- Horse Racing and British Society in the Long Eighteenth Century by Mike Huggins
Readers seeking insight into the history of British horse racing will find a "sure thing" when they open the newest historical treatise on racing from Mike Huggins, emeritus professor of cultural history at the University of Cumbria in England. Thoroughly researched and meticulously documented, Huggins's latest book successfully combines developments affecting the sport over a period of more than one hundred years, while still providing meticulous details of both famous and forgotten racecourses, gentrified owners, clever trainers, brave jockeys, and legendary horses. He re-creates what it might have been like to spend a day—or, more likely for the time—a week of one's newly found leisure time at an English race meet, a destination event with something for everyone, regardless of class, income, political affiliation, location, and even knowledge of or affection for a horse.
The hardcover edition book is handsomely packaged in a durable jacket illustrated front and back with art depicting both racing officials and bookmaking scenes at Newmarket from the Paul Mellon Collection of the Yale Center for British Art. Huggins's nine-page bibliography of primary sources is appended by thirteen pages of secondary citations. He eschews the expectable chronology of racing in favor of a more complex analysis of not who won or lost but literally how, where, when, and by whom the game itself was enjoyed and expanded. His accessible writing style makes this book an enjoyable read, with content of value for both the sport historian and the contemporary equine sport scientist. Armed with the facts, figures and pedigrees of racing during the era known as the "long eighteenth century" (from the coronation of William and Mary in 1688 to the English victory at Waterloo in 1815), Huggins documents how political, gaming, and social forces influenced horsemen, horse owners, and bettors to establish rules and customs, some of which survive to the present.
While most historical volumes focus on the dedicated attention the gentry paid to bloodstock research, Huggins's pages describe the contributions of elite stud owners as well as the new racecourse officials, jockeys, trainers, grooms, and, especially, the betting [End Page 419] public and early sport followers, who together turned a gentleman's game into a national obsession. The sociology of the wagering racing fan is important. With the rise of a new professional class in Britain, men of rising means might be able to buy horses or "win big," to the detriment of sportsmen far above them in social standing. Large amounts of money might flow up or down between the classes at the end of a race. A basic fact of racing is that, if someone wins, someone else has to lose, and losses were (and still are) expensive and often humiliating in the public arena of trackside betting.
Huggins shares research into the condescending slur of "blacklegs," originally a label for working-class card sharks and later used to describe strikebreakers. At the track, the risky antics of race-day bettors described as "blacklegs" had the power to change the fates of high-stakes gamblers and gentlemen (98–102). Although the Darley Arab and others are certainly covered, attention is devoted to details such as maintenance of the racecourse turf itself. Rules made breaking the track's boundary cords an offense prosecutable "with the full vigour of the law" (196). Before the Ascot meet in 1711, course tenders toiled under the master of the horse for two months to prepare, flatten, and roll the turf. By 1777, Epsom was charging owners five shillings to cover course and rail repair.
Earlier, owners had ridden their horses themselves, but, in this era, the bettor began to identify with and champion the often lowly born jockey who represented a stable—as long as he kept his weight down. As the long century progressed, jockeys became celebrities; by 1794, many could be identified from afar by their stables' signature colorful, lightweight...