In defence of the beautiful, humane sports of jumps racing.

In defence of the beautiful, humane sports of jumps racing. Photo: Phil Carrick

HORSES fall during the annual steeplechase carnival in Warrnambool and the debate begins all over again.

I am writing from the equine paradise of Middlesburg, Virginia, in the American spring, on a research fellowship at the National Sporting Library and Museum. This charming institution, in rolling countryside 65 kilometres west of Washington, DC, was founded to preserve the literature and art that chronicles and celebrates traditional field sports.

Even in their most civilised form these sports have two things at their heart: an engagement with the outdoors and nature, and an acceptance that the life well-lived cannot be entirely free from risk and death. They include fishing, shooting, fox hunting and steeplechasing. They derive from country living and are anathema to cautious city mentality.

My assignment is to explore what I call ''the steeplechasing mind''. What is it that motivates sportsmen and women to devote their working lives to breeding, training and riding magnificent horses over jumps and across country?

Victoria's Racing Minister, Denis Napthine, is right when he says that steeplechasing is part of our culture and history. But it is losing the hearts and minds of the average town dweller.

What have been missing are the bards or storytellers who can translate this passion, as Adam Lindsay Gordon did, even for city people, in the 19th century. Because horse racing in Australia in recent decades has been eager to define itself as an industry, a creator of wealth, it forgets to celebrate the traditional appeal of racing, the mysterious partnership of man and horse.

Here in northern Virginia, each weekend in spring, at first hundreds then thousands of people turn out to a rotation of Hunt Club point-to-point steeplechase meetings, held in blossoming countryside.

There are no protesters. Honestly, there is nothing to protest about: beautiful, well-loved horses, skilfully ridden, racing over brush-and-timber fences in front of an amiable audience glad to be there. It culminates in the Virginia Gold Cup Steeplechase held at Great Meadow, near Warrenton, on the same day the derby is run in Kentucky, the first Saturday in May.

Purists decry the fact that the Virginia Gold Cup is a social event and it attracts up to 70,000 with ''tailgate parties'' and corporate marquees and the smart dressers we associate with the Melbourne Cup - but there is no tote, no pari-mutuel. Not that it is purely amateur. Some of the competitors have a future in more commercial steeplechases, such as the ones they still run in Maryland, in South Carolina or Saratoga, in New York State. The Virginia Gold Cup carries a good stake, but as Francis Green, a veteran of the race, once wrote: ''No owner or amateur rider has ever made any money out of timber racing.''

American horse trainers take the preparation of their jumpers very seriously, but this does not eliminate accidents. The Gold Cup history is littered with falls and horse fatalities and at least one human one. Its partisans count and acknowledge these tragedies, but none for a moment considers there is any cruelty to animals.

The late Peter Winants is in a sense my guide at the Sporting Library, through his work here as director until 1998 and through his book Steeplechasing: a complete history of the sport in North America. In his career Winants photographed and chronicled racehorses and rode competitively over the jumps. He wrote: ''I love the visuals of steeplechasing … I love the camaraderie and good sportsmanship of steeplechasing: the pride of owners and trainers as their horses parade in the paddock, the love for the horses in their care by grooms … the exhilaration when horses go well and return safely, the peer support when things don't go well … I love the sounds of steeplechasing: the pounding of hooves on the approach to fences, the swishing as horses skim through the tops of hurdles, the entreaties of jockeys.''

Jumps tradition was once powerful in Victoria, where famous steeplechasers (some as much loved as Phar Lap) most often emerged from hunt clubs and point-to-point races, prepared by amateur owner-trainers. Now it has become caught in a racing industry where the measures of utility contribute to total betting turnover. Perversely, animal activists - good people with fine sentiments - act as ghouls, slandering horse-lovers and abetting the media to wait like vultures at each jump in the hope of a catastrophe. The situation is not helped when racing officials, like guilty schoolchildren, hurry injured horses to a quick humane death rather than try to save their lives or report honestly to racegoers what has happened.

Winants rightly observed that many steeplechase horses had long careers and retired uninjured and much loved. He adds: ''There's a downside to this closeness. When a horse is injured, or worse, the sadness is extreme for participants and spectators.'' That's the humanity missing from the Australian debate. If there is a future for the jumps tradition in south-eastern Australia, maybe it resides in somehow reclaiming steeplechasing from the industry of racing.

Andrew Lemon is the author of the three-volume History of Australian Thoroughbred Racing and consultant historian to the Victoria Racing Club, which no longer conducts jumps events.