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Monday, January 15, 2007

Thirsty Horses and Untrustworthy Friends

- While walking to the beach a week ago Sunday, on my first day of our third trip to the idyllic island nation of Antigua, I realized that I was wearing a Daily Racing Form T-shirt, a Saratoga baseball cap, and I was carrying a Dick Francis novel. I love racing and I'm certainly not ashamed of that, but I must admit that I felt like a bit of a nerd. I would have changed shirts, but I found that most of the selection was also racing related; so I took off the book cover.

I'd actually never read a Dick Francis novel before. I got it at Christmas. One of the things about being known amongst the Head Chef's family as a, well, racing nerd, is that most all of the gifts that I get during the annual Xmas grab bag are racing related. Actually, they've all been racing related books. Nobody has ever thought to get me a gift certificate at OTB. I've received a paperback copy of Kevin Conley's fine Stud, which I already had in hard cover. I have on my shelf Racing Through the Century - The Story of Thoroughbred Racing in America, a selection from Bloodhorse entitled the Top 100 Thoroughbreds of the Century (and I'm pretty sure that I know somebody who just wrote the same book for someone else), and something called Great Horse Racing Mysteries - True Tales from the Track, which, now that I've actually opened it up to look at after two years, actually looks pretty interesting and seems like a possibility for tne next trip.

Under Orders is Francis' latest novel - he's written over 40 books according to the notes. It was fine as a beach read, taking me a bit over two days to get through the 308 pages. Even the Head Chef read it, though she'd never admit that to her stuffy book group, and she complained that she found it sexist.

Most interestingly to me, Francis brings up some salient points about the easy opportunity for chicanery created by some internet wagering sites; specifically the betting exchanges. (Here I'll supply the standard SPOILERS ALERT for anyone planning on reading the book, which just came out last September. Though I promise I'm not going to spoil the whodunit part.) Behind all the murder and mayhem is a race tampering scheme that seems altogether possible.

As to the question of Internet "exchanges," as used for betting on horse racing and other sports, I concluded that the scope for criminal activity was no more prevalent than that which existed regular bookmaker-based gambling. The significant difference was that whereas in the past only licensed bookmakers were effectively betting on a horse to lose, anyone could now do so by "laying" an horse on the exchagnes. It was potentially easier to ensure a horse lost a race than won it. Overtraining it too close to a race, or simply by keeping it thirsty for a while and then giving it a bellyful of water just before the off, were both sure ways to slow an animal down. Speeding it up was far more difficult, and far more risky.
Indeed, the villanous race-fixer in Francis' novel is an assistant trainer who denies the horses water after feeding them oats and horse cubes which make them thirsty. "It was dead easy."

In this fictional case, info on the parched horses was conveyed to an owner of a betting exchange, who adjusted his odds to attract unaware bettors. But even without that plot twist, Francis points out how simple it's become for someone to profit on the knowledge of one horse that's not well-intended, without the need for risky medications or wild conspiracies. I don't know if Francis' water torture scenario is realistic, but a too-fast or too-slow works are among what I imagine are several drug-free methods to lessen a horse's chances. Of course, you won't make the same kind of money as you would fixing a triple at Great Lakes Downs, but I imagine one could crank out some steady income.

And as far as any laws against a trainer or owner 'laying' their horse on an exchange, Francis writes: Some trusty friend was all he had needed. Even untrustworthy friends would do it for a cut of the winnings.

5 Comments:

robin said...

What a coincidence. I was given UNDER ORDERS a month ago and also read it in two days in the Carribean (different island...,) also my first Dick Francis novel. Then I read THE EDGE, TEN POUND PENALTY, and BREAK IN. Now I'm into BOLT. I like very much how DF weaves racing issues of competition, risk, and greed, into larger problems, crimes, and the hero's ultimate triumpth of fair play, however unrealistic it might seem. He broadens the meaning of the sport to reflect the far reaches of human nature.

alan said...

Robin -

Thanks for checking in with that. There are so many titles I don't know where to start, so I'll start with your suggestions. Though I don't have any upcoming vacations during which to read them in two days!

Nellie said...

A couple of years ago I picked up a mystery by Jon L. Breen at a library sale, which was decent - "Triple Crown", which I actually lent to my father (he is usually the one to pass along books, so that I did this AND he enjoyed it is highly unusual). Also, my personal favorite for mysteries, Erle Stanley Gardner, did a Perry Mason with a racehorse, but I forget the title.

So, at last, my question... I'm a somewhat obssessive reader, always out for suggestions. Dick Francis always catches my eye when I need something to read, but the sheer volume holds me back. See, I'm really anal about watching/reading stuff in order, because I get confused really easily... so, are these books part of a series, or do they stand alone (or is it a mix)? In other words, can I just read the back, pick out the most interesting one the store has, and dive right in? Or should I just pass? There's nothing I hate more than starting a series and being unable to find #16 or something (who, me, anal retentive? never!)...

robin said...

They are not a series. He has different protagonists, but you can read any book on its own and lose nothing. I have been reading them out of order and so far it has not ruined my life.

Nellie said...

Thanks, Robin - next time I have the opportunity, I'll pick one up. It's just so hard to tell... some series are fine, but some wind up giving away plot points, etc. Patricia Cornwell is one that threw me for a tailspin - he's dead! no, he's not! (check pub date) he's ... undead?