Newmarket

by Captain R. Bird Thompson

Newmarket is termed, and justly so, the metropolis of racing, but a greater contrast than Newmarket presents during the race-weeks and the rest of the year can scarcely be imagined. Any one who stood on the top of the hill on the Cambridge road, and looked down the main street, in one of the off-weeks, would think that he had hardly ever seen such a desolate forsaken-looking sort of place; the only living things to be seen being a few old women standing at the corners of the streets scratching their elbows, and two or three lads lounging about. Occasionally a tradesman will come out of his shop, and, after looking disconsolately up and down the street, will go and look into his own shop-window; his idea being, I suppose, either to see if he can dress his window more attractively, or that he would rather stare into his own shop-window than that nobody at all should; and the only way you would discover you were in a great racing district would be that you might see a string of sheeted racers passing through the street on their way from their training-grounds to their stables; or if you listened to the old women's or lads' conversation you would hear nothing but about some of the numerous trainers' "lots." The number of empty houses, too, and the bills of auction sales you see posted up everywhere with "In re" So-and-so in the corner, or "By order of the Sheriff," add to the desolateness of the scene. But during the race-weeks all this is altered, and the scene is as exciting and enlivening as it was dull before; the pavements crowded with men, two huge masses on each side, at the Rooms and White Hart, reminding one strongly of the way bees hang out of their hives previous to swarming. The inhabitants, too, erect stalls down both sides of the street, where all sorts of things are exposed for sale—fruit and vegetables of every kind, and amongst these hampers of a curious vegetable believed by the aborigines to be cucumbers, but to an uninstructed eye looking like a cross between a pumpkin and a hedgehog, so yellow and prickly are they; large baskets of mushrooms, those esculents which once cost the late Lord George Bentinck so dearly, and which he ever after cursed so heartily. There are stalls also where clothes and boots are sold, besides others where very dubious-looking confectionery is dealt in, and one I saw which had plates of yellow snail-looking things for sale. I do not know whether racegoers are supposed to eat these things, but if they do they must have uncommonly strong stomachs.

Vehicles of every sort and shape are plying for hire in the street, all of that wonderful kind that seem peculiar to race-meetings, regattas, &c., and which fill a person with wonder to think where they could have been made, and what they were originally intended for. Newmarket is, indeed, worth seeing on the morning of one of the big days, like the Cambridgeshire, to form any idea of the enormous multitude of people attending. It is well worth while to get into the stand at the end of the Rowley Mile as soon as you can, and a most wonderful sight it is to see the huge and incessant mass of people pouring down the side of the course from the old stand; one unbroken stream, many yards wide, and apparently never ending, yet perfectly quiet and orderly; no rough horseplay or rowdyism; composed of men who come for racing, and nothing else. An almost equally large string of vehicles pours down the road, the full ones getting along as fast as they can manage, and those that have discharged their loads galloping back in hopes of fresh fares. The natural idea of anyone attending for the first time is that there will be an awful crush; but such is the excellence of Newmarket as a racecourse that there is none whatever, and every one, either on foot or in the stand, can see every race from start to finish, with the exception of those run on the Cesarewitch course, and then no one can see the horses until they come into the straight, with the exception of a bare sight of the start, and a glimpse of them as they pass the Gap, which may be caught by keen-eyed people in the stand. It is really extraordinary to see how the immense crowd that you behold coming seems to dissipate, so that there does not appear to be any very great multitude of people until the races are over, and you turn home; then you see how enormous the numbers have been, there being a complete block of people from the course right through the town, and even up to the station.

The stand is, as usual, divided into three portions—one for members of the Jockey Club, the second Tattersall's, and the third for the general public; the two last named are generally full, as all the principal bookmakers assemble here. There is comparative quiet until the numbers for the first race are put up—the only noise to be remarked is the voice of some bookmaker offering to bet on some big race to come; but suddenly a peculiar creaking is heard, and a frame rises above the building next to the trainers' stand, with the numbers of the horses starting, and the names of jockeys. There is then a dead silence for a minute or so, whilst people are marking their cards, and next a perfect storm of "four to one, bar one!" or whatever the odds may be, rises from the ring, deafening and utterly bewildering the novice. This storm lasts, if it is not a heavy betting race, not only until the horses are at the post, but even as they are running, and some insane individuals actually offer to bet as to what horse has won after they have passed the post. But if there has been heavy betting a dead silence is maintained in the ring from the time the horses get to the starter until they have passed the post; this was most remarkably illustrated on the last Cambridgeshire day. From the time the horses got to the starting-post until the race was finished, though there was a delay of three-quarters of an hour, owing to some of the horses repeatedly breaking away, not a sound was heard in the ring; the silence was almost oppressive. Sometimes when a complete outsider wins, whose name has never been written down by the book-makers, the more excitable of them throw up their hats and cheer loudly; but as a body they are a most impassive set of men, and you could never tell by their faces whether they had lost or won. Very curious are they in another way: they never seem to, and I suppose really do not, care a bit about the horses themselves; many of them not even looking at them when they are running, merely glancing at the winning numbers when put up. They do not appear to be guided in their bets by any regard to the condition of the horses, state or length of the course, or their previous performances, but on what they imagine to be the intentions of the stable to which they belong; and sometimes they seem to suppose that certain horses take it in turns to win, and back them accordingly, quite independently of the condition of the horse itself. A remarkable instance of this occurred at one Houghton Meeting, in the All-aged Stakes: only two horses were left in for them, Ecossais and Trappist, the former with three pounds the best of the weights. It is true they had run in and out in a very curious way, and this time the bookmakers declared "it was Trappist's turn," and backed him accordingly, giving odds against the other. When they passed the stand on their way to the starting-post, Trappist was going along with his head in the air, fighting with his bit, and with the stiltiest stiffest action possible; Ecossais cantering by his side as pleasantly as a lady's hack. But in spite of this, though it must have been evident to anyone that Trappist did not intend to try, and was thoroughly sulky, yet the bookmakers gave him all their support because "it was his day." As was to be expected, Ecossais came right away from him, winning easily; and great was their wrath.

The principal bookmakers have their regular stations in the ring, where they can be readily found by their customers; and as they stand there with a pleasant smile on their faces, the old nursery rhyme, "Ducky, ducky, ducky, come and be killed," always comes forcibly into my mind. A very clever-looking set of men they are, and some of them have really intellectual faces. Most wonderful calculators they are too; the power they have to tell at a glance how much they have got in their books, and the way in which they can subdivide the odds at a moment's notice, is most extraordinary. A marked contrast to these great bookmakers are the small would-be bookmakers, who rush all about the ring, bothering anyone they see who has been betting or they think likely to bet, offering the most absurd odds as an inducement. The first day of any race-meeting these gentry abound; but by the end of the week most of them have disappeared, having retired, I suspect, into the outer ring, and here rascality does flourish. Strangely enough, in passing through it, you seem to be familiar with most of the betting men's faces, but you cannot at first remember where you have seen them previously; when suddenly it flashes across you that you saw most of these faces, or their own brothers', in the dock at the last criminal assizes; or if you have been over Portland or Dartmoor prisons, or any of those sort of places, that you have seen them there. How so many of them exist seems hard to discover; but I suspect whenever they have drawn their victims sufficiently, as they consider, they bolt before the race comes off. Another kind of swindling has arisen lately. You are perhaps standing somewhere in the ring, when you discover a person is talking to you, and saying that "Of course you have been backing our stable." You look at him with some surprise, as he is a complete stranger to you; whereupon the man, who is usually tolerably well dressed, and tries to look like a gentleman, apologises for his mistake, "thought you were So-and-so." But, however, he keeps on talking, and you cannot shake him off. At length he declares he knows a certainty for the next race, which you must back, and bothers you so that, to get rid of him for the time, you give him some money to invest, which he does; and the tip turning out correct, as it very often does, you get your money—for the man has no intention of bolting, it would not answer his purpose. But you shortly find out what has occurred, and how you have been done. After the race you compare notes with your friends, feeling rather proud of winning. They ask the price you got, and you say, "O, 4 to 1." "4 to 1?" say they; "why, his price was 7 to 1." And then the murder comes out; the scamp got 7 to 1 safe enough, so that he comfortably pocketed the three extra points, and in this way, until detected, doubtless makes a very nice thing of it. But he does not often succeed in drawing the same man twice; and if you take his "tip," and then insist on getting the odds yourself, his blank face of disgust is very amusing; but he takes care not to let you do this a second time.

At the Spring and Houghton Meetings great amusement is derived from the strong "'Varsity" contingent; these youths appearing in great force, got up in the correctest of sporting costumes; some even going so far as breeches and boots, though they do not as a rule trust themselves astride a horse at the races, and certainly they get all the excitement they can require in the short drive from the turn-pike, just off the Cambridge road, down to the stand. Up to this point, as the road has been wide and the vehicles not numerous, their erratic mode of driving has not been of much importance; but here, when they get into the stream of cabs, &c., going down to the stand, nothing but a 'Varsity hack in a 'Varsity dog-cart could save them from total and irremediable grief. But it is a sight to see the knowing old hack seize the bit between his teeth, and getting his head well down, so as to neutralise any well-meaning but ill-directed attempt at guidance, tear down full speed, close in rear of some galloping cab, and land his passengers, in spite of their exertions, all safe, but rather scared, at the stand. Then the reckless way these youths bet! To hear them talk, you would think they were more up in racing matters than the oldest member of the Jockey Club, instead of being utterly ignorant of the respective horses, owners, jockeys, or performances; their actual knowledge never extending to more than the horses' names, and very often not so far as that even. The amount of "tips" they have is something wonderful, supplied by their "gyps," I should imagine; and the best thing one can hope for is, that these gentry may be paid by a percentage on their master's winnings, for in this case I think the perennial fountain of tips would soon dry up.

It is very curious to look down from the stand on to the outer ring just previously to the starting of the race. You see nothing but a dense mass of closely-packed hats, and little puffs of smoke rising all over the mass, making it look just as if it was smouldering, and might be expected to break out into flames at any moment. One thing that makes Newmarket so enjoyable is that there is no need of dressing to within an inch of your life, as you have to do at Ascot and Goodwood. You see men in comfortable morning and shooting-coats, Norfolk shirts, or any other kind of loose and easy attire; any one almost who appeared in a frock-coat and topper would be looked on with the greatest suspicion. However, there are exceptions to this rule. Many ladies do not appear here—about a dozen or so in the Jockey Club stand, and a very few in carriages, are all who attend; but those who are present seem to enjoy the racing thoroughly, as they too are dressed reasonably, and are not in continual misery through fear of a shower, or that the splendour of their costume may be eclipsed by the superior elegance of a rival, as is too often the case on other racecourses. It is, indeed, a curious thing to notice how very few ladies or women at all attend; even the wives and daughters of the neighbouring farmers are not present, though there are a very sporting lot of them in the district. In the morning, before racing commences, you do not see any women at all about in the streets, with the exception of the few who keep the fruit and vegetable stalls in the main street.

I have mentioned previously the wonderful edibles offered for sale in the town; but those brought on to the Heath are stranger still, the chief of them consisting of acid-drops and butter-scotch. You meet vendors of these everywhere; and, stranger still, actually see grown men buying them. Whether they think they will bring them "luck"—and there is scarcely anything a regular "turfite" would not do if he thought it would bring him luck—or whether they imagine the taste of juvenile luxuries will restore the innocence of their youth, I do not know; but that they buy them and actually eat them is an undoubted fact. Apples, too, are sold; and once I saw a man selling prawns in the stand itself. Now fresh prawns for breakfast are very nice, and so is prawn-curry; but wind- and sun-dried prawns offered for consumption by themselves in the middle of the day are not very inviting, and I did not see anyone buy them. At the railway station also, when you are returning, you find a lot of women hawking ducks and chickens about, but I never saw anybody buy them. Indeed, it would be rather puzzling to know what to do with one if you did purchase it. You could not open your trunk and put it in; and if you did, I do not think it would travel well with your shirts, &c.; and to sit with a dead duck in your lap the whole way back to down would be trying.

Most interesting it is to go in the early morning to the training-grounds, and look at the racers at exercise. Here you see them in every stage, from the yearling just being led about quietly with a lunging rein on to the adult racer taking his final spin, previously to competing for some stake, and a finer spectacle than this last cannot be seen: the magnificent animal in perfect condition, his satin coat, showing the play of the muscles underneath, striding along at his top speed, untouched by whip or spur, is a perfect picture of beauty. You see many people out watching the horses, some merely through fondness for horseflesh, but many of the genus "tout." How people can be found weak enough to believe in their "tips" it is hard to conceive; for if a "trial" is properly managed, and the stable secrets well kept, not even the lads themselves know the weights the horses are run at, or even the exact distance, so the "tips" of these gentry must be the veriest guesses possible. They adopt wonderful disguises, under the fallacious idea that they shall not be detected. There is one constantly to be seen got up as a clergyman of the Church; and really, if you judged him by a passing glance, you would think he was some indefatigable pastor going to visit some sick member of his flock; but if you looked closely at him, you would see that if he had a flock it would be uncommonly closely shorn. He might more correctly be termed "a Baptist," so often has he received the rite by total immersion in a horse-pond, stable-lads being the officiating ministers, and the frogs at the bottom his sponsors.

But there is "a thorn in every rose," and there is a very large one at Newmarket in the shape of a church, with a squat square tower containing a peal of the most abominable bells in England, I should think; they are all about a semitone out of tune, and the effect is aggravating past description—far worse than the ding-dong-spat of the three bells you so often hear in old-fashioned village churches, where two of the bells have no relation in tone to one another, and the third is cracked. These wretched things jangle and clash for, I should think, half an hour every day about eleven; and I find the idea among the aborigines is that they are playing a tune, but the effect of the performance on a musical ear is excruciating. But, apart from this, few pleasanter places can be found at which to pass some days than Newmarket during a fine autumn meeting.

One word in conclusion. If anyone intends to bet at Newmarket, never take a Newmarket "tip" unless it is very strongly corroborated elsewhere; for the true Newmarket man firmly believes, in spite of all facts to the contrary, that no horse can win unless it has been trained there, and would rather back the veriest rip in existence hailing from headquarters than the best possible racer trained elsewhere.