The Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe horse race was run at Longchamp this afternoon. One Sunday in October, perhaps twenty-five years ago, I won money on that race.
My gambling habit ran to £1 a week, my neighbour used to collect people’s football pools and I started spending 50p a week on the pools and 50p a week on a bet. “The Arc” was due to be run on the Sunday and on the Friday afternoon I picked out a horse from a good stable that I thought it might do well; it came eighth.
The following Friday, my neighbour called. “I have your winnings from Sunday”.
This was slightly baffling, I had heard of races where bookmakers paid out down to fourth place, but none would survive if they paid out money on horses coming eighth. “Are you sure that’s mine? My horse came nowhere”.
“You didn’t take ante-post odds”, he replied, “if you took the starting price then the French rules applied. It means your horse was coupled with another horse from the same stable. The stable companion won. If your horse had won you would have been cross because you wouldn’t have got the full odds on it; as they were coupled together, the odds were only 8-1. Anyway, here’s your £4.50”.
In retrospect, there seemed a sermon in the story, except, of course, one couldn’t really use betting on horses as a sermon illustration. There was potential for using it as a story of unlikely winners; of unexpected people sharing in the bounty; of there being more than one chance in life. It could serve as an illustration about making the wrong assumptions about outcomes.
Perhaps it might also serve in making a point that nothing is pre-determined; that in a topsy-turvy world, to come eighth may be to win.
Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead follows the line of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in presenting life as something beyond the shaping of an individual:
ROSENCRANTZ: We’ve nothing wrong! We didn’t harm anyone. Did we?
GUILDENSTERN: I can’t remember.
(ROS pulls himself together.)
ROS: All right, then. I don’t care. I’ve had enough. To tell you the truth, I’m relieved.
(And he disappears from view.)
(GUIL does not notice.)
GUIL: Our names shouted in a certain dawn … a message … a summons… there must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said-no. But somehow we missed it.
(He looks round and sees he is alone.)
(He gathers himself.)
Well, we’ll know better next time. Now you see me, now you –
The English tutor at Sixth Form College would recite the words with passion, “Our names shouted in a certain dawn … a message … a summons”
It was hard to know what he was thinking at times: was he making a point about individual freedom, that there was no reason why they should accept their fate, or was he protesting about life being controlled by forces beyond our control?
In a world where one can win on a horse that came eighth, nothing is pre-determined. Perhaps there are unseen rules shaping our lives, but if one does not know those rules, and if they are open to arbitrary and sudden change, then any outcome might be possible.