Friday, July 4, 2014

The last surviving player (A sporting life - Horses)

I only ever rode in a proper horse-race once in my life. At age ten, I came second in a children’s trotting race at the Hannaford Gymkhana; the prize was five shillings and a red sash. My horse at the time was a natural trotter, and it was the devil’s own job to kick her into a canter at any time. I hated her with a passion, but, well, five bob was not to be sneezed at.

Gymkhana is an old Anglo-Indian word meaning a country fair. It was an annual event in Australian bush communities – food stalls and shooting galleries and the like outside an arena where horsemanship was shown off and polo was played.

The polo ground was a far cry from the clipped lawns of Windsor Great Park, the home of the game in England. There, the beau monde bring their stables of thoroughbreds and Argentinians, and sit around sipping Pimm’s, and a spectacular festival it is. At Hannaford, sheep farmers and their station-hands charged up and down on work-horses trained to keep sheep in a bunch, and tossed down gallons of beer that were tossed up again in due course.

One year, two station-hands got into a fight over a girl who had been in my class at school; one of them forced strychnine down the throat of his rival, and sat on his head until he died. The patrons of Windsor Great Park would never have countenanced such behaviour. They kept the riff-raff out altogether, and it was only as the friend of a friend that I was there. I put on the poshest English accent I could manage, and didn’t mention The Geebung Polo Club.

The Geebung Polo Club was a fictional up-country bush club invented by Banjo Paterson, Australian poetry’s answer to Lord Tennyson. The poem was not quite The Man from Snowy River, but equally dramatic, in its way:
    They waddied one another till the plain was strewn with dead,
     While the score was kept so even that they neither got ahead.
     And the Cuff and Collar captain, when he tumbled off to die,
     Was the last surviving player - so the game was called a tie.

The Windsor polo was not the only horsey event that I ever attended in England. Besides the racing at Chepstow with local friends, there was “the following of the hounds”. My cousin Lucy introduced David and me to that during our visit to the village where my English grandfather was born and raised. (David was my chum from the boat over, immortalized – in my mind – in the “two tuppennies” story told in my blog A cupful of cold water in July 2013.) 

Lucy’s piercingly loud voice made her famous around Bath as a deranged follower of the hounds at the local hunts, and she dragged us excitedly from fence to fence in borrowed Wellies watching one of the local “hunts” do its thing.

Following the hounds is a grand old English tradition, and a surprisingly democratic one. Peasants, townsfolk and sundry others wade through the mud in a mad dash to see the horse-owning gentry and nouveau riche gallop up and down pretending to care whether their dogs caught and killed a fox or not. After the fox eventually meets its doom, all the survivors retire to their cars and eat picnics. Jolly good fun or incredibly boring, according to taste.

But it has always been flat-racing that captured Australians’ hearts, not any other horsey events. Champion horses became household words, and jockeys, folk-heroes. “You’re better stayers than Tulloch”, the father of a friend grumbled one night when we overstayed our welcome – Tulloch being a horse that had led the field from start to finish for the whole two miles of the Melbourne Cup a few years before.

A friend of my Dad’s took me aside at a party and confidentially warned me against returning via the USA on my upcoming round-the-world trip. “The thing is, you can’t trust the Yanks, Gordon. The bastards killed Phar Lap, remember.” As indeed they had, in 1932, in California where the legendary horse (yes, another Melbourne Cup winner) was in training to show the American horses how to race.

Australian doctors today are still debating who could have fed him the arsenic.