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.
These remarks serve to introduce one of the fraternity who may be considered as typical of all. He was a small, wiry, hard-featured fellow, the son of a stockman on a big cattle-station, and began life as a horse-breaker; he was naturally a horseman, able and willing to ride anything that could carry him. He left the station to go with cattle on the road, and having picked up a horse that showed pace, amused himself by jumping over fences. Then he went to Wagga, entered the horse in a steeplechase, rode him himself, won handsomely, sold the horse at a good price to a Sydney buyer, and went down to ride it in his Sydney races.
In Sydney he did very well; he got a name as a fearless and clever rider, and was offered several mounts on fine animals. So he pitched his camp in Sydney, and became a fully-enrolled member of the worst profession in the world. I had known him in the old days on the road, and when I met him on the course one day I enquired how he liked the new life.
"Well, it's a livin'," he said, "but it's no great shakes. They don't give steeplechase-riders a chance in Sydney. There's very few races, and the big sweepstakes keep horses out of the game."
"Do you get a fair share of the riding?" I asked.
"Oh, yes; I get as much as anybody. But there's a lot of 'em got a notion I won't take hold of a horse when I'm told (i.e., pull him to prevent him winning). Some of these days I'll take hold of a horse when they don't expect it."
I smiled as I thought there was probably a sorry day in store for some backer when the jockey "took hold" unexpectedly.
"Do you have to pull horses, then, to get employment?"
"Oh, well, it's this way," he said, rather apologetically, "if an owner is badly treated by the handicapper, and is just giving his horse a run to get weight off, then it's right enough to catch hold a bit. But when a horse is favourite and the public are backing him it isn't right to take hold of him then. _I_ would not do it." This was his whole code of morals -- not to pull a favourite; and he felt himself very superior to the scoundrel who would pull favourites or outsiders indiscriminately.
"What do you get for riding?" I asked him.
"Well," he said, looking about uneasily, "we're supposed to get a fiver for a losing mount and ten pounds if we win, but a lot of the steeplechase-owners are what I call `battlers' -- men who have no money and get along by owing everybody. They promise us all sorts of money if we win, but they don't pay if we lose. I only got two pounds for that last steeplechase."
"Two pounds!" I made a rapid calculation. He had ridden over eighteen fences for two pounds -- had chanced his life eighteen times at less than half-a-crown a time.
"Good Heavens!" I said, "that's a poor game. Wouldn't you be better back on the station?"
"Oh, I don't know -- sometimes we get laid a bit to nothing, and do well out of a race. And then, you know, a steeplechase rider is somebody -- not like an ordinary fellow that is just working."
I realised that I was an "ordinary fellow who was just working", and felt small accordingly.
"I'm just off to weigh now," he said -- "I'm riding Contractor, and he'll run well, but he always seems to fall at those logs. Still, I ought to have luck to-day. I met a hearse as I was coming out. I'll get him over the fences, somehow."
"Do you think it lucky, then, to meet a hearse?"
"Oh, yes," he said, "if you MEET it. You mustn't overtake it -- that's unlucky. So is a cross-eyed man unlucky. Cross-eyed men ought to be kept off racecourses."
He reappeared clad in his racing rig, and we set off to see the horse saddled. We found the owner in a great state of excitement. It seemed he had no money -- absolutely none whatever -- but had borrowed enough to pay the sweepstakes, and stood to make something if the horse won and lose nothing if he lost, as he had nothing to lose. My friend insisted on being paid two pounds before he would mount, and the owner nearly had a fit in his efforts to persuade him to ride on credit. At last a backer of the horse agreed to pay 2 pounds 10s., win or lose, and the rider was to get 25 pounds out of the prize if he won. So up he got; and as he and the others walked the big muscular horses round the ring, nodding gaily to friends in the crowd, I thought of the gladiators going out to fight in the arena with the cry of "Hail, Caesar, those about to die salute thee!"
The story of the race is soon told. My friend went to the front at the start and led nearly all the way, and "Contractor!" was on every one's lips as the big horse sailed along in front of his field. He came at the log-fence full of running, and it looked certain that he would get over. But at the last stride he seemed to falter, then plunged right into the fence, striking it with his chest, and, turning right over, landed on his unfortunate rider.
A crowd clustered round and hid horse and rider from view, and I ran down to the casualty-room to meet him when the ambulance came in. The limp form was carefully taken out and laid on a stretcher while a doctor examined the crushed ribs, the broken arm, and all the havoc that the horse's huge weight had wrought.
There was no hope from the first. My poor friend, who had so often faced Death for two pounds, lay very still awhile. Then he began to talk, wandering in his mind, "Where are the cattle?" -- his mind evidently going back to the old days on the road. Then, quickly, "Look out there -- give me room!" and again "Five-and-twenty pounds, Mary, and a sure thing if he don't fall at the logs."
Mary was sobbing beside the bed, cursing the fence and the money that had brought him to grief. At last, in a tone of satisfaction, he said, quite clear and loud: "I know how it was -- THERE COULDN'T HAVE BEEN ANY DEAD MAN IN THAT HEARSE!"
And so, having solved the mystery to his own satisfaction, he drifted away into unconsciousness -- and woke somewhere on the other side of the big fence that we can neither see through nor over, but all have to face sooner or later.