My first view of English racing came, appropriately enough, on the opening day of the flat racing season. This took place at Lincoln, where the stand is so old it makes even Jamaica look like the new dream track. But then Britishers, long accustomed to inadequate facilities at their courses, don't bother to complain much. As one trainer put it, "If the poor beggars don't know what they're missing, they'll never miss it." The old brick stand at Lincoln was reportedly built during the Napoleonic Wars to house French prisoners, and evidently only a few improvements have been thought necessary since that date.
Everybody stands at an English track—but even that rarely helps to provide a full view of a race. The New Yorker, weary of straining his eyes to catch a glimpse of the far reaches of the Widener Chute, would find himself yearning for Belmont. At Lincoln most of the races are run down a mile straightaway directly toward the stands. The unemotional voice of the announcer gives you the "call" of the race, but even he cannot dare to be too specific. Example: "Among the early leaders by the far rails I believe I see...."
The Englishman by the paddock is knowledgeable about racing matters and so is his wife. You would never hear a Britisher exclaim, "I think I'll bet on No. 7 because his jockey has such a cute face." Last minute bets are made with the on-course bookmakers who are lined up—each in his appointed and personal "pitch"—facing the crowds and assisted by his clerk and his runner. The odds change as a result of much frantic signaling by gents known as tic-tac men. The tic-tac man is as much a part of English racing as the well-turned-out jockeys and the smartly dressed aristocracy. In appearance he is a white-gloved, excitable character who spends his afternoons manipulating his arms in a weird mixture of Indian signs and symbols. You soon note he is contacting another tic-tac man high in the stands by a telephone. The man on the phone is in contact with London, receiving orders to lay off money at the track bet by off-course gamblers through big London bookmaking agencies. The telephone is in operation continually relaying betting information to the on-course bookies. In addition to betting through bookmakers, however, the English racegoer can bet through the tote and also through a tote credit company at regular pari-mutuel odds.
April 22, 1957
Legalized bookmaking, of course, has made it possible for everyone—from royalty right on down to the hotel porter and barmaid—to wager a shilling or two on the day's card. The result is that there exists an intense demand for past performance information, and virtually every British newspaper gives racing top billing and employs anywhere from two to six expert handicappers and selectors. The tremendous interest in gambling—betting winnings are free of tax—has created a situation which has quite reversed the role of racing writers. "Instead of being real reporters," says Clive Graham (who writes under the name of The Scout in the Daily Express), "we are really handicappers. Our readers don't care any more about what happened yesterday. They only want to know about today."
All this interest in racing ought to generate prosperity in the sport but, in fact, it is in a very critical position today. Although racing costs in England are about one-third what they are in America, purse distribution is only about one-tenth. In England there are about 5,000 horses in training for the flat season in which they will compete in 2,000 races (in the U.S. some 25,000 horses compete in around 30,000 races). Opportunities for financial gain are thus perilously limited. In fact there are only nine or 10 races on the entire British calendar worth $30,000 or more to the winner. Winning purses at Lincoln averaged $386.40. By the time the winning owner had paid off his trainer, jockey, bonuses and shipping charges, he was lucky to have cleared $112 for himself. And to win that $112 he usually had to beat 18 other horses! The only way he can increase his earnings is by winning for his bookmaker and eventually perhaps by putting his horses on the market. But there again no moderate horse is in demand for export to America, and world conditions have just about shut off the once profitable market to South America, South Africa and India—leaving today Malaya, Germany, Scandinavia, Ceylon, Japan and Hong Kong as the only localities where the average English Thoroughbred is in any demand.
The people who complain today that racing needs a quick shot in the arm if it is to survive at all point out that the real trouble is that the man who gets most out of racing—the professional off-course bookmaker who may never get to a track all year—contributes nothing to the sport. The argument is that until the bookmaker is forced to contribute to the sport from which he gains his livelihood, he is getting richer and the horsemen are getting poorer. One workable solution might be for the bookmaker to pay a licensing fee to the government and then contribute funds to the Jockey Club (which controls all British racing) on a sliding scale in proportion to the volume of business each bookmaking firm handles.
A bookmaker's reply to this suggestion comes from Alfred Cope, managing director of David Cope Ltd., who says, "We consider that the less governmental interference there is with the sport the better it will be for all parties in the long run."
DIFFERENT RIDING STYLE
The first look at English jockeys in action suggests they are awkward and clumsy, largely because there seems to be much bobbing about and unnecessary arm swinging. I think, however, that on the whole their boys are better horsemen than ours. Riding with more length seems to give them better control over their horses. English riders have a better and more thorough training in horsemanship before they ever get to their first apprentice race. They ride endlessly on "the gallops" and are strictly disciplined. Trainer Sam Armstrong, who has visited several American tracks, thinks this disciplining is an important factor.
"The impression I brought home from America," he says, "is that your boys can—if they are reasonably good—make too much money too quickly. Often they become unmanageable."
One of the most impressive sights at Newmarket is the ceremony known as Evening Stables at the headquarters of Captain Cecil Boyd-Rochfort, who, in addition to training for the Queen, has taken on a few horses for such Americans as Harry Guggenheim, Robert Kleberg, Mrs. Elizabeth Arden Graham, Mrs. C. Oliver Iselin, Mrs. John Hanes and Mrs. J. Deaver Alexander among others. Evening Stables is a traditional ritual in which the trainer winds up his day with a formal inspection of his horses. As Captain Boyd-Rochfort walked down the line of boxes the ritual got under way. To begin with the entire stable area had been swept-clean. Every box was shut and as each was opened by Assistant Trainer Bruce Hobbs (who rode Battleship to victory in the 1938 Grand National), Captain Boyd-Rochfort stepped in with the air of a colonel on barracks' inspection. Each horse was held alertly by his lad who stood, almost at attention, literally bursting with pride and hoping that Captain Boyd-Rochfort might say to his visitors something complimentary about the horse. In each box the trainer picks up a handful of grass which is lined up carefully alongside an assortment of rubbing brushes and combs and feeds it to the horse. The same procedure is followed every evening for each of the 54 horses in training.
British racing is very sensitive about its tradition and prestige, and the latter has been slightly tarnished by virtue of the fact that the French have made something of a habit recently of making off with most of the major English classics. What it boils down to, essentially, is that the shaky economics of English racing today make it fairly obvious that horsemen must pick up what purses they can—and where they can—and just hope that they are developing a good horse in the process. There is more money to be earned at the shorter distances today and therefore a natural concentration, for example, in winning the big 2-year-old stakes—none of which are run over a mile. So what has happened is that the English are developing good 2-year-olds, but few of them have been able successfully to stretch out over the longer distances required for good 3-year-olds. The French, on the other hand, have few major 2-year-old objectives and can point for the big and longer English 3-year-old stakes. Their entire breeding program is now geared to concentrate on classical distances (a mile and a half and upward).
The economic setup has resulted in the sale to America of many a fine stallion. Among the horses who undoubtedly would have done marvels for the improvement of the British Thoroughbred but who instead were sold to America during recent years are: Nasrullah, Khaled, Heliopolis, Mahmoud, Alibhai, Blenheim, Tulyar, My Babu, Solar Slipper, Arctic Prince and Royal Charger.
Among the stallions I saw at Lord Derby's Woodland Stud at Newmarket are Never Say Die, Hyperion and the great Italian champion Ribot. And even now there are not a few Englishmen who would bet that Ribot—maybe one of the great horses of all time—won't be on American soil within another three years. For when you have the money available to U.S. breeding syndicates you can buy almost anything you want.
But through all these various crises and seemingly hard times British racing will carry on. It is conducted by and for people who have grown up in the racing tradition. This is the spiritual home of what is possibly the world's greatest spectator sport.