The first jump I take at a flat gallop, then head straight down a hill for several hundred yards. I just love galloping downhill. It reminds me of chasing cattle as a kid in the Australian Outback. The thought occurs to me, however, that I shouldn't be here. My horse, Tower, is 24 years old and has been laid up for a year. I am 64 years old-and I've had so many crashes I should have been put down years ago!
We are here at the spectacular Zacha Rosa Ranch, in the Santa Monica Mountains of California. It's the first event of the West Hills Hunt Club's annual race meet. We are on the point-to-point. Two miles. A dozen solid jumps. Fastest time. We are racing against a team led by the celebrated Cynthia Shea, who has never lost this race. Her partner is Kathleen Lorden, also a solid rider. Her name appears twice on the winner's cup. Kathleen is on a fine mount, Geronimo, age 15.
More bad reality: I outweigh Cynthia Shea by 60 pounds. Her horse, Artic, is 12 years younger than my horse, and I am 25 years older than Cynthia!
But I am here because I told my good friend, Michael Zacha, who is hosting this race meet, that I would at least show up. I could always pull Tower if he didn't feel right. At least, that's what I told myself.
Behind me, somewhere, is my partner, retired steeplechase jockey Jimmy Duggan. I had planned to ride with Hunt Master Mitch Jacobs. But he pulled out an hour before the race. He was reminded by his very sensible wife, Linda, that he was still not recovered from injures incurred in a crash months ago.
I am honored to be on the same team as Jimmy Duggan. He is a legend. You will see him on TVG commentating on steeplechase and timber races.
At the starting line, Jimmy had asked me, "How should we do it? What's your strategy? What's your style?"
"Style?" I quip. "I'm from the bush. I have no style. I point at stuff and go as fast as I can. Speed is my friend."
It has been said that, if you are lucky, you will own one great horse. I've never paid much attention to that-thought all my horses were great, one way or another.
But saddling Tower on this day, I had a feeling that something unusual was going to happen. He is 17 hands, a powerful horse. When I sat on him, I felt his heart beating like I had never felt it before. He was amped! He took off like he was shot from a cannon.
Thundering down the hill now, a sharp left. I lose my stirrups. No matter. I level the horse and take two quick jumps with no stirrups, grabbing so much mane I pull out a clump in my hand.
About now I wish I was a little fitter. I am wearing my sweats because I couldn't fit into my riding pants this morning. But I am comforted by the fact that Jimmy Duggan's vest looks a little tight, too. Regardless, he's 25 years younger than me!
A coop. A log. A tabletop. The jumps pass under me like no obstacles at all. Breathe, I tell myself! My arms feel weak. Or maybe Tower is just pulling so hard. I am barely in control. But he feels great, and I feel exhilarated. I give up the fight and just let him go.
Jimmy is coming up behind me now. He is also flying, but he has lost his reins, I see. The thought occurs to me: A veteran of 2,000 steeplechases shouldn't lose his reins. But then, this is not exactly steeplechase. All the steeplechase courses I've been on had no ditches, or jumps over ditches, jumps uphill or jumps downhill. They're all flat. I make a mental note on Jimmy Duggan-this Irishman sure can ride!
After this race, I would learn that Jimmy Duggan hadn't taken a jump in 12 years.
Jimmy is riding Mitch Jacobs' horse, Max, a strong jumper. I discover there's a lot to shout about when you're doing point-to-point with a partner. I'm yelling at Duggan because I think he's going too slow. He's yelling at me for riding like I'm out of control. Right, I thought. Maybe I am! Exhaustion is about all that will control this horse!
More jumps. More downhill. We cross a road. Another downhill, a yawning ditch, we jump off a bank. We take a quick right, then a left, and more jumps, one of them a 4-foot timber log. I'm leading and Tower is feeling incredible. It is as if I am floating somewhere over his withers.
We pull out of another series of jumps, cross a road again, then climb a last high hill. Now I feel Tower's energy giving way, his stride shortening. Jimmy yells, "Move over! Move over! I'll pull him along!"
Duggan passes me, and Tower lifts in his stride, eager to not be left behind.
We cross the finish line and I slide off my mighty horse. My legs are so like jelly I can barely stand. Tower nuzzles me and I give him a slap on his neck.
A couple of old guys, I think. We made it!
At that moment, I recall what an old Outback stockman once told me: Thoroughbreds are always fit-it's their nature. Tower had spent the past year on a two-acre hillside, amusing himself by chasing the other horses up and down the slope, so he kept himself fit.
That night, I would learn we had won by nine seconds.
I left the awards banquet early to check on Tower. There he was, laid out, not moving. A horrifying thought: Oh, no, he's dead! Then I saw his ribs going up…and down. He was sleeping so soundly, he didn't even lift his head when I stood at his side. Then he opened one eye, just for a beat.
Yes, I thought to myself, this is the one great horse in my life.
Check out www.aussiesaddle.com for information on saddles.