a 1900s Australian country steeplechase, capturing the vibrant atmosphere and excitement of the race.

The Old Timer’s Steeplechase by Banjo Paterson

A wild steeplechase in the rough Australian wilderness

This rather long narrative poem by Paterson tells an entertaining story about an underhand horse race in the Australian bush. Written in Paterson’s signature ballad style, it utilizes colorful language, rhyming couplets, and Australian vernacular to bring the humorous tale to life.

The poem ‘The Old Timer’s Steeplechase‘ opens by vividly setting the rustic scene – a makeshift steeplechase course in the rough Australian wilderness, with natural obstacles like gorse and a water jump. When a trainer’s horse loses its rider, the speaker impulsively agrees to ride the slow horse called The Cow.

What follows next is a hilarious account of the speaker following the trainer’s questionable instructions to hide in the bushes during parts of the race, before ambushing the other horses at the end. Paterson revels in describing the horse’s reluctant jumps and the speaker’s exhilaration pulling off the cheating strategy.

However, there is a final twist when another sneaky rider on a dark horse beats the speaker at his own game. While humorously told, Paterson seems to subtly praise the nameless rider who proved even more cunning.

Paterson excels at using lively imagery, idioms, and cracking rhythm to build an engaging bush tale. The poem captivates through its fun spirit, tall tale exaggeration, and sense of adventure. While comic on the surface, it also highlights the rebellious larrikin streak in the Aussie national character. Through this mischievous underdog story, Paterson memorializes the rascal heritage of the Australian outback.

The Old Timer’s Steeplechase

The sheep were shorn and the wool went down
At the time of our local racing:
And I’d earned a spell—I was burnt and brown—
So I rolled my swag for a trip to town
And a look at the steeplechasing.

’Twas rough and ready—an uncleared course
As rough as the blacks had found it;
With barbed-wire fences, topped with gorse,
And a water-jump that would drown a horse,
And the steeple three times round it.

There was never a fence the tracks to guard,—
Some straggling posts defined ’em:
And the day was hot, and the drinking hard,
Till none of the stewards could see a yard
Before nor yet behind ’em!

But the bell was rung and the nags were out,
Excepting an old outsider
Whose trainer started an awful rout,
For his boy had gone on a drinking bout
And left him without a rider.

“Is there not one man in the crowd,” he cried,
“In the whole of the crowd so clever,
Is there not one man that will take a ride
On the old white horse from the Northern side
That was bred on the Mooki River?”

‘Twas an old white horse that they called The Cow,
And a cow would look well beside him;
But I was pluckier then than now
(And I wanted excitement anyhow),
So at last I agreed to ride him.

And the trainer said, “Well, he’s dreadful slow,
And he hasn’t a chance whatever;
But I’m stony broke, so it’s time to show
A trick or two that the trainers know
Who train by the Mooki River.

“The first time round at the further side,
With the trees and the scrub about you,
Just pull behind them and run out wide
And then dodge into the scrub and hide,
And let them go round without you.

“At the third time round, for the final spin
With the pace, and the dust to blind ’em,
They’ll never notice if you chip in
For the last half-mile—you’ll be sure to win,
And they’ll think you raced behind ’em.

“At the water-jump you may have to swim—
He hasn’t a hope to clear it—
Unless he skims like the swallows skim
At full speed over, but not for him!
He’ll never go next or near it.

“But don’t you worry—just plunge across,
For he swims like a well-trained setter.
Then hide away in the scrub and gorse
The rest will be far ahead of course—
The further ahead the better.

“You must rush the jumps in the last half-round
For fear that he might refuse ’em;
He’ll try to baulk with you, I’ll be bound,
Take whip and spurs on the mean old hound,
And don’t be afraid to use ’em.

“At the final round, when the field are slow
And you are quite fresh to meet ’em,
Sit down, and hustle him all you know
With the whip and spurs, and he’ll have to go—
Remember, you’ve got to beat ’em!”

The flag went down and we seemed to fly,
And we made the timbers shiver
Of the first big fence, as the stand flashed by,
And I caught the ring of the trainer’s cry:
“Go on! For the Mooki River!”

I jammed him in with a well-packed crush,
And recklessly—out for slaughter—
Like a living wave over fence and brush
We swept and swung with a flying rush,
Till we came to the dreaded water.

Ha, ha! I laugh at it now to think
Of the way I contrived to work it.
Shut in amongst them, before you’d wink,
He found himself on the water’s brink,
With never a chance to shirk it!

The thought of the horror he felt, beguiles
The heart of this grizzled rover!
He gave a snort you could hear for miles,
And a spring would have cleared the Channel Isles
And carried me safely over!

Then we neared the scrub, and I pulled him back
In the shade where the gum-leaves quiver:
And I waited there in the shadows black
While the rest of the horses, round the track,
Went on like a rushing river!

At the second round, as the field swept by,
I saw that the pace was telling;
But on they thundered, and by-and-bye
As they passed the stand I could hear the cry
Of the folk in the distance, yelling!

Then the last time round! And the hoofbeats rang!
And I said, “Well, it’s now or never!”
And out on the heels of the throng I sprang,
And the spurs bit deep and the whipcord sang
As I rode! For the Mooki River!

We raced for home in a cloud of dust
And the curses rose in chorus.
’Twas flog, and hustle, and jump you must!
And The Cow ran well—but to my disgust
There was one got home before us.

’Twas a big black horse, that I had not seen
In the part of the race I’d ridden;
And his coat was cool and his rider clean,
And I thought that perhaps I had not been
The only one that had hidden.

And the trainer came with a visage blue
With rage, when the race concluded:
Said he, “I thought you’d have pulled us through,
But the man on the black horse planted too,
And nearer to home than you did!”

Alas to think that those times so gay
Have vanished and passed for ever!
You don’t believe in the yarn you say?
Why, man! ’Twas a matter of every day
When we raced on the Mooki River!

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