The Ethics Of The Turf by James Runciman

Story type: Essay

When Lord Beaconsfield called the Turf a vast engine of national demoralization, he uttered a broad general truth; but, unfortunately, he did not go into particulars, and his vague grandiloquence has inspired a large number of ferocious imitators, who know as little about the essentials of the matter as Lord Beaconsfield did. These imitators abuse the wrong things and the wrong people; they mix up causes and effects; they are acrid where they should be tolerant; they know nothing about the real evils; and they do no good, for the simple reason that racing blackguards never read anything, while cultured gentlemen who happen to go racing smile quietly at the blundering of amateur moralists. Sir Wilfrid Lawson is a good man and a clever man; but to see the kind of display he makes when he gets up to talk about the Turf is very saddening. He can give you an accurate statement concerning the evils of drink, but as soon as he touches racing his innocence becomes woefully apparent, and the biggest scoundrel that ever entered the Ring can afford to make game of the harmless, well-meaning critic. The subject is an intricate one, and you cannot settle it right off by talking of “pampered nobles who pander to the worst vices of the multitude;” and you go equally wrong if you begin to shriek whenever that inevitable larcenous shopboy whimpers in the dock about the temptations of betting. We are poisoned by generalities; our reformers, who use press and platform to enlighten us, resemble a doctor who should stop by a patient’s bedside and deliver an oration on bad health in the abstract when he ought to be finding out his man’s particular ailment. Let us clear the ground a little bit, until we can see something definite. I am going to talk plainly about things that I know, and I want to put all sentimental rubbish out of the road.

In the first place, then, horse-racing, in itself, is neither degrading nor anything else that is bad; a race is a beautiful and exhilarating spectacle, and quiet men, who never bet, are taken out of themselves in a delightful fashion when the exquisite thoroughbreds thunder past. No sensible man supposes for a moment that owners and trainers have any deliberate intention of improving the breed of horses, but, nevertheless, these splendid tests of speed and endurance undoubtedly tend indirectly to produce a fine breed, and that is worth taking into account. The Survival of the Fittest is the law that governs racing studs; the thought and observation of clever men are constantly exercised with a view to preserving excellence and eliminating defects, so that, little by little, we have contrived, in the course of a century, to approach equine perfection. If a twelve-stone man were put up on Bendigo, that magnificent animal could give half a mile start to any Arab steed that ever was foaled, and run away from the Arab at the finish of a four-mile course. Weight need not be considered, for if the Eastern-bred horse only carried a postage-stamp the result would be much about the same. Minting could carry fourteen stone across a country, while, if we come to mere speed, there is really no knowing what horses like Ormonde, Energy, Prince Charlie, and others might have done had they been pressed. If the Emir of Hail were to bring over fifty of his best mares, the Newmarket trainers could pick out fifty fillies from among their second-rate animals, and the worst of the fillies could distance the best of the Arabs on any terms; while, if fifty heats were run off, over any courses from half a mile to four miles, the English horses would not lose one. The champion Arab of the world was matched against one of the worst thoroughbreds in training; the English “plater” carried about five stone more than the pride of the East, and won by a quarter of a mile.

Unconsciously, the breeders of racers have been evolving for us the swiftest, strongest, and most courageous horse known to the world, and we cannot afford to neglect that consideration, for people will not strive after perfection unless perfection brings profit.

Again, we hear occasionally a good deal of outcry about the great noblemen and gentlemen who keep up expensive studs, and the assumption is that racehorses and immorality go together; but what would the critics have the racing nobleman do? He is born into a strange artificial society; his fate is ready-made for him; he inherits luxuries and pastimes as he inherits land and trees. Say that the stud is a useless luxury: but then, what about the daubs for which plutocrats pay thousands of guineas? A picture costs, let us say, 2,000 guineas; it is the slovenly work of a hurried master, and the guineas are paid for a name; it is stuck away in a private gallery, and, if its owner looks at it so often as once a week, it costs him L2 per peep–reckoning only the interest on the money sunk. Is that useless luxury? The fact is that we are living in a sort of guarded hothouse; our barbarian propensities cannot have an easy outlet; and luxury of all sorts tends to lull our barbarian energy. If we blame one man for indulging a costly hobby, we must blame almost every man and woman who belongs to the grades above the lower middle-class. A rich trader who spends L5,000 a year on orchid-houses cannot very well afford to reprove a man who pays 50s. per week for each of a dozen horses in training. Rich folk, whose wealth has been fostered during the long security of England, will indulge in superfluities, and no one can stop them. A country gentleman who succeeds to a deer park cannot slaughter all the useless, pretty creatures merely because they are useless: he is bound by a thousand traditions, and he cannot suddenly break away. A nobleman inherits a colossal income, of which he cannot very well rid himself: he follows the traditions of his family or his class, and employs part of his profuse surplus riches in maintaining a racing stud; how can any one find fault with him? Such a man as Lord Hartington would never dream of betting except in a languid, off-hand way. He (and his like) are fond of watching the superb rush of the glossy horses; they want the freedom, the swift excitement of the breezy heath; our society encourages them to amuse themselves, and they do so with a will. That is all. It may be wrong for A and B and C to own superfluous wealth, but then the fact is there–that they have got it, and the community agree that they may expend the superfluity as they choose. The rich man’s stud gives wholesome employment to myriads of decent folks in various stations of life–farmers, saddlers, blacksmiths, builders, corn dealers, road-makers, hedgers, farriers, grooms, and half a score other sorts of toilers derive their living from feeding, harnessing, and tending the horses, and the withdrawal of such a sportsman as Mr. “Abington” from Newmarket would inflict a terrible blow on hundreds of industrious persons who lead perfectly useful and harmless lives. My point is, that racing (as racing) is in no way noxious; it is the most pleasant of all excitements, and it gives bread to many praiseworthy citizens. I have seen 5,000 given for a Latin hymn-book, and, when I pondered on the ghastly, imbecile selfishness of that purchase, I thought that I should not have mourned very much if the money had been laid out on a dozen smart colts and fillies, for, at least, the horses would have ultimately been of some use, even if they all had been put to cab-work. We must allow that when racing is a hobby, it is quite respectable–as hobbies go. One good friend of mine, whose fortune has been made by shrewd judgment and constant work, always keeps five or six racers in training. He goes from meeting to meeting with all the eagerness of a boy; his friends sturdily maintain that his stud is composed of “hair trunks,” and the animals certainly have an impressively uniform habit of coming in last But the good owner has his pleasure; his hobby satisfies him; and, when he goes out in the morning to watch his yearlings frolicking, he certainly never dreams that he is fostering an immoral institution. Could we only have racing–and none of the hideous adjuncts–I should be glad, in spite of all the moralists who associate horse-flesh with original sin.

As to the bookmakers, I shall have much to say further on. At present I am content with observing that the quiet, respectable bookmaker is as honourable and trustworthy as any trafficker in stocks and shares, and his business is almost identical with that of the stockjobber in many respects. No class of men adhere more rigidly to the point of honour than bookmakers of the better sort, and a mere nod from one of them is as binding to him as the most elaborate of parchments. They are simply shrewd, audacious tradesmen, who know that most people are fools, and make their profit out of that knowledge. It is painful to hear an ignorant man abusing a bookmaker who does no more than use his opportunities skilfully. Why not abuse the gentry who buy copper to catch the rise of the market? Why not abuse the whole of the thousands of men who make the City lively for six days of the week? Is there any rational man breathing who would scruple to accept profit from the rise of a stock or share? If I, practically, back South-Eastern Railway shares to rise, who blames me if I sell when my property has increased in value by one-eighth? My good counsellor, Mr. Ruskin, who is the most virulent enemy of usury, is nevertheless very glad that his father bought Bank of England shares, which have now been converted into Stock, and stand at over 300; Ruskin senior was a shrewd speculator, who backed his fancy; and a bookmaker does the same in a safer way. Bookmaking is a business which is carried out in its higher branches with perfect sobriety, discretion, mid probity; the gambling element does not come in on the bookmaker’s side, but he deals with gamblers in a fair way. They know that he will lay them the shortest odds he can; they know that they put their wits against his, and they also know that he will pay them with punctilious accuracy if they happen to beat him in the encounter of brains. Three or four of the leading betting men “turn over” on the average about half a million each per annum; one firm who bet on commission receive an average of five thousand pounds per day to invest, and the vouchers of all these speculators and agents are as good as bank notes. Mark that I grant the certainty of the bookmakers winning; they can remain idle in their mansions for months in the year, and the great gambling public supply the means; but I do not find fault with the bookmakers because they use their opportunities, or else I might rave about the iniquity of a godly man who earns in a week 100,000 from a “corner” in tin, or I might reprobate the quack who makes no less than 7000 per cent on every box of pills that he sells. A good man once chatted with me for a whole evening, and all his talk ran on his own luck in “spotting” shares that were likely to move upward. Certainly his luck as a gambler had been phenomenal. I turned the conversation to the Turf case of Wood v. Cox, and the torrent of eloquence which met me was enough to drown my intellect in its whirl and rush. My friend was great on the iniquity of gaming and racing, and I rather fancy that he proposed to play on the Betting Ring with a mitrailleuse if ever he had the power. I know he was most sanguinary–and I smiled. He never for an instant seemed to think that he was exactly like a backer of horses, and I have no doubt but that his density is shared by a few odd millions here and there. The stockbroker is a kind of bookmaker, and the men and women who patronise both and make their wealth are fools who all may be lumped under the same heading. I knew of one outside-broker–a mere bucket-shop keeper–who keeps 600 clerks constantly employed. That seems to point out rather an extensive gambling business.

See also  The Maid’s Progress by Mary Hallock Foote

And now I have tried to clear the ground on one hand a little, and my last and uttermost good word has been said for the Turf. With sorrow I say that, after all excuses are made, the cool observer must own that it is indeed a vast engine of national demoralization, and the subtle venom which it injects into the veins of the Nation creeps along through channels of which Lord Beaconsfield never dreamed. I might call the Turf a canker, but a canker is only a local ailment, whereas the evils of betting have now become constitutional so far as the State is concerned. If we cut out the whole tribe of bookmakers and betting-agents, and applied such cautery as would prevent any similar growth from arising in the place wherefrom we excised them, we should do very little good; for the life-blood of Britain is tainted, and no superficial remedy can cure her now. I shut my eyes on the bookmakers, and I only spare attention for the myriads who make the bookmakers’ existence possible–who would evolve new bookmakers from their midst if we exterminated the present tribe to-morrow. It is not the professional bettors who cause the existence of fools; it is the insensate fools who cause the existence of professional bettors.

Gambling used to be mainly confined to the upper classes; it is now a raging disease among that lower middle-class which used to form the main element of our national strength, and the tradesman whose cart comes to your area in the morning gambles with all the reckless abandonment that used to be shown by the Hon. A. Deuceace or Lady Betty when George the Third was King. Your clerk, shopman, butcher, baker, barber–especially the barber–ask their companions, “What have you done on the Lincoln?” or “How do you stand for the Two Thousand?” just as ordinary folks ask after each other’s health. Tradesmen step out of their shops in the morning and telegraph to their bookmaker just as they might to one of their wholesale houses; there is not a town in broad England which has not its flourishing betting men, and some very small towns can maintain two or three. The bookmakers are usually publicans, barbers, or tobacconists; but whatever they are they invariably drive a capital trade. In the corner of a smoking-room you may see a quiet, impassive man sitting daily in a contemplative manner; he does not drink much; he smokes little, and he appears to have nothing in particular to worry him. If he knows you well, he will scarcely mind your presence; men (and boys) greet him, and little, gentle colloquies take place from time to time; the smartest man could detect nothing, and yet the noiseless, placid gentleman of the smoking-room registers thirty or forty bets in a day. That is one type which I have watched for hours, days, months. There are dozens of other types, but I need not attempt to sketch them; it is sufficient to say that the poison has taken hard hold on us, and that I see every symptom of a national decadence.

Some one may say, “But you excused the Turf and the betting men.” Exactly. I said that racing is a delightful pastime to those who go to watch good horses gallop; the miserable thing to me is seeing the wretches who do not care for racing at all, but only care for gambling on names and numbers. Let Lord Hartington, Lord Randolph Churchill, Mr. Chaplin, Mr. Corlett, Mr. Rothschild, Lord Rosebery, and the rest, go and see the lovely horses shooting over the turf; by all means let them watch their own colts and fillies come flying home. But the poor creatures who muddle away brains, energy, and money on what they are pleased to term sport, do not know a horse from a mule; they gamble, as I have said, on names; the splendid racers give them no enjoyment such as the true sportsman derives, for they would not know Ormonde from a Clydesdale. To these forlorn beings only the ignoble side of racing is known; it is sacrilege to call them sportsmen; they are rotting their very souls and destroying the remnants of their manhood over a game which they play blindfold. It is pitiful–most pitiful. No good-natured man will begrudge occasional holiday-makers their chance of seeing a good race. Rural and industrial Yorkshire are represented by thousands at Doncaster, on the St. Ledger day, and the tourists get no particular harm; they are horsey to the backbone, and they come to see the running. They criticize the animals and gain topics for months of conversation, and, if they bet an odd half-crown and never go beyond it, perhaps no one is much the worse. When the Duke of Portland allowed his tenantry to see St. Simon gallop five years ago at Newcastle, the pitmen and artisans thronged to look at the horse. There was no betting whatever, because no conceivable odds could have measured the difference between St. Simon and his opponent, yet when Archer let the multitude see how fast a horse could travel, and the great thoroughbred swept along like a flash, the excitement and enthusiasm rose to fever-pitch. Those men had an unaffected pleasure in observing the beauty and symmetry and speed of a noble creature, and they were unharmed by the little treat which the good-natured magnate provided for them. It is quite otherwise with the mob of stay-at-home gamblers; they do not care a rush for the horses; they long, with all the crazy greed of true dupes, to gain money without working for it, and that is where the mischief comes in. Cupidity, mean anxieties, unwholesome excitements, gradually sap the morality of really sturdy fellows–the last shred of manliness is torn away, and the ordinary human intelligence is replaced by repulsive vulpine cunning. If you can look at a little group of the stay-at-homes while they are discussing the prospects of a race, you will see something that Hogarth would have enjoyed in his large, lusty fashion. The fair human soul no longer shines through those shifty, deceitful eyes; the men have, somehow, sunk from the level of their race, and they make you think that Swift may-have been right after all. From long experience I am certain that if a cultured gentleman, accustomed to high thinking, were suddenly compelled to live among these dismal beings, he would be attacked by a species of intellectual paralysis. The affairs of the country are nothing to them; poetry, art, and all beautiful things are contemptible in their eyes; they dwell in an obscure twilight of the mind, and their relaxation, when the serious business of betting is put aside for awhile, mostly lies in the direction of sheer bawdry and abomination. It is curious to see the oblique effect which general degradation has upon the vocabulary of these people; quiet words, or words that express a plain meaning, are repugnant to them; even the old-fashioned full-mouthed oaths of our fathers are tame to their fancy, for they must have something strongly spiced, and thus they have by degrees fitted themselves up with a loathly dialect of their own which transcends the comparatively harmless efforts of the Black Country potter. Foul is not the word for this ultra-filthy mode of talk–it passes into depths below foulness. I may digress for a little to emphasize this point. The latter-day hanger-on of the Turf has introduced a new horror to existence. Go into the Silver Ring at a suburban meeting, and listen while two or three of the fellows work themselves into an ecstasy of vile excitement, then you will hear something which cannot be described or defined in any terms known to humanity. Why it should be so I cannot tell, but the portentous symptom of putridity is always in evidence. As is the man of the Ring, so are the stay-at-homes. The disease of their minds is made manifest by their manner of speech; they throw out verbal pustules which tell of the rank corruption which has overtaken their nature, and you need some seasoning before you can remain coolly among them without feeling symptoms of nausea. There is one peer of this realm–a hereditary legislator and a patron of many Church livings–who is famous for his skill in the use of certain kinds of vocables. This man is a living exemplar of the mysterious effect which low
dodging and low distractions have on the soul. In five minutes he can make you feel as if you had tumbled into one of Swedenborg’s loathsome hells; he can make the most eloquent of turf thieves feel, envious, and he can make you awe-stricken as you see how far and long God bears with man. The disease from which this pleasing pillar of the State suffers has spread, with more or less virulence, to the furthermost recesses of our towns, and you must know the fringe of the Turf world before you can so much as guess what the symptoms are like.

See also  The Pilgrims of Plymouth by John Greenleaf Whittier

Here is a queer kind of a world which has suddenly arisen! Faith and trust are banished; real honesty is unknown; purity is less than a name; manliness means no more than a certain readiness to use the fists. Most of the dwellers in this atmosphere are punctilious about money payments because they durst not be otherwise, but the fine flower of real probity does not flourish in the mephitic air. To lie, to dodge, to take mean advantages–these are the accomplishments which an ugly percentage of middle-class youths cultivate, and all the mischief arises from the fact that they persist in trying to ape the manners of the most unworthy members of an order to which they do not belong. It is bad enough when a rich and idle man is bitten with the taste for betting, but when he is imitated by the tailor’s assistant who carries his clothes home, then we have a still more unpleasant phenomenon to consider. For it is fatal to a nation when any large and influential section of the populace once begin to be confused in their notions of right and wrong. Not long ago I was struck by noticing a significant instance of this moral dry rot. An old racing man died, and all the sporting papers had something to say about him and his career. Now the best of the sporting journalists are clever and cultured gentlemen, who give refinement, to every subject that they touch. But a certain kind of writing is done by pariahs, who are not much of a credit to our society, and I was interested by the style in which these scribbling vermin spoke of the dead man. Their gush was a trifle nauseating; their mean worship of money gave one a shiver, and the relish with which they described their hero’s exploits would have been comic were it not for the before-mentioned nausea.

It seemed that the departed turfite had been–to use blunt English–a very skilful and successful swindler. He would buy a horse which took his fancy, and he would run the animal again and again, until people got tired of seeing such a useless brute taken down to the starting-point. The handicappers finally let our schemer’s horse in at a trifling weight, and then he prepared for business. He had trustworthy agents at Manchester, Nottingham, and Newcastle, and these men contrived, without rousing suspicion, to “dribble” money into the market in a stealthy way, until the whole of their commission was worked on very advantageous terms. The arch-plotter did not show prominently in the transaction, and he contrived once or twice to throw dust in the eyes of the very cleverest men. One or two neatly arranged strokes secured our acute gentleman a handsome fortune. He missed L70,000 once, by a short head, but this was the only instance in which his plans seriously failed; and he was looked up to as an epitome of all the virtues which are most acceptable in racing circles. Well, had this dodger exhibited the heroism of Gordon, the benevolence of Lord Shaftesbury, the probity of Henry Fawcett, he could not have been more bepraised and bewailed by the small fry of sporting literature. All he had done in life was to deceive people by making them fancy that certain good horses were bad ones: strictly speaking, he made money by false pretences, and yet, such is the twist given by association with genuine gamblers, that educated men wrote of him as if he had been a saint of the most admirable order. This disposition is seen all through the piece: successful roguery is glorified, and our young men admire “the Colonel,” or “the Captain,” or Jack This and Tom That, merely because the Captain and the Colonel and Jack and Tom are acute rascals who have managed to make money. Decidedly, our national ideals are in a queer way. Just think of a little transaction which occurred in 1887. A noble lord ordered a miserable jockey boy to pull a horse, so that the animal might lose a race: the exalted guide of youth was found out, and deservedly packed off the Turf; but it was only by an accident that the Stewards were able to catch him. That legislator had funny notions of the duty which he owed to boyhood: he asked his poor little satellite to play the scoundrel, and he only did what scores do who are not found out.

A haze hangs about the Turf, and all the principles which should guide human nature are blurred and distorted; the high-minded, honourable racing men can do nothing or next to nothing, and the scum work their will in only too many instances. Every one knows that the ground is palpitating with corruption, but our national mental disease has so gained ground that some regard corruption in a lazy way as being inevitable, while others–including the stay-at-home horse-racers–reckon it as absolutely admirable.

Some years ago, a pretty little mare was winning the St. Leger easily, when a big horse cut into her heels and knocked her over. About two months afterwards, the same wiry little mare was running in an important race at Newmarket, and at the Bushes she was hauling her jockey out of the saddle. There were not many spectators about, and only a few noticed that, while the mare was fighting for her head, she was suddenly pulled until she reared up, lost her place, and reached the post about seventh in a large field. The jockey who rode the mare, and who made her exhibit circus gambols, received a thousand pounds from the owner of the winning horse. Now, there was no disguise about this transaction–nay, it was rather advertised than otherwise, and a good many of the sporting prints took it quite as a matter of course. Why? Simply because no prominent racing man raked up the matter judicially, and because the ordinary Turf scramblers accept suspicious proceedings as part of their environment. Mr. Carlyle mourned over the deadly virus of lying which was emitted by Loyola and his crew; he might mourn now over the deadly virus of cheating which is emitted from the central ganglia of the Turf. The upright men who love horses and love racing are nearly powerless; the thieves leaven the country, and they have reduced what was once the finest middle-class in the world to a condition of stark putridity.

Before we can rightly understand the degradation which has befallen us by reason of the Turf, we must examine the position of jockeys in the community. Lord Beaconsfield, in one of his most wicked sentences, said that the jockey is our Western substitute for the eunuch; a noble duke, who ought to know something about the matter, lately informed the world through the medium of a court of law with an oath that “jockeys are thieves.” Now, I know one jockey whose character is not embraced by the duke’s definition, and I have heard that there are two, but I am not acquainted with the second man. The wonder is, considering the harebrained, slavering folly of the public, that any of the riding manikins are half as honest as they are; the wonder is that their poor little horsey brains are not led astray in such fashion as to make every race a farce. They certainly do try their best on occasion, and I believe that there are many races which are not arranged before the start; but you cannot persuade the picked men of the rascals’ corps that any race is run fairly. When Melton and Paradox ran their tremendous race home in the Derby, I heard quite a number of intelligent gentry saying that Paradox should have won but for the adjectived and participled propensities of his jockey. Nevertheless, although most devout turfites agree with the emphatic duke, they do not idolize their diminutive fetishes a whit the less; they worship the manikin with a touching and droll devotion, and, when they know him to be a confirmed scamp, they admire his cleverness, and try to find out which way the little rogue’s interest lies, so that they may follow him. So it comes about that we have amidst us a school of skinny dwarfs whose leaders are paid better than the greatest statesmen in Europe. The commonest jockey-boy in this company of manikins can usually earn more than the average scholar or professional man, and the whole set receive a good deal more of adulation than has been bestowed on any soldier, sailor, explorer, or scientific man of our generation. And what is the life-history of the jockey? A tiny boy is bound apprentice, and submitted to the discipline of a training stable; he goes through the long routine of morning gallops, trials, and so forth, and when he begins to show signs of aptitude he is put up to ride for his master in public. If he is a born horseman, like Archer or Robinson, he may make his mark long before his indentures are returned to him, and he is at once surrounded by a horde of flatterers who do their best to spoil him. There is no cult so distinguished by slavishness, by gush, by lavishness, as jockey-worship, and a boy needs to have a strong head and sound, careful advisers, if he is to escape becoming positively insufferable. When the lad Robinson won the St. Leger, after his horse had been left at the post, he was made recipient of the most frantic and silly toadyism that the mind can conceive; the clever trainer to whom he was apprenticed received L1,500 for transferring the little fellow’s services, and he is now a celebrity who probably earns a great deal more than Professor Owen or Mr. Walter Besant. The tiny boy who won the Cesarevitch on Don Juan received L1,000 after the race, and it must be remembered that this child had not left school. Mr. Herbert Spencer has not earned L1,000 by the works that have altered the course of modern thought; the child Martin picked up the amount in a lump, after he had scurried for less than five minutes on the back of a feather-weighted thoroughbred. As the jockey grows older and is freed from his apprenticeship he becomes a more and more important personage; if his weight keeps well within limits he can ride four or five races every day during the season; he draws five guineas for a win, and three for the mount, and he picks up an infinite number of unconsidered trifles in the way of presents, since the turfite, bad or good, is invariably a cheerful giver. The popular jockey soon has his carriages, his horses, his valet, and his sumptuous house; noblemen, millionaires, great dames, and men and women of all degrees conspire to pamper him: for jockey-worship, when it is once started, increases in intensity by a sort of geometrical progression. A shrewd man of the world may smile grimly when he hears that a popular rider was actually received with royal honours and installed in the royal box when he went to the theatre during his honeymoon, but there are the facts. It was so, and the best people of the fine town in which this deplorable piece of toadyism was perpetrated were tolerably angry at the time. If the sporting journalists perform their work of puffery with skill and care, the worship of the jockey reaches a pitch that borders on insanity. If General Gordon had returned and visited such a place as Liverpool or Doncaster during a race-meeting, he would not have been noticed by the discriminating crowd if Archer had passed along the street. If the Prime Minister were to visit any place of public resort while Watts or Webb happened to be there, it is probable that his lordship would learn something useful concerning the relative importance of Her Majesty’s subjects. I know for a fact that a cleverly executed cartoon of Archer, Fordham, Wood, or Barrett will have at least six times as many buyers as a similar portrait of Professor Tyndall, Mr. James Payn, M. Pasteur, Lord Salisbury, Mr. Chamberlain, or any one in Britain excepting Mr. Gladstone. I do not know how many times the Vanity Fair cartoon of Archer has been reprinted, but I learn on good authority that, for years, not a single day has been known to pass on which the caricature was not asked for. And now let us bring to mind the plain truth that these jockeys are only uneducated and promoted stable-boys after all. Is it not a wonder that we can pick out a single honest man from their midst? Vast sums depend on their exertions, and they are surrounded by a huge crowd of moneyed men who will stand at nothing if they can gain their ends; their unbalanced, sharp little minds are always open to temptation; they see their brethren amassing great fortunes, and they naturally fall into line and proceed, when their turn
comes, to grab as much money as they can. Not long ago the inland revenue officials, after minute investigation, assessed the gains of one wee creature at L9,000 per year. This pigmy is now twenty-six years of age, and he earned as much as the Lord Chancellor, and more than any other judge, until a jury decided his fate by giving him what the Lord Chief Justice called “a contemptuous verdict.” Another jockey paid income-tax on L10,000 a year, and a thousand pounds is not at all an uncommon sum to be paid merely as a retainer. Forty or fifty years ago a jockey would not have dreamed of facing his employer otherwise than cap in hand, but the value of stable-boys has gone up in the market, and Lear’s fool might now say, “Handy-Dandy! Who is your jockey now and who is your master?” The little men gradually gather a kind of veneer of good manners, and some of them can behave very much like pocket editions of gentlemen, but the scent of the stable remains, and, whether the jockey is a rogue or passably honest, he remains a stable-boy to the end. Half the mischief on the Turf arises from the way in which these overpaid, spoilt menials can be bribed, and, certes, there are plenty of bribers ready. Racing men do not seem able to shake off the rule of their stunted tyrants. When the gentleman who paid income-tax on nine thousand a year brought the action which secured him the contemptuous verdict, the official handicapper to the Jockey Club declared on oath that the jockey’s character was “as bad as bad can be.” The starter and a score of other witnesses followed in the same groove, and yet this man was freely employed. Why? We may perhaps explain by inference presently.

See also  The Crops by Edgar Wilson Nye

With this cynically corrupt corps of jockeys and their hangers-on, it may easily be seen that the plutocrats who manipulate the Turf wires have an admirable time of it, while the great gaping mob of zanies who go to races, and zanies who stay at home, are readily bled by the fellows who have the money and the “information” and the power. The rule of the Turf is easily formulated:–“Get the better of your neighbour. Play the game outwardly according to fair rules. Pay like a man if your calculations prove faulty, but take care that they shall be as seldom faulty as possible. Never mind what you pay for information if it gives you a point the better of other men. Keep your agents honest if you can, but, if they happen to be dishonest under pressure of circumstances, take care at any rate that you are not found out.” In short, the Ring is mainly made up of men who pay with scrupulous honesty when they lose, but who take uncommonly good care to reduce the chances of losing to a minimum. Are they in the wrong? It depends. I shall not, at the present moment, go into details; I prefer to pause and ask what can be expected to result from the wolfish scheme of Turf morality which I have indicated. I do not compare it with the rules which guide our host of commercial middlemen, because, if I did, I should say that the betting men have rather the best of the comparison: I keep to the Turf, and I want to know what broad consequences must emanate from a body which organizes plans for plunder and veils them under the forms of honesty. An old hand–the Odysseus of racing–once said to me: “No man on earth would ever be allowed to take a hundred thousand pounds out of the Ring: they wouldn’t allow it, they wouldn’t That young fool must drop all he’s got.” We were speaking about a youthful madman who was just then being plucked to the last feather, and I knew that the old turfite was right. The Ring is a close body, and I have only known about four men who ever managed to beat the confederacy in the long run. There is one astute, taciturn, inscrutable organizer whom the bookmakers dread a little, because he happens to use their own methods; he will scheme for a year or two if necessary until he succeeds in placing a horse advantageously, and he usually brings off his coup just at the time when the Ring least like it. “They don’t yell like that when one of mine rolls home,” he once said, while the bookmakers were clamouring with delight over the downfall of a favourite; and indeed this wily master of deceptions has very often made the pencillers draw long faces. But the case of the Turf Odysseus is not by any means typical; the man stands almost alone, and his like will not be seen again for many a day. The rule is that the backer must come to grief in the long run, for every resource of chicanery, bribery, and resolute keenness is against him. He is there to be plundered; it is his mission in life to lose, or how could the bookmakers maintain their mansions and carriages? It matters little what the backer’s capital may be at starting, he will lose it all if he is idiot enough to go on to the end, for he is fighting against unscrupulous legions. One well-known bookmaker coolly announced in 1888 that he had written off three hundred thousand pounds of bad debts. Consider what a man’s genuine business must be like when he can jauntily allude to three hundred thousands as a bagatelle by the way. That same man has means of obtaining “information” sufficient to discomfit any poor gambler who steps into the Ring and expects to beat the bookmakers by downright above-board dealing. As soon as he begins to lay heavily against a horse the animal is regarded as doomed to lose by all save the imbeciles who persist in hoping against hope. In 1889 this betting man made a dead set at the favourite for the Two Thousand Guineas. The colt was known to be the best of his year; he was trained in a stable which has the best of reputations; his exercise was uninterrupted, and mere amateurs fancied they had only to lay heavy odds on him in order to put down three pounds and pick up four. Yet the inexorable bookmaker kept on steadily taking the odds; the more he betted, the more money was piled on to the unbeaten horse, and yet few took warning, although they must have seen that the audacious financier was taking on himself an appalling risk. Well, the peerless colt was pulled out, and, on his way to the starting post, he began to shake blood and matter from his jaws; he could hardly move in the race, and when he was taken to his quarters a surgeon let out yet another pint of pus from the poor beast’s jaw. Observe that the shrewdest trainer in England, a crowd of stable-boys, the horse’s special attendant, the horse-watchers at Kingsclere, and the casual strangers who saw the favourite gallop–all these knew nothing apparently about that monstrous abscess, and no one suspected that the colt’s jaw had been splintered. But “information”–always information–evidently reached one quarter, and the host of outsiders lost their money. Soon afterwards a beautiful colt that had won the Derby was persistently backed for the City and Suburban Handicap. On paper it seemed as if the race might be regarded as over, for only the last year’s Derby winner appeared to have a chance; but our prescient penciller cared nothing about paper. Once more he did not trouble himself about betting to figures; he must have laid his book five times over before the flag fell. Then the nincompoops who refused to attend to danger-signals saw that the beautiful colt which had spun over the same course like a greyhound only ten months before was unable to gallop at all. The unhappy brute tried for a time, and was then mercifully eased; the bookmaker would have lost L100,000 if his “information” had not been accurate, but that is just the crux–it was. So admirably do the bookmakers organize their intelligence department that I hardly know more than three instances in which they have blundered after they really began to lay fiercely against a horse. They contrive to buy jockeys, stablemen, veterinary surgeons–indeed, who can tell whom they do not subsidize? When Belladrum came striding from the fateful hollow in front of Pretender, there was one “leviathan” bookmaker who turned green and began to gasp, for he stood to lose L50,000; but the “leviathan” was spared the trouble of fainting, for the hill choked the splendid Stockwell horse, and “information” was once more vindicated, while Belladrum’s backers paid copious tribute. Just two years before the leviathan had occasion to turn green our Turf Odysseus really did manage to deceive the great betting corporation with consummate skill. The whole business throws such a clear light on Turf ethics that I may repeat it for the benefit of those who know little about our great national sport–the Sport of Kings. It was rumoured that Hermit had broken a blood-vessel, and the animal was stopped for a little in his work. Then Odysseus and his chief confederate proceeded to seize their chance. The horse started at 1000 to 15, and it seemed like a million to one against him, for his rough coat had been left on him, and he looked a ragged equine invalid. The invalid won, however, by a neck, the Marquis of Hastings was ruined, and the confederates won about L150,000.

See also  Lib by Margaret Collier Graham

As we go over these stories of plot and counterplot, it is hardly possible to avoid thinking what a singularly high-souled set of gentry we have got amongst. What ambitions! To trick money out of somebody’s pocket! To wager when you know that you have made winning certain! The outcome of it all is that, in the unequal battle between the men who back and the men who lay, the latter must win; they will win, even if they have to cog the dice on a pinch; and, moreover, they will not be found out officially, even though their “secret” is as open as if it were written across the sky. A strange, hard, pitiless crew are these same bookmakers. Personally, strange to say, they are, in private life, among the most kindly and generous of men; their wild life, with its excitement and hurry, and keen encounters of wits, never seems to make them anything but thoughtful and liberal when distress has to be aided; but the man who will go far out of his way to perform a charitable action will take your very skin from you if you engage him in that enclosure which is his battle-ground, and he will not be very particular as to whether he wins your skin by fair means or foul.

About two years ago, an exasperating, soft-headed boy brought a colossal fortune into the Ring. I never pitied him much; I only longed to see him placed in the hands of a good schoolmaster who knew how to use a birch. This piteous wretch, with his fatuous airs of sharpness, was exactly the kind of game that the bookmakers cared to fly at; he was cajoled and stimulated; he was trapped at every turn; the vultures flapped round him; and there was no strong, wise man to give the booby counsel or to drag him by main force from his fate. There was no pity for the boy’s youth; he was a mark for every obscene bird of prey that haunts the Turf; respectable betting men gave him fair play, though they exacted their pound of flesh; the birds of Night gave him no fair play at all. In a few short months he had poured a quarter of a million into the bursting pockets of the Ring, and he was at last “posted” for the paltry sum of L1,400. This tragic farce was not enacted in a corner; a hundred journals printed every act as it was played; the victim never received that one hearty flogging which might have saved him, and the curtain was at last rung down on a smug, grinning group of bookmakers, a deservedly ruined spendthrift, and a mob of indifferent lookers-on. So minutely circumstantial were the newspapers, that we may say that all England saw a gigantic robbery being committed, and no man, on the Turf or off, interfered by so much as a sign. Decidedly, the Ethics of the Turf offer an odd study for the moralist; and, in passing, I may say that the national ethics are also a little queer. We ruin a tradesman who lets two men play a game at billiards for sixpence on licensed premises, and we allow a silly boy to be rooked of a quarter of a million in nine months, although the robbery is as well-known as if it were advertised over the whole front page of The Times day by day.

In sum, then, we have an inner circle of bookmakers who take care either to bet on figures alone, or on perfectly accurate and secret information; we have another circle of sharp owners and backers, who, by means of modified (or unmodified) false pretences, succeed at times in beating the bookmakers; we have then an outer circle, composed partly of stainless gentlemen who do not bet and who want no man’s money, partly of perfectly honest fellows who have no judgment, no real knowledge, and no self-restraint, and who serve as prey on which the bookmakers batten.

And then we have circle on circle showing every shade of vice, baseness, cupidity, and blank folly. First, I may glance–and only glance–at the unredeemed, hopeless villains who are the immediate hangers-on of the Turf. People hardly believe that there are thousands of sturdy, able-bodied men scattered among our great towns and cities who have never worked, and who never mean to work. In their hoggish way they feed well and lie warm–the phrase is their own favourite–and they subsist like odious reptiles, fed from mysterious sources. Go to any suburban race meeting (I don’t care which you pick) and you will fancy that Hell’s tatterdemalions have got holiday. Whatsoever things are vile, whatsoever things are roguish, bestial, abominable, belong to the racecourse loafers. To call them thieves is to flatter them, for their impudent knavery transcends mere thieving; they have not a virtue; they are more than dangerous, and, if ever there comes a great social convulsion, they will let us know of their presence in an awkward fashion, for they are trained to riot, fraud, bestiality, and theft, on the fringe of the racecourse.

See also  A Plea For Gas Lamps by Robert Louis Stevenson

Then comes the next line of predatory animals who suck the blood of the dupes. If you look at one of the daily sporting papers you will see, on the most important page, a number of flaming announcements, which will make very comic reading for you if you have any sense of humour at all. Gentlemen, who usually take the names of well-known jockeys or trainers, offer to make your fortune on the most ridiculously easy terms. You forward a guinea or half-a-guinea, and an obliging prophet will show you how to ruin the bookmakers. Old Tom Tompkins has a “glorious success” every week; Joe, and Bill, and Harry, and a good score more, are always ready to prove that they named the winner of any given race; one of these fellows advertises under at least a dozen different names, and he is able to live in great style and keep a couple of secretaries, although he cannot write a letter or compose a circular. The Sporting Times will not allow one of these vermin to advertise in its columns, and it has exposed all their dodges in the most conclusive and trenchant set of articles that I ever saw; but other journals admit the advertisements at prices which seem well-nigh prohibitive, and they are content to draw from L15 to L20 per day by blazoning forth false pretences. I have had much fun out of these “tipsters,” for they are deliciously impudent blackguards. A fellow will send you the names of six horses–all losers; in two days he will advertise–“I beg to congratulate all my patrons. This week I was in great form on the whole, and on Thursday I sent all six winners. A thousand pounds will be paid to any one who can disprove this statement.” Considering that the sage sent you six losers on the Thursday, you naturally feel a little surprised at his tempestuously confident challenge. All the seers are alike; they pick names at haphazard from the columns of the newspapers, and then they pretend to be in possession of the darkest stable secrets. If they are wrong, and they usually are, they advertise their own infallibility all the more brazenly. I do not exactly know what getting money under false pretences may be if the proceedings which I have described do not come under that heading, and I wonder what the police think of the business. They very soon catch a poor Rommany wench who tells fortunes, and she goes to gaol for three months. But I suppose that the Rommany rawnee does not contribute to the support of influential newspapers. A sharp detective ought to secure clear cases against at least a dozen of these parasites in a single fortnight, for they are really stupid in essentials. One of the brotherhood always sets forth his infallible prophecies from a dark little public-house bar near Fountain Court. I have seen him, when I came off a journey, trying to steady his hand at seven in the morning; his twisted, tortured fingers could hardly hold the pencil, and he was fit for nothing but to sit in the stinking dusk and soak whisky; but no doubt many of his dupes imagined that he sat in a palatial office and received myriads of messages from his ubiquitous corps of spies. He was a poor, diseased, cunning rogue; I found him amusing, but I do not think that his patrons always saw the fun of him.

And last there comes the broad outer circle, whereof the thought makes me sad. On that circle are scattered the men who should be England’s backbone, but they are all suffering by reason of the evil germs wafted from the centre of contagion. Mr. Matthew Arnold often gave me a good deal of advice; I wish I could sometimes have given him a little. I should have told him that all his dainty jeers about middle-class denseness were beside the mark; all the complacent mockery concerning the deceased wife’s sister and the rest, was of no use. If you see a man walking right into a deadly quicksand, you do not content yourself with informing him that a bit of fluff has stuck to his coat. Mr. Arnold should have gone among the lower middle-class a trifle more instead of trusting to his superfine imagination, and then he might have got to know whither our poor, stupid folks are tending. I have just ended an unpleasantly long spell which I passed among various centres where middle-class leisure is spent, and I would not care to repeat the experience for any money. Any given town will suit a competent observer, for I found scarcely any vital differences in passing from place to place. It is tragical and disheartening to see scores of fine lads and men, full of excellent faculties and latent goodness–and all under the spell of the dreary Circe of the Turf. I have been for a year, on and off, among a large circle of fellows whom I really liked; and what was their staple talk? Nothing but betting. The paralysis at once of intellect and of the sense of humour which attacks the man who begins flirting with the gambling Enchantress struck me with a sense of helplessness. I like to see a race when it is possible, and I can always keep a kind of picture of a horse in my eye. Well, I have known a very enthusiastic gentleman say, “The Bard, sir, The Bard; the big horse, the mighty bay. He’ll smother ’em all.” I modestly said, “Do you think he is big enough?” “Big enough! a giant, sir! Mark my words, sir, you’ll see Bob Peck’s colours in triumph on the bay.” I mildly said: “I thought The Bard was a very little one when I saw him, and he didn’t seem bay. He was rather like the colour you might get by shaking a flour-dredger over a mulberry. Have you had a look at him?” As usual, I found that my learned friend had never seen that horse nor any other; he was neglecting his business, loafing with wastrels, and trying, in a small way, to imitate the fine strategy of the Colonel and the Captain and Odysseus. Amongst these bewitched unfortunates, the life of the soul seems to die away. Once I said to a nice lad, “Do none of your set ever read anything?” and he made answer, “I don’t think any of them read very much except the Sportsman.” That was true–very true and rather shocking. The Sportsman is bright enough and good enough in its way, and I read it constantly; but to limit your literature to the Sportsman alone–well, it must be cramping. But that is what our fine young men are mostly doing nowadays; the eager, intellectual life of young Scotchmen and of the better sort of Englishmen is unknown: you may wait for a year and you will never hear a word of talk which is essentially above the intelligence of a hog; and a man of whom you are fond, purely because of his kindliness, may bore you in the deadliest manner by drawling on by the hour about names and weights, the shifting of the odds, and the changes of luck. The country fairly swarms with clubs where betting goes on all day, and sometimes all night: the despicable dupes are drawn in one after another, and they fall into manifold varieties of mischief; agonized parents pray for help; employers chafe at the carelessness and pre-occupation of their servants; the dupes sink to ruin unpitied, and still the crowd steps onward to the gulf of doom. To think that by merely setting certain noble creatures to exhibit their speed and staunchness, we should have ended by establishing in our midst a veritable Inferno! Our faith, our honour, our manhood, our future as a nation, are being sacrificed, and all because Circe has read her spell over our best and most promising souls. And our legislators amuse themselves with recriminations! We foster a horde of bloodsuckers who rear their strength on our weakness and our vices. Why should a drink-seller be kept in check by his having to pay for a license, while the ruin-seller needs no license, and is not even required to pay income tax. If licenses to bet were issued at very heavy prices, and if a crushing fine were inflicted on any man who made a book without holding a license, we might stamp out the villainous small fry who work in corners at all events. But Authority is supreme; the peer and the plutocrat go on unharmed, while the poor men who copy follies which do not hurt the rich go right on to the death of the soul.

April, 1889.

Leave a Reply 0

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *