THE HORSE charges at the first fence and I can feel him gathering himself. He takes it much bigger than he has to, just soars over it, and his hoofs ring like hammers on the frozen ground.
The fence is at the edge of a cow pasture and I am thinking this is where my work really begins. It was okay for him to take charge over one fence, but I can't let him take charge of the whole operation. For this is only the beginning of the race and we have 2.7 miles to go. And the ground is slippery. If he starts going flat out, which is what he wants, we will be in trouble.
I brace my hands on his shoulders and put all the pressure I can on the reins. He comes down to a hand gallop.
"Easy . . . easy . . . easy," I say, in rhythm with his stride. He settles down and I begin to relax, which makes it easier on both of us.
The pasture slopes on the right to a frozen stream with a pond. The ground is pocked with the frozen hoof prints of the cattle that graze there. This is hazardous going, but my horse neither knows nor cares.
My partner, George Henry Kuper, is about three strides ahead. I pull to the left a bit to lessen my horse's sense that he is chasing something and make it less difficult to control him.
A red flag marks the place where we are to cross the stream. There is a stretch of six or eight feet of ice there, and God forbid we should hit it at a gallop.
"We'll just walk here," says George, leading over the ice. I am with George.
Beyond it, we go up a long slope and I move into the lead. It is a lovely place to gallop despite the hardness of the ground. We pass another red flag marking the course. My animal seems to be running stronger all the time. I, on the other hand, am running out of breath.
We swing left onto a trail through some woods and slow to a trot. In walking the course I noticed there are numerous small rocks in the woods that could cause a horse to fall or go lame. Besides, we want to give the animals a breather. We've still got seven fences and maybe two miles to go.
Trotting through those woods is part of the Big Picture. This is my first point-to-point race, and according to the Big Picture, the idea is simply to get my horse and myself through it in one piece.
If we do get through in one piece, then the fantasy of graduating out of the crowd of spectators and into the small group of competitors will prove to have been both satisfying and harmless. Winning? Never mind about winning. Better to have run and lost than never to have run at all, that's my game plan. When you are 45, you ought to keep a check rein on your fantasies.
There are no spectators out here on this cross-country course. Kuper and I have entered the "hunting pace pair race," the first event in the Point-to-Point Races sponsored by the Fairfax Hunt Saturday at Belmont Plantation on Route 7 east of Leesburg.
The other six races on the card are run around a track laid out in a meadow. Some are flat races, some are run over brush jumps and some over timber fences. The first horse to finish is the winner in those races.
Our race is different. It is like rally driving. The two-man teams start at four-minute intervals and are supposed to maintain an average of 550 yards a minute, a fraction under 20 mph. In this case, the perfect time for finishing the course would be 8 minutes 31 seconds. The winner is the pair that come closest to hitting that time on the nose. There is no premium for beating it and no penalty for running late. You are simply ahead of time or behind it.
As we trot through the woods, I reach in my pocket and find I've forgotten the stopwatch I borrowed. But the weather has been so awful that nobody's horse is really fit and the ground is unforgiving. I decide the fastest pair would win under such conditions.
We pick up a gallop and clear a ditch. Then there is another fence. We swing to the right and take still another fence in a hedgerow.
This is fun. My horse loves it. He wants to go and I let him out a little. Another red flag marks the way.We seem to be flying. It is a lovely field, flat and with good grass on it. I'm not worried about the iciness beneath the turf because my horse, a half Thoroughbred named "Double Image" whom I call "Beano" because of his winning ways (he is ever the charming boy), has shoes with special cleats for the ice.
Then it comes to me. We are closing on a stream in a ditch with a high bank on the other side. George's horse, a Thoroughbred former steeplechaser named "Some Cat," has problems with ditches and water. (It is a wonder to me that George is able to dominate him so completely, and by this time in the race my wonder is turning to envy.) George has expressed some misgivings about this stream and bank, going so far as to call it "possibly a formidable obstacle."
I slow down for the ditch so that George will be close behind.The idea is that "Cat" will follow my horse over. It is nature of horses to follow.
"Beano" makes a beautiful jump. I glance back and George is already across. "No problem," he yells.
We gallop up a hill toward a gate. "Beano" takes it from way back. I hardly have any sensation of jumping at all. George's horse catches the top rail with a hind foot and takes it down, but he's all right.
We cross a field and get onto a road through some woods. "It's icy here," says George. But we don't slow down. My arms are lead, my eyes are streaming, I'm suffocating, I am more worried about the condition of the rider than the horse.
We swing into a field. It is wide, and the last jump is on the other side. "Beano" is still getting stronger. I am careless and give him an inch. He takes the whole works. I don't know if I'm strong enough to take charge again. At last I slow him down for the last fence, which we take in fine style.
Then we turn to the left and go through an opening in the fence by the Belmont driveway. There is a sudden clatter of hooves as we cross the pavement. Through another opening in a fence we go, onto the regular race course. I pull "Beano" left toward the finish line. His hind feet almost slip out from under him on the frozen turf, but make it. George has no difficulty.
So now I have run in a point-to-point race. Not a big one, over timber or brush with crowds lining the rail, but in a good and demanding race. It is a respectable test to maintain such a pace across country, or even just to try.
When the results are announced, George and I have come second.We were one minute 24 seconds over the alloted time.
The winners were the fast-moving pair of Jack Eichner Jr. and Gus Forbush of the Casanovia Hunt in Warrenton. They were 40 seconds under.
My Big Picture is looking fine. George and I congratulate each other. We got through it with no mishaps. We congratulate everybody else. We all agree that the idea was to get through it, what with the bad weather and the cold and all.
But congratulations are not yet over before a Little Picture begins to superimpose on the Big Picture. In the Little Picture, George and I cover the course 45 seconds faster. We come within 39 seconds of the ideal time, nipping the pair from Casanovia. In the Little Picture, we win.
I begin to think we should have galloped through the woods. I consider that there are eight more point-to-points in the Washington area this spring.