Is annual steeplechase responsible for night mares?
For the majority of people in our town, the annual Lethmachen Horse Show has long been considered the highlight of the social calendar. Blanket coverage begins to fill the local papers months in advance, much as the streets begin to fill with banners and bunting. Drop in to any pub or shop on the high street and it is a good bet the conversation will turn breathlessly on a single topic. Traditionally held on the last weekend of May, The Horse Show consists of various show jumping and dressage events, before climaxing on the Saturday evening with The Lethmachen Steeplechase. Considering the insular, inhospitable nature of this small Shire town, it is perhaps not surprising that so many in the region look forward to this equine festival with a feverish sense of expectation. Not only does it provide an opportunity for a flutter, but is also responsible for attracting hundreds of visitors to the area. For a town where work prospects are negligible and it is rare to ever see a new face, this influx of wealth and mysterious strangers offers a promise of freedom and escape, albeit for one weekend only. As many residents of Lethmachen are notoriously reluctant to leave its boundaries, The Horse Show has proved a popular and convenient way of instead bringing the outside world to them.
As with any horse racing event, The Lethmachen Steeplechase has invoked the wrath of certain animal rights protesters, as inevitably a handful of the nags meet their deaths on the track every year. Yet local authorities insist that the obstacles and ditches meet all health and safety regulations and indeed the Sumners, who convert and dedicate so much of their land to The Show every year, go to some lengths to assure that any wounded creature is treated humanely. Apart from installing a crematorium on their property, the farming family also tends a picturesque horse cemetery, located in a wooded glen on the grounds. However, it is the one or two human fatalities that occur each May weekend that really interest us. This indisputable fact may surprise even some of our regular readers, as none of these deaths ever receive the coverage they deserve. Perhaps the over abundance of money, alcohol and unfamiliar faces flooding the show mean that such misfortunes, such disturbances, are to be expected? Surely this kind of release, this disruption of routine, must come at a price? This year, the year The Steeplechase was won by 50-1 outsider Lifeless Grin, has proved no exception. The body of twenty nine year old racegoer Christopher Welsh, an employee at a local travel agency, was retrieved from the rural borderlands of Lethmachen early this morning. Nobody has so far been able to explain how this seemingly healthy young man, last seen at Sumner’s Farm around midnight, came to meet his end so deep in the open countryside, at a significant distance from the nearest residence and in the opposite direction to his own home.
As with the almost identical fatalities that have occurred during previous race weekends, it appears likely that Mr Welsh’s death will be declared a tragic accident. No doubt, disorientated by alcohol, he lost his sense of direction in the dark and strayed from the paths that crisscross the Sumner Estate. Quite why Christopher would have continued stumbling across field after field of uncultivated land, stubbornly ignoring the glinting lights of town as they receded behind him, is at this stage unclear. It is indeed possible that he succumbed to hypothermia out there in that barren wilderness, as temperatures last night dropped rapidly and Mr Welsh was without a coat, yet this scenario does not explain how his neck came to be broken. And why were his features distorted in such a mask of terror? Perhaps, as some of those who attended the scene have already hinted, he simply fell awkwardly whilst drunkenly trying to scramble over the stile that his body lay beneath. Yet the severity of the deceased’s injuries seems to imply he must have fallen from a greater height, or even have been violently thrown. On reviewing the available evidence, I was prompted to dig out the transcript of an interview I had conducted in June 2013. At the time I had not given the old man’s tale much credence – he had obviously been drinking heavily and the ambling narrative appeared to have been inspired by confused memories of familiar folk tales. However, in light of what befell Christopher Welsh this weekend, I feel compelled to publish at least an edited version of what Mr Herbert Bell experienced at last year’s Lethmachen Horse Show:
‘I was on my way home. A bit the worse for wear I don’t mind admitting, but heading home I was. There was no choice, it was getting late, and The Show was over. I suppose I wasn’t thinking straight, I’d had an argument with some old friends earlier. Anyway, I must have missed my turn in the dark. Next thing I knew I was in a field I didn’t recognise. But the moon kept drifting out so if I waited I could pick my way forward a few steps at a time. Next time it came out of the clouds, I saw it dead ahead. A horse, all pale and glittering in the moonlight, like it was dressed in stars. Right away it reminded me of something from the past. Actually, two things. First I thought of the old television programme, what was it called, The Moon Stallion? Then I thought how much this horse looked like The Radiant Boy, which was impossible because that nag had died that afternoon, fell bad at Renders Fence. Strange, but this didn’t seem important at the time. All I could think about was how much I wanted to ride that beauty. Suddenly I couldn’t face going home like always, couldn’t even think about it. All I wanted was to be free, just for a spell, far away from everyone and everything I knew. My mind was playing tricks, or else it were the ale. What I mean is I can’t remember exactly how I got up on that horse. There certainly weren’t no stirrups nor saddle. But I didn’t care, because the next thing I knew I was riding The Radiant Boy through the countryside, through the night. I’d never known such a feeling! Leaping over fences, galloping under the trees, the cool air breezing right through me. Of course it didn’t last. There were this horrible moment. I knew the horse was going too fast and I knew that it hated me, hated everyone in Lethmachen. By now I could barely keep my balance and was clinging on for dear life. My head started spinning and I stared up at the sky like praying, but there was nothing, only the moon and the stars waltzing. Thought I was going to be sick, I did. All I wanted was to be somewhere I knew, back home in my living room or tucked up safe in bed. I wished I had never climbed up on this thing. The Radiant Boy was snorting and whinnying, trying to throw me off his back, tossing me across his flanks. Every time we took a fence it was getting too close and I could feel myself slowly losing grip on his mane…As luck would have it I landed soft, in a pile of manure I discovered when I came round a few hours later. There was no sign of the horse anywhere abouts. It were a long way home that morning…’