Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Archive
6 July 2022

From the NS archive: Chance

2 December 1922: Horse racing and the betting man.

By Y Y

Why bet on horses? “It has always been clear that for the average man betting is the profession at which least money is to be made,” wrote “YY” in 1922. Humans take betting too seriously, he argued, and persuade themselves that someone must know in advance which horse is going to win. The existence of tippers – who regularly tip different horses in the same race to different clients – shows that this cannot be true. And even horses who have paid out in previous races cannot be relied upon to do the same again. Even the best have their “off days”, and horses are ridden by different jockeys, on different courses, during different kinds of weather. Who can promise they will perform the same from one race to the next? “If the betting man is not willing to bet on the understanding that he is betting about a future of which he knows very little… he would be wise to find some more inexpensive and less irritating hobby,” YY concluded.


The flat-racing season of 1922 came to an end on Saturday, much to the relief of betting men all over England. It has always been clear that for the average man betting is the profession at which least money is to be made, but never has it been quite so clear as during the season that has just come to an end. The betting man receives less money for more work than any other sort of industrious worker in the country. It is not merely that he is grossly underpaid; he is often even charged for performing long jobs of calculation that would tax the brains of the cleverest actuary in England. There is something, I admit, to be said for payment by results, but it seems to me that in so risky a profession as that of the betting man the labour expended ought also to be taken into account to some extent in the distribution of rewards.

It is an undoubted fact that during the past year there have been weeks at the end of which many a hard-working betting man found himself seriously out of pocket. Who that was present at Ascot can ever forget how day by day the faces grew longer, the lips more drooping, and the cheeks more blanched, as favourite after favourite “went down,” taking with it the savings of honest men. We had Proconsul winning at 25 to 1, Varzy winning at 20 to 1, Tricky Aunt winning at 100 to 7, and Backwood at 100 to 8. And in this respect Ascot was merely the racing season in little.

The season began with Granely’s victory at 20 to 1 in the Lincolnshire, shortly afterwards Chivalrous was winning the Chester Cup at 50 to 1. The unfortunate betting man did not know that Chivalrous was going to win at Chester. He staked his little all on Happy Man, Air Balloon and the unforgivable Bumble Bee. After this, however, he was determined never to make the same mistake again. He consequently backed Chivalrous so heavily for the Bessborough Stakes at Ascot that the starting price was only 6 to 4, when the horse came in last of all of fourteen runners. Nor was this an exceptional experience. Again and again, he backed a horse at a short price when it lost, and failed to back it when it started at a price that would make your teeth water and won. How certain he felt that Re-echo could at least win the Ascot Derby Stakes when the starting-price was only 18 to 8 on. But he put his money on Stratford or Poisoned Arrow instead on the day on which Re-echo won the Cambridgeshire at 25 to 1.

How difficult he found it to pick winners during the year may be seen by referring to the results of some of the big races. Royal Lancer’s easy victory in the St Leger at 88 to 1 was a blow from the stunning effect of which he had barely recovered when Light Dragoon won the Cesarewitch at 100 to 1, which is the extreme price that the bookmakers offer against any horse. Nor did he even know that Captain Cuttle was going to win the Derby. He believed St Louis to be invincible, or, if not St Louis, then Pondoland. He backed Captain Cuttle to beat St Louis in the Two Thousand Guineas, when St Louis won; and then he backed St Louis to beat Captain Cuttle in the Derby, when Captain Cuttle won. Is it to be wondered at that something like despair reigns in betting circles, and that many betting men are seriously asking themselves whether, after all, the people who do not know a horse from a cow are not happier than they?

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

There is, it is to be feared, only one sure way of consistently making money on horses. This is the tipster’s way. The tipster is not paid by results. He is paid for his work, like a barrister, whether he wins or loses. Even a bookmaker cannot be absolutely certain of making money, but, whether the hottest favourite or the most hopeless outsider wins, the tipster draws his reward. There is one class of tipsters who are especially clever in making sure of earning a living in a world of ups and downs. They do this, strange to say, though they charge nothing for their tips. They offer to send out tips for nothing on condition that the betting man, if he wins as a result of them, will pay them the odds to a pound out of his winnings.

Obviously, if a tipster of this kind sent out only one tip for each race, and his horses frequently failed, he would be in danger of earning very little money. He has therefore to take steps to protect himself against this danger. He does this by tipping different horses in the same race to different clients. Thus, for the St Leger he would tip Ramus to some of his clients, Fred Power to others, Villars to others, and so on down to Ceylonese and the victorious Royal Lancer itself, till he had tipped every horse in the race to somebody. The betting man, who was lucky enough to get the tip for Royal Lancer from him would owe him £88 and could no doubt afford it. One would not like to say, of course, that every tipster who offers his tips for nothing on these conditions, protesting his generosity in asking payment only when he has tipped a winner, adopts methods of this kind. There may be tipsters of this school who are as scrupulous as any other tipsters. It is obvious, however, that the scheme lends itself to the tricks of the unscrupulous, and to the gulling of simple men. It is said, indeed, that even some of the tipsters who charge for their tips resort to similar devices for making sure of a living. You will often see tipsters’ placards outside the shops of small newsagents, containing some such announcement as:

Gave Captain Cuttle, won 10-1.
Gave Silvester, won 100-7.
Gave Drake, won 10-1.

Content from our partners
How to create a responsible form of “buy now, pay later”
“Unions are helping improve conditions for drivers like me”
Transport is the core of levelling up

You think to yourself, “What a clever man to give such good tips!” and, if you are as foolish as thousands of other people are, you may go in and buy one for a shilling or so: now, it may be perfectly true that this tipster did tip these particular horses in this particular district – say, Pimlico. But he gave quite different tips, say, in Whitechapel, and, if other horses had won, he would have had other bills exhibited in Whitechapel, claiming that his tips were next door to infallible. As it is, he has invented a plan whereby he can boom his wares in one part of London one week and in another part of London the next. And the public, as it passes along the street, will always be confronted with convincing evidence that somebody knew more about horses yesterday than it knew, and a considerable part of it will have a pang of regret that it did not spend a shilling on so valuable information. Here, again, one must be careful to say that no one knows what percentage of the popular tipsters indulge in practices of this kind. All we can be sure of is that some do. There have been letters in the papers from men who had bought a tip for a race and been given the name of a different horse from someone else who had bought a tip for the same race from the same tipster.

All this shows how seriously human beings take betting, and how easily they persuade themselves that betting on horses is not a game of chance, but that someone must know in advance which horse is going to win. The betting man is in some respects superstitious, but he does not have in chance nearly as much as is generally supposed. He does not believe, for instance, that it is a mere chance that many horses during the season, having lost races for which they were favourites, afterwards won races for which they started at long prices. Hence the recent utterings in the sporting columns of the press about dishonest running, about the inefficiency of the Jockey Club in detecting deliberate attempts not to win, and the demand for a new kind of stewards. On several occasions, trainers and jockeys have been called before the authorities of the Jockey Club to give an account of the contradictory running of certain horses in different races, but the betting man feels that the investigation has not been general enough, and that scandals could be discovered if only the Jockey Club had keener eyes.

That there may be some justification for this outcry is suggested by the fact that certain trainers, such as Taylor – “the Manton Wizard,” as he is called – are singled out for praise by racing men for the honest running of their horses, and that certain horses, such as Monarch – who did not win a race all the year but ran second four times and third thrice – is specially lauded as a good horse that is always ridden in order to win. That certain trainers and certain owners do not always “try to win” is taken for granted and that they deliberately “keep” their horses from winning this week in the hope of a surprise victory next. It is to this rather than to chance that the betting man attributes some of his misfortunes.

And yet chance must play its part in the running of horses as in the activities of men. A horse cannot always be in its best form any more than a painter. There are some painters with a consistent level of good work: there are others who will paint a masterpiece one week and an uninspired daub the next. Even the greatest men, it is probable, have what are called their “off days.” A Cabinet Minister may fail badly in one debate, and triumph in another. Now, horses are much more nervous animals than Cabinet Ministers. They are ridden by all kinds of jockeys on all kinds of courses over all kinds of distances in all kinds of weathers, carrying all kinds of weights. Some of them are slower in getting into their best form than others. Some exhaust themselves beyond recovery in a few victories. They may be overtrained or undertrained. The one thing certain is that no horse can be trusted to win always. You could not be sure in advance even of Sceptre. And it is this element of doubt that keeps horse-racing, like other forms of sport, permanently interesting. Boxing is trebly exciting because no champion is invincible, and even a Carpentier is not ultimately safe from a Battling Siki.

If the betting man is not willing to bet on the understanding that he is betting about a future of which he knows very little, and that, however cleverly he calculates chances, chance will upset some of his cleverest calculations, he would be wise to find some more inexpensive and less irritating hobby. He cannot, surely, have taken to betting in the hope of making money. Foolish are the ways of mortals, but can any man have been so foolish as to hope to become rich by entering the most impoverishing profession in the world? It may be that the result of the Manchester November Handicap has left me more of a philosopher than I was earlier in the season. I now see how symbolically fitting it was that one of the greatest horses of the year was named Golden Myth. But other men, I am afraid, are less philosophical. They are already discussing whether Town Guard or Drake is going to win the Derby in 1928. How pleasant – to a philosopher – it is to know that none of them knows!

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).