Six days a week, almost every week from August until June, jumping races are held on one or more of 45 different tracks in Great Britain and Ireland—unless the course is flooded or frozen or covered with snow. The races are usually two miles or longer, and in the longer events there may be 30 fences to clear. Occasionally, when the horses try to surmount these obstacles, something goes wrong, as demonstrated by Gerry Cranham's photographs on the following pages. What that means, day in and day out for 10 months of the year, is that somewhere in the British Isles a jump rider is heading rapidly for the ground. Sometimes he bounces. Sometimes he doesn't. Usually, because a horse will not tread on a stationary object if he can avoid it, the rider will curl up and lie there, feeling like a hedgehog on a freeway. And then get up, ready to ride again.
Over big, unyielding obstacles like those at Cheltenham, form requires that jumping riders give their mounts full rein while leaning far back to maintain balance. Even so, veteran jockey Terry Biddlecombe comes a cropper as the result of heavy traffic.
Spectators at British steeplechase events are treated to marvelous displays of harmony between horse and rider as well as to spectacular spills. The gray landing precariously on his forelegs (above) has just cleared nine-foot-wide Bechers Brook, probably the world's most famous 'chase obstacle, at the Grand National course, while at San-down Park two jumpers go down at the open ditch.
Aspiring jump riders gain early experience in England, often as young lads put to the stern tests of the hunting field, where they learn the basics of horsemanship that lead to the fine form shown at left. But when things go wrong in the attempt to clear a jump, as they obviously did above at Kempton Park, the best a rider can do is to roll upon hitting the ground, then curl into a tight ball and lie still.
With as much grace as he can muster, a rider slips from his horse during Grand National meeting. More serious was the fall of David Mould, lying stunned on Sandown's turf in the Tolworth Handicap.
THE RIDER'S LIFE
"Sometimes," said Stan Mellor, "I must admit it seems a funny way to make a living." Mellor, 133 pounds of wiry, cheerful Englishman, was lying face down on a physiotherapist's table having ultrasonic rays shot through his shoulder. He is 33 but at the moment looked a good deal older. You don't get much sleep with a fractured shoulder blade, and Mellor had just cracked his for the third time in six months.
Mellor has been a professional jump rider in Great Britain and Ireland for 16 years. If he can stay in one piece for a couple more seasons he will, with ordinary luck, become the first of his kind ever to ride 1,000 winners. To flat-racing followers, accustomed to the astronomic victory totals of Gordon Richards and Johnny Longden and Willie Shoemaker, that figure seems of small account. But behind it there lies an activity very far removed from the brief and profitable games jockeys play at Aqueduct and Hialeah and Epsom Downs. Its name is National Hunt Racing—more simply, jumping—and it does sometimes seem an odd way to make a living. A cracked shoulder blade is only part of it, as Mellor learned in 1963 when 40 horses galloped over him during a hurdle race, leaving him short six teeth and with his jaw and cheekbone fractured in 10 places.
Mellor was the reigning champion of Britain's jump riders that year and, despite that fall and many others only slightly less terrifying, he has been in the top flight ever since. Yet he earns comparatively little. He and the other leading jump riders do not make a quarter as much as their smaller and far less battered colleagues in flat racing. The average first prize for a British jumping race is a paltry �606 (about $1,500). Only one, the world famous Grand National at Aintree, is in the �25,000-and-up class. When Gay Trip won over 4� miles and 30 of the world's biggest fences at Aintree in 1970, his purse was �14,804 (about $35,500), of which his jockey, Pat Taaffe, was entitled to 7�%, or a relatively modest $2,600. Lester Piggott, Britain's foremost flat rider, received four times that for covering a mile and a half on Nijinsky in the Epsom Derby, which includes no obstacle higher than a blade of grass. A leading jump rider might gross $20,000 in a good year and, after expenses and taxes, net no more than $7,000—for 10 months of difficult, demanding, dangerous work.
Jumping races are over either hurdles or fences. Hurdles, 3� feet high, are wooden frames laced with evergreen. A horse can often knock over hurdles without too much danger. Yet hurdle races, usually run at two miles, are fast, and the falls, while less frequent than over the fences, occur at speed and are apt to be violent and painful. Fences, 4� feet and up, are much solider—a general rule is that a horse can brush through only the top six inches. The classic contest of National Hunt Racing is the steeplechase, over fences, at three or 3� miles. The 4�-mile Grand National once was all important, and to jockeys it remains the holy grail, but many owners and trainers prefer not to risk valuable horses over Aintree's high fences and yawning drops. Ordinary English steeplechase fences, like the 22 over which the Cheltenham Gold Cup is run, are formidable enough. When a horse hits a fence his speed decelerates in a split second, while the jockey's body tends to go straight on. Overcoming this distressing tendency is one of the skills a rider had better acquire if he wants to stay in business and out of the infirmary. He can't always overcome it, which is why Terry Biddlecombe, who has been three times champion rider, was out of action for two months last season.