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The Sport of Kings

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Rebecca Cassidy
The Sport of Kings: Kinship, Class and Thoroughbred Breeding in Newcastle

Rugby, racing and beer are popularly associated with significant vernacular rituals in Australia and New Zealand. These two books provide significant background on the comparative cultural significance of racing rituals in their country of origin, since both these new ethnographies deal with horse racing in England. Fox draws the following unflattering comparison, which may provide impetus for a new ethnography of Australian racing:

He (an Australian speaker on racing) showed photographs of

seedy-looking Australian race courses with vast crowds only a few

decades ago, followed by depressing recent pictures of the same

racecourses, now squeaky-clean and stripped of all sleaziness to

make them respectable and 'family-oriented', but with half-empty

grandstands. (p.209)

Fox's main trope is to 'make strange' (and amusing) by using traditional constructs of cultural anthropology as metaphors to stereotype the various social roles in the racing world. Jockeys are 'the warriors', trainers, 'the shamans', bookies, 'the sin-eaters'. Pen portraits accompany each label. There is some justice in these stereotypes since the roles in racing, as both ethnographies agree, are rather Goffmanian ones in an insular world. Fox lists rules of etiquette such as 'the collective amnesia rule' which requires one to forget whatever one predicted about the outcome of a race after it is over. She describes rituals such as 'the catwalk ritual' in which women parade like horses in their finery.

Fox does not dig deeply into the less accessible parts of the racing tribe's life in the way that Cassidy has during her two years of participant observation. Cassidy did not spend significant time in corporate boxes but she did spend time as a 'lad' working horses every morning, rode thoroughbreds on the Heath and took a mare to be 'covered'. While Fox was more interested in those who 'go racing', Cassidy was more interested in the largely closed circle of the Newmarket base of British racing, the owners, trainers, jockeys and lads, and in the bloodlines of racing people. Cassidy has significant things to say on the culturally-constructed view of nature and heredity, on the domesticated animal as a cultural construct and on the parallel ways in which horses and their 'connections' are viewed, as these are articulated by racing people. Fox does not.

Perhaps more significantly, their contrasting approaches raise important questions about anthropology as a discipline. Fox's comparison between British and Australian racing is made in support of her recommendations to her funders: the British Horseracing Board, the Tote, and Letheby and Christopher, the latter being a caterer to racing functions, while Cassidy's research was a PhD project. Fox provides an almost entirely positive account of 'the racing tribe' while Cassidy sees racing as resting on old class and gender inequalities and as seeking to maintain them. Fox used her research to make recommendations to the racing industry about how racing might attract more patrons, among other things, while Cassidy has no recommendations to make. Fox writes entertainingly and well for a general audience while Cassidy writes not quite so well for her fellow social scientists. At a time when increasing amounts of research is funded by interested parties and thus 'outcomes-based', these two books make a significant case study of the potential for contrasting views to emerge modulated by different sources of support.

They also provide a contrast in the way in which the ethnographer appears 'in the picture'. Cassidy does not remove herself from her narrative. She tells us where she is and what she is doing and what she takes her experiences to betoken. Fox does as well but she is more centre stage and her actual picture appears in various illustrative photographs on the cover and within the book. Hers is thus the more personalised ethnography and the more attractive for that. But what it gains in attractiveness it, in part, loses in insight since it is not as clearly and unblinkingly focused on the ethnography. That is not to say that it is without value. Fox has much to say that is insightful. She understands what happens at the races and surrounding racing. But Cassidy's seems the more reflective and serious account. They work well together.

Finally there is an interesting lacuna common to both. They have little to say about the horse races as such, what happens from the time the starter opens the gates to the time the horses proceed past the finishing post.

Rebecca Cassidy

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