The Grand National is one of the most exciting races in the world, and from the bookmakers’ point of view one of the most remunerative.  There are usually well over 40 runners (the record for horse races everywhere is 66 runners in the 1929 Grand National) but the number of falls can put half the horses out of the race.  A Liverpool bookmaker told me that, if he could attend only one more race before he died, he would choose the national “because at least I’d be sure of making my funeral expenses.”

The same bookie also mentioned that, in his poker experience, “more people stick a pin into the list of runners for the National than any other race I known.  They bet blind.” But, with this race, such a method of choosing a horse to bet on seems to be as useful as any: the 1963 winner was a “long shot,” with odds of 66 to 1 against its winning; and the 1962 winner carried odds of 44 to 1.

There is an American Grand National(held at Belmont Park, N.Y.) that tempts over 1,000,000 people into making bets totaling over $ 113,000,000.  France’s steeple chasing counterpart to the National is the Grand Steeple de Paris, which is run at Auteuil and can draw about 30,000 spectators and the equivalent of over $ 12,000,000 in betting money annually.  Incidentally,  that bookmaker whom I quoted before told me that in his experience the French bet on the Grand Steeple in a much less haphazard fashion than the British do on the National: “The Steeple de Paris public knows its horses like nobody else.  You wouldn’t find many of them pricking race cards with a pin.”)


Originally, steeplechases were improvised cross-country runs over hedges and ditches to some convenient landmark (often a church steeple).  These three illustrations (from an 1893 edition of the British magazine  Sporting life) record an early steeplechase that was run from an army barracks (left) over fields and fences (below left) to the village church (below).

As all the figures that I have been quoting indicate, there is nothing like the sight of some horses thundering along an enclosed track for emptying people’s pockets.  In fact, in many countries more money goes on horse racing than on any other form of gambling.  Britain, for instance, spends over $ 900,000,000 annually on the horses; the next most popular form of gambling, grey hound racing, draws only $ 450,000,000.  Australia is proportionately even keener than Britain; it spends about $ 850,000,000 on horse racing and about $ 400,000,000 on all other forms of gambling combined.

In 1960, 46,000,000 Americans placed over $ 3,000,000,000 on the horses in legal bets (i.e., through the facilities provided on the tracks).  The amount bet illegally (through off-track betting with bookmakers )cannot be determined exactly.  Estimates range from $ 7,000,000,000 to $ 50,000,000,000; the true figure is probably somewhere in between.  Canada, a small country in terms of population, spends about $ 200,000,000 legally each year on pari-mutuel horse-racing bets.

The highest gambling expenditure in many European countries goes on various forms of lotteries and pools (see Chapter 10).  West Germany, for instance, is extremely lottery conscious: Gamblers there spend the equivalent of over $ 50,000,000 annually on lotteries and pools, and only about $ 10,000,000 on horse racing.  Italy spends the equivalent of over $ 75,000,000 on various lotteries in a year, more than 13 times the amount bet on the horses.  In France, however, the equivalent of over $ 400,000,000 is staked yearly on the horses, while the national lottery draws only the equivalent of about $ 150,000,000.

The start of a finish harness race.  In the background is a tote board.  All racing bets in Finland must go through the tote, since bookmakers are illegal (as they are in many European countries).


Eager race goers crowd below a huge tote board in the parade ring at Japan’s Fuchu track-scene of the annual Japanese Derby.  Above, two standard American tote tickets include a heart and other symbols to deter forgers.

In countries like Britain, France, and America, where horse racing has been a top betting draw for a great many years, traditions have grown up that have made the race track into a world of its own a world as unique and self-sustaining as a high-class monte carlo casino, but by no means as exclusive.  A would-be race-track bettor needs to know how to use the highly streamlined betting facilities; and he must become familiar with some of the jargon and with the roles of some of this world’s permanent denizens.

First, the bettor must learn where to find the information he needs in order to place his bet.  He can turn to the sports pages of the newspapers of the day, which in most racing centers provide complete lists of the day’s horses, jockeys, their past form, and tips (i.e., “selections”) on likely winners.  Or he can look at one of the more specialist publications- like the Daily Racing Form, an American newspaper dedicated entirely to the nation’s horse racing.  Britain’s enthusiasts turn to the daily Sporting Chronicle or The Racing Calendar.

Also, spectators at most race tracks can buy programs that list the horses for each race by numbers, the jockeys (giving their weights and colors), the owners and trainers, a selection of horses likely to finish first, second and third in each race- and even such specialized pieces of information as equipment changes: for example, if a horse is running in blinker for the first time or has had blinkers removed for the first time.

A grandstand view of a typical American tote board.  The board has been labeled to show the information displayed on each section: For example, the money that has been placed by bettors on various horses “to show”-i.e ., to finish either first, second, or third.

One of the most colorful (if not the most reliable) kinds of assistance that a las vegas gamblers can get in choosing his horse comes from the tipsters, or touts, who make a living by selling tips on likely winners and other information that, they assure their customers, comes “straight from the stables.”  (It seldom does; racing authorities generally ensure that the people directly concerned with the horses keep any information they have to themselves.) Tipsters are not of course dishonest: Their knowledge of the racing world can make some of their advice more valuable to a bettor than sticking a pin into the program.  And, even if they’re wrong every time, no race track would be the same without them.  Every tipster looks for a gimmick to distinguish him from his rivals, and some have thus become world famous –like Prince Monolulu, an impressive Maori whose exotic robes and business call of “I gotta horse, I gotta horse” are known on every racecourse in England and are the joy of thousands of visitors.

Aside from the newspapers and tipsters, the racegoer gets the basic information he needs in order to bet (i.e., the odds give on the horses) from the same apparatus with which he makes his bet-the totalizator (or “tote” machine ).  The original tote- a hand-operate calculating machine – was first used to operate a pari-mutuel betting system in New Zealand in 1880.  In 1913 (also in New Zealand) an electrical calculator was put into use for the same purpose; and in this form the totalizator came to Europe in 1928, when it was tried out at France’s Long champs track.  England adopted it two years later, and used it first at New market and the Northolt greyhound track.  A similar machine was produced independently in America in 1932, and this machine in turn was developed into the complex electronic computer that it is today.

            The totalizator is a nearly fraud-proof method of distributing the wealth acquired from the bettors according to the pari-mutuel system (which was devised in 1872 by a French chemist named Pierre Oller).  As the name indicates (pari, wager, mutue, among us all) the system is based on a pooling of the total amount staked by the players, and an equitable distribution of the pool among the winners (less a proportion deducted to pay the government’s tax).  The intricate mathematics that are required to make the distribution equitable are less important to the average gambler than is the fact that they work.  The computer that is the tote rarely errs and never cheats.

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