Saturday, August 11, 2012

An Omnibus of Horse Racing

Throughout my life, the sport of kings has been relatively disinteresting to me. Despite growing up on a full diet of sport obsession, for some reason horse racing never took my fancy. My perception of it has been skeptical, fueled by one question: Is there a point to it beyond being a vehicle for gambling? Can you have a passion for it without needing to risk your hard earned, or being loaded to the hilt and able to own one of the creatures?

Despite being proud of the fact I had managed to avoid watching the last eight or nine Melbourne Cups, I fell into the Black Caviar phenomenon upon its closure at Royal Ascot. I became desperate to understand what attracts people to the sport, why it is so ingrained in our Australian culture, why was Vo Rogue a cult hero, and to finally understand the theory behind weight for age. I present to you five titles that have taken me on this journey.

  1. A Year on the Punt – John Ellicott

My journey got off to a poor start, when I managed to learn less than nothing and in fact digress in my opinion of the sport thanks to this title. A journalist and petty gambler takes his long service leave and ventures far and wide across Australia to visit regional racing carnivals, learn more of the history of racing, and pick up some tips for being an effective picker of winners.

Maybe that is what Ellicott planned to do however what he presented pretty much summed up my long held reasons for prejudice against the sport. Every club he visited was struggling to survive save for the turnover of gambling through the TAB (although they do not like having to conform to the rules of the TAB). In addition the greatest stories nine times out of ten were the debaucherous antics of racegoers (and club committeemen) no mention of any equine heroes. Into the bargain the author annoys the heck out of you as a reader trying to behave as a stereotypical 'Aussie' and clearly even his own writing indicates he was more often than not annoying those at the races as well. No Balls.

  1. True Grit – Les Carlyon

After the terrible start I went into my further reading without much hope, but I was reinvigorated and identified that what Gideon Haigh is for Australian Cricket, Les Carlyon is to Australian racing. If he has not touched it, do not either. Out of all the books read this was the one that really answered my questions and allowed me to more easily comprehend the passion one could have for horse racing.

Carlyon is a long time Melbourne journalist and True Grit is a compilation of some of his best work on his great love. Given its nature the book does not seek to systematically educate you however you pick up enough along the way. You learn of the champions (Vo Rogue included) and the lesser lights in sport, coming away with a rounded view that yes I may grow to like it. If you can only read one book on horse racing, this is it – Basketballs.

  1. The Track – Mike Hayes

Transforming a television series into a book is difficult, you go from having had images and body language plus words into text and the track although full of information suffers for hit. This was ABC televisions program on the history of Australian racing, presented by topic rather than chronologically. There are many interview subjects (Les Carlyon included) that give their opinions on all subjects however it can feel repetitive with the same incidents often being discussed under multiple topics.

You do learn a lot about the history, what drew and still draws people in, therefore functionally it has served its purpose – Tennis Balls.

  1. The Master – Les Carlyon

What makes a book about someone’s life a portrait and not a biography? Broad brush strokes with an eye for detail where required, and Les Carlyon succeeds with this portrait of Bart Cummings. Despite knowing little of horse racing one fact you do know as an Australian is that Bart Cummings has trained the most Melbourne Cup winners, by a long way and is a legend in racing circles.

The book is not only a great read but a beautiful presentation of horse racing images throughout the years and could serve well on a coffee table as well as in a library. Carlyon perfects just the amount of information to give about Cummings as you journey through his life, learning the great successes and the tragedies (which there are less). You leave with no deified image of Cummings except that he is a good horseman, his people skills appearing to leave something to be desired, and that the Australian racing industry is very much built on individuals like him. Basketballs.

  1. They're Racing – Gary Hutchinson (Editor); Foreward by Les Carlyon

None of the books read have the sheer volume of information brought by this volume. Chronologically from the first white settlement up until the end of the 20th century every key moment, person, race and of course horse is profiled. The book is set up for reference and is easy reading dipping in and out. Further there is much enjoyment of the hundred's of images provided. Because you are not reading the same work consistently it is difficult to draw a consistent line through the sport in this presentation, one piece may not relate to another and repetition is again in this work as in The Track. But for the number of facts per hour reading this is the choice. Tennis Balls.

Cover Images Available thanks to and

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