There are few sights uglier than the finish of a horse race. Atop each elegant, patient beast, straining to do its best and bearing 85 per cent of the risk, perches a diminutive specimen of the hairless ape, crouched in a foetal posture, flailing away with a whip and, if successful, yelling in triumph at a victory that he is only partly entitled to claim.
The jockey may be the salt of the earth; the horse might be an intractable brute that kicks the stable boys and bites its trainer; the use of the whip is – supposedly – regulated. Nevertheless, this stereotypical image is disquieting. It is the misfortune of the horse that it can run fast – something that excites mankind’s basest passions. Christopher McGrath’s book amply testifies to the fact that the history of horse racing is one of fraud, villainy and considerable cruelty. Because horses are beautiful and because their speed is sensational, they shed glamour over the human shenanigans clustered round the business of racing. There is nothing ‘glamorous’ about ‘the turf’. From the dodges of trainers and owners down to the financial dealings of the betting industry, horse racing is remorselessly seedy.
The unlikely outcome of it all is something close to perfection: the thoroughbred horse. McGrath starts his history with an Arabian stallion imported by Thomas Darley in 1704. Tracing the line through a further twenty-five stallions, he reaches Frankel in the 21st century, perhaps the finest racehorse ever to have