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

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


[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.]


No one not “on the turf,” and but few of those who are, can realise that bewildering sort of anxiety, and that alternation of hope and fear, which is experienced by the owner of a horse that is a prominent favourite for a great race. He, or rather his horse, is as it were a target for every rogue to shoot at; and constant and crafty must be the vigilance exercised to elude their aim,—so well concealed and cunningly devised are the ambushes behind which danger lurks. The favourite is to the turf nobbler what the full-pursed traveller is to the footpad, and he seeks to make him safe, either for the sake of the money he can bet against him, or in order materially to improve the chance of other horses by which he stands to win, or both. To ensure success, it is not sufficient to have the best horse in the race, without you can shield yourself against the endless efforts that are made to undermine your interest; on one occasion, for instance, when every attempt to bribe those about the horse, from the trainer and jockey downwards, had failed, an act of diabolical treachery was even practised on the jockey at the risk of his life. This occurred some years since, before the Derby; the plan succeeded, but very nearly failed, as the horse was beaten by only about half a length. But it is not of successful but of unsuccessful attempts at roguery I am about to speak.

On occasions when a considerable sum of money is required to be laid out by the owner and his friends, it is usual to call in the assistance of some clever speculator to effect their investments to the best advantage with solvent men, and also to watch the movements in the market, and closely and continuously observe who are the principal opposers and supporters of the horse in which they are specially interested. In return for this care and attention, he is compensated by the fullness of the information supplied him, and the opportunity he has offered him by the owner of sharing a portion of his investments. This Argus-eyed watchfulness as to the state of the market is of the utmost importance, and to it specially may success be often attributed; at all events, such was the case in the following instances, out of many others of minor importance that occur to me.

A gentleman of large fortune, living in Scotland, but who had a considerable racing establishment in the South of England, had a horse of great merit, whom we will call Cockcrow, engaged for the Goodwood Stakes. The owner of Cockcrow felt confident that his horse could win this race; and as he was a very heavy better himself, and had also a very large circle of friends who generally stood a portion of these investments, the amount that he required to be laid out was very large indeed. The gentleman whom he generally selected as his agent and confidant on these occasions was Mr. S——, a speculator of considerable standing on the Turf Exchange; and he commissioned him, in this instance also, to lay a very heavy stake upon Cockcrow.

In the execution of this commission S—— had called in the assistance of one of his acquaintances on whom he could depend, and on comparing notes as to the different people who had laid them the money, he found that a considerable portion of it had been laid in a certain quarter, that is, not actually by one certain individual, but by different men, who, as he well knew, from long experience in these matters, acted as agents for him. The more money S—— brought into the market to support the horse, the less of a favourite he became, and the money still coming in against him from the same quarter, he became alarmed that there might be something the matter with the horse. By sending a telegram, and receiving a reply, his fears on this head were soon set at rest, yet the opposition in the betting market still continued unabated; so, as the day of the race was fast approaching, he telegraphed to the owner, who was then in Scotland, to say he would be in Edinburgh by the mail-train the following morning, and requesting him to meet him without fail on important business. The meeting took place.

“Are you certain,” said S——, “that your trainer is on the square?

“Beyond doubt,” was the reply.

“Are you sure the horse is all right?” asked S——.

“I am sure of that,” said the owner, “for the trainer has instructions to telegraph to me immediately if anything goes wrong with him, and I have not heard from him for two or three days.”

S—— then communicated to him his suspicions, and, after some conversation, the owner finally gave him full authority to use his own discretion as to whether or not he would allow the jockey that was engaged for Cockcrow to ride him, S—— saying that he should not make up his mind till the morning of the race, and requesting the owner not to show himself at Goodwood till the day after the race.

For the benefit of the uninitiated, be it known that about half an hour before each race, the number of every horse in that race (each having a number affixed to his name on the list of the day) is exhibited on a large board, and opposite to this number is the name of the rider. At length the day arrived; Cockcrow had fallen considerably in the betting. At length the horse arrived when the race was to be run, when, on the numbers of the horses and the names of their riders being exhibited in due course on this board, the rider’s name opposite to Cockcrow’s number was not that of the jockey who it was generally understood would ride him, he having been changed at the last moment by that able tactician S——. The scene that now ensued beggared description: the persons who had laid so heavily against the horse were now rushing about like madmen, trying every means to back him, and imploring S—— to bet them some of their money back again, as they were anxious to “hedge;” to which he coolly replied, after his fashion—“Nay, my lads, I cannot hedge with thee; I want to back him for another thousand, and I made sure you would lay me a little more against him.”

The rush to back the horse by those who had hitherto betted against him, very soon had the effect of making him first favourite, and S——, in about half an hour, had the satisfaction of despatching a message to his owner to say he had won in a canter.

Whether the horse would have been equally successful under his originally intended pilot is a problem impossible to solve. It can only be stated, as a curious fact, that his return to public favour commenced from the moment of the announcement of the change of his rider.

Some few years after these events, the great stable with which Phil Spott (alluded to in a former paper) had been connected brought out another Derby winner, in a horse we will call New Zealander. Before this period Phil Spott had seceded from the establishment to which he had been so long allied, and had set up business on his own account, and within a year or two after his secession he had been gathered to his fathers, and others, from time to time, had been seated in the saddle he had so long and so ably filled.

New Zealander having won the Derby, was naturally a great favourite for the Doncaster St. Leger, and the owner and his friends being desirous of laying out on him a considerable sum amongst them, Mr. S—— was selected as their agent; from the suspicious circumstances which eventually surrounded the horse, a more fortunate choice of a confidant, as it turned out, could not have been made, inasmuch as, having been the general in the case above described, he was not only keenly alive to the danger he and his party had then run, and to the necessity of keeping a strict watch on all the movements in the market, and ascertaining by whom these movements were effected, but prepared for a repetition of this danger, and if it presented itself, to combat it in a masterly manner.

In this case also, as in the case of Cockcrow, S—— had the assistance of one or two friends in the execution of his commission. Time wore on, and gradually and skilfully large sums were laid out on New Zealander; but as the ground where he was trained was rather public, and telegraphic communication was within easy distance, it may be imagined that the “touts” (horse watchers) were especially on the alert in looking out for the slightest indication, however trifling, that he was not progressing as he ought: but it was so especially notorious to all these gentry that he did his daily work gallantly and well, that their constant telegrams to their various employers were to the effect that, if he went on as well as he had hitherto done, “he could not lose” the race. The effect of these messages, sent to all parts of the kingdom, and to many parts out of it, coupled with the previous public knowledge of the horse’s merits, was naturally an enormous outlay of public money in addition to that which his immediate adherents were investing; and as the four months that intervene between the Derby and the Doncaster St. Leger were fast passing away, S—— & Co. were rather astonished to find the ready supply of money which still met their demand, and that New Zealander had not improved in price. Large sums were still laid out, but still was there no improvement in his position; and as the time approached, more and more was the horse “peppered at” by his opponents, and even up to the time the bell rang for saddling, this marked and determined opposition to the proved best horse of his year, notoriously known to be even in better trim than he was when he won the Derby, continued with unabated fury. So marked was it, and so unaccountable, that a great Manchester speculator who had been a strong backer of the horse, and had kept his money on him till the morning of the race, whilst one of his friends was assuring him the horse was perfectly well, and that he had seen him that morning in the stable, said: “Nay, my lad, I cannot stand this sort of betting any longer. I never saw one win yet that carried so much brass. I’ll shift mine off his back, at all events, be the cost what it may; he may be well, but he will not win.”

S—— and his party had been for some time perfectly satisfied in what quarter all this money was laid, and though, of course, laid through several agents to elude suspicion, the ruse failed in deceiving such acute men as had the conduct of this investment, and they, at the suggestion of S——, took careful notes of all the bets that they could hear of, that were made with others, which, added to their own, amounted to an enormous sum laid, as they had no doubt, in one quarter.

That something wrong was intended was to them very apparent, but whom to suspect they knew not. Frequent visits were paid to the training quarters, and precautions of all kinds suggested to guard against foul play. All went on, however, perfectly satisfactorily with the horse; he never missed a day’s work or left an oat in his manger; and at Doncaster he arrived in his van perfectly well on the Monday—the St. Leger being on the Wednesday. All the world saw him on the Tuesday morning at exercise, and saw that he was perfectly well and in full force; yet, if possible, at the betting-rooms that night, the opposition to him, from the same quarter, became more and more marked. That same evening S—— and his party held a consultation, S—— saying:

“Something must be done, or we shall be done; if the horse is all right to-morrow morning, and the trainer pronounces him so, to what conclusion can we come? If danger there is, that danger sits in the saddle;” and, to make matters more perplexing, the owner was absent. At last, S—— decided upon what course he would pursue: without resting that night, he at once set to work, through a gentleman of high-standing on the Turf, to bring about an interview between himself and a nobleman of very great influence, and a proprietor of horses in the same stable as New Zealander. This interview took place. He laid before his lordship in a clear and concise manner all the facts as above stated, and on being asked what he would suggest to be done, at once advised to the following effect:

Let the trainer to-morrow morning, if the horse is all right and well, request several gentlemen of position and integrity on the Turf (the more the better) to come and see him in the stable stripped of his clothes, so that they can, one and all, testify to the fact that, if he is beat, he at least has done his duty in bringing him “fit to the post;” and then your lordship must speak to the jockey, and tell him that, although you never have had any reason to doubt his honesty, yet it is impossible to pass unnoticed the enormous sums that have been betted against the horse, especially in a very marked manner, and for a length of time, in a certain quarter; and that such bettings are wholly inconsistent with the horse’s well-known superior qualities, and the notorious fact that he is fit to run, as has been testified to this very day by several leading gentlemen on the Turf; that you impute no wrong intentions to him, but if the horse is beat, whatever sum it may cost you, you are determined on that day after the races to effect a trial, if not with the actual winner of the race, with the best trial horse you can procure, and that that trial shall take place on the St. Leger course, before all the world, who shall be the judges whether or not he ought to have won the Doncaster St. Leger.

These suggestions were carried out to the letter, and New Zealander won the race with the greatest ease, ridden by the jockey to whom his lordship had spoken as above.

Success is at all times gratifying, but this was doubly so, as it completely and entirely removed from the rider all those suspicions which, owing to a strong combination of circumstances, are often very naturally entertained against an innocent and an honest man; and it turned the tables upon those (if such there were) who contemplated effecting by foul means the defeat of the best horse in the race.

S. W.