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Concerning a Steeplechase Rider
by [?]

Of all the ways in which men get a living there is none so hard and so precarious as that of steeplechase-riding in Australia. It is bad enough in England, where steeplechases only take place in winter, when the ground is soft, where the horses are properly schooled before being raced, and where most of the obstacles will yield a little if struck and give the horse a chance to blunder over safely.

In Australia the men have to go at racing-speed, on very hard ground, over the most rigid and uncompromising obstacles — ironbark rails clamped into solid posts with bands of iron. No wonder they are always coming to grief, and are always in and out of hospital in splints and bandages. Sometimes one reads that a horse has fallen and the rider has “escaped with a severe shaking.”

That “shaking”, gentle reader, would lay you or me up for weeks, with a doctor to look after us and a crowd of sympathetic friends calling to know how our poor back was. But the steeplechase-rider has to be out and about again, “riding exercise” every morning, and “schooling” all sorts of cantankerous brutes over the fences. These men take their lives in their hands and look at grim death between their horses’ ears every time they race or “school”.

The death-record among Australian cross-country jockeys and horses is very great; it is a curious instance of how custom sanctifies all things that such horse-and-man slaughter is accepted in such a callous way. If any theatre gave a show at which men and horses were habitually crippled or killed in full sight of the audience, the manager would be put on his trial for manslaughter.

Our race-tracks use up their yearly average of horses and men without attracting remark. One would suppose that the risk being so great the profits were enormous; but they are not. In “the game” as played on our racecourses there is just a bare living for a good capable horseman while he lasts, with the certainty of an ugly smash if he keeps at it long enough.

And they don’t need to keep at it very long. After a few good “shakings” they begin to take a nip or two to put heart into them before they go out, and after a while they have to increase the dose. At last they cannot ride at all without a regular cargo of alcohol on board, and are either “half-muzzy” or shaky according as they have taken too much or too little.

Then the game becomes suicidal; it is an axiom that as soon as a man begins to funk he begins to fall. The reason is that a rider who has lost his nerve is afraid of his horse making a mistake, and takes a pull, or urges him onward, just at the crucial moment when the horse is rattling up to his fence and judging his distance. That little, nervous pull at his head or that little touch of the spur, takes his attention from the fence, with the result that he makes his spring a foot too far off or a foot too close in, and — smash!

The loafers who hang about the big fences rush up to see if the jockey is killed or stunned; if he is, they dispose of any jewellery he may have about him; they have been known almost to tear a finger off in their endeavours to secure a ring. The ambulance clatters up at a canter, the poor rider is pushed in out of sight, and the ladies in the stand say how unlucky they are — that brute of a horse falling after they backed him. A wolfish-eyed man in the Leger-stand shouts to a wolfish-eyed pal, “Bill, I believe that jock was killed when the chestnut fell,” and Bill replies, “Yes, damn him, I had five bob on him.” And the rider, gasping like a crushed chicken, is carried into the casualty-room and laid on a little stretcher, while outside the window the bookmakers are roaring “Four to one bar one,” and the racing is going on merrily as ever.