The history of flat racing fascinates me more than, for instance, what will win this year’s 2,000 Guineas or whether one of John Gosden’s exceptionally nice 3-year-olds will give him a Derby success to add to Golden Horn’s.
It has to be said that the history of steeplechasing goes back no more than a hundred years or more, with the Grand National dominating the racing landscape to far greater effect into the 1920’s or 30’s than even today. The flat, though, has a history that goes back to the late 1600’s, with the sport flourishing, thanks in part to its royal patronage, alongside its notoriety in the 1700’s. Unfortunately horse racing has throughout its history been coupled with skulduggery, with coup and scandal its almost constant companion, with not even the Epsom Derby excluded from controversy as on more than one occasion a 4-year-old has substituted for a 3-year-old.
But it is the seemingly small scandals that tell the greatest and most worrying stories because it is there where we might see reflections of corruption that might still exist. Jockeys, you see, though they are sportsmen (and sportswomen, of course) and dedicated to a job that is also their life, are human, too, with families to house and feed, and bills to pay. It must cost the journeyman jockey the cost of a single ride, and for those making their way in the sport a single ride a day is perhaps all they have to look forward to, just to fill his car with fuel to drive to the racecourse. So who can truly blame a jockey when he falls to temptation and ‘pulls’ a horse on the instruction of an owner or trainer. I do not condone, and do not fully understand, yet I appreciate the need to keep a roof over the head of loved-ones and to bring home jam occasionally rather than the usual margarine.
In the autumn of 1928, to give an example of wrongdoing in the history of our sport, Charlie Smirke, a jockey who later was to win the Derby 4 times, was summoned to Cavendish Square to explain his riding of Welcome Gift in the 2-year-old Home-Bred Plate at Gatwick. Incidentally I wonder how many runners a Home-Bred plate would attract nowadays. Of course over the passage of time the lines between who was the true wrongdoer and who the victim have blurred.
Smirke, as with many jockeys of his day, came from a very poor background and before becoming a jockey had been a boxer. He was many social rungs in the ladder below those who were his accusers and judges.
Even forty years after the Gatwick incident he professed his innocence, claiming his mount was unruly at the start and beginning to become unruly at home and that he missed the start due to the starter triggering the rising of the barrier before he had chance to straighten up the horse and have him in line with the others.
His warning off, I suspect, had more to do with his reputation, and the reputation of jockeys in general, for betting on the horses they rode than for instigating Welcome Gift’s refusal to start. He was warned off indefinitely, a harsh penalty for the authorities to impose as a warning to others.
According to Smirke even jockeys at the top of their profession regularly bet. He claimed in his autobiography ‘Finishing Post’ that Steve Donoghue was in debt at one time to a bookmaker to the tune of £10,000 and that jockeys of repute like Brownie Carslake and Michael Beary were also never out of debt to the bookies.
The hope is of course that the situation prevalent in Smirke’s era is not present today. In his day even the top jockeys needed, seemingly, to earn extra income through betting, whereas today I suspect the top jockeys earn the small fortunes that drives off the need to risk careers by association with bookmakers. Yet the journeyman remains, the family man in need of both following his dream and attempting to keep a roof over the heads of his family. The temptation to break the rules when opportunity demands must be crippling at times.
In Smirke’s era, especially at the time of the Home-Bred Plate, jockeys remained little more than servants, with racing ruled by members of an aristocracy well used to putting ‘inferiors’ in their place, and the sentence imposed on Smirke to teach others a lesson hardly put an end to jockeys ‘pulling’ horses or even betting.
I remain convinced that more could be done to help financially those at the lower end of racing’s pay scale. I accept that initiatives to increase the pay and public awareness of the role of stable staff are largely effective and that many of those holding jockey licences benefit from also being employed in racing yards. Yet shouldn’t there be a stairway to greater achievement for the men and women of talent in the racing industry? Not everyone can rise to head-lad or assistant trainer. More and more it seems to me those making it as jockeys are the sons and daughters or nieces and nephews of men and women of influence in the sport. This may reflect other walks of life but that doesn’t make it either fair or a useful tool for encouraging an uncorrupted sport.
Riding horses is a continued learning school, with many riders only becoming truly proficient in their mid-twenties, in many instances too late to think of becoming jockeys. Why is there no initiative to have ‘stable staff’ races and races limited to jockeys who have only ridden less than 5, 10, 15 or so winners? As one supermarket tells it ‘Every little helps’.
Keith Knight is a workaday writer of fiction, worker in the real world but foremost a horse racing fanatic. The joy of the sport is the horse - all horses.