( Originally Published Early 1900's )
STEEPLECHASE COURSES—Prior to the establishment of the National Hunt Committee, steeplechase courses were just what the managers of meetings chose to make them. There were temptations to err in both directions—in that of excessive ease and of excessive severity ; in the former, because the owner of the half-schooled hurdle jumper might be, and often was, tempted to enter for steeplechases, there being really nothing that the creature could not easily jump ; in the latter, because a dangerously big fence would attract a sensation-loving crowd. The Committee therefore decreed that courses should consist of so many fences of given dimensions, and though the comparative uniformity of the regulation course is somewhat to be regretted, the ground and gradients at different places do ensure a certain amount of variety, and, as will presently be noted in detail, courses are not by any means all the same. At first the tendency of the Committee was to make fences too easy, and as it is an axiom that the easiest course is the most dangerous—because horses are often run over them when half schooled, and not only beginners, but seasoned animals, will chance obstacles that do not seem worth really rising at—the "open ditch," which could scarcely be managed by an unschooled horse, was introduced. This was a fence 4 ft. 6 in. high, if of dead brushwood or gorse z ft. thick, with a ditch on the taking-off side 6 ft. wide and 3 ft. deep. It was nicknamed " the grave," and protests were raised by a section of those interested in the sport, some of whom, if riders, were not very bold, and if trainers, were men who did not care about taking very much trouble with their horses. There was, however, some risk of horses blundering into the cutting, either because they did not see just where it began or because, knowing there was a ditch, they took off too soon. A guard rail was therefore put before the ditch ; and though a few complaints about it are still occasionally heard, it is for the most part approved. The obstacle which at present appears most open to criticism is the water jump —t2 ft. of water with a fence before it only z ft. high. Many riders are of opinion that the fence should be raised. Horses that have had little practice see the 24 inches of brushwood in front of them and are apt to disregard it as a trifle to be covered in their stride. They may blunder in, or, what is more likely, may see the water suddenly, and, making a sudden effort, overjump them-selves. Whether it is physically possible for a horse that has risen at a jump to make this effort when off the ground, with nothing to give him an impetus, is a disputed point ; the only thing that can be said about it is that to the rider it feels as if the animal did so. A few words may be interpolated here as to the distances which jumpers habitually cover over fences. Some time since the writer was at Danebury watching horses being schooled over hurdles. One flight was placed just by the side of a broad road where two carts could easily pass each other. " Don't the horses hurt themselves by jumping on to the road when the ground is hard?" seemed a natural question. "Oh, they always clear that, and well beyond it," was Tom Cannon's reply. "You will see when they pass." Four of them approached. The animal in which we were particularly interested at the time was rather on the small side, about 15.2. They were not racing, but going a half-speed gallop. We noted where the little horse took off and where he landed, carefully measured the distance covered, and found it was as nearly as possible z8 feet. The z ft. fence and the 12 ft. of water make just half this, it will be seen; so that the water jump is far from formidable.
Best of all courses, in the opinion of those riders whose hearts are in the sport and never, on the contrary, in their boots is Liverpool. In walking round, and coming to the great black fences, which a man of medium height cannot see over, it appears wonderful that tired horses should ever get over them, for they have to be jumped, cannot be brushed through. And here it may be remarked that thin straggling fences are the most dangerous, for this reason : a horse that is tolerably well accustomed 'to them will find that he need not clear them, that they can be chanced ; he will rise less and less by degrees ; but there is a point of resistance half way up or so, through which he cannot brush ; this he will at length find, and will be turned over in consequence. A description of Liverpool is here given. There are two or three very awkward fences, one on the turn which requires to be done with care and consideration in order to avoid the necessity of suddenly wrenching the horse round to the left on landing, and another with a broadish ditch on the landing side into which a horse that jumps short is apt to drop his hind legs.
DESCRIPTION OF THE FENCES CONSTITUTING THE GRAND NATIONAL STEEPLE CHASE.
1 and 17. —Thorn fence, 5 ft. high and 2 ft. thick.
2 and 18.--Thorn fence, 5 ft. high, guard rail on take offside 2 ft. high, close up against fence.
3 and 19.—Thorn fence, 4 ft. 10 in. high, with ditch on take off side about 6 ft. wide and 4 ft. deep, and a rail in front of said ditch 2 ft. high.
4 and 20.—Rail and fence, the rail being 2 ft. 6 in. high and the fence 5 ft. high.
5 and 21.—Same as No. 1.
6 and 22.—Known as "Becher's Brook," a thick thorn fence 4 ft. to in. high, with rail 2 ft. in front and a natural brook about 8 ft. wide on the far side and 4 ft. deep.
7 and 23.—Thorn fence, 4 ft. 0 in. high, with rail in front 2 ft. 6 in. high.
8 and 24.—Thorn fence, 5 ft. high, ditch on take off side 5 or 6 ft. wide, and rail in front 2 ft. high.
9 and 25.—Known as " Valentine's Brook," a thorn fence 5 ft. high, with a rail in front 2 ft. high, and brook on far side.
10 and 26.—Thorn fence, 4 ft. cc in. high, and 2 ft. thick.
11 and 27.—Rail 2 ft. high, a ditch about 7 ft. wide and 4 ft. deep, and a thorn fence on far side 4 ft. 6 in. high.
12 and 28.—Rail 2 ft. high, fence 5 ft. high, and ditch on far side 6 ft. wide.
13, 14, 29, and 30.—A thorn fence, 4 ft, 6 in. high. 15.—Thorn fence, 5 ft. high and 2 ft. in width, ditch on take off side 5 ft. wide and a rail in front 2 ft. high. 16.—The " Water Jump," 15 ft. in width.
Sandown is "a galloping course" as the term goes, but it requires jumping, especially the three fences near together at the foot of the hill. If a horse loses his balance and gets at all abroad at the first or second of these, the third is very likely to upset him, as it is stiff and he cannot go through. At Kempton a handy horse is wanted, one or two of the jumps being rather on the turn ; and at Hurst Park, where the fences are on the big side, and for the most part well made up. Lingfield is not a very satisfactory course, as the hill which has to be descended is too steep, and there is a bad turn, where a horse that has got out of hand is not unlikely to fall over the rails. Gatwick is rather thin and " straggly,' and in the new course there is—possibly by the time these pages are published it will he correct to say was—a fence rendered very dangerous by the way the ground slopes on the taking-off side. Manchester jumps are criticised by riders as too straight up ; fences are thin and high, so that horses are likely to find the point of resistance to which reference has been made. Windsor is confusing, because of the twists ; it is hard for a rider to keep his place, as he is first outside and then inside. Dunstall Park is small and easy ; Hawthorn Hill too much up and down hill Newmarket is a model of a galloping course, with fair fences of good size ; riding over Aldershot has been described as "mountaineering."
Most of the Irish courses differ from the English, except Leopardstown, which was an exceedingly stiff and :severe edition of Sandown. It used to be dangerously big, in fact ; horses were killed and men badly hurt ; but it has been modified. At Punchestown, Fairyhouse, and Navan the country is to a great extent natural. There are banks, some of which horses fly, others they double on. Walls, open brooks, and doubles are included. One of the best water jumps is at Auteuil, for a river crosses the course, and if a horse fails to clear it he goes right in; whereas in England water jumps are sloped away to nothing, so that not to get over usually means merely a little splash in a few inches of mud.