Anyone who has visited my abode knows that I live in what is more recognisably a library than a dwelling. All the rooms bar the two smallest are lined with bulging bookshelves, and the shelves are themselves insufficient. There are also tall heaps of books, growing ever higher, scattered about the place, as well as boxes full of the never-to-be-consulted-again items in the cellar.
That is what comes of spending close on 60 years as an avid book-buyer and never having found a cure for the addiction. I’ve never sought a cure, mind, and remain susceptible whenever another catalogue lands on the mat or I find myself in a bookstore with my credit card.
Inevitably, much of what I have accumulated is no longer of much interest to me, but getting rid is not easy. Bonfires are discouraged in the centre of town, and charity shops tell me that they already have more books than they can shift. I have even been advised, frighteningly, that ‘people don’t read books any more.’
Rous continued to govern the sport fairly and firmly with ever-increasing authority, getting involved in every issue that arose
A pal recently asked me if there was one book in my possession that I treasured above all the 6,000-odd others that clutter my home. I might have mentioned quite a few that I knew were worth several hundred, and some sets that might fetch thousands, but I didn’t think that was the question he was asking. He wanted to know if there was one particular item that I was especially proud to own.
I didn’t have to think long about it, and was soon able to hand it over for inspection. Had I bought just this one book, I would have needed no shelves and my home would appear to be at least twice the size. It measures just six and a half inches by four inches, has only 128 pages, and fits comfortably in a jacket pocket.
Small is beautiful
This slim little treasure is entitled On the Laws and Practice of Horse Racing, etc., etc., and its author is described as ‘The Honourable Captain Rous, R.N.’ It is a first edition, so is presumably worth a few quid more than the following two, but what makes my copy special is the unique quill-penned inscription on the flyleaf, which reads: ‘Sophia Rous from her affectionate husband H. J. Rous, 1850.’ It subsequently passed into the hands of another distinguished person, as it also carries the bookplate and coat of arms of Sir Robert Loder, whose son Eustace earned fame as the owner/breeder of Pretty Polly and infamy as the vindictive Epsom steward who disqualified Craganour – a colt he had bred – in the Derby.
Henry John Rous, second son of the 1st Earl of Stradbroke, had a remarkable career, leaving school to join the navy at the age of 13 in 1808 and remaining in the service until 1836. His last command was of HMS Pique, which he brought back from Quebec after a series of mishaps that resulted in his being subjected to a court martial. He was acquitted.
Rous came from a Suffolk family steeped in racing – his father and brother both owned Classic winners – and he was elected to the Jockey Club as early as 1821, still only 26. On quitting the navy he became more active on the Turf, and was so highly regarded that he was appointed as a Steward of the Jockey Club in 1838. From 1841 to 1846 he also served as Member of Parliament for Westminster, but duties in the Commons did not occupy him so fully that he could not devote a lot of time to consideration of how racing was administered and how improvements might be effected, how officials should operate, how betting disputes should be resolved, and how a more efficient means of handicapping might be implemented.
Rous lost his seat in the Commons at the very time that Lord George Bentinck, who had been a virtual ‘Dictator of the Turf’, dropped out of racing to pursue a parliamentary career that turned out to be very brief. Shortly after the 1848 Derby and St Leger victories of Surplice, a colt he had bred and sold, Bentinck was dead. Who could now doubt that Rous, who had been acquiring a reputation as the supreme authority on racing matters, was the man to lead the sport? That little 1850 publication, in which, among other significant issues addressed, he presented the scale of weight-for-age that was his own creation, consolidated his position at the top.
In Rous we trust
After Voltigeur’s victory over The Flying Dutchman in the 1850 Doncaster Cup, their owners, the Earls of Zetland and Eglinton, determined on a re-match over two miles at York in the following spring; they acknowledged Rous’s unrivalled expertise, turning to him to set the weights. Rous decided that the five-year-old Dutchman should give 8.5lb to his year-younger rival, and such was the respect for the handicapper’s judgement that the betting was even between them on the day. The older horse triumphed by a length in what would go down in history as one of the greatest match races of all time. In 1855 Rous was appointed official handicapper to the Jockey Club.
Although he never went to sea after 1836, Rous contrived to advance through the naval ranks, becoming Rear-Admiral in 1852, Vice-Admiral in 1858 and Admiral in 1863. His progress in racing was no less startling, as he continued to govern the sport fairly and firmly with ever-increasing authority, getting involved in every issue that arose, regularly writing letters to The Times to elucidate his stance. It was a brave – and generally foolhardy – man who ever questioned his judgement.
After his retirement from the Royal Navy in 1836, Rous devoted his life almost exclusively to the Turf until his death aged 82 in 1877. He spent three decades as the undisputed Dictator of the Turf, a term that had previously been used to describe Sir Charles Bunbury, who kicked the Prince of Wales out of racing, and Lord George Bentinck, who was not above issuing rulings that were to his own benefit.
Rous was different, truly a benevolent dictator, and a man I have always admired. Now, having been involved professionally in this marvellous sport for more than half a century, and having witnessed so many changes in the way it has been run, I am more than ever convinced that the Rous regime was the best there has ever been. We need another benevolent dictator, and one who will make a lifetime commitment to it.
The Jockey Club, when its leaders were generally pompous ex-military men, let the sport down when the chance to institute a Tote monopoly was spurned in 1961. All the subsequent lamentation about lack of prize-money stemmed from the crass indecision of those in control at that time. I have never understood why it was thought reasonable to dispense with the National Hunt Committee and let it be subsumed by the Jockey Club. It was obvious then, and it is obvious now, that Flat racing and jump racing are distinct sports, and should be governed by different bodies.
Still searching for a star
We have seen the BHB come and go, and the BHA take its place. We haven’t found a man – or a woman, let it be said – able to run the show effectively over a period. We had Paul Bittar at the helm for three years, and by all accounts he did as well as could be expected in a difficult role. But three years is not long enough to make a serious impact; if he really was good, British racing should have sought to extend his contract and keep him committed.
Nick Rust has now taken over, somewhat controversially, given that his business background – albeit admirably successful – has been all about the gambling industry. We are told that he is a racing enthusiast, and I would hope so too. Does he know anything about horses? It matters, if he is to run our industry.
I’m happy to welcome Rust and wish him the best of luck in his role. But I’d be happier if I thought he had arrived with a ten-year contract, had been given the authority to bang heads together and lay down the law over beneficial change in the sport, and that his career ambitions ended here.