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The Sport of Kings

I recently finished “Rebecca Cassidy’s”:http://www.goldsmiths.ac.uk/departments/anthropology/staff/r-cassidy.php book “The Sport of Kings”:http://books.google.com/books?vid=ISBN052100487X&id=A-QYXw9Wl9YC&pg=PA1&lpg=PA1&dq=%22sport+of+kings%22&sig=HqaMihlGyD04O7ioDGQkBHnQDUQ and I must say I thought it was really a wonderful little piece of work. The subject is thoroughbred horse racing in Newmarket which is, apparently, the center of British horse racing. The book reads a bit dryly at first, and it really is an ethnography — no fancy pants theory here. These two things, combined with the fact that clueless yanks such as myself have no idea that there is a racing industry or that Newmarket is its center, means that the book may not appeal to lot of Savage Mind’s readers.

But the more one reads the more Cassidy draws you in to the world of Newmarket and the interlocking systems of class and breeding that unite its two main species. Cassidy’s tone might strike American readers as a bit empyrean (or perhaps just stiff) at first, but this soon turns into an understated and dry charm as Cassidy describes the vagaries of life amongst punters and jockies. Indeed, Cassidy successfully writes an ethnography that is in some ways an ‘expose’ of the racing industry and that is much more even-handed that it could have been, and her authorial distance is one of the means by which she pulls this off.

That said, there is no sense that there was anything empyrean about how Cassidy did fieldwork. Her ability to connect with her informants despite the anti-intellectualism of the racing scene peeks out from behind her main narrative. Her occasional droll asides about her nicknames (“I became a regular at two betting shops in Newmarket, where I enjoyed the nickname of ‘Flaps’ based (so I was told) on my arm movements during a race.”) their fascinated horror at her vegetarianism and proclivity to read books (” , and above all their belief that she must understand horses because of ‘her Irish blood’ all helps us locate her in the ethnography. And her description of first riding a thoroughbred is a unique passage in the ethnographies I’ve read — half phenomenology, half novelistic reportage, it captures perfectly an experience which most readers will never have, and which is nevertheless at the dead center of the entire social system she describes.

Cassidy’s fieldwork as a ‘lad’ mucking out stables as well as a visitor to the more rarefied realms of elite racing circles have allowed her to write an extremely detailed ethnography that immerses one in the jargon of horse racing and the multitude of details that surround it. This is combined with a sharp eye for fashion and class — we learn why goretex jackets and comfortable jeans are a must for owners, and why seafood and champagne are de rigeur for them when they go to the race track.

The final chapter, “Blood Will Tell” covers local theories of breeding and blood in horses and was, for me, the most interesting part of the book. It provides an interesting counterpoint to American theories of race and biological determination here in the US. It is sort of Emily Martin meets The Horse Whisperer. If you can read backwards to authors such as Strathern and Carsten then it’s really a very nice bit of work.

So, if you are an Anglophile, the kind of person who will pick up a readable ethnography for pleasure every once in a while, or if you are looking for an ethnography to give middle to upper level students on class, breeding, gambling, or the ethnography of Europe, I’d recommend you give Sport of Kings a look.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org