The Kings and I
Horse racing’s inegalitarian streak
By Don Watson
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The football ends, and the vanquished lie here and there on their backs, like blowflies after a spray of Mortein. It would make a telling coda to the season if the victors were allowed to go around stamping on them. Instead we are left this depressing spectacle and the cries of a triumphant army denied the right to rape or pillage. Allow the winning team to march away two or three players from their opponents’ ranks; a trainer, their masseurs and massage oils; carry off their exercise bikes, their wives and girlfriends. For now, the final siren confirms the one thing which, for the sake of the industry, several million people have once more been persuaded to forget – that it’s just a game.
And so the season turns to racing. The good horses come out, the not-so-good go to the spelling paddock, and the old and average look desperately for new careers in showjumping, or board a truck to the knackery. That’s the difference between horseracing and all other legal sports: horseracing is for keeps. Racing is the meanest game, and not just because it’s the only entertainment in which animals are whipped.
Of course the people who run the business pretend that glamour is the essence of it. You’ll see the word ‘glamour’ every day until the Cup is run. At the Melbourne Spring Carnival the cameras will churn through celebrities and socialites who wouldn’t know a racehorse from an anteater. Like sparklers on a birthday cake, it is not that they don’t belong there, just that they are the least part of it.
Great though the variety is, from the most taciturn to the most ebullient and showy, the most urbane to the most frayed and rustic, racing types all carry the thorns and gravel of an earlier, harder age. They have not fallen for the idea that we are born equal and have an equal right to thrive, or even live. Their horses tell them that: a great and unbridgeable chasm separates the midweek country horse and the Saturday city horse; between an average city handicapper and a weight-for-age horse the void is just as wide; and between a good weight-for-age horse and Black Caviar or Tulloch there is one as wide again. And those differences do not describe why, when they all descend from a tiny gene pool, one horse is a tractable, brave and kindly animal, and another fractious and evil-tempered; why one is sound and another fragile; one stout-hearted, the other a squib; one bursts her boiler trying to be first, and the other is equally set on proving her inadequacy; why the heart of yours weighs ten pounds and the heart of Secretariat weighed 22 pounds.
Then there is the fact often remarked by struggling trainers that the good horse is ten times more likely to be struck by lightning or a wayward piece of an aeroplane’s fuselage than a slow horse: that a horse which has excited connections with signs it is an athlete will find a way to break its leg while eating an apple in its stable, whereas if you tether a slow one to a railway line and leave it there for the night, the trains will go around it. Racing trainers – and owners and punters – must live with these brutal facts of Nature.
They also live with jockeys, the 50-kilogram men and women obliged to perch on the withers of these 500-kilogram animals and steer them in their ‘arc of flight’ at anything up to 70 kilometres per hour, balanced on ankles not much thicker than a Coke bottle. To make their living, jockeys surely take more physical risks than anyone else in sport, including bullfighters. They are killed. They break their necks, their arms, legs, ribs and vertebrae as often as footballers sprain their ankles. They are regularly concussed and in comas.
The difference between top jockeys and average ones (and good rides and bad) is very wide, though not as wide as the difference between horses. Great jockeys are as much marvels to behold as any gymnast or footballer and deserve to make a pile of money and get kissed by Gai Waterhouse and whole syndicates of owners and to meet the Queen. No less essential to the sport, the less great and the wholly down at heel (a category judged to include the many who have lost their nerve or never had it) get paid a couple of hundred dollars to take the same risks on horses that, while slower, are just as big and just as likely to suddenly shy, falter or drop dead.
Not only do jockeys ride these horses, they also carry with them the expectations, prejudices and wagers of trainers, owners and punters. Good rides are not proof against the rage of frustrated hopes: but ‘butcher’ the horse, and there must be times when having passed the winning post jockeys have wondered if they might clear the car-park fence and keep riding until sundown. With good reason it is alleged that sometimes they have also been known to carry the weight of intimidation, or something more than the standard fee, for finding a position in the field from which it is impossible to win, or riding a horse ‘upside down’, or dropping the whip, or by some means causing their mounts to hang in or out or race like hobbled ducks.
I have co-owned or co-leased a dozen or so racehorses, of which perhaps four deserved the name (and another untried one might have if it had not died of a heart attack while cantering). My co-lessees and I remain confident that a jockey whose career was fading once nicked a plain, one-paced mudlark of ours at a meeting on a country course. Afterwards, in the cold drizzle he sat on a bench in his singlet; thin, pallid, smoking a cigarette (I’ve always had half a feeling he rode the race stoned on something) while we stood round, wanting to take his neck in a throttle hold or throw him up in a tree, and yet unable to utter the accusation outright.
Low as we were in racing’s pecking order, he was lower. There had been an atrocity (and of course it remains possible that nothing more sinister than incompetence had caused it, or some kind of allergy or migraine or an invisible willy-willy or something had pocketed our horse for six and a half of the seven furlongs they ran), but the indelible sense of that moment was that he was the real poor bastard and we were just another lot of bullies in his life.
The basic relationships in horseracing are feudal. This is necessary to provide a thread of certainty in the most uncertain of callings. No doubt it also attracts the sheiks and tycoons who put up the big money for the best-bred horses and send them to the top trainers – hundreds of horses, hundreds of millions of dollars. Time was when Australian racing somehow balanced the innate hierarchy of the profession with a larrikin and democratic spirit; an equation which, among other things, fortified the language with marvellous drolleries and made Australian race-callers the unofficial poets laureate.
So long as the sport of kings was also the sport of the masses, trainers of modest means could still look to Tommy Woodcock or Vic Rail and think it not ridiculous to hope for a freak of nature among the tailings – like Reckless or Vo Rogue.
In the first big day of spring racing, however, about three quarters of the several million dollars up for grabs at Flemington and Randwick went the way of a casino owner and Gai Waterhouse, and a sheik and Dato Chin Nam got a slab of the remainder. Increasingly, imported horses – imported, that is, by local heavyweights – win the main middle- and long-distance races, and even the country cups. Thus our little prospects narrow and the dreams grow more outlandish.
So why would anyone of modest means and average good sense invest so much as a cent of his own money in or on a racehorse, or spend a minute even thinking about the caper, much less making heroes of horses or jockeys, as I have since I turned five? It could be that in an age now dim, a horse or like animal was the totem of my ancestor; and the totem became in time a God; and like the totem, the God was, as Freud declared, a father-surrogate; and the jockey is me, shrunk by guilt and longing, flogging it, clinging to it ‘horse and rider as one’, and trying to outrun it at the same time.
It could be this. Or it could be that like Damon Runyon I thought all life was six to five against but, being a mug, assumed that meant for everyone.
Don Watson is an award-winning author and former speechwriter for Paul Keating. His books include Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM, American Journeys, The Bush and, most recently, the Quarterly Essay ‘Enemy Within: American Politics in the Time of Trump’.