How We Beat the Favourite

20 December 2011 Comments

by Adam Lindsay Gordon (1869)

“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 muttered—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.


I realize this is a very well-known poem, but I thought a break from mediocrity would be nice.

Gordon was born and raised in England and acquainted with some of the best steeplechase riders of his day. He was taught to ride by Tom Oliver and knew George Stevens, who would go on to win the Grand National five times. Gordon raced himself, most notably on a black mare named Lallah Rookh. He was something of a wild child, and, notoriously, once stole Lallah Rookh out of her stable in order to race her against her owner’s wishes. But gambling got the best of him, and his father decided to ship him off to Australia to straighten him out—or at least remove him from the growing trouble he was in in England.

Before leaving England, he approached a young woman he had admired from a distance and said he wold remain in England if she only asked him to. Unsurprisingly, given that they had no real connection and he was not the most reputable fellow around, she demurred.

Gordon went off to Australia where he worked first as a horsebreaker and later in any number of jobs around the country. He also began writing poetry and quickly became one of Australia’s greatest poets. “How We Beat the Favourite” is one of his best-known poems.

Like many of its poems, it appears to have some basis in fact and some poetic license. The actual race he describes is likely the 1847 Cheltenham Steeplechase. This was the first—and only—year the Steeplechase was held at the Prestbury racecourse. Officials determined the course was simply too difficult, but that one running appears to have made an impression on Gordon, who watched it—but did not ride in it. The course described in this poem closely matches the course taken in the Cheltenham Steeplechase, down to the type of jumps, their order, and the geography.

Some of the events in the race are captured as well. The lines about Gordon losing his cap to a tree branch is almost certainly a reference to the death of The Tramp in the 1847 race. The horse got hung up in the orchard and tragically ran headlong into a tree, killing himself in the process.

But it was not only the recollection of watching a very memorable race that helped Gordon write such a vivid poem. The bay mare Iseult in the poem is almost certainly Lallah Rookh, whom Gordon, as mentioned, jockeyed in other steeplechases. He knew firsthand the thrill, dangers, and strategies of such a race and could easily write himself into the poem.

One of the strangest twists of fate about this poem is that George Stevens would later name a horse The Clown after the one in this poem. He was riding this horse one day when it spooked and he fell; he never recovered from that fall and died soon after. The first six stanzas of Gordon’s poem were inscribed on Stevens’ monument.

Gordon himself never knew about this unfortunate turn in the story of the poem. He had died a year before.

He left behind a considerable legacy in his poetry, however, and many of his greatest poems are either about steeplechasing and foxhunting (in England or Australia) or about life in the Australian bush. He is the only Australian poet who is commemorated in Poet’s Corner in England’s Westminster Abbey.

Tagged: Adam Lindsay Gordon, Australia, Books & Reading, Deer, George Stevens, Horse Racing, Horses - Abdelkader, Horses - Birdlime, Horses - Bluebottle, Horses - Bullfinch, Horses - Clown, Horses - Cock Sparrow, Horses - Drag, Horses - Greyling, Horses - Iseult, Horses - Kildare, Horses - Lallah Rookh, Horses - Leicestershire Witch, Horses - Lycurgus, Horses - Mantrap, Horses - Mermaid, Horses - Monk, Horses - Othello, Horses - Red Rover, Horses - Redoubt, Horses - Spartan, Horses - Tramp, Horses - White Surrey, Horses - Yorick, How We Beat the Favourite by Gordon, Poetry, Riding, Tom Oliver, United Kingdom, United Kingdom - England, United Kingdom - England - Cheltenham, United Kingdom - England - Prestbury


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