Thoroughbreds and Blackguards

Inside the sordid world of horse racing

These things I recall because they speak the love and devotion which the nobility of horses arouses in men. The extent to which men can harden themselves to that nobility is quite beyond understanding.

A certain amount of deception is to be found, and is condoned, in all sports. Racing may not lightly be ruled out of court because it breeds deception, unless we also rule out tennis, for instance, because Mr. Tilden threatens a Lawford and surprises with a lob; or football, because the Harvard team finds effectiveness in a fake formation. Indeed, I know of no sport in which artifice contributes so little to success. To the man with true sporting instincts, no other game holds such inducements for laying the cards on the table and playing to win from the start.

But, I hasten to add, by success in the sport of racing I mean the winning of races - big races, if you like, where the winner’s purse is a fat one. Certainly that is where the best horses are to be found, and the true sportsman wants to beat the best. For the matter of that, I see nothing reprehensible in a desire to win a Preakness rather than a Paumonok purely because the stake is ten times as valuable.

When the object is primarily to beat the bookmaker rather than the other horse, however, then the entire color changes. Sport becomes a sordid business, and the sportsman becomes only a sport. It is then that the horseman begins to compare so unfavorably with his horse.

The first step is concealment of the true worth of one’s horse. The mechanics are obvious: when everyone thinks your horse will win, his odds are one to five; when no one thinks he will win, his odds may be one hundred to one or more.

Now I maintain that there is something distinctly sporting in the quiet preparation of a horse, and the ‘putting him over’ at long odds in his first appearance in public. It’s tabasco to the game. The matter of fooling the clockers—those eagle-eyed fellows with stop watches who line the rails at the first break of dawn to observe workouts —is a royal sport in itself.

Too often, however, that spice sharpens an appetite for long odds based on less defensible strategy. Since odds are in indirect proportion to the public estimate of the horse, and the horse has already revealed his quality in public, the plan suggests itself to restore public uncertainty by having him mix bad races with good ones; or, after he has definitely established his maximum powers, to make him run above that maximum by the use of unnatural devices.

It is easy to trace the development of trickery, deceit, and insensibility to kindliness in their natural growth from such practices. I am inclined to fear that they are steadily increasing on our race courses. We do not hear so much, nowadays, of fiery challenges and caustic acceptances. The thatch race, epitome of sportsmanship, has almost passed from the turf. The proud sportsman who owned he had a good horse, and defied his associates to trot out a better one, now too often courts contempt for his horse for the longer odds that contempt will bring. He declines matches, and ‘scratches’ from races when the issue appears to narrow into a match.

It is pleasant to think of a racing-world with more Johnny Harpers in it. It was Uncle Johnny who brought the immortal Longfellow to the turf with an open challenge, and sadly laid him away under the apple tree by his window when his career was ended. A cot in his horse’s stall was good enough for him, and no man’s wager against his horse went begging while his money lasted. He made his own ‘book,’ and warned each and every one that none lived greater than Longfellow, while he accepted the money they proffered to bet against him.

‘But,’ said a young man once, after watching his money disappear in Uncle Johnny’s satchel and waiting in vain for a slip, ‘how will you remember me when I come back after the race?’

‘Son,’ replied Uncle Johnny, ‘you ain’t comin’ back.’

On an average, it takes a novice about a month to become casual about the cruelties he sees inflicted on horses on the race track. It is a short time, especially since so many of those cruelties are needless.

A horseman will tell you that use of the whip is indispensable to getting the best out of many horses. That is probably true. The human race has no monopoly on indolence, and it is just another evidence of their humanness that many horses need occasionally to be reminded of the task at hand. But, also like human beings, horses resent prodding when doing theft best, and are likely to show that resentment with a pointed refusal to try at all. Your horseman will also tell you that scores of potential victories are turned into defeats in this manner. ‘He went to the whip and tossed the race away’ is one of the most common expressions to be heard where racing is talked.

Presented by

The Blacksmith: A Short Film About Art Forged From Metal

"I'm exploiting the maximum of what you can ask a piece of metal to do."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

Video

The Rise of the Cat Tattoo

How a Brooklyn tattoo artist popularized the "cattoo"

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In