Sometimes, walking in the woods on a Saturday afternoon, my mother and I came across the local racecourse. She would put the dog on its lead and I would approach the white rails where the horses – with their mad eyes, soft telescopic nostrils, bulging veins and bony legs – were being restrained in front of the nooses stretched across the track by tense, hunched dwarfs in brilliant silks who abused each other with words I had never heard before. It was a close-up view from below and in colour of what was surveyed on black and white television with an Olympian commentary by Clive Graham and Peter O’Sullevan. ‘Under starter’s orders,’ the public address system boomed. A hush fell over the distant stands. ‘They’re off.’ As the thunder of the hoofs receded, the roar of the punters rose. The Red Cross van lumbered slowly in pursuit.

I began to follow the sport, and the white-coated gatekeepers often let me in without a ticket once the first race was underway. Ancient names such as Lord Howard de Walden, exotic ones such as the Aga Khan, captured my imagination, which had previously been engrossed by Sir Reginald de Cobham, whose effigy, with its helm and Saracen’s head, scarred with venerable graffiti, lay in Lingfield parish church and whose name could be found in Froissart’s Chronicles. When this was replaced as my favourite book by Pickwick Papers I sensed that Sam Weller and Mr Jingle lived on at the races – together of course with Sir Mulberry Hawk. Towering above the jolly mugs and threatening spivs and smooth crooks was Prince Monolulu in his feathered headdress (a tipster who also haunted Victoria Station, where he once congratulated my father, a commuting barrister, on his new bowler). And then there were the mauve-faced bookies in loud waistcoats, standing on their boxes, bellowing odds and then deleting them from the blackboard with a fat, wet thumb, while their wizened associates in flat caps and white gloves relayed mathematical messages to other enclosures.

The cricket page of the Daily Telegraph was pinned up on the noticeboard at my prep school. On most days of the week I could study the form by consulting the other side of this sheet. More could be gleaned from the papers which, on cold Sunday afternoon walks, we stole from the newsagent’s in order to follow the Profumo affair and other scandals. By the time I went to public school I frequented the betting shops or those newsagents nearby which would place our bets and sell us cigarettes. ‘Our’ bets because other boys were involved in gambling, although none, I think, shared my infatuation with the mysteries of the turf. One might suppose that racing would enjoy a large following among the young, since a special language is so important an ingredient of children’s fiction. ‘Going’, ‘short head’, ‘scratched’ – even ‘furlong’ – were expressions by then not used anywhere else. ‘By’ and ‘out of’ (bluntly economical rather than euphemistic, but slightly mysterious) are not terms applied to parentage of other kinds. The punter’s language was still riddled with rhyming slang as well as fancy names for complicated bets, such as the ‘each-way permutating accumulator’ – fantasies about which interrupted my schoolwork.

Although the school matron and other sober adults were not averse to a ‘flutter’ on the Grand National, and there were boys whose parents attended point-to-points and kept shooting sticks in the boot of the Jag, racing was considered morally dangerous, which should have given it an added appeal. But there are no local teams in racing to attract collective loyalty and although everyone had heard of Lester Piggott he didn’t have fans in the way that the stars of football or tennis did. At the age of eight or so I collected rejected betting tickets but I could not swap them or compare my collection as the other boys could with the pictures of footballers they dug out of packets of cereal.

I had no real knowledge of horses such as my mother had (she sometimes discouraged me from putting money on those whose foaming mouths or odd shapes worried her), and knew little about the history of racing beyond the fact that thoroughbreds were all descended from three imported Arab stallions. But I was aware that the reckless extravagance associated with the sport reflected aristocratic attitudes which had once been reputable, that the bookies (whose patches were in those days ancestral) were as Victorian as their battered satchels and the fat numerals on their tickets. By contrast, French racing seemed modern. Longchamp on Sundays was attended by respectable and elegant families. There were no bookies, there was less beer and much less litter than at Lingfield, and there were also television screens – colour ones, I think – beside the Tote windows. The French had also introduced lightweight mobile starting-gates in place of nooses. Indeed, they were transforming other recreational activities, too. On camping holidays, my family discovered that, instead of crawling into mud-coloured military tents, the French sat at enamelled folding tables in brilliant blue and orange pavilions supported by aluminium frames. At my request and to my amazement, my parents once allowed a visit to Longchamp and let me heap half my savings on Polyfoto, a two-year-old I had seen start badly but finish fast at Lingfield. I worked out that he (or she?) had been sent to France because of the gates. My winnings did much to confirm my addiction.

By the time I went to university my imagination had been reclaimed by art, literature and history – by the parish church, its brass and alabaster effigies, baroque cartouches, 18th-century epitaphs and Victorian glass. A few years ago a friend took me to visit her mare and foals at a stud near Newmarket, and on another occasion the loan of Whistlejacket by the National Gallery gave me the chance to have a look at one of Newmarket’s equine swimming-pools and to marvel at the silver-mounted hooves that serve as ashtrays and reliquaries in the Jockey Club headquarters there; but I’ve resisted both the racecourse and the betting shop. I think about them, though, especially on business trips to visit dealers and view sales, where I learn what may ‘b.i.’ (that is, be bought in), what was ‘burned’ (put up for sale and not bought, thereby having its reputation tarnished), what rumour has been started by a vendor’s restorer, what the decorators will bid up, what a runner has found, and the recent history of a lot that the vaunted provenance conceals. The auction houses represent a world of complexity and diversity similar to that of the racecourse – and with similarly protracted foreplay before the few minutes of swift action.

The Sport of Kings,* Rebecca Cassidy’s account of life as a ‘lad’ (the term is preferred by the many women who do the job) working for a Newmarket trainer and as a hand on a stud-farm is sometimes hair-raising though neither sensational nor sentimental. Unfortunately, she too often remembers that she is writing an academic book: ‘As Hoffman states, “dress communication is always a mirror of social condition.”’ But she describes very vividly the typical tall trainer, striding in his yellow V-neck pullover from his Mercedes to the bank, briskly cordial with encountered acquaintances, or the standard performance of a bloodstock agent examining a yearling, staring at its legs, his own ‘slightly apart, catalogue hugged to the chest . . . chin pushed back . . . eyes narrowed’.

Cassidy is not a historian and we are left with an incomplete picture of the constantly changing character of this ostensibly conservative world and the ever-shifting economic structure of the industry. Glorious Goodwood, a volume published to celebrate the bicentenary of that most beautiful of racecourses, reminds us of the numerous innovations associated with racing, many of them first made at Goodwood (often instigated by Lord George Bentinck). Starting-gates are not mentioned but the introduction of the public address system in the 1950s is, and I was delighted to find a photograph of Prince Monolulu together with his real name (Peter) and the date of his death (1965).

Cassidy describes what it’s like to gallop on a racehorse but not what it’s like to race one, which is outside her experience. At the racecourse she observes the rituals of saddling and mounting; and the way the jockey touches the peak of his cap as he approaches trainer and owner, who stand shoulder to shoulder in the paddock. The jockey then ‘rests one foot and then the other’ and ‘keeps his hands behind his back’, addressing them as ‘sir’, ‘boss’ or ‘guv’nor’. This must be one of the last places where ‘guv’nor’ is used (guineas similarly survive only as a unit of currency in bloodstock sales). Cassidy is right to stress such deferential rituals in a context where the rapid circulation of cash might give the impression of social mobility. But what is fascinating about racing historically is that it did involve some relaxation of the social hierarchy, or at least saturnalian relief from it. Jockeys once meant owners, and even noble owners – as Glorious Goodwood reminds us – on occasion rode their own racehorses. That, however, was before the ‘sport of kings’ was so ingeniously subsidised by its development as a popular recreation and later by a massive levy on the gambling that was thus encouraged.

It would have been difficult for any researcher to glide from mucking out stables into the entourage of Sheikh Mohammed or the house party of the Duke of Richmond, and it isn’t surprising that Cassidy tells us so little about the motives, or even the expenses and rewards, of racehorse owners. She provides some startling facts, though: for example that a top stallion can earn £20 million a year in stud fees. She observes the way an owner typically walks slowly with a trainer into the paddock, both of them carrying binoculars and racecards, and ‘looking down at the ground, talking under their breath, as if discussing a life-threatening secret’. There is a hint here of the trainer as a priest endowing a mundane transaction with mystery, and it transpires that Cassidy is not a believer. She is convinced that the cult of the thoroughbred on which the sport – and the industry – depends, and to which the lads as well as the owners adhere, is based on spurious science. The bloodstock agent’s conduct and language are designed to conceal the fact that there is no way to pick a great winner from among a group of yearlings. I am not qualified to have an opinion about this, but note that her colleagues tend to be more respectful of witch doctors.

The businessman, after years of shrewd and prudent calculation in a familiar field, is lured by a partner or rival into racing – into a theatre of ritualised extravagance and risks where he does, however, belong to an exclusive and ancient club and may well soon enjoy the envy of other novices. He must depend on specialist knowledge and skills, and no doubt much pseudo-science. Hence the modesty of his demeanour when he talks to his trainer. Art collecting is often taken up for similar reasons and it is not over-optimistic to suppose that, like the amazing power and beauty of the horse, an animal which it is just beyond human power to control completely or to predict reliably, great works of art can break the circle of self-love which is often exceptionally tough in people of this type. The urge to possess begins to get out of hand, and the collector or owner is himself possessed.

The paintings of racehorses by Stubbs, informed by an almost clinical aesthetic that reflects faith in the science of breeding as well as in the practice of anatomy, have been the most obvious meeting points between racing and art. But it should be noted that art collecting, which is conducted under some of the same conditions as horse-racing, once appealed almost as strongly to the wealthiest people in Britain. In my experience, many of the collectors today who are most excited by direct contact with art, and are most eager to discover more about it, are dealers, or at least collectors who are prepared to sell as well as buy, and whose interest in market value does not preclude acknowledgment of the mysterious power of great art. For them, the excitement of competitive pursuit and the taking of risks stimulates as well as contaminates aesthetic pleasure.

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