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Feature article - Horse Racing
Take a tip from Murphy, by Belinda Levez

Murphy’s law states ‘If anything can go wrong it will go wrong’. It’s creator, U.S. Air Force Captain Ed Murphy, could easily have been talking about horse racing. You spend hours studying the form, sorting out the best jockey and assessing the weights. You pick out the most promising horse. Confident in your selection, you place your bet. Since it can’t fail to lose, you bet a pot of money on it. Then you sit back and wait for it to pass the winning post. Suddenly just when you least expect it up pops Murphy’s Law.

There’s a long list of things that can and do go wrong in horseracing. Horses can be temperamental creatures. Just getting a reluctant horse into the starting stalls can sometimes be a problem. The handlers do their best but are no match for a four legged equivalent of the karate kid. Once safely installed the danger isn’t over. The horses can thrash around injuring either themselves or the jockey. On occasion they dig their feet in and simply refuse to race. When I was a betting shop manager in the 80’s, Vodkatini was a horse that was notorious for refusing to race. There was always a last minute rush of bets if the horse decided to co-operate and run.

Jockey error is another cause for concern. The jockey’s actions may result in a horse being disqualified. Races are run at a fast pace with the jockeys making split second decisions. Their actions can result in other horses being impeded, which may lead to disqualification. Taking the wrong course can end up with the jockey facing a ban of several days. Even the most successful jockeys are not immune to making mistakes. Willie Shoemaker is famous for both winning and losing the Kentucky Derby. In 1957 he was in the lead when he mistook a trackside pole for the finishing post. He stood up in his stirrups confident that he had won the race and was overtaken by Iron Liege who went on to win by a nose.

Jump races pose all sorts of problems. You can train a horse to jump but have no guarantee that it will co-operate on race day and actually go over the fences. If the ground is wet a perfectly good horse may simply slip and unseat its jockey. At other times a horse may take a dislike to the jockey and throw him or her off. Once a horse has lost its rider it can cause all sorts of mayhem by bringing down others. A skilled jockey may do his best to avoid any trouble. But with no one to steer a loose horse it can career and bump into others, costing them a place in the winner’s enclosure.

Sometimes events conspire to make a complete mockery of horse racing. What can be worse than seeing your horse cross the finishing line, the apparent winner only to have the race declared void. This happened with the most famous race in the world. The Grand National, run at Aintree in England, is a gruelling four and a half mile steeplechase over thirty notoriously difficult fences. In 1993, a field of forty runners lined up at the start. A demonstration by animal rights protesters led to a false start. The horses were lined up again only to experience a second false start. This time half the field took off. There was no way to recall the runners. Nine went on to complete the race, which was won by jockey John White on Esha Ness. After a steward’s enquiry the race was declared void. Trainer Jenny Pitman was in tears, so too I expect were all the punters who had backed Esha Ness. However it wasn’t all bad news for the punters. The bookmakers had to refund £75 million that was staked on the race. Safeguards have now been put in place to ensure it doesn’t happen again. A case of shutting the stable door after the proverbial horse has bolted.

Sometimes completely mysterious things happen. In 1956 backers of Devon Loch, a horse owned by the Queen Mother, seemed certain of a win. Jockey Dick Francis was in the lead and had a mere fifty yards to go to victory. Suddenly the horse appeared to jump a phantom fence. With its front and rear legs splayed, it spectacularly belly flopped on to the course. The race has been analysed again and again with no one able to pinpoint the exact cause.

All this proves that there’s no such thing as a sure thing. With so many unpredictable things capable of happening, it pays to be cautious with your bets. If you’re ever tempted to stake your life savings on a horse, just spare a thought for Murphy.

(C) © Belinda Levez 2001 All rights reserved.

Belinda Levez is a former croupier with London’s top clubs and author of the Teach Yourself How to Win series of books.

[Article submitted June 2004]

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