Steeplechase has its origins in an equine event in 18th-century Ireland, as riders would race from town to town using church steeples — at the time the most visible point in each town — as starting and ending points (hence the name steeplechase). Riders would have to surmount the various obstacles of the Irish countryside: stone walls, fences, ditches, streams, etc.
As the name might suggest, that very first race took place in 1752 between two steeples in rural county Cork in the south of Ireland. These types of races are often called “point-to-point” races. At that time, church steeples were among the tallest buildings in the landscape. Two men, Cornelius O’Callaghan and Edmund Blake, made a bet between them, to race from Saint John’s Church in Buttevant to Saint Mary’s Church in Doneraile, which was approximately 4 miles. However, it was 4 miles across the countryside, crossing rivers and streams and walls, etc. Although we do not know the winner’s name, he was to earn a prize of 600 gallons of port.
In 1839, the British Grand National race at Aintree was established, a race that is still run today over roughly the same distance of around 4 miles.
In my newest Austen-inspired story, Elizabeth Bennet’s Gallant Suitor, Bingley has taken Netherfield for the customary reasons of a “gentleman” owning an estate, but he is also developing a line of thoroughbreds (his real passion, not farming). He has had some hard times, of late, of which you must read the story to know something of their nature, for they are essential to the plot, but he has a chance to turn things around if his Arabian mare can win a race designed for fillies. In the scene below, Darcy and Elizabeth are “teaching” a young groom something of how the race will be conducted. The boy is secretly Bingley’s new jockey, but they cannot let on to everyone who is about, so he is Elizabeth’s servant, serving as a chaperone as she and Darcy ride the course for pleasure a few days before the actual race. This one is not a steeplechase race, but Darcy explains it all to the youth.
Elizabeth Bennet will not tolerate her dearest sister Jane being coerced into marriage. Yet, how she will prevent the “inevitable”? Jane, after all, has proven to be the granddaughter of Sir Wesley Belwood, a tyrannical baronet, who means to have his say in Jane’s marriage in order to preserve the family bloodlines. When Colonel Fitzwilliam appears at Stepton Abbey as the prospective groom, Elizabeth must join forces with the colonel’s cousin, a very handsome gentleman named Mr. Darcy, to prevent the unwanted betrothal.
Lacking in fortune and unconventionally handsome, Elizabeth Bennet is willing to risk everything so her beloved sister may have a happily ever after, even if Elizabeth must thwart all of Sir Wesley’s plans, as well as those of Mr. Darcy.
Fitzwilliam Darcy meant to flirt with the newly named Miss Belwood himself to prevent the girl’s marriage to his cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, but one glance to Miss Elizabeth Bennet has Darcy considering everything but his cousin’s fate. Miss Elizabeth thought him a wastrel, but when incidents throw them together, they must combine forces to fight for love for the colonel, for Jane, and maybe, even for themselves.
Excerpt from Chapter 15
The colonel and Miss Mary had decided to walk about the town and enjoy tea together instead of joining Miss Elizabeth and Darcy on the course. It was obvious to all, Elizabeth’s sister was not the natural rider Miss Elizabeth was. In reality, it pleased Darcy to have the lady all to himself, despite the fact slowly riding the course set out for the race along with another fifty or so horsemen and women did not constitute “all to himself.” Moreover, the groom rode nearby. Yet, the lady’s attention belonged to him, and, for that, Darcy was quite thankful.
Before they began their ride, Darcy explained a few “givens” to Toby. “I am certain Mr. Bingley has spoken of the horse’s characteristics prior to our outing, but I mean to speak to the obvious.”
“Yes, sir,” the boy said in serious tones.
Darcy wished there was another Arabian available for him to use as an example, but he continued, nonetheless. “Bingley’s T is an Arabian mare, and I assume you have noted her slightly smaller head, finely chiseled lines, dished face, long arching neck, and high tail carriage.”
“Yes, sir, she be magnificent.”
“She also has a small muzzle, dark eyes, which are well set apart, and small ears with the tips tilted slightly inward. More importantly, for the race, she possesses large nostrils, which extend when in action.”
“So noted, sir.”
Darcy continued, “Unlike the other horses you have encountered, Bingley’s T has one less vertebra than is common in other breeds. She also possesses perfect balance and symmetry, a deep chest, well-sprung ribs, long legs, and a more horizontal pelvic bone position.”
“Mr. Bingley be explaining all these points and fancy words to me, sir.” The youth looked about him and said, “I wish ‘T’ be here now, so I kin sees how she performs with so many people about.”
“I agree,” said Darcy, “but it is too dangerous for now. To protect both you and the horse, we must keep ‘mum’ on what we plan. However, when you return to Netherfield, you might ask Mr. Bingley to arrange people along the rails to yell and wave hats and make noise and the like to allow the horse to become accustomed to some of the sights and sounds she will encounter here.”
“I’s do what ye suggest, sir.”
Elizabeth instructed, “According to both Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy, Bingley’s T is the superior mount, but you must permit her to run her race. Control, but do not attempt to master her.”
Toby said, “I’s learnt that lesson already. ‘T’ nearly tooken off my knuckle ‘til she gets to know me when I be feeding her.”
Darcy added, “We will not have you dress as Mr. Bingley’s rider until the last minute. We have spread the word about to say the hired rider is traveling in from the north.”
“Understand, sir. If they knows, the other riders not be afeared of me,” the boy declared.
Miss Elizabeth said with a protective squeeze of the boy’s arm, “You must use that particular fact to your advantage.”
“I mean to, Miss Elizabeth,” the boy said eagerly.
Darcy was quick to add, “Such will not keep the other riders from attacking both you and Bingley’s T, if the opportunity arises. Your horse’s strength is the race, not the jumps over the barricades. When you must jump, remember ‘T’ leads with her left leg and will, therefore, require a five-step approach. You may be required to swing a bit wider to accommodate the horse’s natural gait.”
Toby nodded his understanding, but Darcy knew the boy had not considered the jumps prior to today.
“We will jump a few of the barricades today just so you have the feel of them. You will jump with Miss Elizabeth, which would be natural for you to protect her as part of her family’s estate. Moreover, your doing so will confuse those who cannot determine if you are employed by Mr. Bennet or Mr. Bingley as a groom.”
Darcy continued, “When I observed riders on the Continent who chose an Arabian mount, the more consistent successful horsemen found it profitable to lay out along the horse’s neck rather than to sit upright as do most Englishmen.”
The boy swallowed hard, but said, “Lots of lessons to learn, but I’ll do me best, sir.”
Finished with the basics, they mounted and prepared to ride the course. As they leisurely walked their animals, Darcy spoke loud enough to Miss Elizabeth to ensure the trailing Toby could hear him also. “It is a three-miles’ course. Outriders will be posted along the route to assure none of the riders choose a shorter course. There are five hurdles or walls, a half mile between each. They will not be as high as one might find in, say, a fox hunt. In fact, I heard one of the course officials say they were thinking of removing all but the one board. The boards are meant to represent the type of obstructions a person might discover when out on a pleasure ride.”
“But not at such frequency,” the lady said to emphasize the necessity of Toby jumping each of them. “I do so appreciate your suggestions, sir. Most useful. Might we attempt the first jump now, Mr. Darcy?” she asked.
“Are you accustomed to jumping, my dear?” he said loud enough for others on the course to hear, but also to assure himself she was not in danger.
“Not as assured as others of your acquaintance, I imagine, but certainly I can manage to stay on the horse, if such is what you fear,” she responded in a tone Darcy thought could reflect real irritation.
“I will ask Toby to follow, and I will lead you across each to assure your safety. Neither of us wishes to see you harmed. Heh, Toby?” he asked the boy. Darcy meant to provide Elizabeth information on each barricade, so he might also instruct the groom.
Miss Elizabeth appeared to understand his purpose and nodded her agreement.
“According to Mr. Bingley and all those I have asked, none of the horses in the race are steeplechased trained, and no one wishes them injured,” he continued.
“Naturally,” Miss Elizabeth declared as another pair of riders passed them.
Darcy stopped his horse and waited for her and the groom to join him. “Do you know what I mean by ‘steeplechase,’ Toby?”
The boy looked shamefaced. “Not exactly, sir.”
“Now is the time to learn,” Darcy said, “especially if you are expecting employment with Bingley.” He nodded toward the surrounding countryside. “The steeplechase-style racing originated in Ireland during the last century. In contrast to a flat course race, of which you may have some basic knowledge, the idea was the horses would race from one church steeple to the next. The first such race of any notice was between two men named Cornelius O’Callaghan and Edmund Blake, who raced four miles cross-country from Buttevant Church to Saint Leger Church in Doneraile, Ireland. That is in county Cork. The first ‘English’ steeplechase took place only a few years back in Bedford, although the one in Newmarket has been happening since the 1790s, but it was not as structured as the one in Bedford. The Newmarket race is only a mile long, but it has five-foot bars every quarter mile. Obviously, because the horses in this race are trained for cross-country, only one bar is being used, and, truthfully, I expect even that bar will no longer be required by the time of the race. Even so, I imagine each rider will still be required to go through the gates as part of the course. You will need to be flexible and make changes as they come.”
Toby appeared a bit in awe at Darcy’s knowledge of the sport. “I nevers thought all this be required.”
“The reason I know this is not a steeplechase is what Mr. Bingley described of the rider he had hired before you came along. A flat course horse carries a lighter weight than do steeplechase animals. Riders for steeplechase races tend to be taller and heavier than those on flat runners.”
Miss Elizabeth teased, “If you keep growing Toby, we may be required to train you on a different type of horse.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said with a smile. “Me father will be surprised when I tells him all I’ve learned.”
Afterwards, they jumped the first barricade twice, circling around the second time once they set their horses at a faster pace, with Miss Elizabeth and Toby jumping together to provide the boy the feel of having another rider so close. Then they rode on to the second jump.
They waited for the area to clear before permitting Toby to jump the stallion he rode. Afterwards, Darcy instructed the boy as they looked on and Miss Elizabeth executed the jump. “As we said previously, do not think to impose your will on the horse, for it has been bred for this purpose. Set a steady gallop. In the race, permit Bingley’s T to choose what is comfortable for her. As I understand it, she is the only Arabian mare in the race. There are supposed to be five and twenty horses in the mix, although I expect a couple will not run, for one reason or another, but, at this point of the race course, you and ‘T’ should be in the top eight or nine.”
They rode steadily over the second of the three miles, stopping to jump the barricade several times. Darcy jumped with Toby when there was no one about and purposely attempted to cause the boy to make a mistake. With each jump, he crowded the boy to provide the lad the feel of the race. However, Toby appeared confident in his ability to read the hazards correctly, and Darcy was impressed with the lad’s overall knowledge, as well as Toby’s determination.
“Some will attempt to unseat you over the walls,” Darcy warned. “You are likely to feel the sting of some unscrupulous rider’s crop, but, if you lay out along the horse as I showed you, it will be harder to dislodge you.”
Toby swallowed hard, but he nodded his understanding of what Darcy suggested.
They stopped at the second mile marker and the fourth barricade while Darcy pretended to adjust Elizabeth’s stirrups. “Many of the initial contenders will have fallen behind by this point,” he said as both Elizabeth and Toby remained silent and attentive. “Many of the horses will be lathered and struggling to finish. You will be able to pass them easily if you have not ridden ‘T’ too hard. However, do not yet permit ‘T’ to break away. You will require all her speed the last three-quarters to half mile. Keep a steady pace, but stay within striking distance of the front runners. They should hear you, but not see you.
“I would imagine with a mile remaining, you must begin to edge her forward. Lightly whipping the reins from side to side would be advisable, but no actual whip. I do not believe in whipping an animal which has given you all he or she has. Catch a good hold on ‘T’s’ mane, for she may disagree with you, as most spirited females do.” Darcy chuckled when Miss Elizabeth presented him a scowl. “Meanwhile, it might be a sound idea to reassure ‘T’ how splendid she is,” he said as he looked up into Miss Elizabeth’s lovely face. “I have been led to understand, it is the established custom of the female of the species to reject a fellow’s request on the first application. Therefore, be prepared to apply to ‘T’s’ finer qualities more than once.” He then returned her booted foot to the stirrup before teasingly saying, “Of course, one must recall, a mare is a lady, and, as such, her modesty rather adds to her perfections.”
Elizabeth immediately kicked his arm away, and Darcy burst into laughter, while Toby appeared perplexed by what just occurred. Darcy said to her, “Just wished for assurances you, too, paid, attention to my instructions, my dear.”
Her chin hitched a notch higher. “Upon my word, sir, your hope is rather an extraordinary one. Now, if you have completed your warnings to Toby, may we continue?”
“As you wish, Miss Elizabeth.” Darcy mounted quickly. “Naturally, you must read the competition in your own manner, Toby. You must stay aware of what is transpiring around you. By this point in the race, you will be hit with a wall of sound which will only grow louder the closer you come to the finish line. People will be shouting their encouragements and their curses. The thunderous stomping of hooves will lodge in your chest and make you wish to turn Bingley’s T loose too soon. You must be disciplined, Toby. If you are disciplined, so will be ‘T.’ She will take her cues from you.”
“Yes, sir,” the boy said in awe.
When they reached the final jump, Darcy paused. “Hopefully, by this point, you will be in a position to steal away the race from the others. You must be with the leader or leaders of the race in order to win, whether such be one horse or a trio. You should be matching them stride for stride, and all your senses must be in tune, heart by heart, with your horse. As you pass the others, you will be able to smell your opponent’s fear.”
The boy laughed nervously.
“It is true,” Darcy insisted. “When your opponent fears losing, you will smell his emotions and know the victory is yours.
“I believe you, sir.”
“Just remember that said fear will make him desperate, and, so, this will be the point when your opponent may even think to attack you. He will likely make an effort to unseat you.”
“What should I do, sir?” Toby asked in a breathy voice, as if he could feel the race himself, which is exactly what Darcy hoped he would experience.
“Dig into your strength, boy. Miss Elizabeth would not have recommended you as Mr. Bingley’s groom if the lady did not believe you possessed the talent to win. You must believe as she believes. As Mr. Bingley believes. Use your instincts. You have experiences with horses many of the riders do not, for they only ride them, not train them. Clear the last barricade, whatever form it takes and then provide Bingley’s T her head and her heart. Be one with the horse. Feel her strength beating in your chest. Permit her to know when her heart falters, she can claim a piece of yours to sustain her. Feel her head and her heart in your every bone. If you do so, I guarantee you a win.”
Darcy heard Miss Elizabeth expel a sigh of satisfaction. “We are each free to write our own stories, Toby. Stories just like the tales I read to you as a boy. Be the hero you always wanted to be. The ending you always sought is within your grasp.”
As she and the lad rode side-by-side toward the finish line, Darcy wondered what story Miss Elizabeth Bennet would choose for herself. He would be sorry not to remain in Hertfordshire to learn her fate.
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