How we beat the favourite: Adam Lindsay Gordon reminds us why we love the jumps game

When I first took an interest in steeplechasing, back in my teens, I came across this poem.  I’ve read it many times over the years, and it never fails to raise hairs.  Adam Lindsay Gordon was born 1833. He was dead at 37 (more at the foot of this post). This is the only piece of writing on racing that has let me feel what it must be like to ride in a steeplechase.  Lindsay Gordon’s talent for capturing the rhythm of galloping thoroughbreds in verse is uncanny. If you’re reading it for the first time, I’ll bet it won’t be your last.
A Lay of the Loamshire Hunt Cup
“Aye, squire,” said Stevens, “they back him at evens;
The race is all over, bar shouting, they say;
The Clown ought to beat her; Dick Neville is sweeter
Than ever — he swears he can win all the way.

“A gentleman rider — well, I’m an outsider,
But if he’s a gent who the mischief’s a jock?
You swells mostly blunder, Dick rides for the plunder,
He rides, too, like thunder — he sits like a rock.

“He calls `hunted fairly’ a horse that has barely
Been stripp’d for a trot within sight of the hounds,
A horse that at Warwick beat Birdlime and Yorick,
And gave Abdelkader at Aintree nine pounds.

“They say we have no test to warrant a protest;
Dick rides for a lord and stands in with a steward;
The light of their faces they show him — his case is
Prejudged and his verdict already secured.

“But none can outlast her, and few travel faster,
She strides in her work clean away from The Drag;
You hold her and sit her, she couldn’t be fitter,
Whenever you hit her she’ll spring like a stag.

“And p’rhaps the green jacket, at odds though they back it,
May fall, or there’s no knowing what may turn up;
The mare is quite ready, sit still and ride steady,
Keep cool; and I think you may just win the Cup.”

Dark-brown with tan muzzle, just stripped for the tussle,
Stood Iseult, arching her neck to the curb,
A lean head and fiery, strong quarters and wiry,
A loin rather light, but a shoulder superb.

Some parting injunction, bestowed with great unction,
I tried to recall, but forgot like a dunce,
When Reginald Murray, full tilt on White Surrey,
Came down in a hurry to start us at once.

“Keep back in the yellow!  Come up on Othello!
Hold hard on the chestnut!  Turn round on The Drag!
Keep back there on Spartan!  Back you, sir, in tartan!
So, steady there, easy!” and down went the flag.

We started, and Kerr made strong running on Mermaid,
Through furrows that led to the first stake-and-bound,
The crack, half extended, look’d bloodlike and splendid,
Held wide on the right where the headland was sound.

I pulled hard to baffle her rush with the snaffle,
Before her two-thirds of the field got away,
All through the wet pasture where floods of the last year
Still loitered, they clotted my crimson with clay.

The fourth fence, a wattle, floor’d Monk and Bluebottle;
The Drag came to grief at the blackthorn and ditch,
The rails toppled over Redoubt and Red Rover,
The lane stopped Lycurgus and Leicestershire Witch.

She passed like an arrow Kildare and Cock Sparrow,
And Mantrap and Mermaid refused the stone wall;
And Giles on The Greyling came down at the paling,
And I was left sailing in front of them all.

I took them a burster, nor eased her nor nursed her
Until the Black Bullfinch led into the plough,
And through the strong bramble we bored with a scramble —
My cap was knock’d off by the hazel-tree bough.

Where furrows looked lighter I drew the rein tighter —
Her dark chest all dappled with flakes of white foam,
Her flanks mud-bespattered, a weak rail she shattered —
We landed on turf with our heads turn’d for home.

Then crash’d a low binder, and then close behind her
The sward to the strokes of the favourite shook;
His rush roused her mettle, yet ever so little
She shortened her stride as we raced at the brook.

She rose when I hit her.  I saw the stream glitter,
A wide scarlet nostril flashed close to my knee,
Between sky and water The Clown came and caught her,
The space that he cleared was a caution to see.

And forcing the running, discarding all cunning,
A length to the front went the rider in green;
A long strip of stubble, and then the big double,
Two stiff flights of rails with a quickset between.

She raced at the rasper, I felt my knees grasp her,
I found my hands give to her strain on the bit;
She rose when The Clown did — our silks as we bounded
Brush’d lightly, our stirrups clash’d loud as we lit.

A rise steeply sloping, a fence with stone coping —
The last — we diverged round the base of the hill;
His path was the nearer, his leap was the clearer,
I flogg’d up the straight, and he led sitting still.

She came to his quarter, and on still I brought her,
And up to his girth, to his breastplate she drew;
A short prayer from Neville just reach’d me, “The devil!”
He mutter’d — lock’d level the hurdles we flew.

A hum of hoarse cheering, a dense crowd careering,
All sights seen obscurely, all shouts vaguely heard;
“The green wins!”  “The crimson!”  The multitude swims on,
And figures are blended and features are blurr’d.

“The horse is her master!”  “The green forges past her!”
The Clown will outlast her!”  “The Clown wins!”  “The Clown!”
The white railing races with all the white faces,
The chestnut outpaces, outstretches the brown.

On still past the gateway she strains in the straightway,
Still struggles, “The Clown by a short neck at most,”
He swerves, the green scourges, the stand rocks and surges,
And flashes, and verges, and flits the white post.

Aye! so ends the tussle, — I knew the tan muzzle
Was first, though the ring-men were yelling “Dead heat!”
A nose I could swear by, but Clarke said, “The mare by
A short head.”  And that’s how the favourite was beat.

Adam Lindsay Gordon was born in 1833 at Fayel in the Azores. The son of an Officer in the English Army, it was hoped that Adam would follow in the family Army tradition. During the time he was a cadet there were no sign of any wars, so,  following the trend of young men during this time he left the Army and emigrated to South Australia.
He began his life in Australia as a Sheep farmer, however his efforts in this field of work did not pay dividends, he lost his capital and left with nothing but the loves of horses and horsemanship. 

He tried gold mining and droving enjoying the varied life that was brought, however upon reaching Melbourne he was to become the ‘Best Amateur Steeplechase Rider in the Colonies.’  He won victory in 1868 riding ‘Babbler’, which was a popular win.

Gordon’s poems were said to be of a stirring and adventurous nature.  Horse racing being a favourite topic. He was a shy man, highly intelligent but reticent to exercise or advertise  his talent. His first poems, anonymously  being sent to magazines scribbled on scraps of paper It wasn’t until one day when he heard people reciting words of his “How we beat the Favourite’ that he decided to forego his natural shyness and announce his identity as a poet.  His last publication of poems in 1868 opened doors into the literary circles and his fame spread to England. So impressive were Gordon’s words they were used to compliment the dashing  equine scenes of Major Whyte Melville.

However Gordon was a melancholy man and even when flushed with success and congratulations seemingly from every corner of the nation he was found dead from a self-inflicted bullet in the brain.

Adam Lindsay Gordon shot himself on June 24th 1870- He was 37 years old.

His statue stands in Gordon Square – Melbourne

He is the only Australian Poet to have a bust in Poet’s corner in Westminster Abbey

In 2002 the Royal Grammar School of Worcester U.K. named a new building after Gordon. It was 150 years since he had attended the school.

Engraved on his headstone are the words:

Question not, but live and labour

Til yon goal be won

Helping every feeble neighbour

Seeking help from none

Life is mainly froth and bubble

Two things stand like stone

Kindness in another’s trouble

Courage in your own

‘Ye Weary Wayfarer’

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