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An essay by Robert Lynd

The Intellectual Side Of Horse-racing

Title:     The Intellectual Side Of Horse-racing
Author: Robert Lynd [More Titles by Lynd]

Horse-racing--or, at least, betting--is one of the few crafts that are looked down on by practically everybody who does not take part in it. "It's a mug's game," people say. Even betting men talk like this. There is a street called Mug's Row in a north of England town: it is so called because the houses in it were built by a bookmaker. Whether it was the bookmaker or his victims that gave the street its name I do not know. To call a bookmaker a mug would seem to most people an abuse of language. Yet the only bookmaker I have ever really known used to confess himself a mug in the most penitent fashion. He was a mug, however, not because he could not make money, but because he could not keep it. The poor of his suburb, when in difficulties, he declared, used always to come to him instead of going to the clergy, and he was unable to refuse them. But then he was bitter against the clergy. As a young man, he had been a Sunday school teacher, and so far as I could gather, he might have gone on being a Sunday school teacher till the present day if he had not suddenly been assailed with doubts one Sabbath afternoon as he expounded the story of David and Goliath. Whether it was that he looked on David as having taken an unsportsmanlike advantage of the giant or whether he doubted that so much could be done with such little stones, he did not make quite clear. Anyhow, from that day on, he never believed in revealed religion. He quarrelled with his clergyman. He broke the Sabbath. He began to drink beer and to go to race-meetings. He rapidly rose from the position of carpenter to that of bookmaker, and, were it not for his infernal gift of charity, he would probably now be driving his own car and be hall-marked with a Coalition title. Even as it was, he was much more prosperous than any carpenter. Whenever he produced money, it was in pocketfuls and handfuls. Strange that a bookmaker, who by his trade must be accustomed to miracles, should find it difficult to believe in David and Goliath. He was possibly a man who betted on form, and on form Goliath should undoubtedly have won. David was an outsider. He had no breeding. He would have been surprised if he could have foreseen how his victory would rankle some thousands of years later in the soul of an honest English bookmaker.

It is, however, just these matters of form and breeding that raise horse-racing and betting above the intellectual level of a game of nap. Betting men who ignore these things are as unintellectual as the average novelist. There are some, for instance, who shut their eyes and bring down a pin or a pencil on a list of names of the horses, in the hope that in this way they may discover a winner. No doubt they may. It is perhaps as good a way as any other. But there is something trivial in such methods. This is mere gambling for the sake of excitement. There is no more fundamental brainwork in it than in a game I saw being played in a railway carriage the other day, when a man drew a handful of coins from his pocket and bet his friend half-a-sovereign that there would be more heads than tails lying uppermost. This is a game at which it is possible to lose five pounds in two minutes. It is the sort of game to which a betting man will resort when _in extremis_, but only then. The ruling passion is strong, however. I have a friend who on one occasion went into retreat in a Catholic monastery. Two well-known bookmakers had also gone into temporary retreat for the good of their souls. My friend told me that even during the religious services the bookmakers used to bet as to which of the monks would stand up first at the conclusion of a prayer, and that in the solemn hush of the worship he would suddenly hear a hoarse whisper: "Two to one on Brownie"--a brother with hair of that colour--and the answer: "I take you, Joe." I have even heard of men betting as to which of two raindrops on a window-pane will reach the bottom first. It is possible to bet on cats, rats or flies. Calvinists do not bet, because they believe that everything that happens is a certainty. The extreme betting man is no Calvinist, however. He believes that most things are accidents, and the rest catastrophes. Hence his philosophy is almost always that of Epicurus. To him every day is a new day, at the end of which it is his aim to be able to say, like Horace, _Vixi_, or, as the text ought perhaps to read, _Vici_.

The intellectual betting man, on the other hand, has a position somewhere between the extremes of Calvinism and Epicureanism. He worships neither certainty nor chance. He reckons up probabilities. When Mr Asquith picked out Spion Kop as the winner of the Derby, he did so because he went about the business of selection not with a pin or a pencil, but with one of the best brains in England. In the course of his long conflicts with the House of Lords he had probably interested himself somewhat profoundly in questions of heredity and pedigree, and he was thus well equipped for an investigation into the records of the parentage and grandparentage of the various Derby horses. All that the ordinary casual better knows about Spion Kop is that he is the son of Spearmint, which won the Derby in 1906. This, however, would not alone make him an obviously better horse than Orpheus, whose sire, Orby, won the Derby in 1907. The student of breeding must be a feminist, who pays as much attention to the female as to the male line. It was by the study of the female line that the most cunning of the sporting journalists were able to eliminate Tetratema from the list of probable winners. Tetratema, as son of the Tetrarch, was excellently fathered for staying the mile-and-a-half course at Epsom. More than this, as a writer in _The Sportsman_ pointed out: "The Tetrarch himself is by Roi Herode, a fine stayer, and his maternal grand-dam was by Hagioscope, who rarely failed to transmit stamina." It is when we turn to Tetratema's mother, Scotch Gift--or is it his grandmother something else?--apparently, that we discover his hereditary vice. This mare our journalist exposed to scathing and searching criticism, and concluded that "there can be nothing unreasonable in the inference, based on the records of this family, that the chances are against a Derby winner having descended from the least distinguished of ... four sisters." Even so, however, the writer a few sentences later abjures Calvinism, and denies that there is anything certain in what he calls breeding problems. "It seemed," he writes, "wildly improbable at one time that Flying Duchess would produce a Derby winner, for I believe it is correct that two of Galopin's elder brothers ran in a bus, and there were two others quite useless So, on the face of it, the chances were against Galopin, the youngest brother." I quote these passages as evidence of the immense demand the serious pursuit of horse-racing puts on the intellect. The betting man must be as well versed in precedents as a lawyer and in genealogical trees as a historian. At school, I always found the genealogical trees the most difficult and bewildering part of history. Yet the genealogical tree of a king is a simple matter compared to that of a horse. All you have to learn about a king is the names of his relations: regarding a horse, however, you must know not only the names but the character, staying power and domestic virtues of every male and female with whom he is connected during several generations. If a man spent as much labour in disentangling the cousinship of the royal families of ancient Egypt, he would be venerated as a scholar in five continents. Oxford and Cambridge would shower degrees on him. Sir William Sutherland would get him a place on the Civil List. Hence it seems to me that tipping the winners is not, as is too often regarded, "anybody's job": it is work that should be undertaken only by men of powerful mind. No man should be allowed to qualify as a tipster unless he has taken a degree at one of the Universities. The ideal tipster would at once be a great historian a great antiquary, a great zoologist, a great mathematician, and a man of profound common-sense. It is no accident that an ex-Prime Minister was one of the few Englishmen to spot the winner of the Derby of 1920. Mr Asquith must have gone patiently through all Spion Kop's relations, weighing up the chances whether it was an accident or owing to the weather that such an one fifteen years ago was beaten by a neck in a six-furlong race, studying incidents in every one of their careers, seeing that none of them had ever had a great-uncle a bus-horse, bringing out a table of logarithms to decide difficult points.... We need not be surprised that there are fewer great tipsters than great poets. Shakespeare alone has given us a portrait of the perfect tipster--"looking before and after ... in apprehension how like a god!"

It is perhaps, however, when we leave questions of breeding and come to those of form, that we realise most fully the amazing intellectualism of the betting life. In the study of form we are faced by problems that can be solved only by the higher algebra. Thus, if Jehoshaphat, carrying 7 st., ran third to Jezebel, carrying 8 st. 4 lb., in a mile race, and Jezebel, carrying 8 st. 4 lb., was beaten by a neck by Woman and Wine, carrying 7 st. 9 lb., over a mile and a quarter, and Woman and Wine, carrying 8 st. 1 lb., was beaten by Tom Thumb, carrying 9 st. in a mile 120 yds., and Tom Thumb, carrying 9 st. 7 lb., was beaten by Jehoshaphat over seven furlongs, we have to calculate what chance Tom Thumb has of beating Jezebel in a race of a mile and a half on a wet day. There are men to whom such calculations may come easy. To Mr Asquith they are probably child's play. For myself, I shrink from them and, if I were a betting man, would no doubt in sheer desperation be driven back on the method of pin and pencil. But it is obvious that the sincere betting man has to make such calculations daily. Every morning the student of form finds his sporting page full of such lists as the following:--

0 0 0 CONCLUSIVE (7-5), Kroonstad-Conclusion. 8th of 9 to Poltava (gave 17lb.) Gatwick May (6f) and 7th of 19 to Orby's Pride (rec 4lb) Kempton May (5f).

3 3 3 RAPIERE (7-4), Sunder--Gourouli. Lost 3-4 length and 3 lengths to Bantry (gave 2lb) and Marcia (rec 7lb) Newmarket May (1m), GOLDEN GUINEA (gave 20lb) not in first 9. See BLACK JESS.

0 0 4 ROYAL BLUE (7-0), Prince Palatine--China Blue. See NORTHERN LIGHT.

0 2 0 BLACK JESS (6-11), Black Jester--Diving Bell. Not in first 4 to St Corentin (gave 121b) Lingfield last week (7f). Here Ap. (7f) lost 3 lengths to Victory Speech (rec 1lb), RAPIERE (gave 13lb, favourite) ½ length off.

0 LLAMA (6-11), Isard II.--Laughing Mirror. Nowhere to Silver Jug (gave 15lb) Newbury Ap. (7f).

Is not a page of Thucydides simpler? Is Persius himself more succinct or obscure? Our teachers used to apologise for teaching us Latin grammar and mathematics by telling us that they were good mental gymnastics. If education is only a matter of mental gymnastics, however, I should recommend horse-racing as an ideal study for young boys and girls. The sole objection to it is that it is so engrossing; it might absorb the whole energies of the child. The safety of Latin grammar lies in its dullness. No child is tempted by it into forgetting that there are other duties in life besides mental gymnastics. Horse-racing, on the other hand, comes into our lives with the effect of a religious conversion. It is the greatest monopolist among the pleasures. It affects men's conversation. It affects their entire outlook. The betting man's is a dedicated life. Even books have a new meaning for him. _The Ring and the Book_--it is his one and only epic. And it is the most intellectual of epics. That is my point.

[The end]
Robert Lynd's essay: The Intellectual Side Of Horse-racing