“Silks across the birdcage”, Lloyd Jones

First Past the Post: An Anthology of New Zealand Racing Stories
ed Brian Phillips
Random House, $29.95,
ISBN 1869414152

 

I’m more amused than seriously persuaded of Phar Lap’s place on National Radio’s Golden Kiwis series. At the risk of pointing out the obvious and sounding unbearably anthropomorphic, Phar Lap is a horse among scientists, broadcasters, teachers, artists, sports heroes and politicians. Where else in the world would a cancer-curing scientist have to vie with a horse in a contest to assess relative worthiness?

On the other hand, look what happened several years ago when primary school children in the Waikato were given the choice of seeing the Queen, due to pass through a nearby neighbourhood, or watching Cardigan Bay give a retirement demonstration at the Cambridge trotting track. Vincent O’Sullivan, whom we have to thank for passing on this anecdote, notes: “Well over half the children opted for the horse.” While I share O’Sullivan’s glee I’m still not persuaded of a horse’s claim for higher honours.

But if we are going to include horses in our roll-call of “legendary kiwis”, I would like to point out that Phar Lap, who won all his prestigious races overseas, has other claimants. Australians are just as quick to claim the horse as “theirs”. And this undignified ownership wrangle can lead to macabre results, as Bill Manhire reminds us in his poem “Phar Lap”:

The hide is in Melbourne,
the heart in Canberra.
The bones are in Wellington,

the big delicate skeleton
of a horse
who used to mean business.

 

Horse racing used to mean business. It used to hold our attention, which is what you might expect in a country with over 5500 racehorses, 2000 registered trainers, 60 race tracks, 320 meetings a year – and “One hundred dollars placed annually for every man, woman, and child.” These spectacular details are recorded in “Race Day”, no doubt a true enough picture of the country’s interests when O’Sullivan’s essay was first published in 1982. Today, those figures would need re-visiting. Racing clubs around the country struggle to make a buck as their racing calendar grows more lean with the passing of each year, and with that of their loyal patrons, the truly committed, gravel-throated punter. Broadcaster Tony Johnson recalls how his family’s move to Picton pleased his gambling grandfather: “Our original home town had no TAB and this made planning his holidays easier.” A few pages on, and we find Johnson’s punter-grandfather eulogised in Hone Tuwhare’s poem “The Sport”:

When rain fell jubilation ran high among
those who knew that his horses performed
rather well on a heavy track.

He was a good punter

 

A good punter and virtually unrecognisable to a new generation grown up without any attachment to the grandstand and the “smooth attended grass of the track” on the edge of town. Just to get this generation inside its doors, the TAB has to piggyback them on the back of the more trendy and attractive sports betting in the hope of seducing them in to horse racing’s “idiot package” of “Pick 6” or, as some see it, the adult equivalent of the children’s blindfold birthday party game of placing the tail on the donkey. Fun, haphazard, but hey, you never know. Which brings me to Brian Phillips, the editor of this surprisingly engaging anthology of racing stories. Surprising, because I didn’t expect to be so engaged.

Brian Phillips is well known in publishing circles; yet, as he tells us in his preface, for almost as long as he has been involved in publishing, he has been the owner or part-owner of a large number of race horses. It was only a matter of time before his two passions would combine to produce this book.

2

Anthologies that pursue a single subject are designed to fill in a particular landscape as fully as possible. In this regard, Phillips’s anthology is timely in a number of respects. It arrives as the racing world is in decline. A good part of it feels distant, almost archaeological. As one historian said memorably of the nation not so long ago, but the remark strikes me as equally applicable to horse racing, “its glorious future is in the past”. For that reason, the arrival of First Past the Post reminds me of the collegial spirit behind a festschrift, where one is honoured by his or her colleagues for a lifetime contribution. Though I want to quickly add that First Past the Post is a good deal more rewarding.

The collection begins and ends with two short stories: “Winning” by Chris Else and Maurice Gee’s “The Losers”. While Gee’s strikes me as being close to a local masterpiece, it makes perfect sense to begin with Else’s story. “Winning” reminds us that taking a punt is really a way of relishing and exercising a dream. With the sniff of winning, the main character of Else’s story becomes wildly speculative. If he wins, why, anything is possible. A trip to Hawaii, even. The race course, we are reminded, encourages the semi-serious punter to Think Big in a way that the trip between the house and the railway station never quite achieves. On the other hand, at least the modest commuter gets to keep his shirt.

Look to “The Losers” for racing’s failed constituency:

He entered a grey dizzying whirl made up of all he had never won and never achieved, a past of loss and failure, of small grimy winnings, a past of cheap beds and dirty sheets and bad food, of cards, smoky rooms, overflowing ashtrays, of women you could only want when you were drunk…

 

If Else’s characters lean only gently on the door of racing’s possibilities, Gee’s characters have made the mistake of throwing themselves headlong through it and wanting too much back. We find ourselves agreeing with Mrs Mellon as she observes the horses entering the birdcage: “there was something really graceful and exciting about it all. The worms in the apple were the people.”

For just as many others, of course, racing means an occasional flutter and a different way to light up a life. Actually owning a piece of the action is apparently more exciting than simply witnessing the action. There’s a very funny contribution by Kerre Woodham on the dubious pleasures of owning “10 percent” of a horse with “a big bum”. “‘She’s a big girl,’ said the trainer. ‘She needs time to grow into herself.’ This is a concept I understand.” I wonder if Ms Woodham read Frank Sargeson’s recommendation which appears in these same pages: “There ought to be a rule that in every other race owners must ride their horses.”

An extract from Barbara Anderson’s Long Hot Summer celebrates a beach race: “This is how races should be seen. Only yards from the action, close to the sweat and oaths of the protagonists, on a course encompassed by sea, sky, hills and sheep.” The fictional voices in the beach race crowd are followed by the historical footage of “Racing at Matakana Island”, where local Maori used to train their horses on the beaches and the sand tracks and swim their horses across the tidal waters. There is something gloriously home-made, even fabulous, about an ancient pa site providing a “panoramic grandstand” for a beach horse race, and a makeshift tote ringing to the jingle of an old alarm clock; a course marked by manuka stakes, and two ti-trees a chain apart to represent the finish line.

The pieces selected by Brian Phillips range over the century and plot the changing attitudes to racing. Chris Bourke takes us to race day at the Chatham Islands Jockey Club, the second oldest racing club in New Zealand, where beer is sold from “ice-filled crayfish buckets” and on-course bookies, licensed for the day, offer the best divvies to the kids. There’s the gradual sidelining of colourful bookmakers with names such as “Boaz” and “Shakespeare” to the rise of the totalisator. In 1911, bookmakers working the Takapuna race course for a final time, were farewelled by the band playing “We parted on the Shore”. The bookies simply moved underground; by 1946 their annual turnover was estimated to be in the area of 24 million pounds. We can take that for what it is – a guesstimate. Underground activity never discloses its whole. Still, as an indication of horse racing’s place in the community, after the war an extraordinary 56 percent of the electoral roll turned out to decide on a government-sponsored off-course betting scheme which was to see the birth of the TAB.

The roll-call of “racing personalities” dutifully includes a piece on Linda Jones whose fame, Mary Mountier notes here, rests on a career lasting little more than 18 months, “of which she actually rode for just nine. In that time she brought home 65 winners.” This achievement was enough to win her a spot on “This is your Life” in Australia, “the only New Zealander not resident in Australia to be so honoured.”

All in all, the track world with its “aristocracy and commoners, brahmans and untouchables” (Gee) and the horses with their “curious, languid, waggle-arsed walk” (Else) emerge with enhanced reputation, particularly to a non-racing reader such as myself – if only for the fact that  First Past the Post has succeeded in putting the whole colourful show on the track at one time.

 

Lloyd Jones’s most recent novel, The Book of Fame, is reviewed on p5.

 

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review, Short stories and Sport
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