By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, May 18, 1940
“When the races start…” started Jimmie Frise.
“Horse racing,” I informed him, “ought to be abolished. In time of war, I can imagine nothing more sheerly wicked and wasteful than horse races.”
Jimmie slowly turned purple.
“Horse racing,” he gritted, “is the foundation of the breeding of horses for war…”
“Heh, heh,” I laughed pleasantly. “You’re a bit out of date, my boy. The Duke of Wellington might have used that antique argument. But times have changed. The mechanization of the army has pricked that bubble, my friend. Horse racing is doomed. Since the army no longer needs horses, your horse racing stands forth as what it really is. A sheer gambling device. As bare-faced as a roulette wheel.”
Jimmie slowly changed to a deeper shade of purple.
“It is the sport of kings,” he said huskily.
“And of absconding bank clerks,” I sneered.
“It is the last manly sport left,” grated Jim. “The last he-man game, where a man can feel his freedom and his power. Life is being social-serviced out of all reality. One by one, all sports, all games, are being scienced, organized, made safe and prim. The only game left where a man can go and feel he is a hell-dinger is racing.”
“That’s a fine recommendation,” I scoffed
“Is it?” queried Jim sadly. “Here we are with a war on our hands, and we want fighting men. Yet, for the past 20 years, we have been breeding all kinds of men except fighting men. We have been breeding gentlemen and scholars. We have been teaching our young men to play the game, lawfully and piously. We have been stressing the social rights of men, so that tolerance is our ideal. And all of a sudden, we want a million men with intolerance in their hearts, a high and mighty intolerance.”
“And what has all this got to do with horse racing?” I interjected.
“Well, you say horse racing should be abolished,” said Jim, “which declaration is part and parcel of the namby-pamby spirit of the age. The same point of view would abolish not only horse racing but all the other tough, rough and nasty characteristics of our society that we need so desperately right now.”
“Do you mean to say that if our young manhood was a horse racing lot, they would be better soldiers?” I demanded.
“I certainly do,” stated Jim. “I would say offhand that the more horse racing, corner lounging, pool room loafing, crap shooting, low down element we had in the country, the tougher and more deadly our army would be. There is no use blinding ourselves to the facts. Maybe it would be a fine thing to have a country so advanced that we had nothing but the type best described as splendid young fellows. But in the last war, it seems to me the splendid young fellows were the company clerks. And when you wanted a raiding party, you went snooping around after the corner boys and the crap shooters and the racetrack bums.”
“You’re romanticizing the bum,” I protested.
“Think it over,” suggested Jimmie. “Recollect your toughest job in the old war. Who were the guys with you?”
And I had to recollect Jimmie Post and Sergeant Sturgess and Charlie Windsor and people like that, whom I could hardly describe as public-spirited citizens. In fact, they did know a lot of horses’ names, now that I came to think of it.
More Than a Sport
“What is it about horses.” I inquired, that gets men the way it does?”
“They’re so game,” said Jim, emotionally. “There are only three animals out of all Christendom that have won the hearts of men. The horse, the game cock and the dog. These three have a heart, a spirit, that is high and noble in the sense that men can conceive. Bulls aren’t noble. Rams, cats, hogs aren’t noble. Out of all the animal kingdom the only creatures man has chosen for his love are the horse, the dog and the game cock. Why? Because they fight on though the blood blinds them.”
“It seems a low standard,” I asserted.
“Stick to your high ideals,” cried Jimmie, “and see where you land in this war! This is a war in which the noblest attributes of the horse, the game cock and the dog are the things that count in men.”
“You would drag us down to the level of our enemies,” I stated.
“You bet,” said Jim.
“Still,” I said, “it is some satisfaction to know that the old hypocrisy about racing being important to the breed of horses is exploded at last.”
“Why is the French army buying horses all over Canada and America?” demanded Jimmie. “Why are there ships laden with horses streaming across the Atlantic every day?”
“The French eat horses,” I explained.
“Yes,” said Jim, “but before they eat them, they have them to drag ration wagons across shell riven roads impassable to machines, and to haul guns forward where the last tank has sunk in the mire. Up over the night black tracks and paths, the horses will struggle, laden with ammunition and food and water, while the engines lie dead for want of gas, blown to hell in some vast holocaust. No, sir, in the end will be a man, and behind him, laden till he sags, a horse. That is the old tradition.”
“I still don’t see what racing has got to do with it,” I insisted. “It wasn’t race horses that brought me up my rations and my bombs at Vimy. It was plugs.”
“Racing,” stated Jim, “makes men respect and admire horses. If horses merely hauled bread wagons and plows, men would not respect them. It is that little extra something a horse has that earns men’s respect.”
“It’s a funny world,” I muttered, “when you come to think about it.”
“And when you think of a crowd of 10,000 people, jammed at a race meeting,” said Jim, “don’t forget the tens of thousands who wish they were there, at that minute.”
“I suppose,” I agreed.
“And don’t forget,” went on Jim, “the ones that live by race horses, the thousands of men whose livelihood is breeding and rearing and training horses.”
“Just so,” I admitted.
“Why, when you come to think of it,” cried Jim, “it’s not only a sport, it is not only an industry, it’s a cult. How else can you explain those who get up at 4 a.m. for no other reason but to go down and watch horses train?”
“Lunatics,” I submitted.
“Okay, I’m a lunatic,” said Jim bitterly. “Because this morning I was up at 4 a.m. and down at the Woodbine, and tomorrow morning I’ll be up again at 4 a.m. to drive down…”
“For goodness sakes, what for?” I protested.
“What do you get up at daybreak to go fishing for?” demanded Jim. “You know as well as I do that you don’t get any more fish. It’s just a legend. You get up in order to enjoy the mystery of the sport. To be up with the dawn, while all mankind sleeps on. To look into the mists of the morning, with the birds and the beasts. It’s purely religious.”
Rising With the Dawn
What can you see about race horses at 4 a.m.?” I scoffed.
“Horses,” said Jim raptly, “rise with the dawn. You arrive at the race track, when morning mists still wreath it. In all the little stables and huts you hear the stamp and whinny of the horses and the muffled calls of men. Roosters crow, dogs bark. All is astir. You hear the champ and grind of feeding. The high, spirited yell of blooded horses. Out in the mist, you see the boys leading the blanketed beasts, and the jockeys saddling them up, and the trainers standing by with thoughtful chins. Out on the deserted track you see the gamesters led, and, fresh and full of heat, the splendid beasts run… like wild things, like heroes, like creatures of fire and courage. Between the furlong and quarter-mile posts they rush, in the mist, while the trainers clock them…”
“And,” went on Jim, “along the fences, stand such as I, with our clocks, timing them, too. Yes, at all race tracks, you will find the devotees, the devout, only a handful, straggled apart along all the fences in twos and threes, getting to know the horses by sight, imagining they can tell, from what they see through the mists of dawn, what cannot show in the printed form chart…”
Well, Jimmie went on in such a vein that, somehow or other, I must have become mesmerized by his fervor and I asked him to include me in his plans for the morrow. Because I set my clock for 4 a.m. and got up in the pink gray of dawn, tiptoed about a resentful house for a cup of coffee and a bowl of cereal and stood in the silent morning out in front until Jim bowled round the corner and picked me up and drove pell-mell for the race-track.
And it was all as he foretold. Maybe a dozen cars were parked in the open court of the track besides ours. And besides the trainers and stable crews resident at the track, maybe twenty devotees were scattered along the rails in the brightening morning in groups of two and three, intently watching the antics of a dozen horses idly curvetting and now and then racing, in short bursts, about the track near and far.
Jimmie led me along the white fences, greeting this group and that a little standoffishly, as though they were all special worshippers at an early service. We picked a vacant spot along the fence, with nobody within 20 yards either side of us, and there leaned. Jim pointed out this horse and that, by name. The trainers led them out, the jockeys rode them slowly around the track, as though merely exercising them. Every little while one of the would suddenly burst into stride and race madly a short distance. It was then we were all supposed to be electrified, because it was these sudden explosions that were imagined to be the tests by which the trainers knew what shape the horses were in. And it was our privilege to try and time them, clock them, and make shrewd guesses as to what unknown possibilities the various, horses possessed.
“So what?” I inquired after about fifteen minutes of this business of leaning on fences. “It’s a nice scene. It’s fresh air, and the morning is pleasant. But is this all there is to it?”
Jim had his watch cupped secretly in his hand, and was intently peering at a horse far off on the other side of the track, galloping furiously.
“Look,” I said, “nobody is watching you. Nobody cares if you time them or not. This is all pretence.”
“So is all sport,” said Jim. “It’s the hocus pocus with which we invest things, whether they be sport or professions or any belief whatsoever that makes them interesting. If you can’t feel the spell of all this, okay.”
“I sure can’t,” I said, stamping my feet and slapping my hands to warm them.
Animals Are Mind Readers
We walked around the track to the stables.
At the first three stables, there were “no admittance” signs, and when we spoke to the stable boys, they regretted to inform us that the owners did not allow strangers to hang around. But at the fourth stable, Jimmie seemed to be well known for the black man sitting in the doorway of one of the shacklike stables, hailed him cheerily and called, and two or three men popped their heads out the doors and cried “Jimmie” as if they really meant it.
The stables were in pairs, each two being a little household unto themselves. The aisle between was a sort of barnyard, and from the stables opposite, the horses looked out of their stalls amiably. The crews went busily about, feeding, grooming, bandaging, combing tails and manes. And the smell of fried eggs and bacon mingled with the odor of hay and saddle soap.
As we entered, the trainer and the stable boys came forward and shook hands warmly with Jim, which made me feel that there must be some fellowship about this horse business, after all. Jim introduced me right and left.
There was a sort of gipsy charm about the whole affair. Horses whinnyed and stamped, men ducked eagerly about their little chores, voices cried gaily. And a white bull terrier, with slant eyes, the only kind of dog that really can never mean anything to me, came lazily around a corner of the stables, saw me, and broke into a bow-legged and very muscular canter.
Out of the corner of my eyes, I saw it, and there was no doubt about it. It was not the mere fact that Jimmie and I were strangers that intrigued that bull terrier. It was me he was interested in.
He made straight for my calves, and, whirling as he came by, rounded with a high, nasal growl.
“Hey,” said the black man, who was standing by, and he gave a kick at the dog.
“Here, Sam,” warned the trainer, sternly.
But Sam’s slanty eyes were mere slits as he split his long jaw back and bared his bone crushers in another nasty grow at my legs. The fat part.
I backed away.
“Heh, heh,” I said, “nice doggie.”
A small banty game cock came out of one of the stalls all in a fluster of cackles, and, as if attracted by the increasing row, strutted down his wings and advanced upon me. And, as I backed away from the dog, I felt my hat lifted from my head
One of the horses in the stalls behind me had stretched out and lipped my hat, tossed it in the air. Before anybody could so much as speak, a hairy looking goat bounced out of the same stall and snatched my hat off the ground and ran, shaking the hat from side to side. And nibbling at it.
“It’s just a trick,” shouted Jimmie above the laughter and yelling. The black man was chasing the goat and one of the stable boys was driving Sam back, though the dog twisted muscularly from side to side, as though determined to take one bite, about the size of a pound of butter, out of my leg. The banty rooster crowed excitedly and pranced back and forth, taking little runs in my direction.
“Look,” said the trainer, “if you don’t mind I think they’ve got something against you…”
“I’ll be glad to go,” I stated clearly. “If can get my hat.”
“The boy is getting it,” said the trainer. “But if you don’t mind, before they all get upset…”
He was escorting me out.
“Animals are funny,” he said, as we reached the main lane of the stable. “They take scunners.”
The black man came laughing back with my hat. It was shapeless and muddy, and the goat’s chewing was like pleats all along one side of the brim.
“I’ll see you later,” called Jimmie to his friends, the trainer, and boys.
And we walked down the main lane towards the clubhouse and the white fences again.
“You can have your cult,” I submitted.
“Don’t tell me animals aren’t mind readers,” retorted Jim.
Editor’s Notes: Horses were used extensively in World War Two, primarily by the Germans and the Soviets for transport. However Greg was basically correct, in that the war relied more on trucks and engine power.
As we are back at the race track, there is a stereotypical depiction of a black man. See my article About Stereotypes for more information.
A scunner, means taking a strong dislike to something. I don’t know what a hell-dinger is.