Even though the cold winds sometimes pinched your cheeks until they were blue, it was a fine thing to be out on the Carholme in the closing days of March when the Lincolnshire Handicap—first big race of the British flat-racing year—was run off.
The Handicap hasn't been run at Lincoln since 1964 (it's at Doncaster now, and they call it the Lincoln), but it still marks the beginning of the season, with all of the racing man's joys and sorrows, his stimulating surprises and his agonizing disappointments lying ahead. Every racing sportsman's blood tingles with hope and anticipation as the Handicap entries go to the post. The Lord only knows what the season may have in store for him, but there he is, happy after a winter of discontent, and to the devil with the cares of tomorrow!
That was always the spirit animating the crowds at Lincoln in the old days. It was one of the happiest and most genuinely sporting crowds that could be encountered.
It has often been remarked how racing nearly always flourishes best in the neighborhood of Britain's historic cathedral cities. It was a noble thing to start the season close by Lincoln's ancient cathedral. "Lincoln was, and London is" is an old saying, and even the most phlegmatic of racing men felt something of the old traditions when he went down there to start afresh at the beginning of the year.
King James I used to see the horse racing at Lincoln. We are told that one April day in 1617 "there was a great horse-race on the Heath for a cupp, where His Majesty was present and stood on a scaffold the citie had caused to be set up, and withall caused the race a quarter of a mile long to be raled and corded with ropes and hoopes on both sides whereby the people were kept out and the horses that ronned were seen faire."
There was a spirit of fair play in these early races that seems to have been lost. The fifth clause in a code that was established for their conduct, bearing the date 1715, enacts that, "If anye of the matched horses or their riders chaunce to fall in anye of the foure heats, the rest of the riders shall staye in their places where they were at the time of the falle untill the rider so fallen have his foote in the stirrupe again."
A decayed and crumbling newssheet tells us about one race that took place in 1744. "They write from Lincoln," the sheet reports, "that on Thursday, seven night, there was a very extraordinary horse-race on the course of that City, between a six-year-old horse belonging to Southcote Parker, of Blyborough, esquire, and one aged twenty-one years, belonging to Gilbert Caldecote, of Lincoln, esquire. They ran fourteen miles round the said course, and performed it in thirty-nine minutes for one hundred guineas, which was won by only a horse length by Parker's horse. There were great wagers laid, and the greatest concourse of people ever seen there on such an occasion."
The modern era of racing at Lincoln dated from about the middle of the last century. The first Handicap was run at the track in 1853.
At first this great race had trouble establishing its importance and interest. But its prospects brightened quickly, and the '70s were the palmy days of the Lincolnshire Handicap. Even today there is as much heavy betting on it as on any other race of its class, and a great deal more than on most. On various occasions the longest odds of all have been brought home safely in it. One such was the victory of the horse Oberon in 1887.
Oberon was running on behalf of ""Mr. Manton," a nom de guerre of Her Grace, the Duchess of Montrose, otherwise known as the Red Duchess from her partiality to that particular color.
Before the 1887 race at Lincoln the duchess had spent the winter abroad, and all the time she was away she sent a continual stream of written inquiries to her trainer, a man named Taylor, as to what the chances of her Oberon were. When her letters produced no replies, or at least no satisfactory information, the duchess began to telegraph. As the day of the race approached, these telegrams became more insistent. She wanted to know whether Oberon was likely to win or not. It was not until the very day before the race that her trainer permitted himself to frame a telegram to his patron, saying simply, THINK OBERON HAS A GOOD CHANCE.
That telegram, when received, electrified the duchess. She packed her bags and was on her hasty way to England within the hour. More than anything she wanted to get to Lincoln in time to see her horse run, but Oberon's number as the winner had been hoisted an hour before she arrived. What's more, the horse had come in at 50 to 1!
For the time being, however, the pleasure of her victory was dimmed for the duchess by the fact that she had been absent, and she was in a bad temper when she sought out the trainer. She found him in the paddock, and there heaped coals of fury and indignation upon his head, because he had not made an earlier reply to the telegrams she had sent.
Cooling down at last, and perhaps feeling that, after all, she had a lot to be thankful for, she patted the patient Alec Taylor on the shoulder and remarked soothingly, "You know, I think you're a pretty good trainer after all." "I'd like," he answered with a dour smile, "to see you find a better—at 50 to 1."
Nowadays thousands of punters, eager for such odds, couple what they hope will be the winner of the Lincoln with what they hope will be the winner of the Grand National. And, win or lose, a little later on they will have another playful double on the Cesarewitch and the Cambridgeshire.
One of the biggest of these parlays occurred just 20 years ago. Early that year a punter dropped in at one of Britain's biggest turf companies and asked what odds he could have about Jockey Treble winning the Lincolnshire and Double Sam winning the Grand National. He wanted a double.
"We lay you 50,000 to 1," he was told.
"Right," said the backer. "I'll take ¬£300,000 to ¬£6."
We can imagine the punter's feelings when Jockey Treble won the Lincoln. Ii only wanted Double Sam to oblige and he would be one of the richest men in the country—all for ¬£6 and a bit of sporting pluck.
But, as punters will, he started worrying about that ¬£300,000, so near and yet so far away, and finally decided to hedge half his bet with the bookmaker.
He laid off (accepted bets) on Double Sam to the tune of ¬£150,000 to ¬£1,500. And when poor old Sam failed to win the National the backer's double was "bust" but he was richer by ¬£1,500 less his ¬£6 stake. Which is not bad gambling.
The man who started the playful double was tall, jovial Joe Thompson, who in 1880 worked his passage to Australia with his brother Barney. Most of the Australian banks crashed in 1889 and the brothers returned to England, where Joe set up a bookmaking business in Jermyn Street, London, in competition with the big layers who dominated the turf at that time.
At first you could have 100 to 1 or more against any two horses you cared to name, run or not.
For a time all went well with Joe until he met a client whose luck was just about phenomenal. Joe started by laying this backer, Raymond Langley, ¬£5,000 to ¬£25 against Clarehaven for the Cesarewitch and Berrill for the Cambridgeshire of 1900. They both obliged, and Joe paid up.
As soon as the entries were out early the next year, up turned Mr. Langley again with Little Eva for the Lincolnshire and Grudon for the National, and this time he got ¬£4,000 to ¬£20.
When those two got home and Joe wrote out a check, he began to think that the playful double was not so playful after all.
But Mr. Langley called again. He said to Joe, "What price will you lay me Rambling Katie for the Manchester Cup and Stealaway for the Hunt Cup?"
"If I had any sense," said Joe, "I'd lay you evens," but ¬£5,000 to ¬£25 went down in his book.
Rambling Katie won the Manchester Cup, and when Stealaway took the Hunt Cup as well, Mr. Langley fainted in the Ascot stand.
"Bring him some brandy!" someone shouted.
"Brandy be damned!" replied Joe Thompson from the bookmakers' rails. "Bring him a wreath."