Chris Collins recalls his ride around the Grand Pardubice Steeplechase aboard Stephens Society

I was aware of the existence of the fabled Grand Pardubice Steeplechase for some time before I decided to ride in it in 1973. Shortly before taking part, I flew out on a reconnaissance mission.

On walking the course, I discovered that the track was so twisty that it resembled a sleeping anaconda! Fence four, the famous Taxis, a 5ft high and 5ft thick hedge with a 16ft ditch on the landing side was big, but apart from this, an Irish bank and two wide, open waters, the track didn’t seem particularly formidable.

I decided that I would ride Stephens Society, an Irish-bred seven-year-old whom I had in training with Arthur Stephenson.

Soon it was time for the race. After a minor false start, we were away and tearing towards the first fence. I couldn’t go with the pace and by the second fence, we were second-last. We roared over fence three – a small water – and as the field swung left to take on the Taxis, I kept right.

I watched the two in front of me jump the fence and then completely disappearfrom view! Fifty yards out, I slapped Stephen down the shoulder and he took off fairly close.

“Christ, we’re going in the ditch,” I thought, as I leaned back, but he didn’t even peck on landing and expertly weaved his way past the fallers.

My next dramatic moment came at the lane crossing, where we were hampered by a loose horse after jumping into the lane. I was forced to stop Stephen, and circle before popping over the exit fence. We lost about 40 lengths as a result and were now last.

After negotiating a number of fences successfully, we jumped our way back into the race, but we had been lucky to survive number 12, a drop, where a horse fell right in front of us.

At the next major problem, the Snake, a 15ft leap over a river, I gave Stephen a slap on take-off. To my relief we flew over. Stephen lurched over the next open water (the return journey over the same river) and lost a bit of ground, but I was thankful that I was still on board and notswimming!

By fence 26, Stephen was going so well that we were catching the leader. We got a little close to the last big obstacle – a wide hedge with a ditch on landing – but once again we survived and after slogging across yet more plough, we reached the racecourse and the final fences – three low hurdles.

I sneaked a look over my shoulder, but the horse behind me was beaten and the leader was off the bit. At the second last, Stephen jumped into the lead and I rode him outwith hands and heels past the finishing post. Against all my expectations we had won. What a horse!

That night the age-old problem of how to thank a horse played on my mind. You can pat him and give him a handful of food, but how do you acknowledge the fantastic things he has done for you?

Don’t miss this week’s Horse & Hound (12 December) where Martin Scott talks about his ‘ride of a lifetime’ earlier this year following the Duke of Beaufort’s hounds.

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