Charles Dickens on racing

On the subway to Aqueduct on Saturday morning, I brought along Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop, a Christmas gift from my mother several years ago. Each winter I read at least one big old Victorian novel (Trollope is a favorite), and this year I pulled the Dickens off the shelf, a little earlier in the year than usual.

Nell and her grandfather have recently left London and are making their way—where?—to escape the clutches of a malevolent dwarf (really—this is the plot), and they take up, briefly, with a band of performers heading to the races to play to the crowd and make some money. Of their arrival at the raucous scene, Dickens writes:

The child, sitting down with the old man close behind…had been thinking how
strange it was that horses who were such fine honest creatures should seem to
make vagabonds of all the men they drew about them…

Amazing, isn’t it, that in this 1840 novel Dickens so perfectly captures the sentiment that we so often feel, as we witness and feel dismay at the NYRA debacle and the despicable behavior of Patrick Biancone and other frequently-suspended trainers. Jane Smiley, in A Year at the Races, expresses a similar, albeit more modern, sentiment:

The paradox of horse racing is that a huge infrastructure of money,
corporations, and governments is essential to maintain the venues and facilitate
the flow of revenue, and the operations of these organizations always
contextualize racing as just another entertainment opportunity, or investment
strategy, or business, and then the horses come out of the gate and run around
the track, and beauty and unpredictability seize the imagination. Yes,
horse racing is largely about gambling and money, just like the stock market or
capitalism in general, but, unlike the stock market, racing is repeatedly
redeemed by the horses themselves.

As I sat on the A train wending its way through Brooklyn and Queens on a raw late autumn morning, it was easy to ask myself why I was headed towards an in-places-decaying building to watch what could hardly be called world-class racing. And sitting in the Manhattan Terrace, surrounded by people who mostly only cared where their horses finished, and what the odds were, I could see what little Nell would have called “vagabonds” all around me. But as I headed out to the boxes to watch the races, as I watched the horses return to the paddock beneath me, the honesty and beauty of which Dickens and Smiley speak were much in evidence, far, far surpassing the less noble elements of racing that are too often in the news.

Sunday’s New York Times City section features, on its front page, a story about the Karakorum racing group. At the track on Saturday, Jessica and I talked about how much we hated that name, and how seldom we bet on these horses. Who knew that “Karakorum” refers to “the ancient capital of the Mongol Empire, which conquered its enemies on horseback” (NY Times)? Shame on us, for dismissing this noble historical reference. The article is a great piece about the joys of small-time horse ownership, and the pride that the owners, no matter how little their investment, take in their horses when they race. It’s about money and about winning, but it’s also about joy and friendship; I liked reading that whenever a Karakorum horse wins, any person with a stake in any Karakorum horse gets to go to the winners’ circle, even if they don’t own a piece of that particular horse. Standing in the winners’ circle after a recent win, one part owner said, “’Horse smell!’ she declared with a giggle, offering the man next to her a whiff. ‘I love it.’”

6 thoughts on “Charles Dickens on racing

  1. Love your comments. Regardless of how one feels about the “business” of racing, it’s the noble runners who redeem the whole enterprise.

  2. As the quote goes, with a slight variation, “It’s all about the horses, stupid.” But then nothing can ever be that simple, can it? There is no better sensation than to be leaning over the rail, feeling the vibration of 20+ hooves on the earth, hearing the thunder of those same hooves as they come down the stretch while the crowd around you fades into oblivion, as you watch those gloriously magnificant animals run past you with the blood of great and not so great ancestors coursing through their veins. Horse smells, oh yea, that’s part of it, too!

  3. Oh, the joys of working in a school! Just trotted across the hall to the library and picked up the Holmes short story, to be read on the subway this evening on the way to the Rangers’ game!

  4. This is a fantastic post! The Times article on Karakorum is also very sweet. I too always found their naming strategy annoying but knowing the back story really changes it for me. It’s also nice to see mainstream media doing a piece that focuses on one of the many touching stories of racing as opposed to the tragedies.On the literary flip side, there’s always Dostoevsky’s The Gambler.

  5. More reading suggestions! The Gambler goes on the list, and I’ll check out the school library tomorrow.Michael: read Silver Blaze tonight. Excellent recommendation that will make its way into a future post…with of course all due credit to you.

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