneer at steeplechasing, which, indeed, they refer to as "the illegitimate game." Yet in steeplechasing the equivalent of Carbine would have to carry 14.0 over three or four miles of fences and heavy going. I do not say that a horse as valuable as Carbine was supposed to be should be made to risk his neck over fences. But I cannot see why flat racers should not put up as much weight over a mile or two as jumpers have to carry over twice that distance.

In racing circles these will be regarded but as the babblings of a disordered intellect, but I am going to express the opinion that the utility value of racing would be greatly enhanced by raising weights three stone all round on the flat; that under a mile no horse other than a two-year-old should carry less than 12.0; that 301bs. should be the maximum difference between the top and bottom weights. To me it is simply infamous that a Carbine should be beaten, or even in danger of being beaten, by some animal carrying half a hundredweight less. Mannikins able to go to scale at 7.10 or thereabouts, while possessing sufficient strength to have any control over their mounts and the requisite mental equipment, are so hard to find that none but millionaires can command their services. Retaining fees up to five thousand a year, quite apart from riding fees, commissions, presents, etc., give the wealthy man a great advantage over his less fortunate rivals, and if that is not the reason for the retention of the present scale, I can think of no other. On the other hand, if Derby colts had to carry 12.0—and as long as they all carry the same no hardship is involved—good riders would be so plentiful that mere wealth would not enjoy any advantage on that score.

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It would be perfectly futile to advance any such arguments as these in England, but in this country Parliament can withhold the use of the machine from any race which does not command its approval. If the continuance of racing is to be justified by any reference to "utility," surely we have seen the last of heavily endowed races which can be won by geldings carrying under 7.0.

But attempts to justify racing upon "utility" grounds receive their most staggering blow from what takes place upon the Trotting Track, as it is called. There the majority of the races, and a very large proportion of the money, go to hoppled pacers. These are mere gambling adjuncts which are never seen off the track, and stand in about the same relation to utility as do the "petits chevaux" of Continental watering places. Why we should allow the use of the machine in connection with these races, and prohibit "petits chevaux" is one of the things which no one can explain in the light of pure reason. Off the track no one wants or uses the pacer. Fancy Cabbage Tree Ned, or any of his contemporaries, on the box of Cobb and Co. 's coach, behind four or six pacers well-nigh concealed from sight beneath a mass of hopples, foot adjusters, overhead checks, toe weights, ear tongs, tongue straps, and heaven knows what other noisome accoutrements! Picture, if you can, a gun team so equipped going into action, or a squadron of cavalry. I say try and picture these things, because you may rest assured that in any discussion about the use of the totalisator all sorts of maudlin appeals will be made to your patriotism, and your desire to win and so end the war.

Of course, I realise that the answer to all that I have written can and will be supplied in a single word. Any real, genuine sportsman can disprove all my statements, and demolish all my arguments, simply by sticking out his tongue at me and saying "Wowser!" After I have taken the count he will remark in his best and most oracular manner, "If racing were abolished betting would continue." But he will be very careful not to assert that if betting were abolished, racing, as we know-it, could continue, nor will he expand his observation into "If racing were abolished betting would continue on the same scale as at present." Upon the whole, he will be well advised to stop at "Wowser," for that, if not unanswerable, will at least remain unanswered.

Our forefathers did not indulge in cock-fighting because they liked to see cocks fighting. In the beginning the practice, no doubt, originated among some top-booted farmers and squires, who were minded to see whose birds were the best fighters. But as soon as they began to meet for that purpose, the situation was taken possession of and controlled by those page 43 who found in it nothing more than opportunities for betting. And in order that bouts might follow one another as quickly as possible, and as many bets as possible could be pulled off in an afternoon, they equipped the birds with steel or silver spurs. Similarly, racing, no doubt, had its origin in that spirit which forbids a farmer, jogging home from market, to allow another farmer to pass him on the road. But, as soon as half a dozen such farmers made arrangements for a friendly trial of speed between their respective mounts, the inevitable betting man must needs throw his coils about the situation, cover it with slime, and proceed to assimilate it. The Yorkshire squire who offered to bet ten thousand guineas that he had the three best three-year-olds in England was animated by very different impulses from those of the sport who, without leaving London, bets about the chances of a horse he has never seen, in a race to be run at Doncaster. And so the racecourse has degenerated into a gambling resort, where the presence of horses is merely incidental and ancillary to the main purpose.