I’ve always had mixed feelings about thoroughbred flat track and steeplechase racing. Many of the horses probably like it on some level, but they get hurt and killed too (though others retire to the greenest of all pastures). It seems to be mainly about idle amusement and gambling addictions, with the burden on the beasts. Historic and gorgeous Saratoga Springs is nearby though—the track there being voted one of the top ten sports venues in the world—and I’ve begun to enjoy going up with my wife and father-in-law, who are longtime fans. I’ve even developed a pretty good long odds system that does not require tons of research and fretting. Hit a $400 triple on a $2 bet last time.
Anyway, two things led to the abandonment of yet another personal moral boycott. Traveling around Ireland some years back, we spent time in a slow-serving pub whose walls were plastered with interesting framed clippings on various derby races. It somehow seemed richer than my admittedly limited knowledge of American racing traditions, from the myth of Seabiscuit to the preoccupation with winning the elusive Triple Crown. Not long after, I ran into an unusual yard sale in the boondocks far from home, and the eccentric proprietress hinted at further riches inside the house. During a private appointment some months later, she produced a thick black binder of British horse racing photos, I expressed minor interest, along with major interest in another item actually of little interest, and the price barriers were hurdled. This prize languished at home for some months before I finally made a project of it.
These turned out to be hundreds of glossy captioned newspaper file photos, mostly from the late 1960s and ‘70s, averaging about 8” by 10” in size. Most are stamped Syndication International of London (“This photograph must not be used for advertising”), which distributed them to Photo Trends of New York (“For onetime editorial use only. Pix must be returned used or unused”). There were no clues about who amassed rather than returned these, but he or she was clearly in a related industry, such as sportswriting. They are all great photos, as this representative sampling demonstrates, because they made the editorial cut to begin with. The distraction of color is stripped from evocative black and white images, and many of these are all the more intense because of the high monetary and mortal stakes involved. Be warned that some are pretty graphic.
File photo hounds love the captions on the reverse too, but some of the scans are not clear enough, others were faded to begin with, and there is only so much room, so in most cases excerpts appear with the images when you click to enlarge. I kind of got sucked into the whole milieu though, as British horse racing captions are like little well-written history lessons sprinkled with humor and social commentary. Lester Piggott on Dahlia beats out the Queen’s horse Highclere in the richest ever race in Britain, “But she didn’t seem to mind as she gave Lester right royal congratulations.” Jockey Willie Carson advises visiting American upstart Steve Cauthen to “Follow me, but not too close.” Blakeney’s owner “earned himself a special place in horserace history by becoming the first man to breed, train and own a Derby winner since 1908.” “No doubt about it, Australian jockey George Moore is the punters’ pet. He took over the title on Wednesday (7-6-67) when he rode Derby favorite Royal Palace to victory at Epsom. George’s win has got the bookies really worried. Some of them have laid 1000-1 against him winning the five Classic races. George has won three already.” “National Hunt Jockey John Buckingham sprang to fame back in 1967 when he won the coveted Grand National steeplechase classic at Aintree. Admittedly he was lucky then, for that was the year of the fantastic incident when almost the entire field crashed at one fence—the leaders falling and bringing down the rest in a scene of unbelievable chaos.
Buckingham, near the back on the unfancied, unheard of horse Foinavon suddenly appeared, picked his way carefully through the wreckage, and came home alone to win. In spite of his luck, it didn’t make the remaining fences any less massive, and he required all his skill, with sensitive fingers playing on reins as if they were butterfly wings, knees exerting only gentle persuasive pressure, and a subtle shift of weight, to bring Foinavon home for a remarkable victory. But when Buckingham took part in a Donkey Derby at Stoneleigh, Warwickshire, he found that skill was of no use whatsoever. In company with three other top jockeys, Buckingham was taking part to raise money to repair the village church. Faced with a particularly obstinate mount, Buckingham tried everything he knew to coax the donkey over a small obstacle. He cuddled it, whispered into its ear—no doubt promising the proverbial carrot. But it all got him nowhere, and the race was won by a 16-year-old girl who galloped home with lengths to spare.”
In many cases I felt the need or desire for more information. When the location of champion Red Rum’s half-size bronze statue “was to have taken pride of place in Lord Street, at the heart of Southport’s shopping district,” but was relegated by the town council to a covered arcade off the main street instead, the owner and trainer did not attend the unveiling. “Red Rum has done more for Southport than anybody. It is disgraceful that his statue should be [illegible].” I wondered what those last two or three captioned words were, if Red Rum’s people actually boycotted or were just busy elsewhere, if the council changed its plans because the statue did not come out very well, and where it stands today. A nice linked Wikipedia entry with a photo of the still-arcaded Southport statue provides the following. “Red Rum was bred at Rossenarra Stud in Kells, County Kilkenny, Ireland by Martyn Molony and started off in life running in cheap races as a sprinter. After being passed from training yard to training yard, he found his footing when Liverpool car dealer Ginger McCain bought him for his client Noel Le Mare and famously trained the horse on the sands at Southport, Merseyside. McCain, who also won the Grand National in 2004 with Amberleigh House, took Red Rum for a therapeutic swim in the sea off Southport before every Grand National—Red Rum suffered most of his life from a debilitating, incurable bone disease in his foot.” Red Rum is said to be the most famous racehorse the world has ever seen. He lived to the age of thirty, and is buried near the final post at Aintree where he won three Grand Nationals and placed second in two others.
Googling some faded spellings of personal names, it seems the controversy is still alive all these years later, according to a 2004Guardian piece which is conflated into one paragraph here. “He was the only horse to win the Grand National three times; he was once crowned BBC Sports Personality of the Year (despite being equine) and he appeared at the switch-on of Blackpool illuminations. But people who worked with him say the bronze half life-sized statue of Red Rum looks more like a donkey. Now the statue is at the centre of an extraordinary spat after plans were announced to move it temporarily to an exhibition of Red Rum memorabilia at Newmarket. Ginger McCain, Red Rum’s trainer, and his wife Beryl say the National Horseracing Museum in Suffolk should not borrow the statue for its forthcoming exhibition. Mrs McCain said: ‘We will not have that statue in the exhibition. It is absolutely dreadful. Nobody in the horseracing industry likes it. It doesn’t even look like him—it looks more like a donkey.’ The statue, housed in a shopping arcade in Southport, Merseyside, was described by Mr McCain when it was unveiled in 1979 as ‘a bit plump and heavy.’ He added that the horse looked ‘thick-set and short.’ But it is incredibly popular, drawing hundreds of fans every year who pay homage to the great horse and occasionally leave packets of his favourite sweets, Polo mints. Annette Yarrow, the sculptor of the bronze, said yesterday: ‘He certainly does not look like a donkey and there are many other people who were very happy with it. One of the problems at the time was about the cost, but I did it at cost price.’ Fans called for a life-size model which was later installed at Aintree racecourse. It is the only statue which has been approved by the McCains. Hilary Bracegirdle, director of the National Horseracing Museum, said the row put her in an awkward position: ‘I think the difficulty is if you love horses then you know them to be as individual as your own son’s face. Clearly, Mr McCain is very passionate about Red Rum and feels it hasn’t done him justice. It is a terribly difficult position for me to be in and I had absolutely no idea they didn’t approve of the statue.’” Looks like Hilary Bracegirdle didn’t do all of her homework, wot?
Newspaper file photos are fairly uncommon. Only so many were distributed, and most of those have been discarded over the years. The medium is very sturdy if cared for correctly, but quite fragile if not. In terms of value, very specific topics with easily searchable terms do well. The champion “Shergar” will sell, for example, where “horse racing photo” will get left in the dust. Look for captioned file photos in good condition, complete with legible names and dates. Earlier file photo captions were on strips of paper taped to the reverse, while newer examples are usually printed right on the reverse. EBay is still your best bet for marketing photographica that is somewhere between very good and stellar, and if you have many examples to offer in the same subject area run them consecutively and build up a following. Most of these horsey pics went to England, and they averaged around $25 each, with many in excess of $100, up to around $300. That will buy a lot of $2 bets and cold beers next August.
Shawn Purcell operates Balopticon Books & Ephemera and can be contacted at http://www.balopticon.com.