Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Turf reminiscences - I

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[Our readers may rely on the authenticity of the following narratives, though for the real names of the actors imaginary names have been substituted.—Ed. O. a W.]


Within these twenty years there lived a celebrated jockey whom we will call Philip Spott, better known as Phil Spott: he was closely related to an equally celebrated trainer in the north of England, in the management of whose very large establishment he was intimately concerned. Though a first-rate performer in the racing saddle, our hero was not considered by the learned in these matters as being quite at the top of the tree in his profession, though in my opinion he was bad to beat, and more especially difficult to defeat was the combined talent of his relative as the trainer and Phil as the jockey.

This firm succeeded in winning the Derby, Oaks, and St. Leger more than once, together with many other races of considerable though minor importance. But it was not merely his success as a rider for which he was remarkable, but his ready wit (of a roughish kind it is true), and his singular qualities as a tactician in his own line, combining no ordinary amount of quickness of perception and knowledge of human nature; for, to the uninitiated, be it observed, there is required an amount of tact and watchfulness beyond what they can conceive, both within and without an establishment representing so much wealth, present, proximate, and in posse, as that with which our Phil was connected, and to which he proved himself so great a support; for not only is it necessary to guard against the commission of absolute overt acts of ill-treatment towards the valuable animals under their care by the people employed about them, but to preserve inviolate and in its entirety that portion of property in which he and others were so greatly interested, and which in effect constitutes the real value of these animals, namely, a knowledge of their merits, demerits, and relative capabilities. Here, of a truth, knowledge is property, and to participate in this property,—to which they have no more right than A. has to that of B.—is the constant endeavour of a vast number of crafty and designing individuals; consequently, to hold their own, it became almost a matter of necessity to throw dust into the eyes of such persons, or, as our friend Phil facetiously termed it, “Give ’em a pinch of eye-snuff.”

The following incidents, which occurred within my own experience, are an illustration of Phil’s capacity in this respect, and are, as I think, deserving of remembrance.

In the year 18—, before the days of race-horse vans and railroads, most of the horses that were trained in this establishment in the north of England, and who were entered for the Derby and Oaks, and various other races in the south, as at Newmarket, Epsom, Ascot, and elsewhere, used to travel by easy journeys to Newmarket shortly before the first meeting of the year at that place, called the Craven meeting, where they remained during the three meetings which preceded the great events at Epsom, those horses which had engagements at Newmarket running them out during their stay there: they then again proceeded southwards to take up their quarters in the neighbourhood of Epsom to fulfil their various engagements there and at Ascot.

In those days it was quite an exceptional thing for a professional betting-man to keep a race-horse; now things are entirely altered, the greater portion of race-horse proprietors being composed of these professional gentry. But at the time of which I speak, there was a horse, which we will call Gosport, that was entered for the Derby, and trained in the stable to which I refer, and was the property of a well-known professional speculator of considerable calibre. This horse had some status in the betting market, and was tolerably supported by his owner, his friends, and the public. Also in the same stable were trained for that event several other horses, and amongst them a horse we will call Munster, of whom I shall speak hereafter.

For some time the Spotts had observed with surprise that from certain heavy and marked operations on the Turf Exchange, it was evident private information relative to their stable had found its way to quarters it had no business to have reached, and for awhile discovery eluded their vigilance. At length, judging principally from the quarter in which these betting operations were carried on, they were led to think that the lad who attended to the horse Gosport, belonging to the betting man above referred to, conveyed intelligence to his master, and they were the more confirmed in this suspicion when they came to recollect the anxiety expressed by him on the horse’s first arrival there, that this lad should always ride him in his exercise and “look after him” (as the technical term is). Accordingly this boy’s movements were, without exciting his suspicions, carefully watched, and it was discovered he was constantly writing letters, and on one of the head lads chaffing him on this literary weakness, and saying he supposed he was writing to his sweetheart, he replied, “Nay, I is only writing to moother.” Sure enough, all his letters had been directed to his “moother;” but this evidence of filial tenderness was lost upon Phil Spott, to whom, of course, this explanation was conveyed, and who (to use his own expression) said, “that tale was too lovely to wash.” So one day, by a preconcerted signal between him and one of the head lads, when the writer had just finished one of these filial epistles, and was about to wafer it, he was suddenly called away by Phil, who was in the yard waiting the signal, near the window of the boys’ common room, on some pretence, with a view to his leaving the letter in his hurry behind him. The plan answered to perfection; the head lad opened the letter directed to “moother,” when behold not a word was there written to his mother, but a letter was enclosed therein directed to his master, Mr. R——, —— Street, Manchester!

All this occurred in the North previous to the departure of the horses for Newmarket; yet not a word was said to the lad, nor the slightest sign exhibited that suspicions had been aroused respecting him. The lad found his letter quite safe where he had left it on his return to the room, and he was permitted, apparently unnoticed, to go on writing to “moother.” All this was “nuts” to the astute Phil, his suspicions being now almost wholly confined to this lad; while in order the more fully to confirm them, several ingenious little traps were laid, such as keeping a horse in the stable for a day or two, or only letting him walk for that time, or sending some Derby horse up a good strong gallop with an old one, taking care either that the young one had a good deal the best of it at the finish; or perhaps with some other Derby horse sent up a strong gallop in a similar manner, care was taken that he had the worst of it according to the result required. I need hardly add that in both such cases the redoubtable Phil bestrode the apparently beaten animal: he was much too clever a workman to trust to any one else to do such handiwork as this. Accordingly, in every instance a letter was written to “moother,” and information was duly received from Phil’s agents in London and Manchester that such horses were backed or laid against as the case might be, and that these movements in the market were always made in one and the same quarter, not by Mr. R—— himself, but by others selected by him as his agents in these operations, so as to avoid creating suspicions amongst other speculators, he being known as an adherent of this stable.

There now no longer remained a shadow of doubt, and Phil, as he graphically termed it, “had got his hand upon both cracksman and fence” (Anglicè, thief and receiver of stolen goods), but “mum” was the word as yet—not a syllable was to be uttered. He had not yet played his trump cards. “A nice hot-spiced nut I’ll bake for you, Mr. R——, and I wish you a good digestion after it;” was Phil’s observation, and how the fence relished this little delicacy, artfully cooked for him by the hand of Philip, as is about to be told, I will leave you, my readers, to imagine.

The string of horses arrived at Newmarket as usual, as above described, shortly before the Craven meeting, and during the last Newmarket race meeting preceding their departure for Epsom, the boy who looked after the horse Munster was told that neither he nor his horse would be wanted to go South, and that he was to get all his things together and be ready to start with his horse by noon on the day after to-morrow; the object in thus delaying for a time the departure of the horse, after giving the lad his order, will be presently seen. Written instructions were given him as to where he was to sleep each night, as well as directions, to the managing man at home, how the horse was to be treated on his arrival. All these minutiæ were designed to leave no doubt amongst the other lads that the horse really was not intended for the Derby, and this was almost necessary, as the announcement that his horse, who was strong in the betting, and much talked about, was not even going to start for that race, excited no little surprise in the lad’s mind, and he naturally talked with his fellow-lads, although especially cautioned not to do so; but to make quite sure that this information reached the quarter for which it was intended, these directions were so given that “our special correspondent” above referred to should overhear them, as if by accident, as well as the strict injunction of silence accompanied by threats of punishment and promises of reward, according as silence should be broken or maintained.

It will be observed that the races were then going on at Newmarket, consequently Mr. R—— was staying in the town attending to his profession, and that the lad had easy access to his patron, so that no time was lost in conveying such an important piece of information to him. At first R—— could hardly believe that the boy was correct, as he knew, or thought he knew, that Munster was well thought of in the stable; but when he had told him that he was sure it was all right, as he had listened through a chink in the wooden partition which divided the two loose boxes in which stood his horse and Munster, and “had heard Maister Philip tell t’lad ivery spot on t’road where t’oss was to stop each night, and he was to start at noon day after to-morn, while all t’chaps were gone to t’races, and to gang oot o’ t’toon t’back way.” R—— no longer doubted, and though not the nimblest mover in the world, he was not long in hobbling down to the betting-rooms. Both before and after dinner he was always the first to enter, and the last to leave these, as were also his agents; but Phil Spott also had his agents in attendance, carefully selected for this special occasion, who had their instructions to be constantly in waiting upon R—— and his commissioners, and whenever they offered to bet against Munster, to take their bets.

On this occasion it may readily be conceived it was not long before large offers were made by R——’s party to bet against this horse, and these offers were quietly accepted. R—— was standing aloof and silently watching operations with apparent indifference, and taking, of course, no part therein, but inwardly chuckling at the success with which his plan was working. At last, on the day on which the horse was to start on his northward journey, by which time the agency aforesaid, had (to use Turf phraseology) “pretty well peppered” (that is betted against) him, Old R——, while seated on a quiet old animal, as burly as himself, and in attendance as usual at the betting-post, was accosted by a meek-looking smart young officer who rode into the crowd, and, as if by accident, placed himself next him, and as there happened to be at the time a lull in the betting, he began to discourse with him about the Derby, and especially about the northern horses, expressing to him his liking for Munster, whom he said he had seen that morning at exercise.

“Did you see my horse, Gosport, captain?” said R——, his mouth watering at the prospect of catching another flat-fish.

“Yaas, I did, and I did not much like him; in fact, I thought him a bwute,” said the Captain.

“Coom now, Captin, I’ll lay thee a coople o’ thoosand Gosport beats Moonster for t’ Derby,” rejoined R——.

Done!” said our warrior of the meek look and mincing talk, and their respective pencils recorded the wager in their respective books.

Now, if Asmodeus had been at Newmarket that evening about ten o’clock, and had, just to oblige us, lifted up the roof of a certain house, he would have shown to our astonished eyes, the said meek young captain, seated alone with Phil Spott smoking a cigar and transferring to Phil’s volume the half of that little wager which he had originally entered in his own, and for which he had been apparently victimised that same afternoon. Only a few words passed between them on the business upon which they had met, and when they parted for the night, Phil said: “Good-night, Captain, many thanks. You did it uncommonly well; how kindly the old un swallowed the spice-nut, to be sure; and it is only one of many others he has swallowed within these two days. I am afraid in about another four-and-twenty hours they will begin to disagree with him unless his stomach is a very strong one.”

The following morning being the day after that on which Munster had taken his departure for the north, staying at Huntingdon the first night, and while he was slowly pursuing his second days’ journey, we will suppose Asmodeus to be again so obliging as to lift for us the roofs of two more houses at Newmarket, and in the one we see R—— opening a letter he has just received, which he peruses with a smile of satisfaction. It is from one of his agents, informing him that Mr. —— and he had laid to the undermentioned gentleman the following bets, amounting to a good round sum, against Munster for the Derby, that they would wish to book a small portion of these bets to themselves, and the remainder they would book to his account.

On the other roof being uplifted, we behold our great diplomatist, Phil Spott, perusing a letter, while a knowing smile of triumph plays over his countenance—it is from one of his agents; and, taking advantage of our position, we look over his shoulder, and we read as follows:—

Sir,—I have backed Munster for you with A., for so much, at such a price, and with B., for so much, at such a price. C. requests me to say he has backed the above horse for you, with A., for so much, and at such a price, and with B., for so much, and at such a price. C. and I would wish to stand with you the odds to £150, at the average, which amount you can book to me, the remainder of the sum booked respectively to C. and self, by Messrs. A. and B. we book to you.

I am, &c., &c.

To Mr. Philip Spott, Newmarket.

By this brief and business-like communication, Phil Spott was apprised that if Munster won the Derby, Messrs. A. and B.—or rather Mr. R——, for whom they had betted as agents—would have to pay him, through the writer of the above letter, a large sum of money; they having been, of course, perfectly unconscious as to the real person with whom they were betting.

In less than half an hour after the perusal of this letter a mounted express was on the road to Huntingdon, with directions to proceed onward along the main north road till he overtook Munster and the lad, for whom he conveyed a letter, in which he was directed to retrace his steps, and to join the rest of the cavalcade now travelling southwards from Newmarket for the neighbourhood of Epsom. To these orders of course the lad immediately attended.

The startling intelligence of the horse’s return was soon made public,—to the joy of some, and to the sorrow of others, among the most doleful of whom was our old acquaintance R——; for the natural consequence of this movement was, that the horse (whose position in the betting, in consequence of his supposed return to the north, had become insignificant,) was immediately advanced not only to his old price but to a higher one than he had ever been at before, which compelled R—— either to run the risk of losing the enormous sums he had laid against him or to ease his difficulty by reversing his operations and backing the horse at a loss. Our shrewd friend, Phil, knew full well which course an old stager like R—— would pursue; that he durst not “stand to be shot at” (as the phrase is), but that he would scramble out of the hole into which he thought he had pushed others, but into which he had fallen himself, as speedily as possible. And accordingly this was the course which he, like the prudent man he was, did pursue by at once requesting his agents who had betted against Munster to back him for a sufficient amount to cover that which he had betted against him under the impression that he was not intended to start, and, to simplify the settling, especially to endeavour to deal with those persons to whom they had betted the odds. In this they found no difficulty, for Phil—who said “he always travelled in the Safety Coach”—had instructed his commissioners in good time to take advantage of the horse’s improved price in the market, and to be sure to accommodate those with whom they had bets about him in the event of their wishing to “hedge.”

These instructions being attended to on both sides, the result was, that if Munster won, Phil Spott would have to receive from R—— (through agents on either side) a considerable sum of money, and if Munster did not win a smaller sum, so that in either case he now had Mr. R—— fast by the leg.

The Derby Day arrived, and Phil appeared mounted on Munster in a blue jacket. After the usual preliminary canters before the stand, the coloured troop assemble at the starting-post. “They’re off!” cry a million voices. And in the course of three minutes the million voices again raise unearthly shouts as the horses near the winning-post. “The Favourite wins!” “The Favourite is beat!” “Munster wins!” “Munster is beat!” “Munster wins!” A desperate, long-continued struggle—and the race is over. The shoutings subside into a buzz as of myriads of Brobdignag blue-bottles. “Who’s won?” “Who’s won?” shout thousands of voices. “Munster,” is the reply.

“Who’s won, Mr. R——?” inquired an eager speculator of that now crest-fallen worthy. “Did Lord B—— win?”

“No!” growled the respondent. “The old devil in blue!

R—— saw he had been done, said nothing, but with many anathemas not loud but deep paid the money on the settling-day, and shortly afterwards removed his horse Gosport. Phil Spott, having meanwhile recommended his informant change of air, and that, as his moother appeared so anxious about him, he had better take up his residence with her for the future.

Phil pocketed old R——’s losings, and with much inward exultation and a knowing wink to his friends, said:

I told you the spice-nuts would not agree with him.

That great moralist, Mr. Samuel Weller said: “Pork-pies were werry good things when they wer’n’t made of puppies, and you know’d the young ooman as made ’em.” So I will append to my tale a moral—Never eat spice-nuts without you know who made ’em.

S. W.