“Sport” by James Runciman

Story type: Essay

Simple folk fancy that “sport” must be a joyous pursuit, and that a sportsman is a jovial, light-hearted, and rather innocent person. It may be useful to many parents, and perhaps to some young people, if I let them know what “sport” really means nowadays. Those who have their imaginations filled with pictures of merry red-coated riders, or of sturdy gaitered squires tramping through stubble behind their dogs, are quite welcome to their agreeable visions. The hounds of course meet in hundreds of places in winter-time, and the bold riders charge gaily across meadows and over fences. It is a splendid, exhilarating sight; and no one can find much fault with the pursuit, for it gives health to thousands. The foxes may perhaps object a little; but, if a philosopher could explain to them that, if they were not preserved for hunting purposes, they would soon be exterminated, we have no doubt that they would choose the alternative which gives them a chance. Shooting is engaged in with more enthusiasm now than ever it was before; and doubtless the gentlemen who sit in snug corners and knock down tame pheasants derive benefit–physical and moral–from the lively exercise. But the word “sport” in England does not now refer to hunting and shooting; it has a wide application, and it describes in a generic way a number of pursuits which are, to say the least, not improving to those who engage in them.

The royal sport is of course horse-racing; and about that amusement–in its present aspect–I may have something profitable to say. The advocates of racing inform us that the noble sport improves the breed of horses, and affords wholesome relaxation to men; they grow quite indignant with the narrow Puritans who talk “stuff” about demoralization, and they have numerous fine phrases referring to old England and the spirit of our fathers. All the talk concerning the improving influence of the Turf on horses and men is pernicious nonsense, and there is an end of the matter. The English thoroughbred is a beautiful creature, and it is pleasant enough to see him make his splendid rush from start to finish; amusing also is it to watch the skill of the wiry manikins who ride; the jockeys measure every second and every yard, and their cleverness in extracting the last ounce of strength from their horses is quite curious. The merest novice may enjoy the sight of the gay colours, and he cannot help feeling a thrill of excitement when the thud, thud of the hoofs sounds near him as the exquisite slender animals fly past. But the persons who take most interest in races are those who hardly know a horse from a mule. They may make a chance visit to a racecourse, but the speed and beauty of the animals do not interest them in any way; they cannot judge the skill of a rider; they have no eye for anything but money. To them a horse is merely a name; and, so far from their racing pursuits bringing them health, they prefer staying in a low club or lower public-house, where they may gamble without being obliged to trouble themselves about the nobler animals on which they bet.

The crowd on a racecourse is always a hideous spectacle. The class of men who swarm there are amongst the worst specimens of the human race, and, when a stranger has wandered among them for an hour or so, he feels as though he had been gazing at one huge, gross, distorted face. Their language is many degrees below vulgarity; in fact, their coarseness can be understood only by people who have been forced to go much amongst them–and that perhaps is fortunate. The quiet stoical aristocrats in the special enclosures are in all ways inoffensive; they gamble and gossip, but their betting is carried on with still self-restraint, and their gossip is the ordinary polished triviality of the country-house and drawing-room. But what can be said of the beings who crowd the betting-ring? They are indeed awful types of humanity, fitted to make sensitive men shudder. Their yells, their profanity, their low cunning, their noisy eagerness to pounce upon a simpleton, their infamous obscenity, all combine to make them the most loathsome collection of human beings to be found on the face of the broad earth.

Observe that all of this betting crew appear to be what is called rolling in money. They never do a stroke of useful work; they merely howl and make bets–that is their contribution to the prosperity of the State. Yet they are dressed with vulgar richness, they fare sumptuously, and they would not condescend to taste any wine save the finest vintages; they have servants and good horses, and in all ways they resemble some rank luxurious growth that has sprung from a putrid soil. Mark that these bookmakers, as they are called, are not gentlemen in any sense of the word; some of them are publicans, some look like prize-fighters, some like promoted costermongers, some like common thieves. There is not a man in the company who speaks with a decently refined accent–in short, to use plain terms, they are the scum of the earth. Whence then comes the money which enables them to live in riotous profusion? The explanation is a sad one, and I trust that these words may warn many young people in time. Here is the point to be weighed upon–these foul-mouthed persons in the betting-ring are able to travel about all spring, summer, and autumn, staying in the best hotels and lacking nothing; in winter they can loll away their time in billiard-rooms. Once more, who supplies the means? It is the senseless outside public who imagine they know something about “sport.”

Every town in England contains some centre–generally a public-house or a barber’s shop–where men meet to make wagers; the evil influence of the Turf is almost everywhere apparent, for it is probable that at least two millions of men are interested in betting. London swarms with vile clubs which are merely gambling saloons; professional men, tradesmen, clerks, and even artizans crowd into these horrid holes, and do business with the professional gamblers. In London alone there are some half-dozen papers published daily which are entirely devoted to “sport,” and these journals are of course bought by the gudgeons who seek destruction in the betting-rooms. In the provinces there are several towns which easily support a daily sporting journal; and no ordinary paper in the North of England could possibly survive unless at least one-eighth of its space were devoted to racing matters of various sorts. There are hundreds of thousands of our population who read absolutely nothing save lists of weights and entries, quotations which give the odds against horses, and reports of races. Not 5 per cent, of these individuals ever see a horse from year’s end to year’s end, yet they talk of nothing else but horses, horses, horses, and every effort of their intellects is devoted to the task of picking out winners. Incredible as it may seem, these poor souls call themselves sportsmen, and they undoubtedly think that their grubbing about in malodorous tap-rooms is a form of “sport”; it is their hopeless folly and greed that fill the pockets of the loud-mouthed tenants of the Ring. Some one must supply the bookmakers’ wealth, and the “some one” is the senseless amateur who takes his ideas from newspapers. The amateur of the tap-room or the club looks down a list of horses and chooses one which he fancies; perhaps he has received private advice from one of the beings who haunt the training-grounds and watch the thoroughbreds at exercise; perhaps he is influenced by some enthusiast who bids him risk all he has on certain private information. The fly enters the den and asks the spider, “What price Flora?”–that means, “What odds are you prepared to lay against the mare named Flora?” The spider answers–say seven to one; the fly hands one pound to the spider, and the bet is made. The peculiarity of this transaction is that one of the parties to it is always careful to arrange so that he cannot lose. Supposing that there are seven horses entered in a race, it is certain that six must be losers. The bookmaker so makes his wagers that no matter which of the seven wins he at least loses nothing; the miserable amateur has only one chance. He may possibly be lucky; but the chances in the long run are dead against him, for he is quite at the mercy of the sharp capitalist who bets with him. The money which the rowdies of the Ring spend so lavishly all comes from the pockets of dupes who persist in pursuing a kind of ignis fatuus which too often leads them into a bog of ruin.

This deplorable business of wagering has become universal. We talk of the Italians as a gambling nation, but they are not to be compared with the English for recklessness and purblind persistence. I know almost every town in England, and I say without fear that the main topic of conversation in every place of entertainment where the traveller stays is betting. A tourist must of course make for hotel after hotel where the natives of each place congregate; and, if he keeps his ears open, he will find the gambling venom has tainted the life-blood of the people in every town from Berwick to Hastings. It may be asked, “How do these silly creatures who bet manage to obtain any idea of a horse?” They have not the faintest notion of what any given horse is like, but they usually follow the advice of some sharper who pretends to know what is going to win. There are some hundreds of persons who carry on a kind of secret trade in information, and these persons profess their ability to enable any one to win a fortune. The dupes write for advice, enclosing a fee, and they receive the name of a horse; then they risk their money, and so the shocking game goes on.

I receive only too many letters from wives, mothers, and sisters whose loved ones are being drawn into the vortex of destruction. Let me give some rough colloquial advice to the gamblers–“You bet on horses according to the advice of men who watch them. Observe how foolish you are! The horse A is trained in Yorkshire; the horse B at Newmarket. The man who watches A thinks that the animal can gallop very fast, and you risk your money according to his report. But what means has he of knowing the speed of B? If two horses gallop towards the winning-post locked together, it often happens that one wins by about six inches. There is no real difference in their speed, but the winner happens to have a neck slightly longer than the other. Observe that one race-horse–Buccaneer–has been known to cover a mile at the rate of fifty-four feet per second; it is therefore pretty certain that at his very highest speed he could move at sixty feet per second. Very good; it happens then that a horse which wins a race by one foot is about one-sixtieth of a second faster, than the beaten animal. What a dolt you must be to imagine that any man in the world could possibly tell you which of those two brutes was likely to be the winner! It is the merest guess-work; you have all the chances against you and you might as well bet on the tossing of halfpence. The bookmaker does not need to care, for he is safe whatever may win; but you are defying all the laws of chance; and, although you may make one lucky hit, you must fare ill in the end.” But no commonsensical talk seems to have any effect on the insensate fellows who are the betting-man’s prey, and thus this precious sport has become a source of idleness, theft, and vast misery. One wretch goes under, but the stock of human folly is unlimited, and the shoal of gudgeons moves steadily into the bookmaker’s net. One betting-agent in France receives some five thousand letters and telegrams per day, and all this huge correspondence comes from persons who never take the trouble to see a race, but who are bitten with the gambler’s fever. No warning suffices–man after man goes headlong to ruin, and still the doomed host musters in club and tavern. They lose all semblance of gentle humanity; they become mere blockheads–for cupidity and stupidity are usually allied–and they form a demoralizing leaven that is permeating the nation and sapping our manhood.

We have only to consider the position of the various dwarfs who bestride the racehorses in order to see how hard a hold this iniquity has on us. A jockey is merely a stable-boy after all; yet a successful jockey receives more adulation than does the greatest of statesmen. A theatrical manager has been known to prepare the royal box for the reception of one of these celebrities; some of the manikins earn five thousand a year, one of them has been known to make twenty thousand pounds in a year; and that same youth received three thousand pounds for riding in one race. As to the flattery–the detestable flattery–which the mob bestows on good horsemen, it cannot be mentioned with patience. In sum, then, a form of insanity has attacked England, and we shall pay bitterly for the fit. The idle host who gather on the racecourse add nothing to the nation’s wealth; they are poisonous parasites whose influence destroys industry, honesty, and common manliness. And yet the whole hapless crew, winners and losers, call themselves “sportsmen.” I have said plainly enough that every villainous human being seems to take naturally to the Turf; but unfortunately the fools follow on the same track as that trodden by the villains, and thus the honest gentlemen who still support a vile institution have all their work set out in order to prevent the hawks from making a meal of the pigeons. One of the honest guardians of racing morality resigned in bitter despair some time ago, giving as his reason the assertion that he could trust nobody. Nobody! The man was a great lord, he was totally disinterested and utterly generous, he never betted a penny, and he only preferred to see the superb thoroughbreds gallop. Lavish he was to all about him–and he could trust nobody. It seems that this despairful nobleman had tolerably good reasons for his hasty departure, for we have had such a crop of villainies to reap this year as never was gathered before in the same time, and it appears plain that no animal will be allowed to win any prize unless the foul crew of betting-men accord their kind approval, and refrain from poisoning the brute.

I address myself directly, and with all the earnestness of which I am capable, to those young simpletons who think that it is a fine and knowing thing to stake money on a horse. Some poor silly creatures cannot be taught that they are not even backing a good chance; they will not learn that the success or failure of horses in important races is regulated by a clique of rapscallions whose existence sullies the very light of day. Even if the simpleton chooses the very best horse in a race, it by no means follows that the creature will win–nay, the very excellence of an animal is all against its chances of success. The Ring–which is largely composed of well-to-do black-legs–will not let any man win too much. What earthly chance can a clerk or shopman or tradesman in Manchester or Derby have of knowing what passes in the hotels of Newmarket, the homes of trainers, the London betting-clubs? The information supplied so copiously by the sporting journals is as good as money can buy, but the writers on those papers are just as easily deceived as other people. Men are out every morning watching the horses take their exercise, and an animal cannot sneeze without the fact being telegraphed to the remotest corners of the country; but all this vigilance is useless when roguery comes into the field. Observe that for the moment I am not speaking about the morality of betting at all. I have my own opinion as to the mental tone of a man who is continually eyeing his neighbour’s pocket and wondering what he can abstract therefrom. There is, and can be, no friendship save bottle friendship among the animals of prey who spend their time and energy on betting; and I know how callously they let a victim sink to ruin after they have sucked his substance to the last drop. The very face of a betting-man is enough to let you know what his soul is like; it is a face such as can be seen nowhere but on the racecourse or in the betting-club: the last trace of high thought has vanished, and, though the men may laugh and indulge in verbal horse-play, there is always something carnivorous about their aspect. They are sharp in a certain line, but true intelligence is rarely found among them. Strange to say, they are often generous with money if their sentimental side is fairly touched, but their very generosity is the lavishness of ostentation, and they seem to have no true kindness in them, nor do they appear capable of even shamming to possess the genuine helpful nature. Eternally on the watch for prey, they assume the essential nature of predatory animals; their notion of cleverness is to get the better of somebody, and their idea of intellectual effort is to lay cunning traps for fools to enter. Yes; the betting-ring is a bad school of morality, and the man who goes there as a fool and a victim too, often blossoms into a rogue and a plunderer.

With all this in my mind, I press my readers to understand that I leave the ethics of wagering alone for the present, and confine my attention strictly to the question of expediency. What is the use of wearing out nerve and brain on pondering an infinite maze of uncertainties? The rogues who command jockeys and even trainers on occasion can act with certainty, for they have their eye on the very tap-root of the Turf upas-tree. The noodles who read sporting prints and try to look knowing can only fumble about among uncertainties; they and their pitiful money help to swell the triumphs and the purses of rascals, and they fritter away good brain-power on calculations which have no sound basis whatever. Let us get to some facts, and let us all hope in the name of everything that is righteous and of good report that, when this article is read, some blind feather-brains may be induced to stop ere the inevitable final ruin descends upon them. What has happened in the doleful spring of this year? In 1887 a colt was brought out for the first time to run for the greatest of all Turf prizes. As usual, some bagatelle of a million or thereabouts had been betted on a horse which had won several races, and this animal was reckoned to be incapable of losing: but the untried animal shot out and galloped home an easy winner. So little was the successful brute distressed by his race that he began to caper out of sheer light-heartedness when he was led back to the enclosure, and he very soon cleared the place in his gambols–in fact, he could have run another race within half an hour after the first one. In the autumn this same winner strained a ligament; but in spite of the accident he ran for another important prize, and his lightning speed served him in good stead, for he came in second for the St. Leger. Well, in the spring this animal was entered in a handicap race, and the weight which he had to carry seemed so trifling that good judges thought he must romp over the course and win with ease. Hundreds of thousands of dolts rushed to wager their money on this chance, and the horse’s owner, who is anything but a fool, proceeded to back his own property lavishly. Now a certain number of the betting-rogues appeared to know something–if I may be pardoned for using their repulsive phraseology–and, so long as any one was willing to bet on the horse, they were ready to lay against him. Still the pigeons would not take warning by this ominous symptom; they had chances enough to keep clear of danger, but they flocked into the snare in their confused fashion. A grain of common sense would have made them ask, “Why do these shrewd, hard men seem so certain that our favourite must lose? Are they the kind of persons who risk thousands in hard cash unless they know particularly well what they are doing? They bet with an air of certainty, though some of them must be almost ruined if they have made a miscalculation; they defy even the owner of the animal, and they cheerfully give him the opportunity of putting down thousands if he wishes to do so. There must be some reason for this assurance which at first sight looks so very overweening. Better have a care!”

Thus would common sense have counselled the victims; but, alas, common sense is usually left out of the composition of the betting-man’s victim, and the flood of honest money rolled into the keeping of men who are certainly no more than indifferent honest. The day of the race came; the great gaping public dipped their hands in their pockets and accepted short odds about their precious certainty. When the flag fell for the start, the most wildly extravagant odds were offered against the favourite by the men who had been betting against him all along, for they saw very soon that they were safe. The poor brute on whose success so many thousands depended could not even gallop; he trailed on wearily for a little, without showing any sign of his old gallant fire and speed, and at last his hopeless rider stopped him. This story is in the mouths of all men; and now perhaps our simpletons maybe surprised to hear that the wretched animal which was the innocent cause of loss and misery was poisoned by a narcotic. In his efforts to move freely he strained himself, for the subtle drug deprived him of the power of using his limbs, and he could only sprawl and wrench his sinews. This is the fourth case of the kind which has recently occurred; and now clever judges have hit upon the cause which has disabled so many good horses, after the rascals of the Ring have succeeded in laying colossal amounts against them. Too many people know the dire effects of the morphia injections which are now so commonly used by weak individuals who fear pain and ennui; the same deadly drug is used to poison the horses. One touch with the sharp needle-point under the horse’s elbow, and the subtle, numbing poison speeds through the arteries and paralyzes the nerves; a beautiful creature that comes out full of fire and courage is converted in a very few minutes into a dull helpless mass that has no more conscious volition than a machine. The animal remains on its feet, but exertion is impossible, and neither rein, whip, nor spur serves to stimulate the cunning poisoner’s victim. About the facts there can now be no dispute: and this last wretched story supplies a copestone to a pile of similar tales which has been in course of building during the past three or four years. Enraged men have become outspoken, and things are now boldly printed and circulated which were mentioned only in whispers long ago. The days of clumsy poisoning have gone by; the prowling villain no longer obtains entrance to a stable for the purpose of battering a horse’s leg or driving a nail into the frog of the foot; the ancient crude devices are used no more, for science has become the handmaid of scoundrelism. When in 1811 a bad fellow squirted a solution of arsenic into a locked horse-trough, the evil trick was too clumsy to escape detection, and the cruel rogue was promptly caught and sent to the gallows; but we now have horse-poisoners who hold a secret similar to that which Palmer of Rugeley kept so long. I say “a secret,” though every skilled veterinary surgeon knows how to administer morphia, and knows its effects; but the new practitioners contrive to send in the deadly injection of the drug in spite of the ceaseless vigilance of trainers, stablemen, detectives, and all other guards. Now I ask any rational man who may have been tempted to bet, Is it worth while? Leave out the morality for the present, and tell us whether you think it business-like to risk your money when you know that neither a horse’s speed nor a trainer’s skill will avail you when once an acute crew of sharpers have settled that a race must not be won by a certain animal. The miserable creature whose case has served me for a text was tried at home during the second week of April; he carried four stone more than the very useful and fast horse which ran against him, and he merely amused himself by romping alongside of his opponent. Again, when he took a preliminary canter before the drug had time to act, he moved with great strength and with the freedom of a greyhound; yet within three minutes he was no more than an inert mass of flesh and bone. I say to the inexperienced gambler, “Draw your own conclusions, and if, after studying my words, you choose to tempt fortune any more, your fate–your evil fate–be on your own head, for nothing that I or any one else can do will save you.”

Not long before the melancholy and sordid case which I have described, and which is now gaining attention and rousing curiosity everywhere, a certain splendid steeplechaser was brought out to run for the most important of cross-country races. He was a famous horse, and, like our Derby winner, he bore the fortunes of a good many people. To the confusion and dismay of the men who made sure of his success, he was found to be stupified, and suffering from all the symptoms of morphia-poisoning! Not long ago an exquisite mare was brought out to run for the Liverpool Steeplechase, and, like the two I have already named, she was deemed to be absolutely certain of success. She came out merrily from her box; but soon she appeared to become dazed and silly; she could not move properly, and in trying to clear her first fence she staggered like a soddened drunkard and fell. The rascals had not become artistic poisoners at that date, and it was found that the poor mare had received the drug through a rather large puncture in her nostril.

The men whom I seek to cure are not worthy of much care; but they have dependants; and it is of the women and children that I think. Here is another pitfall into which the eager novice stumbles; and once more on grounds of expediency I ask the novice to consider his position. According to the decision of the peculiarly-constituted senate which rules racing affairs, I understand that, even if a horse starts in a race with health and training all in its favour, it by no means follows that he will win, or even run well. Cunning touches of the bridle, dexterous movements of body and limbs on the jockey’s part, subtle checks applied so as to cramp the animal’s stride–all these things tend to bring about surprising results. The horse that fails dismally in one race comes out soon afterwards and wins easily in more adverse circumstances. I grow tired of the unlucky catalogue of mean swindles, and I should be glad if I never heard of the Turf again; though, alas, I have little hope of that so long as betting-shops are open, and so long as miserable women have the power to address letters to me! I can only implore those who are not stricken with the gambler’s fever to come away from danger while yet there is time. A great nobleman like Lord Hartington or Lord Rodney may amuse himself by keeping racers; he gains relaxation by running out from London to see his pretty colts and fillies gallop, and he needs not to care very much whether they win or lose, for it is only the mild excitement and the change of scene that he wants. The wealthy people who go to Newmarket seek pleasant company as much as anything, and the loss of a few hundreds hardly counts in their year’s expenses. But the poor noodle who can hardly afford to pay his fare and hotel bill–why should he meddle with horses? If an animal is poisoned, the betting millionaire who backs it swallows his chagrin and thinks no more of the matter, but the wretched clerk who has risked a quarter’s salary cannot take matters so easily. Racing is the rich man’s diversion, and men of poor or moderate means cannot afford to think about it. The beautiful world is full of entertainment for those who search wisely; then why should any man vex heart and brain by meddling with a pursuit which gives him no pleasure, and which cannot by any chance bring him profit? I have no pity for a man who ascribes his ruin to betting, and I contemn those paltry weaklings whose cases I study and collect from the newspapers. Certainly there are enough of them! A man who bets wants to make money without work, and that on the face of it is a dishonourable aspiration; if he robs some one, I do not in the faintest degree try to palliate his crime–he is a responsible being, or ought to be one, and he has no excuse for pilfering. I should never aid any man who suffered through betting, and I would not advise any one else to do so. My appeal to the selfish instincts of the gudgeons who are hooked by the bookmakers is made only for the sake of the helpless creatures who suffer for the follies and blundering cupidity of the would-be sharper. I abhor the bookmakers, but I do not blame them alone; the sight of means to do ill deeds makes ill deeds done, and they are doubtless tempted to roguery by the very simpletons who complain when they meet the reward of their folly. I am solely concerned with the innocents who fare hardly because of their selfish relatives’ reckless want of judgment, and for them, and them alone, my efforts are engaged.

May, 1888

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