[Editor: This is a chapter from The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia (1895) by Kenneth Mackay.]
The Grand National steeplechase.
The last bell had rung out over the crowded course, and in response to its harsh, metallic summons the men on the boxes in the Ledger and the ‘leviathans’ of the paddock alike ‘gave tongue.’
Layers, whether Jew or Gentile, shouted aloud their strident chorus of ‘Ten to one, bar three!’ ‘Six to four, Sardius!’ ‘Three to one, Higho!’ ‘Who wants to back one?’ ‘The field a pony, I’ll lay, I’ll lay!’ and the public listened as though it were the refrain of some new, strange song, and backed their fancies, and their tips, and their dreams, with a childlike imbecility born of greedy hearts and sport-saturated heads. Threading their way through the pressing, shouting mass, the twelve competitors for the Grand National slowly filed out into the straight.
‘Don’t be in a ’urry, sir,’ said Billy, who was walking beside Io. ‘Last out, first in.’
As he spoke, Cohen, book in hand, rushed up.
‘I’ll lay you three hundred to one, Mr. Hatten. Remember, you promised to give me a turn.’
‘Make it a point longer, Cohen,’ replied Dick, after a moment’s hesitation.
‘It’s a wager, four hundred to one hundred; thanks, sir; hope you get home.’
‘I thought you said on Thursday it would be level money,’ remarked Hatten a trifle uneasily.
‘So it would,’ replied the fielder; ‘only, you see, a commission’s come in the last ten minutes, and they’re backing Satan like water. There you are,’ cried the bookmaker, hurrying away, as up from the ring rose ‘Level money, Satan!’ ‘Three to one, Sardius!’ ‘Four to one, Io!’
Taking the bookmaker’s place, Johnson laid his hand on Io’s mane.
‘For heaven’s sake, be careful, Dick!’ he whispered anxiously. ‘Don’t throw away a chance, old mate. The knowing crowd fancy they have a certainty in Satan, and they’re just pouring it on to him.’
‘So I can hear,’ returned Hatten. ‘Well, let ’em; level money alone never won a race yet; I’ve just put about my last pound on the mare, and if she stands up, I’ll stretch his neck before I’ve finished with him.’
‘Be patient, and don’t forget Sardius,’ said Johnson, as they reached the gate. ‘You carry all I can afford to lose, and a lot some of our crowd can’t.’
‘What can I do for you, Count?’ asked a good-looking, well-set-up man, whose two clerks were booking wagers as fast as their pencils could travel over the paper. ‘Better take a monkey about the mare,’ he continued, as the other shook his head. ‘All the Queenslanders are going nap on her.’
‘What price Io?’ interrupted a fresh client.
‘Four to one.’
‘I’ll take a hundred at fives.’
‘Four fifty to a hundred, as it’s a last wager. Thanks, sir. Book it to Mr. Jardine. Now, Count, shall I book you the same?’
‘No, my friend; I never back the sex,’ retorted Zenski.
‘I’ll lay you two to one, Satan, just for a bet, then,’ exclaimed the bookmaker. ‘They’ll be away in a minute, and it’s level money everywhere else.’
‘You can book it!’ said the Russian, as the gong gave the signal; ‘I always back the devil!’
As the field for the Grand National drew up in front of the starter, the patrons of the Ledger, deserting purse mysteries and roulette tables, swarmed like ants into the stand, while up out of the paddock their richer brothers streamed into the flag-capped vantage-ground that faced the lawn. In the open land opposite the treble, humanity, balanced on the tops of cabs and family vans, looked over a fringe of heads whose owners clutched with eager fingers the white palings which guarded the track. At the corner nearest the winning-post the Northern contingent had posted themselves; and there Zenski and Dromeroff now joined them.
Skyward all was blue, while from the sea a light wind came, catching as it passed a perfume of heather from the sandy dunes. In the straight way the sunlight glistened on restless splashes of colour, cat-like muscles moving beneath shining skins and glittering steel. From the quick-pulsed stands hundreds of glasses flashed its beams.
As the horses breasted the machine a great silence fell over stands and flat alike. Then the barrier cut through the air, and amid a strange inarticulate roar the gong boomed over the level lands, and on the horses came.
From the jump the lightweights forced the pace, trusting to the dead going to account for the cracks. As they raced past the lawn, Hatten, hanging to the rails for the sake of the firmer going, glanced ahead for Satan’s black jacket.
‘He’s not among ’em,’ said Brewster, who lay beside him.
‘A bit ’eavy, ain’t it?’ grunted a voice, and glancing over his shoulder, Dick caught sight of the lightweight’s dark muzzle lying on Sardius’s quarter.
At the first fence Tartar went round, but the rest of the field, jumping like ‘tradesmen,’ left it behind. Now they were off the course proper, and the going, though sound, was deader than ever; but scorning all question of elasticity, the front division raced at the water-jump, led by old Recruit, who, true to tradition, seemed determined to make the running while he stood up. Taking a good hold of the mare’s head, Dick sent her at the narrow streak. Knowing it was new to her, he had let Sardius up on the inside, and now, to his infinite relief, Satan came up on her other shoulder. Standing feet away, she just saved herself with a scramble, while the favourite and Sardius, flying it without an effort, gained a couple of lengths. Satisfied to be over at all, Hatten now took a strong pull, lying twenty lengths behind the leaders as they galloped along the back stretch. Watching each other, the old man and Brewster began to improve their position as the already trailing field turned their heads towards the treble. With a rattle of hoofs and flashing of whips over raced the leaders, Satan and Sardius jumping neck and neck, both beautifully handled and both full of running.
Leading the ruck, Io faced the timber alone, and, fencing as clean as a stag, woke once more the cheer that had greeted the first flight. Still waiting, the Northern champion lay five lengths behind, as the favourites, moving through the shattered ranks of the light division, flashed side by side over the logs and began to close on the gallant Recruit.
‘They’ve forgotten me,’ muttered Dick, as horse after horse began to come back to him. Once over the fence at the bend, he, too, began to move up, and as Satan, leading Sardius by a length, rushed Recruit at the first of the treble and brought him down, Io ran up within half a length of the Melbourne horse, and led him over the last two fences amid the yells of ‘Queensland for ever!’
Recognising that he must now make every use of his light weight, the old jockey on Satan drove his mount along in the hope of bringing down Sardius; and feeling that it was no longer wise to let the favourite away, Hatten, still keeping a big hold of the mare, led the Melbourne horse by a length over the jump opposite Oxenham’s. Glancing back, the old man saw he had two to deal with, and trusting to his condition, he sat down on his horse to make the pace a cracker. As he did so, Sardius made a run, and closing with Io, the two, leaving the beaten field as though they were anchored, set sail after the light-weight. At the logs they were two lengths behind, and so they raced along the back; but at the next fence Satan struck heavily, and, falling on his knees, lost position. Locked together, Hatten and Brewster raced at the last fence but one — under the whip. As they rose, two tails flashed for a second high in air, then a thousand voices, hoarse with fear, uttered the dread cry: ‘They’re down!’ Pale and white-lipped, the women turned aside. Then, their greed mastering all of humanity that was in them, the backers of Satan yelled exultantly, ‘The favourite wins!’ for Sardius lay motionless, and the mare staggered to her feet alone.
‘No, by Jingo!’ muttered Johnson, between his teeth as Io rose and Hatten sprang up beside her.
Half dazed, the mare struggled to get free as the thunder of Satan’s hoofs caught her ear, but running beside her, Hatten, with a supreme effort, vaulted on to her back, and, tossing the reins over her head, set her going before the favourite reached the fence. Still watching through his glasses, Johnson shouted: ‘His reins are crossed, and one stirrup gone; my God, the palings!’
Maddened with the fierce excitement of the race, the heavy masses in the stands sent up a roar of exultation that was caught and carried on down the crowded railings and away over the teeming flat. Then in a moment all was still.
The paling fence lay not twenty yards in front of the man who, with reins crossed and stirrup gone, was driving Io at it with whip and spur.
Dead with a broken neck lay Sardius, stretched across his gallant rider, but Satan, blood-smeared and foam enshrouded, strode like an avenging fury not ten lengths behind; so, for a woman’s bright eyes and the glory of the North, Dick let Io have her head, and, guiding her with whip and knee, drove her at the centre panel.
Did she know, this gallant daughter of a royal race? I deem she did; but be that as it may, with never a flinch or a swerve, ears pricked, and her eyes bedimmed yet fearless, she measured her distance, and, rising above the wooden wall, landed with her face set for home, while the bronzed children of the North sent up a shout louder than the cries in dust-shrouded cattle-yards, for Satan had balked, and, even as they cheered, the mare flashed past the judge’s box alone.
Carried away by the excitement of the finish, men and women alike had hurried down out of the stand, and Heather and Edith now found themselves standing against the railing, close under the judge’s box, surrounded by a jubilant crowd of Queenslanders. Keenly alive to a gallant action, Heather felt a genuine admiration for Hatten, as torn and dusty he now rode back towards the weighing-yard beside the clerk of the course, and followed by Satan, who had got over the palings at the second attempt.
As he rode in, flushed with the pride of victory, and greeted by the cheers of winners and losers alike, Hatten’s eyes fell on the woman he loved standing beside the railing. Guiding Io to the picket fence, he pulled up beside her. Then, moved by a sudden impulse, the girl took a buttonhole of violets and snowdrops out of her jacket, and, leaning forward, handed it to him. With no thought save that they were her gift, Hatten eagerly stretched out his hand and took the flowers. As he did so a murmur of warning rose, and a dozen hands were thrust out to stop him, while Johnson, springing over the fence, caught his arm, saying, in an audible whisper:
‘For God’s sake drop them, man!’
‘No,’ replied Dick, pressing them to his lips and then thrusting them into his jacket, ‘I will not’ — then, realizing the mistake he had made, he added: ‘Surely no man would enter a protest on such grounds.’
Keenly watching, a smile of satisfied malice crept over the wizened face of Satan’s jockey. ‘The bloomin’ swell ’as chucked it away, arter all,’ he muttered.
‘What!’ exclaimed Johnson hotly; ‘would your owner be mean enough to take advantage of a woman’s mistake?’
‘See here, mister,’ retorted the old man; ‘we goes for the stuff, we does, and what’s more, we means to get it. If you thinks you’re goin’ to rush a man the way your crowd did, and then kid the committee it was all along o’ a nosegay, you’re d—— well mistaken.’
Following the direction of the man’s eyes, Ted saw the old bookmaker who executed the commission in favour of Satan talking to the member of the committee whom report credited with being his biggest backer. As he watched, the significance of what the old jockey had put forward struck him with crushing force.
For a few minutes the crowd waited for the red flag. Then, instead of the signal being hoisted, it was announced that the owner of Satan had entered a protest against the race being awarded to Io on the grounds that her jockey was interfered with before being weighed in.
Kenneth Mackay, The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia, London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1895, pages 80-88