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No need to look down—no time to do much about it. Diving, too steep, from the heights of Becher's Brook, you know that things are going wrong. The ground slopes viciously—you've failed to clear the ditch—and it comes up too fast. The pricked brown ears that bounded your horizon disappear, and the reins scorch through your fingers like unchecked line on a running barracuda. For a moment balance lasts, but when, in half a dozen yards, 30 miles an hour is cut to 10, something must give—and this time it is you.
You crouch, defenseless, head tucked in, amid a storm of hoofs and flying bodies. And it is precious little consolation that on this selfsame battered patch of turf men have been falling every year since 1839, when Captain Becher (who fought with Wellington in Spain) took refuge in the brook that bears his name today. (Becher's is five feet high and three feet wide; the natural brook on the landing side is five feet six inches wide.) Small consolation, too, that the hoofs and bodies miss you. They almost always will if you lie still enough. For this is the Grand National and, as you walk away unhurt—as I did—a lifetime's hopes and fears and dreams roll up and burst inside you in a bitter wave of disappointment.
To win a National is the highest ambition of any man who rides racing over fences in England or Ireland. But to win you need a horse, not just any horse, but one that can gallop 4� miles in less than 10 minutes and jump, at speed, 30 of the most formidable fences in the world. Three years ago I met the horse. A hard, bright bay with short legs and the stride of a stayer, Taxidermist—just Taxi to those who love him—was only 6 years old in 1958. He is owned by Fulke Walwyn, who also trains him, and Mrs. Peter Hastings, wife of another trainer. Taxi and I won two steeplechases worth $14,000 apiece (big money by English standards), and in '59 he started as the favorite for Cheltenham Gold Cup, a race second only in importance to the National.
An undeserved fall
All his life Taxi has hated mud, and that day at Cheltenham it rained so hard that the water jump burst its banks. Never happy, he was still on the leader's heels five fences from home, but there one foot sank deep in a treacherous boggy patch, and over we went like a Rugby three-quarter tackled hard and low. I cannot even guess where he would have finished, but this at least can be said: although Taxi was never going easily, he was in far better position than that from which he won the Hennessy Gold Cup. For Taxi that fall—undeserved and unavoidable—was just the first chapter in a long, sad tale of misfortune. Most of next season a painful liver sickness kept him off the track. Recovered from that, he wrenched a tendon and then, this winter, a telltale whistle appeared in his wind that could only be cured by the equine equivalent of a tracheotomy—insertion of a metal tube in a horse's throat to bypass the faulty valve that hampers his breathing and saps his stamina.
And so, you see, it was not just another horse on whose back I set out last Saturday but an old, beloved, rather battered friend trying for a comeback in the toughest test of them all.
On a normal English racecourse, before a normal steeplechase, the jockeys' changing room is a rough, cheerful place lacking the antiseptic luxury of its American counterpart but full of laughing insults, unprintable stories and the friendship that comes from hazards shared. At Aintree, before a Grand National, it is not the same. The same colors are there the same bustling, ever-busy valets, the same mingled smell of hot bodies, saddle soap and sweat-soaked leather, but in the air there is something else besides. It makes some men laugh louder, and some sit quiet and still. It makes your fingers clumsy on the buttons of your breeches, and it makes you go to the lavatory five times in 20 minutes. It makes the muscles of your cheeks ache with the effort of keeping up an unfelt smile It makes you wish to God that it was over.
The cause is not, I think, anything so simple as the fear of getting hurt, for to a jockey the National is only very slightly more hazardous than any other race. True, the percentage of falls is higher, but you hit the ground no faster here than anywhere else and, for the statistically minded, there is the reassuring fact that in 122 years no man has so far died from a fall in the National.
No, for me, at least, the special tension springs rather from a different set of fears and hopes—from fear, above all, of making a fool of yourself, of somehow failing your horse, his owner, trainer and friends; from hope of victory and fear of defeat; and from fear of the very dreadful disappointment which was, in fact, to take me by the throat at Becher's Brook on Saturday.
This year, as I and 32 other assorted Englishmen and Irishmen wrestled with their private versions of these feelings, the two Russian jockeys provided some badly needed comic relief. Clad in baggy breeches and what looked like the top halves of silk pajamas made for men twice their size, they might have been two escapees from an early Marx Brothers film. Neither speaks a word of English and, since Russian is not part of the average jockey's equipment, conversation in the room was limited to "good luck" on our side and to cheerful smiles on theirs.