- Glenn Lester, ‘Butch beats a bad turn’ and ‘Game comeback’, Age, 8 May 1981, p. 34.
- Butch Londregan, Age, 8 May 2009. The incorrect reference to Ross Hulls, not Rob, is as quoted.
- Gallery34.com.au, exhibition notes, January 2013.
- Standard (Warrnambool), 1 June 2009.
- Tim Auld, Standard (Warrnambool), 15 March 2012.
- Arthur J. Sarl, Horses, Jockeys and Crooks: Reminiscences of Thirty Years’ Racing, E.P. Dutton and Co., New York, 1936, p. 143.
- Adam Lindsay Gordon, ‘The Roll of the Kettledrum, or the Lay of the Last Charger’; ‘Visions in the Smoke’.
- A.B. Paterson, ‘Concerning a Steeplechase Rider’, in Three Elephant Power and Other Stories, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1917.
- Examiner (London), reprinted in Argus, 30 November 1849.
- Bruce Smart, A Community of the Horse: Partnerships, Lost Mountain Graphics, Middleburg, Virginia, 2003.
- Peter Winants, Steeplechasing: A Complete History of the Sport in North America, Derrydale Press, Lanham, Maryland, 2000.
- Fauquier Times-Democrat, 23 January 2013.
- John Ellis Rossell, Jr., The Maryland Hunt Cup: Past and Present, Sporting Press, Baltimore, Maryland, 1975.
- Patrick Smithwick, Racing My Father: Growing Up with a Riding Legend, Eclipse Press, Lexington, Kentucky, 2006.
- Patrick Smithwick, Flying Change: A Year of Racing and Family and Steeplechasing, Chesapeake Book Co., Baltimore, Maryland, 2012. In April 2013 Patrick Smithwick won the Dr Tony Ryan Book award, an international prize for literature pertaining to the thoroughbred horse, for Flying Change.
- Herald Sun, 2 June 2009.
Maybe Butch Londregan is the reason why the long tradition of steeplechase racing is not yet quite extinct in Australia. We in our city lives with our short memories might not recognise this horse trainer, but in some parts of the bush he is a folk hero. He is light but strong, could ride trackwork even in his fifties, was known to have a touch of temper, had been in tangles with racing authorities. In his time as a jockey he won the hometown Grand Annual Steeplechase, with its thirty-three fences, four times—twice on a horse called Thackeray who, between racing seasons, worked the sheep and cattle on a property in Victoria’s Western District. The next year, Butch beat his favourite Thackeray on another horse when the owners gave the ride to a different jockey.1 Four times: that’s legend status at country Warrnambool. As an unlikely bush poet, who wouldn’t own the label, his style is rough free verse and his words sometimes offend. That’s poetry these days, isn’t it? Telling it as it is, expletives undeleted.
At Warrnambool in Autumn 2009 jumps racing stood on the brink of being banned forever. If it went in Victoria it would not survive in South Australia, the last stronghold. Over a three-day race meeting three horses had been killed, euthanased by vets after falling at jumps, sustaining injuries that couldn’t or wouldn’t be repaired. It was not unprecedented but it was chilling.
The then Minister for Racing, Rob Hulls, had for years been leaning on the putatively independent state authority for thoroughbred horse racing, Racing Victoria Limited, to end the dwindling schedule of jumps racing. It would be less trouble, politically, to have the sport’s ruling body put down jumping than to pass laws. A year earlier an independent judge, whom Hulls had appointed, inconveniently ruled that steeplechasing was not intrinsically cruel and should be allowed to continue if certain conditions and standards were met. The three deaths at Warrnambool threatened to breach those standards. Racing Victoria immediately suspended jumps racing while it reviewed the situation.
It was then that Butch Londregan broke into spontaneous free verse. Ginsberg could not have shocked respectable America more than Londregan shocked urban Australia.
I love horses,
I’ve been involved with them all of my life,
I’m gonna cry when I’m going to get them put down
and those people don’t realize how well
we look after them and how much we love them.
Well I ring up the knackery
and start shooting straight away
and I’ll video them,
get some shots and send them to Ross Hulls
and all the radical groups against jumping races.
Probably to Ross Hulls first,
and a few other little places. 2
To be fair to Butch Londregan, he never said it was a poem. It was more an extempore rap delivered in slightly differing versions to a diverse and excited media. Was this, with its nuanced references to The Godfather, a threat or merely metaphor? Was it also referencing Ivan Durrant, who once arranged a slaughtered cow outside the National Gallery of Victoria ‘as an act of animal rights and artistic statement’?3 Protesters against duck shooting have made their own art form of annually dumping dead ducks on the steps of Parliament House.
Butch could have used honeyed words and cool reason—and no-one would have listened. They didn’t listen to his actual words anyway. What he first threatened to send were pictures. He wanted the people who acted from misplaced sentiment to take responsibility for their actions. If jumps racing were to be banned, his small stable of horses would become not just redundant but also a liability. His horses, he said, well treated and happy with their lives, were no good for another occupation, too unruly to be kids’ horses. He would not be able to sell them or find homes for them. If activists made their point by filming accidents on the track, he would want them to come face to face with the reality of sending dozens of healthy racehorses to their doom.
Butch, as a licensed horse trainer, was summoned before the Racing Appeals and Disciplinary Board and fined $1000 for his performance, with $4000 more if he repeated it. His lawyer made the case for him at the tribunal: Butch was a credit to racing and enormously popular in the Western District. ‘He’s an icon, a person Banjo Paterson was talking about.’4
Racing Victoria paused. There was another review. Jumps racing, they decided, would end after the 2010 season. Then unexpectedly there was a change of government. The new Minister for Racing came to the job as a former vet and former leader of his party. More significantly, he was the member for South-West Coast, which means Warrnambool. The game changed.
Butch Londregan now dreamed of making a comeback in the saddle: one more Grand Annual, at the age of fifty-four. His dad had been a jumps jockey before him: Bill Londregan won a Grand National Hurdle at Flemington back in 1955. Bill junior, Butch’s brother, had won an Adelaide Grand National. Butch’s son David junior, at nineteen, tried his hand at cross-country riding but had to give it away after breaking several vertebrae in a race fall at Mt Gambier. It was in the blood. Butch had the horses. He put himself back into training, brought his weight down to 60 kilograms, devised a strategy to get his riding licence back—ten races on the flat before he could go over the jumps. It was the doctor who ended his hopes. ‘My lower back is buggered,’ Butch said. Pure poetry.5
On the vexed question of jumps racing there seems to be an insuperable divide between the two sides of debate. If the men and women who devote their time, lives and money to rearing, training, riding and racing horses over fences are not mad, perverse or cruel, then maybe more effort should be applied to understanding the steeplechasing mind. To do so requires a sense of history, an appreciation that it is a complex subject, that it takes us into philosophical and ethical realms defying easy answers and that it cannot be understood from an Australian perspective alone.First the history. The colonisation of Australia coincided with the rise of English flat racing in its modern form, from around the time of the first Derby in 1780. Steeplechasing evolved from Anglo-Irish bravado into mainstream racing in England by the 1820s. It was swiftly brought to New South Wales by British military officers at a loose end.
There was a steeplechase when Flemington was established in 1840, five years after first settlement of Melbourne town, two decades before the Melbourne Cup began. Steeplechasing was attractive to the colonial temperament. It was easy to organise over natural obstacles. The climate, distances, unmade roads, unexplored terrain, the need to muster unfenced livestock all proved the usefulness of sturdy thoroughbreds that could run fast, carry weight and clear obstacles. Colonists could then race them on high days. Jumps racing flourished, and later hunting with hounds, where conditions best resembled Britain and where there was sufficient wealth and population.
Racing mixed the classes, already fluid in colonial Australia where gold, sheep or land deals could transform convicts into plutocrats, aristocrats into labourers. A tradesman’s horse might make the grade as a champion. Australian racing imported the English code where a man could ride his own horse, and usually be accepted as a gentleman because of it, or employ a professional trainer and jockey. The gentlemen created the big race clubs, set the standards and tried (often in vain) to keep the game fair.
Jockeys and gentleman riders cared little for personal safety in the heat of the contest in this extreme sport. Riding a racehorse was the fastest, most exhilarating and dangerous thing you could do in colonial Australia: it attracted young men yearning for excitement and reputation. Often big money hung on the result.
As it does today, race riding required skill, courage, athleticism and judgement, but there was little help when things went wrong. Today if accidents occur the results can be drastic, life changing, even fatal, but there are ambulances, vets, doctors and counsellors, pain killers and antibiotics, insurance, rehabilitation, compensation, as some form of rescue or consolation when the worst happens. In 1840 there was the gun and Melbourne’s first practising physician, Dr Cotter, little more. Dr Cotter rode in the steeplechases too.
For more than a century, up to the 1960s, ‘the Nationals’ at Flemington—the VRC Grand National Hurdle and Steeplechase—were among the high points of Victoria’s sporting calendar and were followed nationally. Our jumps horses became heroes, our best jumps jockeys among our most revered sportsmen. From Redleap and Mosstrooper to the magnificent Crisp, steeplechasers had their legions of fans. The nineteenth century gave us riders such as Adam Lindsay Gordon and James Scobie, later a brilliant trainer. Tommy Corrigan met his death in a racing fall, and his funeral was one of the largest ever seen in Melbourne.
The press made these heroes of the day, equine and human. Writers spoke to a town and country population who knew horses; who rode; who dealt every day with buggy horses, riding hacks, farm horses and cart horses. Too often they witnessed active cruelty: horses whipped savagely to pull heavy loads, left without adequate food and water, set upon when handlers lost their tempers, struck with sharp objects. Daily court reports were full of such cases.
The poets reminded readers of the nobility, power and beauty of the horse. They spoke of proud independence and the paradox of mutual dependence at its best, the oneness that can be reached between horse and human. Three popular poets in particular in nineteenth-century Australia conveyed to their countrymen the essence of the steeplechasing mind.
Banjo Paterson remains the best remembered. He and Will H. Ogilvie were near contemporaries. They were influenced by Adam Lindsay Gordon, who died by his own hand in 1870, at the end of the decade in which they were born. None of the three had illusions that steeplechasing was without its penalties but they could also sing its glories.
The Victorian era did sentimentalise noble death, whether human or animal, perhaps because ordinary death was always waiting just around the corner. After the Great War such wallowing in grief became untenable, like Victorian mourning customs. There had been too much death. Yet Gordon, the most Victorian of the three, remained widely appreciated because he had lived the life himself. Ogilvie, a Scot, was inspired to come to Australia by reading Gordon’s evocations of the open plains at dawn, the dim dewy uplands dreamy with light, tales of bold riders and the young mare who was urged to jump fences, logs and flooded streams and race from the outstation to town to carry news of disaster, in ‘From the Wreck’ (1870).
Around the world horse-minded readers still place Gordon among their favourite poets. The English racing writer Arthur J. Sarl expressed it in 1936 and he would still find agreement today:
I have heard folks say—critical folks—that Adam Lindsay Gordon was not a poet, but a rhymester. My hat! Was he? Every line he wrote breathed of the open air and sport. I treasure the volumes in my library with his name on each fly-leaf as I shall never treasure many of the so-called masters.6
Gordon famously rode three winners over obstacles on a single day at Flemington in 1866. He understood the passions of his reckless colleagues. No role model, you would think, Gordon had a short life characterised by wastefulness, risk-taking, grief, remorse and psychological depression, and it ended with suicide; yet his poems were read, recited and treasured by thousands who saw in them the gleam of truth.
‘We inherit our strength for a season, our pride for a span,’ he said. ‘They serve for a time, and they make life worth living, in spite of life’s troubles.’ Gordon never took the horse for granted either, and never considered it expendable. If he celebrated the noble steed, he viewed its sacrifices with compassion. If man was the noblest work of the creator then ‘Of the works of His hand, by sea or land, / The horse may at least rank second’. Nor was the horse a passive object or victim of abuse: ‘No slave, but a comrade staunch, in this.’7
Gordon spent his young manhood and his short life resisting what he called tea and scandal rebukes about his own behaviour. He defended himself in his verse, without wishing ‘to exaggerate the worth of the sports we prize’. He insisted that riding over the jumps was an expression of living, of joy:
Then the leap, the rise from the springy turf,
The rush through the buoyant air,
And the light shock landing—the veriest serf
Is an emperor then and there!
(‘Cito Pede Preterit Aetas’)
The best-known stanza of Gordon’s in the century after his death, next to that about kindness in another’s trouble, courage in your own, takes some translation in a multicultural Australia. At heart it is a challenge for life to deliver more than just church and state, traffic and trade, scandal and tea. He finishes his challenge in capital letters:
Yet if once we efface the joys of the chase
From the land, and outroot the Stud,
GOOD-BYE TO THE ANGLO-SAXON RACE!
FAREWELL TO THE NORMAN BLOOD.
(also from ‘Cito Pede Preterit Aetas’)
No-one loved horses more than Gordon did. No-one ever wrote a more heartfelt requiem on the death of a beloved friend: ‘All is over! this is death, / And I stand to watch thee die, / Brave old horse!’ (‘The Last Leap’).
Paterson tended more to humour than to high seriousness, but he could hit hard. ‘Father Riley’s Horse’, ‘Out of Sight’, ‘The Old Timer’s Steeplechase’ are among Paterson’s light poems with a steeplechasing theme. ‘The Open Steeplechase’ (1891) is mock epic and uses the same metre as ‘The Man from Snowy River’. It distinctly echoes Gordon. Yet Paterson knew the costs of racing and steeplechasing and he wanted readers to know them too. As early as 1887 he published his savage, enduring poem ‘Only a Jockey’. He was not the first to point to callous attitudes of owners or blinkered gamblers whose first concern at an accident was the death of a valuable horse or loss of a big bet ahead of the life of a jockey.
‘Only a Jockey’ is not a steeplechasing poem, but Paterson as a journalist later sharply criticised the sport as it was practised in his country. His essay ‘Concerning a Steeplechase Rider’ began, ‘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.’ In England, he says, the 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. ‘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.’ There is more:
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.8
Ogilvie similarly held his breath for the jockeys who put on their silks for a living and rode for a guinea or two: ‘But the riders, the steeplechase riders, go out with their lives in their hands’ (‘The Steeplechase Riders’, 1903). Yet whatever their misgivings, neither Paterson nor Ogilvie ever argued that steeplechasing should be stopped.
The debate over steeplechasing is not new. Lines of battle were drawn as early as 1849, when the British House of Commons considered whether it should legislate to outlaw the sport. All positions were defined then, including the argument that even if steeplechasing is undesirable, legislation is not the answer.9 In the contemporary debate about steeplechasing, absolutely nothing has changed. The difficulty lies in pinpointing where cruelty begins in riding and racing a horse and making it jump. Unlike in blood sports, the objective is to complete the contest without injury to any party, and to do so with skill.
The long-term decline of jumps racing in Australia is a separate issue. The worst of the abuses condemned by Paterson have long gone. The simple explanation is that steeplechasing became trapped within a sport that has removed itself from the last of its amateur origins and repositioned itself as part of ‘the racing industry’. Racing was driven by new imperatives (including by governments) to increase betting turnover and revenue, to cut costs by closing less profitable racetracks and to generate commercial sponsorship. Jumps races are expensive to run, attract less betting and become the target of protesters. Since country point-to-point steeplechasing was long ago encouraged to relocate to formal racecourses, jumping has nowhere else to go.
In England, Ireland and the United States, steeplechasing retains acceptance as a legitimate sport and part of a cultural heritage. The famous Grand National at Aintree has always been the target of protest but is the most watched horse race in Great Britain. The National Hunt’s four-day festival of jumps racing at Cheltenham attracts an average crowd of 50,000 daily. The big Irish steeplechases attract larger crowds than the flat racing.
I haven’t seen these races but last year I spent a spring in Middleburg, Virginia. Australians might imagine the Barossa Valley, the Yarra Valley or the Hunter Valley with the grass a different green, blue hills in the distance. In Fauquier and Loudon counties no property dares cross the line of perfection. Where there are horses, nothing is left to chance. Miles of white and brown–painted fences, of circumspect drystone walls, light gravel driveways, mellow ponds with ducks and swans, equine residences that belie the term barn: these are the backdrop to the dramas of the horse in Virginia.
Virginia is home to what one of its resident observers, Bruce Smart, calls ‘A Community of the Horse’. In a book of that title he enumerates equestrian schools, riding ranches, thoroughbred stud farms, agistment and training properties, enthusiasts of every breed of horse.10 They sustain a population whose lives and work revolve around these activities. Virginia still has thriving fox hunting clubs, at least seven of them close to Middleburg. These days they say the fox is rarely caught. He is a mascot of Middleburg. Even the police station has a fox painted on the signboard.
Middleburg is an hour’s drive from Washington, DC, on a road pocked with memorials to historic battles. In the town, if you listen for a while, the names of the great and famous from the nation’s past and present drop as profusely as leaves in an American ‘fall’. Middleburg is home to the National Sporting Library and Museum, with its specialist collection of books, paintings and works of art celebrating what it calls horse and field sports. Out the front stands a bronze horse—weary, riderless, resting one leg, a poignant memorial to the estimated 1.5 million horses and donkeys that perished during the American Civil War. In thinking about steeplechasing it is worth reflecting on the numbers killed in patriotic and utilitarian pursuits.
The library houses a large literature on steeplechasing, a sport that did not emerge in the United States until forty years after it did in Australia and which has always had a much tighter connection with fox hunting tradition. A detailed history by Peter Winants, a former director of this library, is the best examination of American steeplechasing.11 The collection draws on and enfolds extensive English writing on jumps races and fox hunting. It extends to histories of racetracks; biographies of great trainers, riders and horses; and works on animal welfare. Still afflicted with their own version of cultural cringe when it comes to the English, American steeplechase followers have a special place in their hearts for Jay Trump, Battleship and Ben Nevis, who crossed the Atlantic and won the Aintree Grand National. Lovingly compiled publications detail the great races. Rich men and women in the United States have bankrolled such projects. Specialist local publishers such as the Derrydale Press and sufficient book buyers made publication viable. Not all these books are intended to reach literary heights but among them is some astoundingly good writing.
Steeplechasing in Virginia presents itself beautifully. It has little in common with what you normally think of as race meetings. A rotation of point-to-point fixtures culminates in the district’s most popular steeplechase, the Virginia Gold Cup. This has long been a social event, one great picnic each May attracting upwards of 50,000 racegoers. Organisers are intent on continually raising standards involving the training of horses and riders, and the condition of the track and jumps. To me, as an Australian, the biggest surprise is the absence of gambling, but that is changing. This year the Gold Cup meeting will allow pari mutuel tote betting for the first time. President of the organisation Will Allison says it is a huge advance for horse racing.12 We will see.
The point-to-point races in Virginia remain semi-amateur affairs. Commercial steeplechasing takes place on only a few racetracks in the United States. It remains a niche sport, supported traditionally by wealthy owners. The Gold Cup purse in 2012 was a modest $75,000. The prestigious and tough Hunt Cup in the adjacent state of Maryland is open to amateur riders only and until recently offered no prize money at all.
Most American steeplechases use what they call standardised national fences, but a few retain traditional obstacles. This is the case in the Maryland Hunt Cup, which offers a mix of solid and post-and-rail upright timber fences, not brush. Several are jumped twice in what the Americans, with their Imperial measures, still fondly know as a four mile race, with some of the fences nearly five feet high. It’s been run since 1894.13
There is no exact Australian equivalent. The Maryland Hunt Cup is longer than the Great Eastern Steeplechase held each Easter Monday at Oakbank in the Adelaide Hills, or the Grand Annual at Warrnambool, but the Australian races are older. Victoria’s historic Grand National Steeplechase, run annually at Flemington from 1866 till 2006, is a shadow of itself at Sandown, a racecourse that now glories in the name of Sportingbet Park.
The fences at Maryland are set across beautiful countryside and there are no other structures: no grandstand, no betting, no starting stalls, no televisions, no commerce. The running is mown but hardly a sward. It twice crosses a public road. A hay wagon serves as the official podium. It is a picnic affair, highly social if you want it to be. Devotees arrive early but there is just the one race for the day. Post time is not till four in the afternoon and the race takes nearly nine minutes to run. It transports you back a century in time. You watch from a hill that rises gently from the winning post, as you must have done at Flemington in colonial times. A man starts the race with a red flag. If you get chatting at the makeshift mounting yard before the race you might find yourself talking to people who will tell you of the traditions, the riders and horses in the race. These horses are experienced animals, trained to the task: last year the youngest was nine years old. Even so, there were falls during the race, one of them quite nasty, none of them fatal. It is not for the faint-hearted, as Gordon, Paterson and Ogilvie would have warned you.
A sign at the entry gate clearly spells out the warning. ‘Attention,’ it says in capitals. ‘There is a risk of injury which could take place on any steeplechase race day if a horse should run loose into persons or obstacles. Such an accident could lead to serious injury or death. If you are unprepared to assume this risk, please do not attend this event.’
Why do they keep doing it? The American writer Patrick Smithwick might be the best person to lead you to a contemporary understanding of the steeplechasing mind. Living in Monkton, Maryland, he is literally and culturally half a world away from Butch Londregan, though they are close in age, and in a previous century their forebears may have rubbed shoulders in Ireland. Smithwick is a literary man. He has university degrees and important friends, has been a journalist, writes books, teaches history and English to senior boys at a prestigious independent school, quotes Dylan Thomas, is at home with the works of all the great American writers, handles language with vigour and style. But he is also a racing man in the halfway world that barely exists in Australia any more, or in any major sport, between amateur sport and professional.
Among other writing, Patrick Smithwick has published two literary memoirs. Racing My Father tells of growing up in the shadow and sunshine of a man who rode his way into the American Racing Hall of Fame. For father and son it was often a rough gallop. Paddy, the father, took fewer tumbles than many in his steeplechasing career but the luck came to an end. He nearly died, spent months paralysed in hospital, all when Patrick was a teenager. Paddy recovered to train good horses but died of lung cancer at forty-eight. The tearaway son with his college ambitions had started riding track work to help his father, graduating to race rides on the flat and over fences. Father and son achieve understanding and trainer-jockey victories even on big tracks such as Saratoga. Having done this, young Patrick returns to study and career.14
‘Don’t look back,’ Patrick Smithwick says at the end of the first book, recalling a maxim of his father’s: ‘It throws a horse off balance.’ The second book tells how he trashes this advice three decades later, perhaps still trying to please his dead father. He approaches the age at which Paddy died. Married and now father himself of three teenage children, he falls captive to the fantasy of riding again in the Maryland Hunt Cup. His wise old uncle Mikey, Paddy’s brother, had won the race six times. This is the narrative of Flying Change.15
Neither book presents an entirely admirable self-portrait. No doubt Patrick was the object of tea and scandal. He is frank at his own and his family’s expense: he agonises as his driving objective abrades his ideal of himself as a modern American husband and father. He is self-critical, often self-centred, body conscious, sensual, loves to have a horse between his legs. But the horse is never an object to him, always an individual and a partner. This physicality and a power of observation lift his writing at its best. Smithwick conveys in a way few have done the mental and physical effort needed to ride in a race, especially a long steeplechase. You cannot isolate yourself from the disasters that life can throw at you, in or out of the saddle. Go out and feel the sun on your back or the rain on your face. Get on your horse. Live your life now. That is his message. I can’t think of anyone who has said it more vividly since Gordon.
Here is the common ground between Butch Londregan and the Smithwick kid. The lure of one more ride, the pull of history, of family, of horses, of countryside, of racing, of pride, of sheer instinct draws them back to steeplechasing, over and over again. Each in his own way looks for the words to say so. After his fine, Londregan said, ‘I wish I had used better words and not caused all this hoo-ha. It was said in the heat of the moment. I’m pleased I’ve sort of saved jumps racing and I hope it survives for the next hundred years.’16
Oscar Hammerstein II put it succinctly in Show Boat: ‘fish got to swim, birds got to fly’. The best steeplechasing mind knows that horse got to run and, some of them at least, got to jump; and that man sometimes has to be part of this too, facing the elements and his own mortality, horse and rider living their life in that moment.© Andrew Lemon