What so clearly stamps racing as a sport though, is the writing it has prompted, whether you read The Bloodhorse, or came by it over the years through your enslavement to the Sporting Life or The Pacemaker. Back at home, it might’ve been the Sporting Post, the sporting sections of newspapers, magazines or books devoted to everything from the selection of winners to the darkest struggles of the human soul (remember Dick Francis?), that’s ensured the rich literature of thoroughbred contestation has no counterparts in the worlds of jai-alai or slot machines.
Racing has large bookshops in various parts of the world, which do a heady trade in horse books. Few have to do with betting; they are about the horse. Our friends in the lottery and casino sectors are so envious, they’re thinking of opening their own, selling all the books ever written on their business. The problem is, the rental of the telephone booth has yet to be negotiated!
While the ancient Greeks and Romans had plenty to say about the sporting horse, this piece is more concerned with what inspired the more recent likes of Rudyard Kipling, Damon Runyon, Les Carlyon, Ernest Hemingway, Banjo Patterson, Sir Mordant Milner or the most-followed American sports columnist of the 20th century, Red Smith, to indulge themselves so deeply in their observations of our “beautiful” game. These tales are the hot coals around which racing people warm their hands on a cold winter’s night. They are the irresistible spur that raises our fingers at horse auctions, that tickle our spirits when a gamble comes off, and serve as a balm when it doesn’t.
I was on a scholarship visit to the United States way back in the 70s when I came across a piece in The New York Times, a Red Smith masterpiece that read something like this: “There are more stories per square foot at the racetrack than anywhere else in sports”, proclaimed the king of all sports writers of the age. “If there are 80 horses running today, there are at least 80 stories, most of them more interesting than who won or lost a ball game”. In the pre-television era, the essays of Smith and his exalted colleagues were vivid, elegant reports on what was then the nation’s most popular spectator sport, ahead even of baseball and boxing. That was 1978, two years after Mr Smith was honoured with the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary, which he once described as “those jousts with the mother tongue”.
The world over, the racing industry made a near-fatal mistake when track operators spurned the advent of the new medium, television, fearing a loss of gate receipts and hot-dog commissions if its customers were to see more than a few races a year from their living rooms. A generation of potential customers, living in a world where television exposure nurtured and validated the popularity of other sports, came of age with racing literally off the screen. Among those growing up as racing became a fringe rather than a mainstream sport, were the next generation of news-media decision-makers; the number of inches of space the broadsheet newspapers devoted to racing grew smaller, even as sports overall were getting more pages.
Racing was saved though, by its irresistible lure of the likes of Red Smith, who was as self-effacing a man as he was esteemed. In “Strawberries in the Wintertime”, the last of his collections of columns, he proffered that “finding a title for such a mixed bag can be a problem. I considered using a catchier title like ‘War and Peace’, ‘Wuthering Heights,’ or ‘The Holy Bible’, but they struck me as ‘dated’. Instead, the title he used captured, he believed, some of the flavour of the sports writers’ existence, “I don’t want to be a millionaire, I just want to live like one”.
“Sport is not really a play world”, he said, “I think it’s the real world. The people we’re writing about in professional sport, they’re suffering, living and dying and loving and trying to make their way through life, just as bricklayers and politicians are. This may sound defensive – I don’t think it is – but I’m aware that games are part of every culture we know anything about, and are often taken seriously”. It’s no accident that of all the monuments left of the Greco-Roman culture, the biggest is the ballpark, the Colosseum, the ancient version of the Yankee Stadium. The man who reports on these games contributes in his small sway to the record of the time.
Despite the space constraints, racing journalism, like sports writing in general, was growing better, more honest and enterprising, cheered on by the weighty footsteps of the Smiths and his ilk. Besides the objective eye they trained on the racing world, the handicapping revolution that began in the 1970s was a new source of writing inspiration, as a fresh scientific approach to the judgment of the quality of horses and races emerged, and with it more accurate and comprehensive information on performance, which appealed to a whole new generation of mathematically literate puzzle-solvers. Others were drawn to the game by the intellectual challenge, and only later seduced by the atmospherics that had appealed to so many generations before. As the first real signs of a globalized trade in racehorses developed in the 60s around the exploits in Europe of Sir Ivor and Nijinsky, another class of writer was spawned not from newspaper origins, but in a book-length fascination for the sport. A loyal audience of readers enamoured with it witnessed the birth of a new fad among book publishers, who’d found a particular affinity for racing and provided opportunities for publication.
The arrival of the 21st century presaged the publication of Seabiscuit, which topped the best-seller lists week upon week, and prompted a glut among racing titles, not all of which were destined for greatness, yet spurred the publishing world into creating not only new opportunities, but into reissuing some of the more worthy out-of-print classics by authors of an earlier era. Things these days are moving so quickly, it’s fascinating to contemplate what our sports literature will look like when the equivalent of these books are published in a century’s time.
The sport’s embrace of change is so rapid and unpredictable, transformed in my lifetime alone by simulcasting and off-track wagering for a business previously conducted primarily by spectators and bettors on live enactments at a racetrack, to one where more than 80% of the “business” is done away from the track or on televised races run elsewhere. In-home racing is now in full bloom, attracting an entirely new and much bigger audience at the expense, other than on its biggest days, of on-site participation, just as it has with cricket, rugby and football.
The present generation of writers were introduced to the game more through modern technology than a childhood outing with the “Old Man,” the horseplayer. The bet here is that it will prove with the passage of time, to be only a different means to a similar end. The elements of our sport that have always tickled the emotions and have sparked the imaginations of writers remain the same, and as it always has, it will inevitably pull them back to the source of it all: the horses, the people, the world of the racetrack. The rest is dross, and as long as there are more stories per square foot to report, there will be writers to put them into words.