Some Horse Sentiments
Each year Francis Nelson judges millions of dollars' worth of racing horseflesh
JAMES A. COWAN
AN OLD man driving an old roan mare along a back lane never did rate as a very sensational sight. In this particular case, the old mare's name was Nell,
the old man’s name doesn’t matter, and there was no reason why anyone should pay any special attention to them.
Taken by and large, they were a bit unusual, but not unique enough to be startling. The rig was a rattling phaeton—a cross between a democrat and a lady’s town carriage—with a moth-eaten canopy and four protesting
wheels. The old man’s hands were gnarled and his moustache was mournful, but he rode with his feet on the dashboard and the air of a visiting politician.
He and the mare jolted off the lane, through a gap in the split-rail fence, and out into a field where two teams were inaugurating the fall season of ploughing.
“Nell,” said the veteran, climbing laboriously out and walking up to the mare’s nose,
“take a last look at the track before they plough ’er under.”
For, there in the shade of a row of tall and darkly solemn spruce, was the outline of what must have been a course for racing It skirted the edges of the field in a weird half-oval, halfcircular way. Quite evidently, it had never been much of a track and it was a very great deal less than that at the moment.
But Nell and the old man seemed to have made up their minds. He climbed back to his seat and the pair of them jogged slowly around it.
Now this whole performance was trivial and completely unimportant and, alter thinking it over, it seems rather too bad that it was mentioned, because the old man was an Ontario farmer and this little ceremony of his has more than a touch of the sentimental and as everyone knows perfectly well, Ontario farmers are not sentimental.
Nevertheless, this rutty bit of track had been his own and many a fine young colt had been hustled around it under his watchful eye.
His trotters had click-clacked over it and the pounding of four smart hoofs on the dirt and dus« was as sweet music to him as any robin’s in the spring. He had been one of those picturesque local rural celebrities—a sporting farmer. True, most of his efforts had been concentrated on the hobbled pacers and the fall fairs of the surrounding seven townships, but bis colors had also been seen once or twice, or more, at the big meets. He had earned the right to be rated among the horse-breeding aristocracy.
His racing days were over. His silks, years before, had been preserved, in a sort of a way, as a patchwork quilt but, from long habit, he still gave the harness an occasional once-over and rubbed it here and there with saddle soap for no reason at all. Since it had now become
necessary to consecrate his old dirt path to Flint corn, not even the rankest anti-sentimentalist dare argue that he wasn’t entitled to a farewell gesture.
If stage favorites and operatic wonders can make a dozen formal, impressive, financially-successful, positively-last appearances, surely a grizzled and weatherbeaten horseman with his aged mare, even though she achieved honor as a mother rather than a racer, can have the thrill of one small private adieu. Particularly so, since it can be considered as signifying, not only the end of one man’s turf career but the passing of a class.
Introducing Racing’s Grand Mogul
HAVE seen the last,” says Francis Nelson,
' » “of the sporting farmer.”
Francis Nelson should know. He is Canada’s most famous race official. He sits in judgment each year on millions of dollars’ worth of racing horseflesh, streaming past the posts on the leading tracks of the North American continent. He presides over meets in Mexico, varied sections of U.S.A. and in Canada. For seven years, he has officiated at the running of what is now the world’s richest race, the Coffroth Handicap at Tia Juana—a great honor and a ticklish responsibility. A million and a quarter dollars in prize-money, more than is offered at any other race-meet on earth, was distributed at Tia
Juana last winter and Francis Nelson, at that meet, was the supreme authority.
But he has done exactly the same duties, done them just as painstakingly and weighed his decisions with the same care, at mrets where the owners didn’t care if there were any purses at all.
To the pint-size jockey, the millionaire owner, the black-face stable-boy and the man who merely looks on, his word on the tracks carries the weight of law, not only because of his official position, not only because he is publicly rated as one of America’s greatest turf judges, but because it is known that he considers himself to be serving, not some club or association, but the man who pays at the gate. As a racing official, it was never his view that his duty was anything other than to hold the scales of justice and discipline evenly balanced.
Though he acts for jockey clubs thousands of miles apart, he has never, either directly or indirectly, applied for a solitary one of the many positions he has filled. In every single case, he has gone only at the unsolicited request of the organizations concerned.
Cramming it all into one sentence, Francis Nelson is a Canadian whose word is as good as his bond in any country in the world, including the Scandinavian.
“In the old days,” said Mr. Nelson, as he discussed the passing of the sporting farmer, “he was the backbone of Canadian racing. He may have had only one horse, but he was born with the fever in his blood. He groomed his racing hope from the time it was an awkward colt till the great moment came and he sent it to the post, carrying
his colors, perhaps with a neighbor’s boy or a lad from his own farm, as the jockey.
“As the years slipped by, and the value of the purses multiplied, racing became a specialized science. Trainers had to be experts, devoting themse ves to nothing else. The cost of indulging in the sport naturally increased with the size of the stakes to be won. With the farmer, it was a hobby, even though it was bred in his bones He found it impossible to compete with the big stables He hadn’t the money. He hadn’t the time. He hadn’t
the specialized knowledge. So he has disappeared.”
Francis Nelson knows horses as well as he knows races, since his connection with the latter is due to his love of the former—and this is not at all the obvious statement which it may seem to be.
For there are those to whom a race is a mere test of speed and a more thrilling gamble than poker. They are attracted because the movement, the color, the thrill of the odds and the natural fever that any crowd generates fans their interest into excitement. But as the horses sweep into the stretch, the thing which counts, for them, is the order in which they’re running, not the magnificent picture of straining thoroughbreds that they make. The race means nothing but the result of the race The horses are puppets with labels.
Others see the horses. When you have considered all that that means, no further explanation is needed.
Master of Arts—And Sports
A MONG those who learned about horses first and races later, is Francis Nelson Peculiarly enough, he made his acquaintance with the thoroughbred at the stables of one of the past generation of farmers, whose disappearance he now notes. This was when he was a boy in Hamilton, Ontario. That early tutoring must have been complete. He never forgot it.
As a lad, he prepared himsëlf for the study of medicine but just as he was about to enter university, decided against it and went into arts instead. So it happened that, after leaving college and serving several years in various journalistic capacities, he was entitled, when he took his place as sporting editor of the Toronto Globe, to write an M.A. after his name, though it was never his style to do so.
It was as a sporting editor that he first became internationally known. At least, his work became internationally known, for he never pushed himself into the foreground. For thirty years, he was in charge of the dole’s comments on athletics and only twice in that time was his name signed to any of the stories he wrote.
His connection with sport was not confined
to the pages of a newspaper. He was a participant, an official and a legislator in a wide range of activities. As captain of Hamilton’s Nautilus Rowing Club in 1885, he took to Boston the first Canadian four-oared crew that ever won the championship of the continent.
He was one of the founders of the Amateur Athletic Union of Canada, in its present form, and was long one of its governors. He was the first president of the Ontario Athletic Commission. He was President of the Ontario Speed Skating Association, President of the Toronto Football League, Secretary of the Regatta Committee of the Canadian Association of Amateur Oarsmen and, until a year ago, was the only life member of the Ontario Hockey Association. He has held most of the offices of the Canadian Lacrosse Association and was on the lacrosse committee during the London Olympic Games. He was secretary of the Canadian Baseball League when Hamilton had two teams and Toronto was hard put to it to support one.
As a participant, he was equally at home on water, land or ice. He went at everything whole-heartedly and energetically. He still does for that matter. To-day, he still goes upstairs two steps at a time.
Because of his firm belief in its power to build up health, strength and character, he worked strenuously at sport of all kinds and for sport of all kinds, outdoors and
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Some Horse Sentiments
Continued, from page 7
in the committee room. Lacrosse and hockey, as team games involving actual physical contact between players, receive his strongest support, since he held that they were best calculated to teach the spirit of all for one and one for all.
His column, “Jack at Play,” in his newspaper days, always carried as a standing motto, the gospel of amateurism in a nutshell:
“Not the laurel but the race,
Not the quarry but the chase,
Not the hazard but the play,
Let me, Lord, enjoy alway.”
He preached on the sport pages the doctrine of the game for itself, but he always had a place and an estimable one, too, for the professional side of sporting skill.
O ACING, in the earlier part of his career, was somewhat happy-go lucky. Take, for instance, the difference between the Woodbine meets of that time and their present day splendor.
Woodbine, home of the Ontario Jockey Club, lying on the eastern edge of Toronto, is one of Canada’s most celebrated tracks. There, each spring, the blue ribbon event of the Canadian turf, the King’s Plate, is run. To the winning owner, go King George’s personal congratulations, the trophy and the royal fifty guineas, not to mention the thousands added by the jockey club. It is the burning ambition of every horseman in Canada to carry off the honors once and, having succeeded, to do it again.
Fifteen to twenty-five thousand people crowd the lawns each afternoon of the spring and fall meetings. It is a gloriously fashionable thing to be among those present, whether you are a íeder; 1 cabinet minister or the wife of a meter inspector. There are acres of lawn as green as any shamrock and smooth as the patter of an oil-stock salesman and, as a background, the lake, which is invariably beautiful and almost always blue. The cause of it all, the horses, picked from among the continent’s best stables and brought to the track in special cars, are attended by black and white acolytes with all the care that is bestowed on the sacred cows of India. All this, in addition to he pulsestirring thrills of the actual races and all of it, from the stabling of the racers to the keeping down of the dust, handled with
the smoothness and efficiency of a stage butler. Truly an exhilarating, a magnificent and a splendid event but, just the same, quite different from what is used to be only a few years before.
“In the days when the King’s Plate was the Queen’s Plate, when the winning of it brought the fifty guineas but no part of the ten thousand which had not yet been added,” says Mr. Nelson, “the Woodbine was not so gorgeous on the day of the great race. The City of Toronto had not then crept out and hemmed in the track with residential subdivisions. We would start for the course in the morning, by street car as far as the street cars would take us—which was no great distance — and then on foot.
“There might only be a hundred horses entered altogether, with most of them coming from farms and stables round about. Along the road to the track were a number of small hotels, each one with its shed-like accommodation for visiting animals. The owners, the trainers and the jockeys would be stopping at the hotels, and each group would have its racing string, which sometimes consisted of a solitary entry, stabled in the hotel stalls. We would call on all of them, look over the horses and discuss their possible performances during the coming afternoon. We usually managed to arrange it so that we arrived at one particular stop for our dinner—dinner, not lunch—for, in honor of the occasion, the proprietor and his help would nearly swamp the guests with food. After each man had done all that any human being could expect to accomplish in the way of eating, he would be charged the staggering sum of twentyfive cents apiece for the meal.
“We would reach the track with plenty of time to spare, size up some more horses and then enjoy a fine afternoon’s racing. At the end of the day, we got home as best we could. There was none of this jumping into a taxi and landing at your hotel fifteen minutes later.”
PURELY from the point of picturesque-
ness, however, the Woodbine failed to surpass a series of little-known meets held at Quebec.
“They were staged on the Plains of Abraham,” Mr. Nelson relates. “This alone was enough to make them unusual -—a batch of ponies matched against each
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other on the spot where Wolfe and Montcalm had decided the country’s future. It was almost flattery to call the track a track, and the horses were nothing to speak of, but a meet there was a stirring affair all the same. It practically amounted to running races in an open field.
“The meet would begin on a Thursday afternoon. It was all magnificently informal. A horse might win a race, enter another one an hour or two later and win again. There was nothing remarkable about a horse being a double winner in an afternoon.
“Friday afternoon, there would be no racing. Everyone would go to Ste. Anne de Eeaupre. But on Saturday they’d all be back again and it might even happen that the horse which had won twice on the first day would repeat the trick on the last. On Saturday night, the officers of the jockey club would gather on Dufferin Terrace, just outside the Chateau, and distribute the purses. Not only was Dufferin Terrace the scene of these concluding ceremonies after each meet but it did duty as the office and general headquarters of the association. Those of us who had come down to act as officials did it for thefun of the thing. ■ No one received a cent for his services.”
This regular convocation of enthusiasts on Canada’s historic battleground, ranks as one of the unique institutions in the annals of the sport. Of course, if one takes racing in general, there are no lack of weird, freak happenings and peculiar matches, including, among others, the much-mentioned contest between the hare and the tortoise. Francis Nelson has confined his experiences—and therefore confines his anecdotes—to organized racing. He believes that an instinctive affection for a fine horse is a comparatively common quality in the members of the human race and that racing, therefore, is destined to be an almost everlasting and practically universal pastime, but he also holds that, to keep it what it should be, the discipline of a series of powerful governing bodies is necessary. His interest, therefore, in anyone’s attempt to make racing into a series of semi-circus stunts is net noticeable.
He mentioned one incident which makes a very enlightening definition of the term ‘organized racing.’ Fie produced a letter with a foreign post-mark.
“This,” he explained, “is from a young jockey, now in Rumania, who went there in the hopes of riding at the races in Bucharest. He writes that the Bucharest Jockey Club refuses to grant him a license unless he produces clearance papers from the track where he had his last mounts. He wants me to give him a clean bill of health, so to speak. As I don’t care, for very good reasons, to have this particular boy riding at Canadian tracks where I am officiating, I can’t do it. Consequently, he will not be able to ride in Europe, or on any good track for that matter, unless he has been reinstated here.
“Look at any race track crowd and you see one of the most peaceful assemblages of sport-lovers on earth. Whether it is Canadian, English, American or continental does not matter greatly. The gatherings differ slightly, according to the varied temperaments of the different nationalities, but, invariably, they are orderly to the last degree. There are no shouts of ‘Kill the Jockey.’ There are no battles among the spectators in the stands. Frenzied fans do not throw pop bottles at the judges. As the horses cross the finishing line, you hear no one shrieking denunciations at the top of his lungs or loudly berating owners, trainers or jockeys who have been responsible for the defeat of his choice. Yet, due to the fact that it is concentrated in the few minutes that the horses are flashing around the track, the excitement has an intensity seen nowhere else and whole fortunes may be risked on the result. But jockey clubs are never worried about keeping their
crowds in order. They know that problem will look after itself.”
I mentioned the fact that the famous old sporting farmer was dying out,” Mr. Nelson said, discussing this angle of the game. “There is no doubt that he is doomed, but his place is rapidly being taken by a new type of rural horse-lover, not so spectacular and picturesque a personage, but one, nevertheless, who will finally build up a worldwide reputation for Canadian thoroughbreds. He, too, is a farmer.
“Realizing this, the Canadian Racing Association, some time ago, put into force a ruling by which five per cent, of all purses, won by a Canadian-bred horse on tracks under the association’s jurisdiction, went to the horse’s original owner.
“A farmer may have in his stable a beautifully-built young colt which has all the ear-marks of a coming turf champion. He cannot himself undertake to train it for the track nor to bear che cost of racing it. So he sells it to someone who can. When that horse faces the barrier, it does not, to be sure, carry his colors but it is partly his just the same. As long as it races, onetwentieth of all its winnings on C.R.A. tracks is his.
“At Oakville, Ontario, for instance, Hugh Wilson, a well-known owner, bought a fine young animal from his neighbors, the Bader brothers. It was put into training and developed so speedily that Wilson entered it in the King’s Plate at Woodbine. It went to the post with the odds nearly one hundred to one against it— and won. The horse, as everyone knows, was Maternal Pride, but not so many fans are aware of the fact that a part of that horse’s winnings goes to the Oakville men who raised it.
“King’s George’s recent gift of his horse, Ameer, to the Dominion’s breeders received the wide notice it deserved. It was his personal contribution to the effort for improved Canadian thoroughbreds, and it has brought results. Through the Canadian Racing Association, a dozen similar gifts have also been made and farmers have been quick to take advantage of these encouragements.
“The successor to the sporting farmer has been the outcome. His stable may consist of only one mare, but she is picked with the care of a connoisseur and no prize-winning blue-ribbon beauty receives more attention.
“Usually, her colts are sold before they are broken in, with no attempt being made to train them on the farm where they are born.
“Since this kind of farmer is raising superb young horses, sons and daughters of famous sires, he can command a price which makes the undertaking well worth his while. Not only are racing owners continually on the look-out, but the constant demand for promising young hunters, jumpers and riding horses is now greater than the available supply. It was, for example, next to impossible, a few years ago, to secure anywhere in the country the well-groomed mounts required for police service in the larger Canadian cities. The farmer has no cause to worry about a market for his horses. Once he establishes himself, he is sure to find a group of buyers competing against each other and there is seemingly no limit to the price which may be paid for a good thoroughbred.”
Long before he became an internationally known newspaperman or even before he was rated as one of the shrewdest and most far-seeing of the Dominion’s organizers of athletics, Mr. Nelson received some sage and fatherly advice which he decided to make his rule of conduct to which there could be no exception.
It was given to him under impressive circumstances. He was about to judge his first race and his counsellor was the aged president of the Hamilton Jockey Club. It was in Hamilton that he made his first appearance as an arbiter.
“My boy,” he as told, “you are about to undertake a task which is noted for its
many and great responsibilities. The property, the careers, the very bread and butter of a great many persons will be in your hands. Whole fortunes will depend on the decisions you make. Therefore, when you see something happen under your very eyes: when you have watched so carefully that not the most minute detail can have escaped you, when there is not a shred of doubt in your own mind and you are thoroughly confident that there is not the faintest possibility of even the slightest mistake, when you have done all these things-—as you always
should—then, wait a bit. Wait a bit before you say anything.”
Mr. Nelson has tested out this suggestion on ten thousand different occasions and in all parts of the continent. In every decision he has acted according to it and he has found it infallible.
“It is a formula,” said a friend of his once, “which is most excellent from any given number of points of view, and it may profitably be applied to almost any aspect of this our life on earth, including among other things, our very best friends and also the stock markets.”