May 30, 1914
PUTTING SOMETHING ON A HORSE
WHEN a man talks of playing, in the sense of gaming, he specifically does not mean playing a game. The vocabulary of the subject is doubtless vague and ambiguous, but the exhortation to “play the game” does indicate the comprehension of some ideals more exalted, and some exertions more dignified, than merely putting money down on green tables in the hope that it may multiply itself by good luck. You can play the game at cricket or football; you can scarcely do so atboule or petite chevaux. It is clear that the two former stand in a higher category than the two latter; they share the elements of uncertainty and excitement about the result, but they depend so much on admirable personal qualities, on speed, skill, endurance, enterprise, and loyalty. It is a frequent complaint that we, as a nation, are ceasing to exercise these qualities for ourselves, and preferring to watch the professional exercise of them by others—and to bet on them.
If this is so, it is a pity. But the moralist can extract a sermon from the stone he is engaged in throwing at his decadent generation. If the psychological need of play can really be satisfied by watching others playing, it is clear that the essential is not in the exercise, but in the excitement. And that is why horse racing is the most popular (as well as the most widely execrated) of all our forms of sport, and why the newspapers find it so easy to concentrate the throbbing hopes and fears of a nation upon the Derby. True, the merely aesthetic side of horse-racing must appeal to a great many. The horse is beautiful, sleek, bright-eyed, capricious—slim as a dancer, swift as an arrow, uncertain as a mistress. “The horse,” wrote a schoolboy in a famous essay, “is a noble animal, but when infuriated it will not do so.” And the light and colour of the actual race provide a more beautiful vision than the scrambling of twenty-two men (or thirty, as the case may be) about a muddy ball—though, on the other hand, a cricket field is a pretty sight. But it is not the ugliness of football or the prettiness of cricket or racing that determines their relative popularity. Cricket is far less popular than football, and not only because it is less easy to bet on. And the ugly, ignoble side of horse-racing is, after all, apparent enough. Wherever the horse is, there will the most curiously degraded-looking set of men be gathered together. Who are they, and from what quarter do they come? They are not the legitimate attendants of the superior beast. They are not “the public” in the narrow sense in which we usually employ that word. They are invariably under-sized and mean-spirited and evil-visaged. They offend the social, the moral, and the artistic sense. They debase the atmosphere of the most lordly race meeting. They show especially degraded by contrast with the “noble animals.” They are the Yahoos to the Houyhnhnms of the race.
Neither the beauty nor the ugliness of horse-racing is the ultimate question, for this sport is quite as dear to the hearts of those who have never been near a course in their lives as to those who have hardly ever been near anything else. The flaming placards with the word “Derby” in prodigious letters upon them cannot but stir the most rigid moralist. “Will the King win the Derby?” asked an evening paper passionately on Tuesday last. A man might be a republican and a member of the Anti-Gambling League, and yet feel an involuntary stir of the pulses when faced with that foolish question. Foolish, we say, because to question the particle of futurity between to-day and to-morrow is to question idly; nobody really believes in anybody else’s power to calculate the “form” of horses; the interrogation is a sublime waste of time, a gorgeous silliness, a never-to-be-superannuated piece of folly. It corresponds to, perhaps, the most vital instinct (next to hunger and love, which, however, themselves partake of it) in our mortal make-up. What is every moment but the idle questioning of the next? What is time, but the sequence of dubieties? While there is life, there is hope: and while there is hope, there is fear; and while there are fear and hope, there is a reason for continuing to live.
It is true that the philosopher is reputed to have divested himself of this human weakness. He has put off time like a garment. What will be, will be; he is fortified against gratification and disappointment. Let others shake with transient passion; he sits cross-legged beneath the palm, contemplating his own navel. But though the triumph of spirit over doubt and expectancy may be a real conquest, an achievement of inward peace scarcely to be thought of by ordinary men and women; though indeed, there is a splendid sense in which superiority to the accidents of the flesh is the saint’s ultimate triumph, the consummation of effort and of love; there is also in our mingled here-and-now an apathy of a less exalted kind. There are people who take no thought for the morrow, because they have no sympathy for all the other people who have to face to-morrow; there are people sunk in sloth and unimaginative stupidity. Such ask no questions, and do not stay for an answer. Meanwhile, the masses, the millions, the democracy―you and we, in short―go on hoping, sometimes against hope and sometimes with it, living too often in a dull round of labour to which any uncertainty (even a choice between evils) offers a striking and dazzling contrast. The narrow moralist who condemns the whole of the public interest in horse-racing as a sordid desire to get money without earning it has misjudged his fellow-creatures. No doubt the unregenerate who puts his shirt upon a winner and finds it come back to him a fur-lined overcoat is frankly demoralised. No doubt he has no right to the money on any lofty grounds, and no doubt he is likely to spend it foolishly, and to the detriment of his health (though in all probability the bulk of it goes quietly home to the bookmaker again before many more races have been run). But when he put his shirt on that horse he was not in search of something-for-nothing. He was not cheating his neighbour. He was not grinding the faces of the poor to produce him champagne and oysters for which he toils not, neither does he spin. He was not even aiming deliberately at the champagne and the oysters, and all the other things that money can buy. He was gambling in his own fashion―a sordid one, maybe, even a wicked one―in obedience to that instinct of fear and hope. He was splashing one splendid streak of scarlet across the uniform procession of his hours. He was giving himself something to live for. He was having an adventure.
One may face psychological facts without commending all their manifestations. Let it not be thought that we are preaching the virtues of gambling, or that we regard money got in return for no social service as anything but tainted goods. The moral we draw is profoundly different from that. If men and women, so long as they are neither machines nor gods, must have variety and excitement; if social organisation is such that to the vast majority of us work is still bound to be monotonous and drab―then in the name of heaven and common sense let us see to it that the excitement of our play is made the best of. Save for a few in whom gambling is a dangerous and obsessing lust, and a few more who are half-imbecile with excess of time and money, people would rather partake directly of some pleasurably exciting occupation than merely follow its course in halfpenny papers and bet on the result. They would rather kick a ball, if they had the health and leisure to cultivate skill in kicking it, than make or lose money as the result of other people’s kicking. They would rather meet the keen rivalry of friendly companions in discussion than profit by a lucky guess. They would rather make love than make books. They seek the poorer excitement chiefly because the richer is denied them. The cure for betting is bettering.
There is something strangely pathetic in the unselfishness with which the poor regard the pleasures of the rich. Consider the University boat-race. One might expect the overworked clerk and the underpaid labourer to resent the time and money spent upon training a few expensive and unprofitable athletes. What we find is a spontaneous national enthusiasm, a concentration upon results which cannot practically affect in any way the concentrating enthusiast. People care about the boat-race because it is a sport, a game, because its issue is uncertain―not because they bet on it, although they do. So even with the Derby, where the betting is a much larger factor. But how much more really sporting if all these selfless souls who cheer and gamble could be riding and rowing on their own account!
We have said that horse-racing is widely execrated. It is indeed almost as unpopular as it is popular. One kind of person―and that by no means merely the militant-puritan kind―hates it progressively more as another kind of person becomes progressively more devoted to it, simply because the increase of preoccupation with the mischievous side of sport is a national danger that multiplies itself. But there is, after all, a third kind of person, perhaps not the smallest or least important―the kind that simply takes no interest in the whole subject. There are hundreds of thousands of adult and intelligent men in London alone (to say nothing of women) who not only do not bet, but cannot. They could learn how to, of course; but they have not learnt. Here is the money and there is the horse, and how to get the one on the other they simply do not know. The columns of “tips” in their daily papers tell them nothing. Their only approach to the mysterious portals is an occasional sweepstake at the club, and actually many men risk their money on the Derby in this way who never bet on any other sporting event or in any other fashion. That is because it is “an event of national importance.”
Even though we are no longer universally regarded by foreigners as a nation of shoplifters, we are still regarded as a betting nation. And that is curious, because, though foreigners do not bet as much as we do on sports, they give much wider scope as a rule to their gambling propensities. They have―many of them―their casinos and their lotteries. It is apparent, for instance, to the most casual visitor who lands in Portugal that the inhabitants of that country live entirely by taking in each other’s lottery tickets. Their economics are dotted about their streets, one at every corner. Our own betting laws are objectionable in so far as they discriminate unfairly between the methods of the rich and those of the poor; but in principle the restriction of gambling opportunities seems a good thing to many who are not extravagantly puritanical. Only it remains true that the proper cure for such social evils as betting is not prohibition but diversion.