Age and guile beat youth, inexperience and a bad haircut
The ‘stallion cap’ – and what the bloodstock business could learn from P. J. O’Rourke (1947–2022)
What Coolmore, Three Chimneys and Spendthrift – and P. J. – knew instinctively is that any attempt to restrict a free market usually serves only to distort and ultimately harm that market
He was a man who knew next to nothing about the bloodstock business – yet also seemed to understand it better than almost everyone in it. And, in a strange symmetry, in the week he died the ‘stallion cap’ (legislation introduced by The Jockey Club in America to limit the number of mares a thoroughbred stallion can cover in a year) died, too.
His demise this spring was due to lung cancer, not entirely unrelated to his Montecristo habit; while it was a legal challenge filed by three of the biggest names in Kentucky – Three Chimneys Farm, Spendthrift Farm and Coolmore’s Ashford Stud – that effectively spelt the end for the ‘cap’.
Not, perhaps, that Patrick Jake (‘P. J.’) O’Rourke was particularly well-known on this side of the Atlantic. If his name or face ring a bell, perhaps that’ll be because of his appearance in the British Airways ‘Johnny Foreigner’ TV advertising campaign of the late 1990s. In it he reflected on the peculiarities of being British, such as our relationships with the weather (“You guys sunbathe in your clothes! And you get more rain a year than Borneo, but the minute it stops, they hit you with a hosepipe ban...”) and cricket (“You invent a sport that no-one understands, and the whole world still whips you at it...”).
P. J. was born in Toledo, Ohio, the son of a Buick salesman – and from an early age, his immediate ambition was simply to get out of Toledo, Ohio. He followed in both the footsteps of Hunter S. Thompson, James Thurber and Tom Wolfe and a tradition of satirical genius. Through the pages of Rolling Stone, Playboy, National Lampoon, Vanity Fair and a string of New York Times best-sellers, he would become ‘America’s greatest prose comedian’.
And if you ever had the miserable misfortune of having to study economics at postgraduate level, here was the only writer who could make it bearable. His unique talent was to bring the dusty subject of money and markets to life while being both capitalist and funny – he was on your side. To borrow a phrase, his books like Eat the Rich, The CEO of the Sofa and None of My Business (subtitled ‘Why P. J.’s not rich and neither are you’) refresh the parts other books about economics cannot reach.
As an example, here’s P. J. in the last book he ever wrote, 2020’s A Cry From the Far Middle:
“Intellectuals like Marxism because Marx makes economics simple – the rich get their money from the poor. How the rich manage this, since the poor by definition don’t have any money, is beyond me. But never mind.
“Marxism puts inarticulate notions of a sharing-caring nicer world into vivid propaganda slogans. Slogans such as ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his need’ – which may be the most ridiculous political-economic idea that anybody has ever had.
“My need is for Beluga caviar, a case of Château Haut-Brion 1961, a duplex on Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park, a bespoke suit from Gieves & Hawkes in Savile Row, a matched pair of Purdey 12-bore sidelock shotguns and a 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO that recently sold at Sotheby’s Monterey auction for $48.4 million.
“My ability is… Um… I have an excellent memory for limericks… There was once an old man from Nantucket…”
As much as economics, American politics was P. J.’s natural home turf. He had his own brand of liberal right-wing conservatism. In a country that lacks a Conservative party he was Republican through and through, at least until the era of Donald Trump. In 2016, he wrestled with his conscience in endorsing the Democrats’ presidential candidate Hillary Clinton over Trump, conceding that while she was “full of lies and empty promises” and “wrong about absolutely everything”, compared to Trump she was at least “wrong within normal parameters”.
One of P. J.’s lesser-known books was called Don’t Vote – It Just Encourages the Bastards. Another was titled Parliament of Whores. Had he stood for political office himself, his election slogan would have been along the lines of “mind your own business and leave me alone”.
What he believed in boiled down to just one word: freedom. Which brings us back to the stallion cap, a bad idea even if born of good intentions. What Coolmore, Three Chimneys and Spendthrift – and P. J. – knew instinctively is that any attempt to restrict a free market usually serves only to distort and ultimately harm that market.
Here’s P. J. again, in a speech he gave in 1993 at the Cato Institute (an American libertarian think-tank) in Washington D C. It’s featured in Age and Guile Beat Youth, Inexperience and a Bad Haircut, an anthology of his work published (perhaps rather prematurely) in 1995, and it sums up, rather neatly, how the bloodstock business works:
“All we have is the belief that people should do what people want to do, unless it causes harm to other people. And that had better be clear and provable harm.
“There is only one basic human right, the right to do as you damn well please. And with it comes the only basic human duty, the duty to take the consequences.”
In a nutshell: if there’s no welfare issue, then the only curb on your freedom to do as you like in the thoroughbred business should be the other guy’s freedom to do the same.
As for P. J.’s more specific advice for life? I’ll give you just two of his many edicts:
“A hat should be taken off when you greet a lady – and left off for the rest of your life. Nothing looks more stupid than a hat.”
“Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.” (This edition of Bloodstock Notebook, perhaps?)
Looking back, I can’t tell you how grateful I am to him, not only for the fun and the good advice but also for being a positive influence on my own life. Incidentally, similar sentiments apply to James Delahooke, Jimmy Lindley and Anthony Penfold, all three of whom died this year, too.
The grim reaper must be having a ball.
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