Books: No matter how bad the horse, you never blame it for losing

Hester Lacey spots a winner in an anthropologist's study of the turf set
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The Racing Tribe: Watching the Horsewatchers By Kate Fox Metro pounds 17.99

There aren't very many unknown tribes left to study these days, unless you want to risk going really far afield and perhaps vanishing in the uncharted rainforest - which is unlikely to lead to a book deal. Social anthropologist Kate Fox sensibly remains closer to home. In The Racing Tribe, she investigates the horsey fraternity, delving into rituals, subgroups, etiquette and language with all the enthusiasm of Margaret Mead discovering an uncharted South Sea Island. The resulting expose of a close-knit and cheerful clique is delightful even for someone who doesn't know their each-way bet from their Silver Ring.

Kate Fox was adopted as the official anthropologist of the "racing tribe" - owners, jockeys, stewards, trainers, bookies, punters, corporate hospitality givers-and-takers - and spent a year absorbing their culture. For those who are true initiates, racing overshadows everything else. Their map of Britain has the same outlines as a conventional one but shows only the symbols for race courses; anywhere else, including the capital city, simply doesn't exist. Kate Fox, on pointing out that London was missing, was told: "Well, surely you can figure that out for yourself. I mean, it's near Kempton, obviously."

The relationships within the Tribe are complicated, she observes. For example, she notes an unwritten contract between owner and trainer which demands that a horse is never blamed for losing simply because it is rubbish. It is always because the weather was bad or the weights were "unfair". Or perhaps the horse had a sniffle or a sprain or was just out of sorts. Perhaps the ground was too soft, or too hard, or the pace was too fast or too slow - one owner admits that his trainer had used all of the above for the same horse at one time or another. (The horse never actually won anything. At all. Ever.)

Some of her observations have more to do with people-watching than the actual horses-running-around part of racing. And some of the rituals may seem familiar from other contexts. For example, women meeting at the races tend to indulge in a prolonged Counter-Compliment session. The first one says: "Oh, I love your hat! I wish I looked good in hats, but I just haven't got the bone structure." Woman Two replies "Oh, no, I have to wear this because my hair's so boring and mousy. Now, if I had beautiful hair like you I wouldn't bother with hats." And so on, and so on. The longest continuous Counter-Compliment exchange that Kate Fox recorded lasted 21 minutes and 46 seconds.

Indeed, as she points out, for many members of the Tribe, part of the point is the fun and socialising, as well as the racing and betting. Assuming you can snag an invite to a party, whether corporate or private, the food and drink and general conviviality at race courses, she says, are on a scale that has to be seen to be believed. "There are parallels in social function between racecourse hospitality and the famous `Potlatch' ritual feasts of the Kwakiutl Indians, where provision of wildly excessive quantities of food and drink were essential for hosts to maintain social rank and prestige," she suggests, perceptively. Guests, she notes, tend to make token protests about the amount of food they are offered, but tend to cope with the self-indulgence, even if it consists of lavishness on a truly Kwakiutl-Potlatch scale.

The Racing Tribe is well worth a flutter, even if your interest in horse- flesh is limited to a once-a-year each-way bet on the favourite in the Grand National.