Is it the Cocktail’s Hour Once More?

“The evolution of the sport of steeplechasing during the nineteenth century was from makeshift races over lines of natural country to races on well-drained, regular courses, with artificial and carefully tended, though formidable, birch fences. These courses were enclosed so that gate money could be charged in order to defray the high cost of building and maintenance and provide prize money on an ascending scale. The result of this two-fold progress towards uniform courses and generous prizes was a steady improvement in the class of animals racing over fences. Sir Claude de Crespigny remarked in his memoirs, published in 1896, that many of the principle steeplechase courses were attended  to almost like tennis lawns or cricket pitches, and added that no ‘cocktail’ such as used to win a quarter of a century earlier, would have any chance in a big race over fences. A cocktail, in the phraseology of de Crespigny’s day, was a half-bred hunter resulting from a cross between a thoroughbred stallion and a mare of the light draft type used in fast coaches.

These changes were deplored by purists like Arthur Coventry, the leading amateur rider of his day, who could  not be weaned from his belief that a steeplechase should be a contest over fair hunting country. He detested the increasing artificiality of steeplechase courses, for these artifical courses, in his opinion, encouraged cast-offs from the flat who would be better employed between the shafts of a cab or in hurdle races. …

Time has proved Coventry’s fears groundless, for there has been nothing like the mass take-over of steeplechasing by cast-offs from the flat. Hurdling recruits hundreds of flat racers annually and has been a doubly valued outlet since the disappearance of Arthur Coventry’s horse-drawn cabs. Many of these failed flat racers graduate afterwards to steeplechasing with a  measure of success, but few win any of the important steeplechases which have been, in the last quarter of a century as much as at any time in the more distant past, the almost exclusive preserve of representatives of specialised thoroughbred jumping families and a smaller number of specialised half-bred families.”

From The Thoroughbred by Peter Willet (1970).

Is this still true, I wonder? The current leading active national hunt sire (by earnings) in the UK is Midnight Legend, who won on the flat and over hurdles, but whose pedigree is pure, flat speed. How do you distinguish between a jumping family and a flat family given these blurs? And do we need a few more cocktails to add a little bone and substance to our steeplechasers? All questions which need a lot of research, but I’d be curious to know if (big “if”) there’s a point where the number of fatal fractures and breakdowns increased and if it overlaps with a rise of what you might call flat jumping pedigrees. And are there still any “half bred” horses in UK racing?

Published by Susanna Forrest

Writer Amazons of Paris, The Age of the Horse and If Wishes Were Horses.

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