Horse racing

In around 1876, Charles Kingsley, in his At Last: A Christmas in the West Indies, describes a visit to the racecourse in Trinidad in Queen’s Park Savannah. He saw how the races attracted all classes and all ethnicities, at that time one of the few events apart from cricket that could make that claim. It is a patronising piece of tropical exotica that describes the singing of extempore proto-calypsos, of bawling “about island horses and Barbadian horses – for the Barbadians mustered strong, and a fight was expected, which, however, never came off…”, of “Negros” and “Coolies” mixing together but displaying their different temperaments, of the inscrutable Chinese looking on, but it casts a useful light on a cultural practice in the making. Racing as a public event went back into the 18th century in most of the larger Caribbean islands and Guyana, and there are accounts of how, even before that, Creole whites would draw up their buggies to race each other on the highways.

It is clear from Kingsley’s account that part of the attraction for attendees from the lower classes, apart from the pleasures of dressing up, of seeing and being seen and the excitement of betting, was the opportunity to cheer on the horses perceived to have some closer connection to them – in ownership or origins. It is the mixture of common interest and high partisanship that has most attracted writers to the subject, though in Roger Mais’s The Hills Were Joyful Together, probably the first fictive reference, the focus is on betting in the ghetto community, the conversation between Flitters and Surjue shining a light on both the presumed expertise and depth of knowledge – and their illusory conviction that betting offers at least momentary escape from poverty and hopelessness:

Flitters said after a bit, thoughtfully: ‘What you think of Beaverbrook in that six-furlong trip?’

‘Well, Beaverbrook is a good colt, but not in the class of Beccaquimec his sire, if that’s what you have on your mind. I give you Rock Water, and first you want Battle Song, an’ next you want Beaverbrook. If you don’t like the tip I give you suit yourself.’

‘Man, I didn’t mean it that way,’ said Flitters apologetically, and he said Surjue should know better than to think he would doubt or question his tips, and what the hell kind of a friend did he think he was, anyway.

All the same he went out and bought four win-tickets on Battle Song, at four shillings a ticket, later that day, and Battle Song came in first and paid fourteen shillings on the win-ticket, and Rock Water didn’t even place.

The same kind of focus on betting (though racing is somewhat of a double entendre) is present in Geoffrey Philp’s poem “A Day at the Races” in Hurricane Center, which begins: “you bet yu life,” the drawsy touter say,/ dunzai tight in him fist, “that likkle mare/ cyan stan up to my stallion, the mighty saga boy!”/ so I put my money where my mouth was, an stare// him down…”

More frequently, the racehorse and horse-racing has a more symbolic content. The classic episode is that in V.S. Naipaul’s The Mimic Men (1967), when K.K. Singh’s father, the civil servant in the Education Department who converts himself into Gurudeva and leads a popular working class movement into the hills, steals and sacrifices a race horse called Tamango. In the episode, Naipaul knots together several strands in the novel. The horse belongs to the French Creole Deschampneufs family, whose son is Singh’s class-mate at school. Singh is wholly alert to the contradiction between the immense popularity of horse-racing on the “sport-crazed” island of Isabella, where “boys, in the Isabellan scale no higher than grooms” talked endlessly of the “sport of kings”, and the actual race and class privilege embedded in the control of the sport, by the Cercle Sportif and the Isabella Turf Club. Singh is very much aware of the provocation of the once slave-owning Deschampneufs in calling the horse Tamango, the name of the leader of a slave revolt, no doubt unsuccessful, and disturbed that the “Negro boys were pleased”. When the horse is stolen in what is believed to be an act of protest against the Deschampneuf’s privilege, attitudes change and those who had seen the horse’s naming as a source for pride, now see it as “a provocation and an insult”. The twist in the episode, when the horse is found dead, in what Singh recognises from his reading is the ritual Aryan sacrifice of Asvamedha, is that an ancient Indian narrative has been inserted into the old, old battle between black and white. The horse is found “garlanded with marigold and faded hibiscus… Heart and entrails had been torn out; but there were flowers on the animal’s mane, flowers woven into its tail”. In Singh’s imagination the sacrifice has been “a thing of beauty, speaking of the youth of the world…of horses and warrior-youths in morning light”. In the context of Isabella’s nexus of class and race, Singh’s despair over the possibility of community, the sacrifice is “rendered obscene”; the description of the sacrifice one that arouses in him images of “rawness and violation: rubbery raw flesh, tainted holy oil.”

The symbolism of class is explored in Silvio Torres-Saillant’s Caribbean Poetics: An Aesthetic of Caribbean Literature in his discussion of the work of the Dominican Republic writer Pedro Mir. Mir’s 1977 story about a grey colt, “El potro gris” uses the race-horse as a symbol of popular desire. Torres-Saillant notes how the story relates intertextually to the fable “El potro salvaje” written by the Uruguayan Horacio Quiroga (1878-1937). Quiroga’s horse comes from the desert to the city, “runs desperately to impress managers and turfites, gains recognition at the racetrack and achieve a position of comfort and respect, but then loses its “authentic vigour” and settles into a comfortable playing to the crowd. Torres-Saillant reads this as an allegorical fable concerning “the drama of the artist who must juggle with seemingly conflicting loyalties: personal well-being, relationship with consumers, and commitment to the craft. The horse in Mir’s story, operates within a larger social and political content. He notes how in a country with an oppressive government the success of the horse cannot be seen in an unpolitical way. When the grey colt starts winning at the track, the popular masses interpret this as expressing their own wish for liberation. The people’s feelings cause the horse to be “seen ever more closely as an enemy of the government”, and the government tries to counter this by sending for the best possible horse on the international market to run against and defeat the grey colt. The racetrack becomes an arena for combat between a horse that represents the people and one that represents the regime. Fearful, the owner of the grey colt chooses to appease the government by deliberately keeping the colt from winning. Whilst the people and their horse are eclipsed for a time, the horse’s legacy lives on, and when the regime falls the people erect a monument in memory of the grey colt that consumed its heart “in the obstinate struggle against silence”.

It is unlikely that Wayne Brown had read Pablo Mir or Torres-Saillant’s account of Mir’s work, but his story, “Bring on the Trumpeters” (one of his earliest stories, written in the 1970s, and republished in The Scent of the Past: Stories and Remembrances (2011) echoes the impulses of Mir’s story in a remarkable way.

“Bring on the Trumpeters” (which also plays on the passing of time since the race course at the time of writing is no longer the place of memory, and on the complications of burgeoning adolescent sexuality as well as on the race) begins with two youths debating which horse to back, Stargazer, the local Creole horse, or The Wrag, an English horse. Rational knowledge of past form competes with emotional attachment to the local. Rupert is outraged that Jonathan should think that “a English horse mus’ always beat a local horse”, and the two fall out over that statement. Jonathan is the real horse and race lover (it “lifted him out of himself”), and he spends his time before school hanging out with the horses, jockeys, trainers and owners. For him it is the quality of the horse that is important, not what it stands for. As for Charles Kingsley, the race-track is a microcosm of class and ethnicity, and Brown’s story is a brilliant recreation of the sounds, smells, appearances and physical scrum of the crowds around the track. Jonathan places his bet on The Wrag, the English horse, but when the odds shorten on The Wrag, he starts to feel bad because he guesses there are off-track, big business interests who are betting heavily on the English horse. When the youths meet up again, Rupert advances his political argument for The Stargazer: “You don’t see what happening here today? You don’t see how this horse bring everybody together? Black, white, rich, poor, everybody unite in this horse. When last you see this place like that, everybody laughing and talking with everybody else? […] Not since Independence! You don’t see is not just a race? Everybody feeling this thing! Look around. Everybody have their money on the creole to win. Everybody excepting you.”

When the race begins, despite himself, despite his rational conviction that Stargazer, leading the field, is going too fast, not pacing himself, Jonathan cannot help being moved by the image of the horse:

“Stargazer was in front and running all by himself […] and Jonathan was struck by a kind of light, a kind of energy that played off him as he raced, and he thought, But in truth that is some horse! [He] felt a knot starting in his throat and his eyes were beginning to swim. […] He could see the depth of his chest now, and the exultation in his swift earth-pounding stride and in the way the horse kept swinging its head from side to side against the restraining of the reins, as if seeking a way to break free of them and into the pure joy of running, and Johnathan felt his insides turn over, and he whispered, ‘Christ, but he’s beautiful!’”

Of course, Stargazer fades and The Wrag comes through. What has also gone is the friendship between the youths. Jonathan dismisses Rupert’s dejection cruelly, turns his back on him, and does not see what the narrator reports on the psychic depth of Rupert’s feelings, the need located in his past: “His back was to the creature that had been Rupert, and he did not see the effect of his last remark. But I, horrified, saw. The creature that had been Rupert began to fade. It paled; it pulsed; after each pulse it was more translucent. The rusted roof of a hillside shanty swam into sight through its head; visible now through its torso, coming and going between pulses, a naked boy, armed with a stick, rolled a bicycle rim through the rain.” “Bring on the Trumpeters” is a richly complex story, well worth the reading.

In Cyril Dabydeen’s The Wizard Swami, the race horse and the climactic race give the novel a dimension beyond its otherwise lively and authentic comedy of manners, and it is clear that Dabydeen was aware of Naipaul’s The Mimic Men in his writing the novel, though his treatment of the theme is wholly different. The horse is at the heart of the novel’s concerns with the confusions between different kinds of karma in the minds of the main characters, where the inability to distinguish between the material forces of history, human will and a metaphysic of divine oversight, is explored through the motifs of destiny and providence. Destiny is both the name of the race-horse which Devan, as a failed school principal, finds himself training for his patron Mr. Bhairam, and the concept he and others constantly invoke. "Is me destiny," Devan asserts of his desired priestly role. Providence is the ironic name of the village backwater from which Devan seeks escape, and to which he returns to work out what his destiny truly is. The play between these interpretations of human purpose is summed up in Devan's relationship with the horse. As its trainer, Devan finds himself mixed up in all the contradictory forces of ethnic pluralism, secularisation and Hindu revivalism. Thus, at the race-meeting, Destiny is for some of the Hindus a flag-bearer against the collective evil of the Syndicate’s horse, (a group of Christians, Muslims and renegade Hindus) whilst for others, Destiny is a Guyanese symbol because it is “bred from the lush green grass of the mother soil in the country of many waters, sugarcane, rice, bauxite”, racing a horse from Trinidad. The race itself is portrayed through a melange of Guyanese voices, hyperbolic, ethnically competitive but bound by a common, though unrecognised, hybrid consciousness.

Devan is also torn between his personal desires and his belief in divine oversight. Both he and Mr. Bhairam see the triumph of militant Hinduism as preordained: “Our sacred religion always go be on top” Devan says, imagining the inevitability of a “little India here”. The danger of this sense of destiny is not merely its scope for sectarian intolerance, but also its derangement of truth. Mr. Bhairam, builder of little India, sends his children to school in England and hopes that they will marry there. He lets the mischievous press know that Devan, the wizard swami, has replaced his professional but Christian trainer, in order to persuade the rural Hindus to vote for him in the All India League elections. And despite knowing that Devan has no skills, he begins to convince himself that piety will triumph. Yet when the horse goes lame, it is given drugs which appear to cause its death during the race.

The horse becomes an unintended sacrifice (ironic Asvamedha) to Bhairam’s clumsy confusion between two orders of agency, the secular and the magical. However, though Bhairam’s act is unintended, the image of Destiny as vedic sacrifice has been prepared for by the poetic images which are attached to horses throughout the novel. At Pundit Gocolram’s, for example, oppressed by the “material” complications of his row with the pundit’s wife, meditating in solitary gloom, Devan's spirits are lifted by the appearance of two chestnut horses mating. He is absorbed, but embarrassed when Gocolram observes him, though the latter reassures him that this is “nature at work”. Then “like miracles” they disappear. Later at Bhairam’s, Devan is “transfixed” by Destiny, “trance-like” in front of it, fascinated by the stallion’s potence. Horses then continually appear in his dreams. When Destiny appears on the race-track, it symbolises for some a revivalist Hinduism, a new/old symbol, the Aryan horse (“fast... agile, pistons in the hooves”) replacing the placid cow. But this reading of the horse denies its universal, cosmic, free-wandering nature, which Dabydeen evokes through the allusions to the sacrificial stallion of vedic mythology. In the Rig Veda, the race-horse is invoked:

“Your body flies, Swift Runner; your spirit rushes like wind. Your mane, spread in many directions, flickers and jumps about in the forests...”  (W. O'Flaherty, The Rig Veda, p.88)

and in the Brhadranyaha Upanishad: “Dawn is the head of the sacrificial horse, the sun its eye, the wind its breath, fire its mouth... when the horse shakes itself it lightens; when it kicks, it thunders...” (A.L. Basham, The Wonder That Was India, p.248)

In The Wizard Swami, the horse Destiny is described as: “...galloping into a mirage-like stasis and eating up the dirt at the same time, pulling the ground away from under its feet... now, at any moment, this horse could take off from the ground, a flying pegasus. Hindus bawled out as the rhapsody of this image gripped their imagination, tormented them; ...a creature that was known to snort and rant unpredictably, and rave at odd moments, fire coming out of its nostrils, eyes; a dragon of a horse so charged it was (p.126)".

Destiny is both the image of a free creative force, and the carrier of a circumscribed “Hindu” desire. Significantly, during the race, Destiny throws his jockey, Punam, Devan’s even more sectarian disciple. “Wild, wild, de haas gone wild!” the crowd shout, and Devan senses its revolt as something occurring in his own mind, “as if the horse, in the frenzy of his mind, was running across the entire country”; as the jockey is thrown, Devan feels it as “a blow too in his mind's eye”. It is then that Devan escapes from the stadium with his son to return to his wife Tara in Providence. It is an escape from sectarian narrowness which has been forecast several times earlier in the novel when Devan’s imagination carries him beyond his immediate concerns. Once, when he is preaching, his head begins to whirl and “for a moment he wasn't sure if he was still a believer in Hinduism or that he believed in something as general and vague as pantheism; but it was God nevertheless...” (p.88). His return to Providence is not so much the failure of a dream, but the opening of new possibilities. The alternative is suggested in the retreat beaten by the deflated Bhairam back to his harmonium to “seek out a reclusive harmony” (p.133). Dabydeen’s premises are Guyanese, seeking an identity which is hybrid, cosmopolitan, but in The Wizard Swami, both in naturalistic observation and in symbolic drama, he asserts the essential place of transformed Hindu longings within that emergent identity.

The investment of a character’s deepest spiritual feelings in a horse and racing is also a feature of Moses Nagamootoo’s Hendree’s Cure. In a chapter called “Bright Steel” Nagamootoo portrays the obsession of the fisherman and trader Naga with owning and racing a horse. As a South Indian Madrassi, Naga knows that “Madriveeren, the warrior-god he worshipped, rode on a white steed. Every time he did puja for this deuta, he would be haunted by this passion to possess his own horse. While at sea he would sit braced against the mast, his feet spread wide on the boat-deck. He would look towards the sky, and feel the sensation of being on a horse with the wind flying past him. He would stare at the clouds and from their dark patches would sculpt horses to his own liking.”

Horse-racing as “the big-time sport at D’Urban Park in Georgetown” is also a symbol of social mobility and Naga is not immune to the pull of status and “so enjoyed the big city life that he was less and less in the village.” But at its heart the story of Bright Steel is one of spirituality. The horse’s origins are not promising, an undersized colt given to Naga by the accurately named Basil “Steel” Islam in lieu of some debt. But Bright Steel turns out to have pedigree and is not the “pasture” horse people imagine it to be. As it grows into proud stallionhood and starts winning races it becomes the pride of the folk of the Corentyne. “Village horses like Bright Steel represented the underdogs challenging the colonial establishment. When Naga  whispered in Bright Steel’s ears before a race, “We go beat dey rass today”, “dey” were the fat colonial cats.” But when Naga looks at Bright Steel standing “on his legs with his broad chest fully exposed, Bright Steel was a portrait of strength and beauty. Naga felt his own spirituality soaring in the majesty of his beloved horse.”

As with the other narratives, the story is not destined to end well. Bright Steel becomes too much of a challenge to some of the village men who think they can ride and control him. One is thrown when Bright Steel finally comes to a halt in the grounds of the Kali Mai temple, and the horse rolls “before Mother Kali like a possessed devotee.” But when Naga’s son tries the same feat, and he too is thrown, Bright Steel breaks a leg and has to be destroyed. The end, as in The Wizard Swami, has the pathos of sacrifice. The drummer, Hendree is there “to play a last tappu. The animal would dance to its rhythm, as he had done in better times”. Now, though, Bright Steel is leaning over the vast pit dug for him, waiting from the shot from the police constable’s gun.