Horses for courses

We hear so much about mainstream sports at Cambridge that it’s often easy to forget some of the more niche pursuits. CHRIS HUMPLEBY is here to tell us a bit more about his passion: horse racing.

betting Cambridge chris mumpleby Gambling horse racing

When I’m asked the question that every final year undergraduate is popped on a regular basis – ‘what job are you going to pursue after university?’ –  the enquirer tends to be a little surprised with my response. I don’t want to live a high-flying City lifestyle, save lives or change the world, as admirable as these career paths may be. No, I want to write about horses. Not the horses that we may or may not be consuming between a floury bap and some watery tomato, but the horses that are born, bred and raised to run against one another in fields up and down the country on a daily basis.

Surprise often turns to anguish when I’m popped the inevitable follow up question to my response. ‘Do you gamble?’ Yes, I do. Frequently. At this point, some people simply turn their noses up and label me a waster; thinking I’m the sort of person who would gamble his kids’ dinner money and lurk in the bushes at unsuspecting hours. The ones who are able to stomach the notion that not all those who stake cash are likely to mug them or jab up in front of them then prod a little deeper. ‘How much do you lose?’

The answer is, in the long run, I don’t. This is not to try and proclaim I’m some sort of gambling messiah, the saviour of the skint student and their shitty meals. Trust me, I’m not. But I do believe that with plenty of hours of research, some self-discipline and a decent slice of luck, you can make a few quid out of racing without having to risk the sum total of your college bill.

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The entire notion of gambling on horses horrifies many of my friends. I think the anguish primarily stems from the idea that money could be exchanged for potentially nothing. Back a loser and all you have to show for it is a lighter wallet and the piece of paper that your selection was written on.

But I struggle to understand how we can square this against the broader student culture of drinking to excess. It would be hypocritical of me to preach that binge drinking is wrong; I love nothing more than a great night out. But what do you have to show for it as you crawl into bed at four in the morning? No recollection of events, some bollocks photography and a bucket full of spew? It’s hardly a bargain exchange for being fifty notes worse off. And for those reading this and crying out in anguish that I haven’t mentioned that you could pull, you are probably the ones who couldn’t pull yourselves.

But it’s not just this. Racing still has a reputation amongst the masses for being a sport where insider knowledge is the only key to success. Whilst many people will fling a couple of quid at the lottery, or buy the occasional scratch card, they wouldn’t touch the horses with a bargepole. This is deeply ironic, as the odds are stacked much greater on the side of a racing punter. Anyone can access the form book – waves of statistical data are splashed across the pages of The Racing Post daily – but you have no control over a lottery ticket, bar picking the numbers, which requires no degree of skill. I’m not saying you don’t need luck in racing, but those who are good at it will, in the long term, reap the rewards. How many people make a living out of buying scratch cards?

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I don’t just love racing for the money; there is a real beauty to the narrative of the sport. With race meetings taking place every day in Britain and Ireland, bar a handful of days throughout the year, the sport is blessed with heroes and villains, fairy tale superstars, masterful jockeys and some real heart-wrenching tales of indescribable joy and deplorable pain. The myth that this is an elitist gentleman’s club of excess tweed and frequent misogyny needs shedding. This is a real way of life for many folk, from the important to the ordinary, across the globe. And it is a way of life that is inextricably wedded to betting. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Chris Humpleby is President of Cambridge University Horse Racing Society