on 22 February 2016
This book is one of a series that puts popular culture in Britain under academic scrutiny. The text is described in the foreword by the general editor of the series as a "richly detailed narrative" and that is an excellent summary. It's a text in which economic and social statistics and research are used to deliver a story - the story of horseracing in Britain in the context of popular culture.
Aspects covered include the business "model", media involvement and leisure aspects of racing, betting, life on the racecourse and on the racing yards, and the various characters involved in the sport. It's an astonishingly vast range of characters too and at several points I found myself thinking "I need to know more about that." For instance, "The top female bookmaker, Helen Vernet, a Ladbroke's representative from 1928, was socially well connected, earning ca. 20,000 (pounds) a year, but had an expensive lifestyle and died comparatively poor..." Indeed, the involvement of women in horse racing at every level, including betting, is examined closely in this book.
I found the chapter "Jockeys, trainers and the stable" fascinating and most enlightening. One thing occurred to me as I was reading it that whilst there has recently been great scrutiny of the fashion industry and its focus on thin models possibly creating body dismorphia in young people (particularly girls), this story of (mainly) young men with eating disorders induced by their career as has undoubtedly received less attention. Huggins doesn't hesitate to use the word "bulimia" with regard to this. Fasting, wasting, losing weight by long sessions in the sauna or Turkish bath or sweating under heavy clothing; purgatives, diuretics - these were normal activities for jockeys who had to work hard to make the weight. And at the end of a career in racing, some jockeys could quite literally have damaged every bone in their bodies. This is something that any reader of racing fiction will know about, of course, but the seriousness of the damage caused by "wasting" has not received the same exposure in the media.
Some will draw comparisons with boxing in its appeal as a way out for impoverished or working class kids. Jockeys were perhaps more likely to come from a rural background than boxers. The desperate desire to escape, to make it, to prove themselves, achieve fame and conquer the world does not entirely account for the magnetic draw of either sport, though. The quotes from jockeys in the book reveal a genuine passion for the sport and the horses, as well as disgust for owners who do not appreciate properly the achievements of either man or horse. This is made particularly clear in the case of one owner whose horse won a major racing trophy but was clearly only interested in "the money".
This chapter also manages very successfully to create an understanding of the "type" of person who might be a trainer, jockey, stable lad or owner, whilst allowing individuals to emerge clearly from each "type". Trainers had a phenomenally difficult managerial task, when you consider it; dealing not only with equine characters who might at any time fall ill or have an off day, but also temperamental humans at every level from some of the wealthiest owners in the world down to disappointed punters who had just lost their last quid. Finally, trainers had to remain tight-lipped throughout all this whilst watching the equine part of the equation munching their way through the equivalent of suitcases full of fivers. What a set of transferrable skills! I'm actually surprised that there aren't more former trainers running successful international corporations, but that's because clearly once a racing professional, always a racing professional - it's a way of life, not straightforwardly a career or a business.
The reader is left at the end with the impression (a true impression, in my opinion) that racing was, for some decades at least, a genuinely national sport in which any individual in Britain could participate in some way, even if it was only by watching horse racing on the tellie (certainly my first encounter with the sport as a small child and I was mesmerised by it). Beyond that, horseracing was international in the same way - a world wide activity involving elite and non-elite participants in complex, contradictory, satisfying or damaging social and economic encounters.
A special commendation to the author for highlighting the role of pony racing in professionalism and organisation within the sport within this period. Our first British racers centuries ago were undoubtedly robust and strong-minded pony sized natives and reminders of this are always welcome.