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An essay by Robert Lynd

The Betting Man

Title:     The Betting Man
Author: Robert Lynd [More Titles by Lynd]

If The Panther wins the Derby,[He didn't] as most people apparently expect him to do, his victory will carry more weight among frequenters of race-courses as an argument for Socialism than any that has yet been invented. For The Panther is a Government-bred horse, born and brought up in defiance of the _laissez-faire_ principles of Mr Harold Cox. He will therefore carry the colours of a great principle at Epsom as well as those of his present lessee. Who would have thought five years ago that the Derby favourite of 1919 would start under so grave a responsibility?

Not that racing men have much time to spare for thoughts about social problems, even when these are related to a horse. Theirs is a busy life. They enjoy little of the leisure that falls to the lot of statesmen and haberdashers.

Their anxieties are a serial story continued from one edition of the day's papers to another Nor does the last edition of the evening paper make an end of their anxieties. It is not an epilogue to one day so much as a prologue to the next. The programme of races for the following day suggests more problems than the Peace Conference itself could settle in a month. The racing man, having studied the names of the horses entered, goes out to buy some tobacco. As he takes his change from the tobacconist, he asks: "Have you heard anything for to-morrow?" The tobacconist says: "I heard Green Cloak for the first race," The racing man nods. "You didn't hear anything for the big race?" he asks. "No. Somebody was saying Holy Saint." "I heard Oily Hair," says the racing man gravely. "Good-night." And he goes out. His brow becomes knitted with thought as he moves off along the pavement. He tells himself that Holy Saint certainly does offer difficulties. Holy Saint is a notoriously bad starter. If he could be trusted to get away, he would be one of the finest horses of his year in long-distance races. But he is continually being left at the post. To back him would be pure gambling. He could win if he liked, but would he like? On the whole, Oily Hair is a safer horse to back. He has already beaten Holy Saint in the Chiswick Cup, and only lost the Scotch Plate to Disaster by a neck. As the racing man allows his memory to dwell on the achievements of Oily Hair his confidence rises. "I see nothing to beat him," he says to himself. He has just decided to put "a fiver" on him when he meets an acquaintance, who suggests a drink. As they drink, the talk turns on horses. "What are you backing in the big race to-morrow?" "Have you heard anything?" "I heard Oily Hair." "I think not. I'll tell you why. Tommy Fitzgibbon's youngest sister is at school with two sisters of Willie Soames, who's going to ride Peace on Earth to-morrow, and one of them told her that Willie had written to her to put every halfpenny she has on Peace on Earth." "I'm sick, sore and tired of backing Peace on Earth. He's a cantankerous beast that seems to take a positive pleasure in losing races." "Well, remember what I told you...."

On arriving home our sportsman goes to his shelves and takes down the last annual volume of _M'Call's Racing Chronicle and Pocket Turf Calendar_, and looks up Peace on Earth in the index. He turns up the record of one race after another, and finds that the horse has a better past than he had remembered. He cannot make up his mind what to do. He looks over several weekly papers to see if any of them can throw light on his difficulties. Each of them names a different winner for the big race. When he puts on his pyjamas that night, all he knows is that he has decided to decide nothing till the next day.

Next day he once more reads the names of the horses entered for the various races, and glances down the list of winners selected by the racing prophet in the morning paper. Having breakfasted late, he finds he has only about an hour to waste before catching a train for the races, and he resolves to pay a call at the "Bird of Paradise," where a friend of his who has an unusual gift for picking up information is usually to be found about noon. He learns from the landlord that his friend has been in and gone away, but the landlord tells him that he hears Pudding is a certainty.

"Have you any reason for thinking so?"

"Well, there was a man in here who has a son a policeman close by Jobson's stables, and he tells me that everybody in the neighbourhood has been backing Pudding down to their last spoon. That looks as if word had been passed round that it was going to win." The racing man passes out and looks in at the "Pink Elephant" to see if his friend is there. He is seated at a little table in an upstairs parlour with four others, all drinking whisky and exchanging tips. They belong to the most credulous race of men alive. They are all believers in what is called information, and information is simply the betting man's name for gossip. The friend is speaking in a low but excited voice to his companions, who crouch over towards him in order to catch information not meant for the rest of the room. He tells how he had just been in to buy a paper at his newsagent's, and how his newsagent had been calling on his solicitor that morning, and the solicitor told him that the caller who had just left as he came in was Gordon, the owner of Cutandrun, and Gordon said that Cutandrun was the biggest thing that had ever come into his hands. The buzz-buzz of talk in the smoke-filled room and the clatter of passing carts makes it difficult to hear him, but the others lean over the table with red, intent faces, like men among whom an apostle has come. They do not stay long over their drinks, as they have not much time for social pleasures. They swallow their whisky with a quick gesture look at their watches, stand up hurriedly and part with handshakes.

Then comes a drive to the railway station where race-cards are being sold. The racing-man buys a "card" and several papers. He looks down the lists of the horses again in the train, and tries to make up his mind whether to take the tobacconist's tip and back Green Cloak for the first race. He believes greatly in breeding, and by far the best-bred horse in the race is Liberal, who has three Derby winners in his pedigree. Then there is Red Rose, who created a sensation a month ago by winning two races in a day. He decides to do nothing till he sees the horses themselves. He pays thirty shillings at the turnstile of the race-course and is admitted to the grand stand. Already one or two bookmakers are shouting from their stands, and some of them have chalked up on blackboards the odds they are willing to give in the big race. He looks at the board and sees that he can get twenties against Cutandrun. A five-pound note might bring him a hundred pounds. On the other hand, if Oily Hair was going to win, he wouldn't like to miss it. The bookmakers are offering fives against it. Holy Saint is hot favourite at two to one. That alone makes him impatient of it, for he dislikes backing favourites. He prefers the big risks, with great scoops if he wins. However, he will make up his mind later. Meanwhile, he will go to the paddock and have a look at the horses for the first race. Half-a-dozen horses are already out, and men with numbers on their arms are walking them round and round in a ring. He consults his card and sees that No. 7 is Brighton Beauty, and No. 2 (a slender, glossy, black beast with a white star in his forehead) Green Cloak. Liberal has not appeared. The numbers of the starters, with the names of the jockeys, are now being hoisted. He makes a pencil-mark opposite the name of each starter on his racing-card, and jots down the name of the jockey. Raff, he sees, is riding Green Cloak. That is in its favour.

When he gets back to the betting-ring, the bookmakers are shouting hoarsely against each other. Liberal is a very hot favourite. They are shouting: "I'll take two to one. I'll take two to one. Five to one bar one. A hundred to eight Green Cloak." He feels almost sure Liberal will win, but Green Cloak--he wishes he had asked the tobacconist where he got his information from. Anyhow, half-a-sovereign doesn't matter much. He goes up to a bookmaker, and says: "Ten shillings Green Cloak." The bookmaker turns to his clerk and says: "Six pound five to ten shillings Green Cloak," gives a red-white-and-blue card with his name and a number on it; the other takes the card, writes on the back of it the name of the horse and the amount of the bet, and makes for the stand to see the race. The horses have now come out, and are off one after another to the starting-post. Green Cloak would be hard to miss because of his jockey's colours--old gold, scarlet sleeves, and green and black quartered cap. The bell has hardly rung to announce that the race has begun when men in the crowd begin to dogmatise about the result. One man keeps saying: "Green Cloak wins this race. Green Cloak wins this race." Another says: "Liberal leads." Another says: "No; that's Jumping Frog." To the unaccustomed eye the horses seem as close to each other as a swarm of bees. Suddenly, however, a bay horse springs forward and seems to put a length between itself and the others at every stride. The people in the stand shout: "Liberal! Liberal!" It wins by about ten lengths. Green Cloak is second, but a bad second. The crowd begins to pour down from the stand again. Those who have won wait near the bookmakers till the winner has been to the unsaddling enclosure and the announcement "All right" is made. Then the bookmakers begin to pay out, and the crowd moves off to the paddock again to see the horses for the next race.

Friends stop each other and exchange information in low voices. Others do their best to listen in the hope of overhearing information: "I hear Tomsk," "Johnnie says lay your last penny on Glasgow Pet," "I'm going to back Submarine." And the parade of the horses, the hoisting of the names of the starters and jockeys, the laying of the bets, and the climbing of the grand stand are all gone through over and over again. The betting man has no time even for a drink. To the casual onlooker a day's horse-racing has the appearance of a day's holiday. But the racing man knows better. He is collecting information, coming to decisions, wandering among the bookies in the hope of getting a good price, climbing into the grand stand and descending from it, studying the points of the horses all the time with as little chance of leisure as though he were a stockbroker during a financial crisis or a sailor on a sinking ship.

Perhaps, in the train on the way home from the races, he may relax a little. Certainly, if he has backed Cutandrun, he will. For Cutandrun won at ten to one, and his pocket is full of five-pound notes. He feels quite jocular now that the strain is over. He makes puns on the names of the defeated horses. "Lie Low lay low all right," he announces to the compartment, indifferent to the scowls of the man in the corner who had backed it. "Hopscotch didn't hop quite fast enough." Were he tipsy, he could not jest more fluently. His jokes are small, but be not too severe on him. The man has had a hard day. Wait but an hour, and care will descend on him again. He will not have sat down to dinner in his hotel for three minutes till someone will be saying to him: "Have you heard anything for the Cup to-morrow?" There is no six-hours day for the betting man. He is the drudge of chance for every waking hour. He is enviable only for one thing. He knows what to talk about to barbers.

[The end]
Robert Lynd's essay: The Betting Man