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The Intellectual Side Of Horse-racing
by [?]

Horse-racing–or, at least, betting–is one of the few crafts that are looked down on by practically everybody who does not take part in it. “It’s a mug’s game,” people say. Even betting men talk like this. There is a street called Mug’s Row in a north of England town: it is so called because the houses in it were built by a bookmaker. Whether it was the bookmaker or his victims that gave the street its name I do not know. To call a bookmaker a mug would seem to most people an abuse of language. Yet the only bookmaker I have ever really known used to confess himself a mug in the most penitent fashion. He was a mug, however, not because he could not make money, but because he could not keep it. The poor of his suburb, when in difficulties, he declared, used always to come to him instead of going to the clergy, and he was unable to refuse them. But then he was bitter against the clergy. As a young man, he had been a Sunday school teacher, and so far as I could gather, he might have gone on being a Sunday school teacher till the present day if he had not suddenly been assailed with doubts one Sabbath afternoon as he expounded the story of David and Goliath. Whether it was that he looked on David as having taken an unsportsmanlike advantage of the giant or whether he doubted that so much could be done with such little stones, he did not make quite clear. Anyhow, from that day on, he never believed in revealed religion. He quarrelled with his clergyman. He broke the Sabbath. He began to drink beer and to go to race-meetings. He rapidly rose from the position of carpenter to that of bookmaker, and, were it not for his infernal gift of charity, he would probably now be driving his own car and be hall-marked with a Coalition title. Even as it was, he was much more prosperous than any carpenter. Whenever he produced money, it was in pocketfuls and handfuls. Strange that a bookmaker, who by his trade must be accustomed to miracles, should find it difficult to believe in David and Goliath. He was possibly a man who betted on form, and on form Goliath should undoubtedly have won. David was an outsider. He had no breeding. He would have been surprised if he could have foreseen how his victory would rankle some thousands of years later in the soul of an honest English bookmaker.

It is, however, just these matters of form and breeding that raise horse-racing and betting above the intellectual level of a game of nap. Betting men who ignore these things are as unintellectual as the average novelist. There are some, for instance, who shut their eyes and bring down a pin or a pencil on a list of names of the horses, in the hope that in this way they may discover a winner. No doubt they may. It is perhaps as good a way as any other. But there is something trivial in such methods. This is mere gambling for the sake of excitement. There is no more fundamental brainwork in it than in a game I saw being played in a railway carriage the other day, when a man drew a handful of coins from his pocket and bet his friend half-a-sovereign that there would be more heads than tails lying uppermost. This is a game at which it is possible to lose five pounds in two minutes. It is the sort of game to which a betting man will resort when in extremis, but only then. The ruling passion is strong, however. I have a friend who on one occasion went into retreat in a Catholic monastery. Two well-known bookmakers had also gone into temporary retreat for the good of their souls. My friend told me that even during the religious services the bookmakers used to bet as to which of the monks would stand up first at the conclusion of a prayer, and that in the solemn hush of the worship he would suddenly hear a hoarse whisper: “Two to one on Brownie”–a brother with hair of that colour–and the answer: “I take you, Joe.” I have even heard of men betting as to which of two raindrops on a window-pane will reach the bottom first. It is possible to bet on cats, rats or flies. Calvinists do not bet, because they believe that everything that happens is a certainty. The extreme betting man is no Calvinist, however. He believes that most things are accidents, and the rest catastrophes. Hence his philosophy is almost always that of Epicurus. To him every day is a new day, at the end of which it is his aim to be able to say, like Horace, Vixi, or, as the text ought perhaps to read, Vici.