Of course the largest font on my author tag cloud in the horse fiction library is Dick Francis, who, as you most likely already know, was a champion steeplechase (or, more properly, National Hunt) jockey before he became an incredibly prolific writer. Having read all of his novels, I thought I had some idea as to what a National Hunt race is like, but it turns out I really didn’t have a clue.
Wiola posted a video of the 2008 Cheltenham Gold Cup – a race Dick Francis never won but described many times in his novels – and I was totally amazed, watching it, to realize I had never seen a National Hunt race. For some reason, all of the imagery I had absorbed from reading tricked my brain into thinking I had actually watched steeplechasing – but seeing the real thing, it was completely different from what I had imagined.
Given the dramatic action of the race scenes in Dick Francis’ novels, the pace seemed slower and the fences looked lower than I expected. I do realize that if I was riding the course – a completely and unequivocally absurd thought – it would most certainly be the other way around (and since Dick Francis writes in the first person that makes sense), but having adjusted my sense of speed from flat racing to harness racing, I still wasn’t prepared for the initial circuit’s lope towards the fences.
In reality, of course, the fences are at least 4½ ft. high and it’s only the talent of horse and rider that makes them seem smaller, but perhaps because of the camera angle they didn’t seem to loom above the horses as I thought they would. I know it’s an optical illusion, but somehow Grand Prix showjumping has ruined my eye for what constitutes a tall fence.
The course itself seems to go on forever – 3 miles 2½ furlongs – and the fitness and stamina of the horses blew my mind, particularly with Cheltenham’s famed uphill finish. It makes a flat racing course, even the most strenuous, seem like a sprint. Harness racing horses are jogged for miles daily to increase their wind, but the actual races are only a mile (longer in New Zealand and Australia.) I can’t imagine the amount of work that goes into conditioning a ‘chaser.
When the narrator in a Dick Francis novel describes a race, it sounds like the course is full of twists and turns, dark alleys where misbehavior can’t be seen by the stewards and hidden pockets out of sight of the cheering crowd where a bystander could be lurking to string something across the jump to fell horse and rider. It’s a testament to the skill of his writing that the atmosphere of his suspense novels is nothing like the cheerful, endlessly green course of the real race in the clear light of day.
It’s interesting how the mind works. I’ve had memories of things that seemed much larger, or imposing, when I was a child, only to find as an adult that they weren’t intimidating at all. I just never realized that the same dynamic could occur with memories that were, literally, fiction.
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