A Military Steeplechase

by Captain R. Bird Thompson

We were quartered in a very sporting part of the country, where the hunting season was always wound up by a couple of days' steeple-chasing. The regiment stationed here had usually given a cup for a military steeple-chase, and when we determined to give one for an open military handicap chase, the excitement was very great as to our chances of winning the cup we had given. As there were some very good horses and riders in the regiment, it appeared a fair one, eight nominations having been taken by us. There were also about the same number taken by regiments in the district. Our Major, who was a first-rate horseman, entered his well-known horse Jerry; I and others nominated one each, but one sub., a very celebrated character amongst us, took two. This man's father had made a very large fortune by nursery gardens, and put his son into the army, where, of course, he was instantly dubbed "The Gardener." He was by no means a bad sort of fellow, but he never could ride. The riding-master almost cried as he said he never could make "The Gardener" even look like riding; not that he was destitute of pluck, but he was utterly unable to stick on the horse. He had a large stud of hunters, but when out he almost invariably tumbled off at each fence.

Amongst those who nominated horses was the celebrated Captain Lane, of the Hussars, who was said to be so good a jockey that the professionals grumbled greatly at having to give him amateurs' allowance. No one was better at imperceptibly boring a competitor out of the course; and at causing false starts and balking at fences he was without a rival. The way he would seem to be hard on his horse with his whip, when only striking his own leg, was quite a master-piece. Report declared that he trained all his own horses to these dodges, and I believe it was quite true, as his were quite quiet and cool under the performances when the rest were almost fretted out of their lives.

When the handicap came out I found, to my great disgust, that such a crusher had been put on my horse that I at once put the pen through his name—not caring to run him on the off-chance of his standing up and the rest coming to grief, or with the probability, anyhow, of a punishing finish. However, the next night after mess, the Major called me up to him in the ante-room, and said: "I hear you have scratched your horse, and quite right, too. I have accepted, and if you like to have the mount, you are quite welcome." Of course, I was greatly delighted, but told him that I had never ridden in steeple-chase before. "But I have," growled the Major, "and am not going to waste over this tin-pot," as he irreverently called the cup, "so I can show you the ropes. Come to my quarters after breakfast to-morrow, and we will try the horse."

The next day I went there, and found the Major mounted, awaiting me, and Jerry—a very fine brown horse, with black points. I soon discovered that he had one decided peculiarity—viz., at his first fence, and sometimes the second, instead of going up and taking it straight, he would whip round suddenly and refuse. On thinking what could be the cause of this trick, I came to the conclusion that his mouth must have been severely punished by the curb when he was first taught jumping; and on telling the Major my idea, he allowed me to ride him as I pleased, so instead of an ordinary double bridle, I put one with a couple of snaffles in his mouth, and very soon found that this had the desired effect. Indeed, after a few days, he took his first fence all right, unless flurried, and before the day seemed quite trustworthy.

When we got back after our first day's ride, the Major told me, rather to my amusement, that I must go into training as well as the horse,—adding, what was quite true, that he had seen more amateur races lost through the rider being beat before the horse than by any other means; so when I had given Jerry his gallops in the morning, I had to start a mile run in the afternoon in flannels or sweaters.

The course was entirely a natural one, about three miles and a half round, and only two ugly places in it, chiefly grass, with one piece of light plough and some seeds. The first two fences were wattles on a bank, with a small ditch, then an ordinary quickset hedge, followed by an old and stiff bullfinch. After this a post and rails, a bank with a double ditch, and merely ordinary fences till we came to a descent of about a quarter of a mile, with a stream about twelve feet wide, and a bank on the taking-off side. Next came some grass meadows, with a very nasty trappy ditch, not more than four feet wide, but with not the slightest bank or anything of the kind on either side,—just the thing for a careless or tired horse to gallop into. The last fence, which was the worst of all, was, I fancy, the boundary of some estate or parish, and consisted of a high bank, with a good ditch on each side—on the top a young, quick-set hedge, and, to prevent horses or cattle injuring it, two wattle fences, one on each side, slanting outwards. After this, there was a slight ascent of about 300 yards; then there was dead level of about a quarter of a mile up to the winning-post.

On the evening before the chase, we had a grand guest night, to which, of course, all the officers of other regiments who had entered horses were invited. We youngsters were anxious to see Captain Lane, of whom we had heard so much.

On his arrival, after the usual salutations, he enquired of the Major whether he was going to ride, and, on receiving a negative, asked who was; and on having the intending jockeys pointed out to him, just favoured us with a kind of contemptuous glance, never taking any further notice of us.

The celebrated Captain was a slight man, about five feet eight inches, with not a particularly pleasant look about his eyes, and looking far more the jock than the soldier. The steeple-chases were fixed for the next day at 2.30 P.M., but, as a matter of fact, all the riders were on the ground long before that for the purpose of examining the ground and the fences.

The Major came to see me duly weighed out, and gave me instructions as to riding—that I was not on any account to race with everyone who came alongside me, nor to make the running at first, unless the pace was very slow and muddling, of which there was little danger, for quite half the jocks, he said, would go off as if they were in for a five furlong spin, and not for a four mile steeple-chase.

I was to lie behind, though handy, until we came to the descent to the stream and then make the pace down and home as hot as I could,—to find out the "dicky forelegs," he said, knowing that Jerry's were like steel.

We all got down to the post pretty punctually, and, of course, in a race of this description, the starter had no difficulty in dropping his flag at the first attempt.

I gave Jerry his head, and to my joy he took the first fence as straight and quietly as possible, so taking a pull at him, I was at once passed by some half dozen men (the gallant "Gardener" amongst them) going as hard as they could tear. It was lucky for them that the fences were light and old, as most of the horses rushed through them. When they got to the bullfinch, one horse refused, and another attempting to, slipped up and lay in a very awkward looking lump, jock and all close under it. The rest having been a little steadied took it fairly enough. Jerry jumped it as coolly as possible, like the regular old stager that he was, in spite of Captain Lane coming up at the time with a great rush, evidently hoping to make him refuse.

When we landed on the other side a ludicrous spectacle presented itself, the gallant "Gardener" being right on his horse's neck, making frantic attempts to get back into his saddle, which were quite unsuccessful, and the horse coming to the next fence, a post and rail, quietly took it standing, then putting down his head slipped his rider off and galloped on without him.

The field now began to come back to us very quickly, and soon the leading lot were Vincent of ours, a splendid rider, as I thought, and as it turned out, my most dangerous opponent, with a Carabinier in close attendance; then myself, with Captain Lane waiting on me, and watching the pair of us most attentively, so that it seemed almost impossible that I should have any chance of slipping him. However, an opportunity did present itself at length, which I took advantage of—hearing a horse coming up a tremendous "rattle" on my right.

I looked round to see who and what it was. Lane, noticing what I was doing, looked round too. Seeing this I loosed Jerry's head, and giving him at the same time a slight touch with the spur, he shot out completely—slipping the Captain, passing the Carabinier, and getting head and head with Vincent. Down the hill we went as hard as we could, clearing the water side by side. At the grip in the fields beyond I gained slightly by not taking a steadier at Jerry, trusting to his eyesight and cleverness to avoid grief.

As we got to the best fence, the ugly boundary one, I did take a pull, the jump looking as nasty a one as could well be picked out; however, the old horse did it safely, and Vincent and myself landed side by side in the winning field, amidst most tremendous shouting and cheering from our men, who were standing as thick as thick could be on each side of the course.

The excitement was terrific as we came up, apparently tied together, but giving Jerry a couple of sharp cuts with the whip, I found my leg gradually passing Vincent's, until at length I was nearly opposite his horse's head, and thus we passed the winning post, to my great relief. I did not know how much my opponent's horse had left in him, and expected him to come up with a rush at the last, in which case I doubted whether I should be able to get anything more out of Jerry in time, as he was rather a lazy horse, though possessing enormous "bottom."

I had scarcely pulled up and turned round to go to the scales, before I met the Major, who told me I was "not to make a fool of myself and dismount," before the clerk of the scales told me to, and then he pitched into me for riding at the "Grip," as I did, apprising me at the same time that he did not care how I risked my neck, but "I might have hurt the horse," adding, after a pause, and with a grunt, "but you won."

The delight of our men was so great at two of their officers being first and second, that it was all that Vincent and myself could do to avoid being carried about on their shoulders after we had weighed in.

The gallant captain was most awfully disgusted at being beaten by "a couple of boys," and went off immediately—resisting all invitations to stop and dine at mess. I subsequently found out that when I slipped him (at which he was particularly angry) he gave his horse a sharp cut with his whip, which seemed quite to upset it.

On coming down to the water the horse jumped short—dropping his hind legs in, and at the "Grip," nearly got in, only saving itself by bucking over it, and at the big boundary absolutely came down on landing, though his rider managed to keep his seat.

As for myself, I need not say how delighted I was at winning my first steeplechase, though the Major did tell me that a monkey would have ridden as well, and helped the horse as much as I did. "But I won" was always my reply.