Straight from the Horse’s Mouth
W. DONALDSON SMITH
IT WAS at Brighouse Park on Lulu Island, Vancouver, that George met Kentucky Joe. George, from all accounts, had been having rather a bad day, and accordingly Kentucky’s expansive grin did not bring any appreciable response.
But Kentucky’s success in his chosen profession lies mainly in his ability to “get around” tough prospects. George didn’t know that then. He has learned a lot since.
“Hosses been runnin’ too slow, boss?” Kentucky enquired solicitously. George grunted something and started to look over the card for the next race. Chuckling, the colored gentleman took the race card from him and pointed with a long finger to the name of a certain horse.
“Boss, if yo’ wants catfish fo’ supper, jest plank yo’ money down on Purple Sage in this next spasm.”
“Why Purple Sage?” George enquired, wishing he could get away from his self-appointed adviser without hurting his feelings. The amiable grin made it impossible to be snappy.
“I knows de owner of dat mare, boss.” Kentucky Joe put his thick lips close to George’s sensitive ear. “Boss, they’re a-goin’ to make a clean-up today. If yo’ has any money left, buy a ticket an’ don’t tell no one.”
George was impressed by the whispering sincerity of the gentleman from the South.
“What do you get out of it?” he asked.
“Jest the odds to a couple o’ bucks, boss — mare wins.”
George had $10 left, representing the fare back to Victoria. He took one look at Kentucky’s flashing teeth, and felt instinctively that he would be borrowing his fare before the day was over.
“The mare’ll pay twenties to yo’ money, boss,” came the insidious whisper.
George hesitated, then suddenly went down the steps of the grandstand and bought a $10 ticket on Purple Sage, straight win. He turned away from the wicket to find Kentucky standing happily behind him.
“Odds to two bucks, boss?”
“Yeh. And heaven help you if she loses.”
“She’ll not lose. Thanks a lot, boss.”
George was turning away when he felt the negro’s hand stroke his back. George swung around.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
“Pattin’ yo’ fo’ luck, boss.” A black finger was laid significantly across thick lips. “It never fails, boss. Trust Kentucky Joe.”
Feeling himself to be the biggest fool in the world for throwing his last ten dollars away in such fashion, George climbed dismally to the top of the grandstand. Five minutes later he was watching Purple Sage win the race by a neck.
George went down to collect $200. Kentucky Joe was waiting for him at the wicket, almost dancing in his excitement.
“What did Ah tell yo’, boss; what did Ah tell yo’! He, he!”
George collected the money and counted out $40 into the black’s trembling hand.
“Thanks a lot, boss.” Next moment Joe had darted away and was lost in the crowd. George, feeling a new man, went blithely back to the stand.
In front of him a fat man was laboriously climbing the steps. He was wearing an expensive nap overcoat, but, more noticeable than the overcoat, was a pink chalk mark between his shoulder blades.
George, wondering how the mark got there, noticed another chalk mark—blue this time—on another man’s back. Also a yellow one on someone else’s, and a purple one on another’s.
George sat still, trying to figure out this peculiar phenomenon, and then he recollected the “good luck stroke” of Kentucky Joe. He turned to the man next to him.
“Can you tell me if there’s a chalk mark on my back?” He turned around.
The man nodded. “Sure. A white one. Shall I brush it off?”
“Er—no. Just leave it there until I think this out,” said George and started to ponder.
Rackets and Systems
KENTUCKY JOE’S racket is only one of countless schemes practised by sharp-witted gentlemen on the racetracks of Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific. And these schemes and these schemers are in turn only one small
sideline in that strange world wherein is carried on the Sport of Kings.
Kentucky Joe’s particular racket is one of the smartest devised by the quick-witted gentlemen. The racket consists, briefly, of persuading a sufficient number of people to bet on a sufficient number of horses in each race so that, whichever horse wins, the self-appointed adviser can collect.
The problem is to remember which people have been told to bet on the particular horses, hence the chalk marks. Green for one horse, pink for another, yellow for another, and so on right down the card.
With, say, twelve different people betting on twelve different horses in a race, and each one of those people more than willing to give the “adviser” a share of the proceeds should his horse win, the racketeer is, to use the vernacular, “sitting pretty” while the horses are careering around the track. Whichever wins, he collects. This is probably the nearest approach to “something for nothing” yet formulated.
It was at Brighouse, too, that I met The System Player. I put him in capital letters because he was a walking encyclopedia on that fascinating subject. When I met him, he was playing what he termed “The First Favorite System—Play On Four Losers.”
It was a simple system and it sounded reasonable; so reasonable that I risked a couple of dollars on it.
“The idea is this,” he explained. “You wait until the first favorite has lost four successive times, then you bet on it winning the next race. If it wins, you finish for the day. If it loses, you double your stake on the favorite in the sixth race. If it loses again, you double on the seventh. If the seventh, you double on the last race of the day.”
“And if the favorite loses all eight races of the day?” I asked interestedly.
“That rarely happens.” He pulled out a thick notebook filled with a complicated mass of figures. “The records show that the favorite wins about thirty per cent of the races. That means a winner in every three races. I f you wait until four races have gone by without the favorite turning up, the law of averages says that you won’t have much longer to wait. So you start betting on the favorite.”
It sounded so logical and reasonable that I risked $5 in the fifth race. The favorite lost and I lost my $5.
“Now you bet ten dollars on the favorite in the sixth.”
I hesitated, then thought to myself that the favorite must win before long. I risked the $10. The favorite won in a canter and I got $25 back for my $10—profit, including the
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$5 which I had lost on the previous race, $10.
“The favorite’s won, so I pack up for the day,” the System Player informed me and went home.
What is the catch? The catch lies in the fallacy of the law of averages. You cannot rely on the favorite winning once in three races. You cannot rely on it winning once in six—or in a dozen, for that matter.
The system may Work excellently for a number of days, and then a day will come when the favorite fails to win in eight races. Not often does that happen, but it happens just often enough to eat up all the profit on the winning days, and a little or a lot more in addition.
You Can’t Win
THEREIN lies the fatal weakness of all systems based on the law of averages. As the System Player said, the records show that about thirty per cent of favorites win. But those records are based on extended periods of time. There may, for instance, be a run of twelve losing favorites one month and enough winners the next to restore the average. But a run of losers knocks out the system if you’re doubling the stakes after a loss—unless you have an enormous “bank.” There is an interesting story told of a system player on one of the Winnipeg tracks who went out to win $5 per day on the favorite. Just one favorite had to win to earn him his $5 profit, and if it didn’t turn up one day he went out for $10 the next.
The system worked excellently all through the season. Day after day the system player won his $5—until the last week.
Then, as often happens in the last few days, the favorites had a bad run of luck. The system player failed to win his $5 one day. He started on the first race next day with a loss of $265 on the previous day to make up, the previous day’s $5 still to win, and the $5 of the day in question - $275 to be won on the first race.
The favorite stood at even money. That meant investing $275 to follow out the system. The player set his teeth and put the money down. The favorite lost. He was faced with the prospect of laying down sufficient in the next race to recover that $275, plus the $265 lost the previous day, plus $10-$550 to be won on the second race of the day.
He’d won consistently day after day with the system all through the season. He prepared to see it out to the bitter end.
There was a “racing certainty” in the second race of the day. The approximateodds board showed a price of one to three, which meant that he must invest $1,650 on the race—all for the sake of winning $5 per day.
The price of the favorite solved automatically the greatest financial and economic crisis of his life. He hadn’t the $1,650 to lay down. He had to watch the race without making a bet. The racing certainty won.
Whether there is an infallible racing system, is—like that other burning question, the infallible roulette system—a much debated point. The two questions are hardly comparable, because roulette is 100 per cent chance, while racing is not quite that.
The question will probably never be settled, because if an infallible system was discovered and published it would immediately become useless from everyone employing it. So if there are infallible systems, or nearly infallible systems, it stands to reason that secrecy is a vital ingredient in them. There are men who make consistently good livings out of racing, but those men will tell you they could have made more money easier in other walks of life and probably they are right.
If the amateur dabbles financially in what is one of the most complicated and intricate businesses in existence, then the amateur must be prepared to pay for his fun. That is why ninety per cent of casual racegoers lose money at the tracks. If they
tackled their everyday job in the same careless spirit as they tackle the job of picking winners on a Saturday afternoon, they would meet the same fate at their everyday job.
'■"PHERE IS in this world of racing all the
pathos and drama and uncertainty which go to make up life itself. The average racegoer, out for an afternoon’s pleasure, touches only the surface of it. He hears the bugle blow and sees the color flash in the sunlight, hears the pounding hoofs, wins or loses his $2 bet, watches the winning jockey weigh in.
That is drama. But behind all that is a greater drama—the drama of life as it is lived by an army of camp followers—touts, grooms, stable boys, valets, cooks, crooks, detectives, and a score of other divers occupations, professions and rackets.
The “horsemen,” to use the general term, are the gypsies of the modem world. Racing in Canada is confined to comparatively few days at each track. This means a constant shifting from one track to another. In the East there is the Ontario circuit; on the prairies the trek is between Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton, and on the Pacific Coast between Vancouver and Victoria, with seasonal migrations south of the border to the tracks in Washington and California.
The horseman’s day begins somewhere around six in the morning with “workouts.” Sometimes, if a horse has become a “bad actor” at the starting gate, he is compelled to practise starting under the eye of the official starter for a certain period each morning. No owner likes to see his horse’s name on the "schooling” list. It means arduous, monotonous work until the horse becomes accustomed to the modem stall gate.
After morning work, there is breakfast for man and horse; then an off time until the afternoon’s racing begins.
What do the horsemen do in the off time? That depends on the individual, but cards and dice play a big part in whiling away the morning hours.
The “camp followers” on most of the circuits consist mainly of colored boys from Kentucky and the Southern States. If you go around the barns any warm morning, you will find them sitting around tables with the cards or lying along the ground shooting dice. They will be very talkative and grin very widely until you begin to talk about the afternoon’s racing. They will continue to grin widely then, but they become strangely reticent. One of the first qualifications of a good boy is that he should be able to keep a still tongue in his head where the horses are concerned.
The area around the bams has the appearance of an encampment—boys or their wives peeling potatoes, washings hanging on stable doors to dry, boys darning socks, boys strumming banjoes, boys whistling plantation melodies; and, looking on the scene with absorbed interest, a long line of equine heads poked over stable doors.
Chrysanthemum came from Georgia. You couldn’t mention a track of any importance in the United States or in Canada which hadn’t seen his grinning ebony face. Pimlico, Louisville, Saratoga, Latonia, Miami, Agua Caliente, Tanforan, Brighouse, Lansdowne, Col wood, Whittier, Victoria Park, Blue Bonnets, Woodbine—if any man in Canada has done more travelling than Chrysanthemum during his sixty years he’s been going some.
“Yah, boss; here today an’ gone tomorrow. Ah’s bin travellin’ now for fifty years, an’ Ah guess Ah’ll jest keep on a-travellin’ for another twenty.”
That perhaps is the tragedy of the confirmed horseman. There is little money in the profession, or whatever you like to call it, and in the end it always comes down to the same thing—just hanging on with the
troupe, doing the cooking or the washing or even the strumming of the banjo, for the sake of three meals a day and the privilege of riding on to the next place in a horse box.
Life of a Jockey
IF YOU talk to the hoys who are in their 'teens you will find that, white and colored, they have but one ambition —to become jockeys. The fact that only one in 1,000 of them ever reaches that much desired state is no more a deterrent to their ambitions than is the slight chance of winning to the buyer of a sweep ticket.
Take, for example, those jockeys heeling around the bend. Unless they reach the “big time” they will be lucky if they earn on the average as much as a clerk sitting on an office stool.
Every time the timekeeper’s flag drops, they take their lives in their hands. True, they wear crash helmets underneath the multicolored caps, but one slip, a fallen horse, and they are on the ground with flying hoofs hitting the ground on all sides of them.
That more jockeys are not killed is due to one peculiar tact: a horse, even while travelling at forty miles per hour, will instinctively make every effort to avoid stepping on a human being. I lundreds of jockeys owe their lives to that instinct of the horse. When a jockey falls in front of the field, the jockeys behind can do nothing. In fact an attempt to guide one s horse is likely to end in disaster, because the horse instinctively and instantly decides on its method of avoiding the fallen jockey and if its rider decides on another method—if. for instance, the horse heels to the left and the rider pulls to the right—well, it is curtains for the fallen man or boy.
Aside lrom that, theirs is a precarious existence because the scale of weights in North America bars all but human phenomena who possess exceptional strength with the weight of a midget. 1 lave you ever seen a jockey eat a square meal? The greatest jockey of all time, Fred Archer, committed suicide in a fit of depression caused primarily by excessive wasting, and the spectre that stalked Fred Archer still stalks every jockey today.
The natural result of the selective forces at work is that when a youngster fulfills the hundred and one requirements, and shows in addition a flash of that intangible something which enables the man on the back of a flying horse to judge the pace to a fraction of a second, then that youngster is soon found in the “big time.”
Canada has sent quite a few stars into the big money south of the line. Hank Mills created a sensation a year or two back when he went from Vancouver right into the top class. But to get into the big time is. in the case of a jockey, rather easier if anything than to succeed in staying there for any appreciable space of time. The boys grow up and they put on weight.
And at the end of it all? Well, like the prize fighters, the stars of yesterday’s race riding are apt to be found hanging around the saloons or travelling the circuits with the miscellany of camp followers.
“You Travel F'ast in this Game’’
I MET a jockey who has ridden hundreds of winners in his time, at Brighouse Park. Vancouver, last year. He had come up the stretch twice at Louisville to the roar of a Kentucky crowd to win the glamorous Derby of the Blue Grass. He had flashed past the jx>st in Florida in the winter and in Montreal in the summer. His name had been in the headlines. The crowds had nudged one another and muttered “There’s —” when he came on to the track at the sound of the bugle. When I s[x>ke to him, he was washing dishes for a meal ticket.
“What beats us? Oh, we just wander along. When you’re riding winners you don’t think about the future; when you’re riding losers you’re too worried to care about tomorrow.
“Sure, it’s a funny life; funniest on earth. At one time I had twenty-five grand. Enough to have kept me out of this. I didn’t
think about that then. It just went. Stopped riding winners. Owners stopped competing for me. Less money when I won a race, less money when I lost one.
“You travel fast in this game. If you win a few races, owners start coming to you when they’ve got a horse ready and are particularly keen to win. The result is that you begin to get the pick of the mounts. Naturally you ride more and more winners, and the more winners you ride the better chance you get to ride winners—and so it goes until you lose on one or two horses which the owners swear should have won.
“Then the reverse process starts. You begin to get only second-class mounts offered to you. Naturally you ride fewer winners: even if you’re riding better than ever. They begin to say ‘So and So’s done; had his day!’ Then you’re about finished. The only mounts you get are horses which are out for exercise or to deceive the handicapper. When you get to that stage, it’s curtains.”
There is no more pathetic figure in racing than the veteran jockey who hangs miser-
ably around the track in the hope that some owner will shut his eyes to the handicap of age and give him a mount. And that is the fate which awaits the great majority of the race riders. A few of them reach that Promised Land of a trainer's job. For every one who does land such a job, a hundred must go without. And there’s not much left.
Many times you hear the question asked. “Why doesn’t So-and-so retire before he becomes a has-been?” I asked that question of one of the leading riders on the Pacific j Coast a few years ago. while he was at the peak of his riding ability and fame. He looked at me and said :
“What am I going to live on—what is my wife going to live on—thin air?” He was being borne along helpless on the tide of economic necessity—and the tide, as he knew himself, was about to turn. Now he is part of that flotsam and jetsam which con| gregates outside the entrance to race tracks, selling tips or racing forms or sweep tickets. ;
Pathetic? Yes. But Pathos, as well as I Glamor, is always entered in the Horsemen’s Sweepstakes.