Thoroughbreds and Blackguards

Inside the sordid world of horse racing

That rare master in the mating of thoroughbred-blood lines to produce great race-horses, Major Foxhall Damgerfield, was known to deliver himself, when certain unethical procedures on the turf came under his notice; of the cynical observation:—

‘How strange so noble an animal as the thoroughbred should make blackguards of all who associate with him.’

The blanket character of the Major’s explosive indictment was grossly unfair, if only because it included himself; he was a kindly man whose passionate love for a great horse was hardly stronger than his tenderness toward an inglorious one. But he was, I fear, an exception, and a poor apostle. A racing-world which avidly accepted its heritage of his genius, successfully applying the breeding-principles which had made his success, found it expedient to forget the less practical precepts of his philosophy. It was a world somewhat embarrassed when suddenly brought face to face, not long ago, with a pronouncement very like the Major’s—and from a source not so easily disregarded.

The occasion was not without its drama. In Kentucky, home of the thoroughbred horse, and in that particular Blue Grass section of the state where so large a part of the population derives its living from the production of race horses, the biennial drive of reformers for repeal of the law safeguarding racing was on, and moving strongly.

As so often is the case in lawmaking bodies faced with a ‘reform’ question, the proponents of racing had the sympathy of a majority of the members of the State Legislature, but not the assurance that they would vote as they felt. The clergy of the state, apparently, was solidly behind the reformers; and the outlook was dark for the sport of kings.

At the crucial moment the Reverend William T. Settle, Episcopal rector of the Church of the Good Shepherd, Lexington, publicly gave his support to racing; the uncertain senators, bolstered by this happy opportunity to cite ecclesiastic warrant to their constituencies, did likewise, and racing won the day. Sometime thereafter the Reverend Mr. Settle called the racing-men about him, I am told, and gave them some very straight talk on what he would expect in the way of clean sport to justify the courageous stand he had taken in opposition to his brothers of the cloth. The particulars of his talk are still unrevealed, but may be inferred from the rector’s first remark to the assembled horsemen, which comes to me from one who was there.

‘Gentlemen,’ he began, ‘it has often occurred to me how noble a sport horse-racing might be, but for the owners, the trainers, and the jockeys.’

That remark crystallized a feeling that had steadily forced itself on me in a period of several years devoted to daily reportings of affairs of the turf.

Such service has afforded a very comfortable living, and has become more remunerative of late with the growing interest in horse-racing throughout the country. It has become more and more a service of pleasure, too; for appetite for a good horse-race is not appeased by feeding, while the years have brought an increasing fascination in tracing the traits, the high qualities, and the deficiencies of horses of the past as they reassert themselves in their sons and daughters on the turf to-day. To me no sport equals it. And since a frugal nature has precluded any unlucky plunging that might have soured an original passion, I may approach it still as an eager enthusiast.

The point of view, then, is that of an intensely interested observer who has come upon a remarkable phenomenon: the almost invariable degradation that occurs in men through association with an animal whose very contact, you would think, ought to breed honesty, fairness, and a spirit of kindliness.

The nobility of the thoroughbred horse is presumably unquestioned, even by those who have discovered an occasional rogue in the breed. It has a well-nigh universal appeal to the heart of man.

I have heard that Mr. James R. Keene, trained as he was in the battles of Wall Street to conceal his emotions, ‘threw himself on a sofa and shook with sobs’ when he received the cable saying that Colin had gone lame in England. 1 have seen an aged horseman, with tears in his eyes, soundly cane a young buck who had written in a newspaper that one of his selling-platers, a notorious quitter, ‘had a heart the size of a peanut.’ And at the Derby once I saw a woman steal away from a party of celebrities and disappear; they found her some time after, her arms clasped about the neck of the Derby winner. Years before she had romped in the fields with the brown colt’s grandsire.

In our part of Kentucky, at least, Black Beauty was accepted as a sound zoological treatise no less than as an excellent story. The inevitable motto beseeching divine blessing on the household usually shared space equally with a steel engraving of some equine hero, and some such inscription as:—

Après l’homme, le cheval le plus noble animal
Est rendu par ce Seigneur si juste et si égal.

Pleasant Blue Grass hills are dotted with tombstones erected over the bones of Futurity and Derby winners; and I well remember that our village preacher found inspiration for a sermon, which was quoted many a day after, in a newspaper poem by some unknown scribbler named Riley, which read:—

I love the hoss from hoof to head,
From head to hoof and tail to mane;
I love the hoss, as I have said,
From head to hoof and back again.

I love my God the first of all,
Then Him that perished on the Cross;
And next my wife, and then I fall
Down on my knees and love the hoss.

It was for shame, said he, that a ‘foreigner’ should have to teach us the need of recasting that old gasconade: ‘A Kentuckian bows the knee only to his God, his sire, and his ladies’; and closed with the conviction that this Mr. James Whitcomb Riley, though apparently a resident of another state, probably had been born a Kentuckian.

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