Almost 50 years ago, after a short period at New College, Oxford, I packed my bags and set off to become a steeplechase jockey, which seemed to me to be an infinitely more exciting life than that of an undergraduate. It proved to be a fruitless endeavour since I was hopeless at it, but for four years I had a thrilling time until I fell off once too oftn and was advised by my fellow caballeros that it was time to pack it in.
At the time I set off from Oxford to the lovely valley of Lambourn, and beyond, my father, who was a heavyweight intellectual having been elected a Fellow of All Souls at the startling age of 21, was deeply disappointed by my wanderlust. In exasperation he cruelly demanded of me: “Haven’t you realised that some horses go faster than others?” He completely missed the point, in fact several points.
In order to work out which horses go faster than others one has to understand calculations of Euclidian proportions, which is not easy when you are pissed in a racecourse bar. That is the time when reaches for straws in the wind – more later – and even desperate measures.
Very basically there are seven separate indicators of a horse’s chances of winning that one has to take into account, and then inductively make a selection. Deduction helps in the early stages of the process – this one can’t win, that one can’t, etc, etc, until one narrows the field to perhaps three or four runners. Of course, this is not necessarily foolproof. Rank outsiders win often enough to doom even the most carefully-laid plans.
Number one must surely be form, i.e. the horse’s past performance and its current well-being, defined by its appearance before the race. Past performances should also include recognition of times recorded by the horse, sometimes within each furlong of a race (the Americans are hot on this). What one’s dealing with here is telephone books’ worth of information if you do it properly. Extraordinarily, there are people who have this information memorised, at their fingertips.
Secondly, the weights have to be assessed. In handicaps the greater weights are allotted to the better horses to slow them down, the lead carried in pouches in the saddle. The British Horseracing Authority’s paper on The Aims of the Handicappers states in Paragraph 3: “To set an interesting puzzle that the public find intriguing to solve”. So there, father, with your Times Crossword and your interpretation of Cold War relations.
Thirdly, the track and the going. Some horses have an affinity for certain tracks, and for soft ground, good ground and firm ground. Horses with a more rounded action in the front legs usually prefer some ease in the going, since their feet hit the ground with more concussion, whereas horses with a lighter, more free-flowing action can glide across firmer ground but get bogged down when it’s muddy or soft. Trainers and jockeys who are diligent will walk the entire two miles of a track before races.
Number four, is the trainer up to scratch just now? Has he been winning races recently? Is his stable in form? The slightest shadow on a yard, maybe a virus or something not quite right, can foul up the whole plan. Some trainers start the season slowly, so to speak, preferring to bring on their horses for later in the season, while others like to hit the ground running.
Which leads to number five, the jockey. Sometimes the booking of a jockey for a certain stable can have significant implications. It’s also true that when a jockey is riding confidently, because of recent successes, he or she is liable to ride with the flair one’s looking for. That confidence goes straight to the horse underneath.
Number six is the betting. The price shortens, the horse is fancied (in theory). The price gets bigger, maybe it’s a no-no. But reading the prices is an art form in itself, since the big bookmaking firms – Ladbrokes, Hills, Corals – will send money from their head offices to the tracks to shorten up a horse (the price) to reduce their liabilities off course, in their betting shops, which can often produce a false favourite. The other thing to remember is that the horse hasn’t got a clue what price it is. It’s just there to run its heart out.
The seventh consideration is intimated information, tips, hints, inferred intelligence. It gets a bit John Le Carre here, and I offer this salutary story.
“The horse ran like a dog with piles.”
At a disconsolate Leicester evening meeting with a lowering sky, at which my assessment of the first six indicators had gone badly wrong in every race but with one chance left in the last race, a divine light shone down on me. Standing at the bar was a famous, rightly distinguished, Newmarket trainer more familiar with Royal Ascot and Longchamps than the makeshift bar at Leicester before the last. What was he doing there?
I checked the card. He had a runner in the race, a beautifully-bred but so far unproven three-year-old, trading generally at 5/1. I had stumbled on a coup and piled in with what was left in my pockets.
The horse ran like a dog with piles. Later, in the gloaming of the car park, bereft and bewildered and trying to hitch a lift home, I saw the trainer’s immaculate Bentley sweep out of the gates with somebody else’s wife, a noted beauty, in the passenger seat. I had misread the runes.●