BILL THE BASTARD BY ROLAND PERRY
CHAPTER 24 “THE RUSE”
‘That directive applied only to battle,’ Chauvel corrected, ‘I don’t think it matters if he is in a race.’
‘But could Mullagh last three or four minutes on him?’ the first officer asked.
‘Only one way to fine out,’ Chauvel said.
More than 10,000 spectators-including 5000 British infantry and Indian soldiers, about 1000 Anzacs not required in Jaffa, and 4000 bribed locals-lined the rough dirt and sand track just outside Jericho. The crowd’s size gave the meeting an authenticity. Turks guarding their camps on the Jordan River used binoculars to see the build-up of the spectators. The event promised to be gruelling in the projected 90-degree Fahrenheit temperature in early autumn.
Betting was rife, especially among the Anzacs, and some sizeable wagers were laid out with bookies from as far away as Cairo. Many Light Horsemen, stealthily tucked away at Jaffa and waiting for the order to attack, put money on the Jericho Cup.
The fifth and final race on the program had fifteen starters. The non-Walers were the big Arabian horses owned by Paterson, including Khartoum, Tut 1, Tut 2 and Blackham. Jackie Mullagh agreed to ride Bill the Bastard. Most of the alleged ‘smart’ money was on the powerful black stallion Khartoum. He had the fastest times by far over the Melbourne Cup distance of two miles and had been clocked and trained over this distance for two years. The next best times had been scored, in order, by Blackham the white mare, Tut 1 the gelding and Tut 2 the stallion. Two stayers from South Africa had been able to clock faster times than the remaining nine starters. Bill had never been timed with a jockey on him and the only guide was his Gallipoli despatch run, but that had been without a rider for most of the distance.
The Jericho Cup was not a handicap race so Khartoum, who carried an ex-professional Sydney jockey, was the out and out favourite. By the beginning of the event punters could not put a bet on him. Bookies, some experienced operators from Melbourne and Sydney, had never seen such a huge plunge in percentage terms compared to other competitors. There was one bet of 750 pounds from Cairo, and the bookies suspected a former owner of Khartoum in play. Some wagers were around 50 quid, a year's income for a serviceman.
Some spectators wandered close to the ‘track’, which was a crescent shape running the three miles. Most in the crowd wore headgear to protect them from the sun and sat on sand mounds around the course. Some found meagre shade from palms at the only oasis, where a well dispensed water about fifty metres beyond the finish line. A make-shift horse trough was set up for the thirsty competitors after they reached the line.
The first four races were largely non-events. Some horses gave up before the end of the mile races, others crashed into each other. Two went lame struggling over the sand and had to be shot. One was bitten by a scorpion and had to be retired for treatment while another poor mare appeared to have been bitten an asp and collapsed. A trooper arrived with a rifle to put it down but the animal died before he could take aim.
The crowd seemed listless and disinterested, except for the Anzacs, who were betting on every race. Against orders, many of the troopers had alcohol and were becoming boisterous, then obstreperous, in the trying heat. Fights broke out. Military police waded into the crowd near the finishing post and made a dozen arrests.
Meanwhile Paterson sat in his office at Moascar with about forty trainers crowded around a cable machine which would send a placings report for each minute of the Jericho Cup. At Jaffa, hundreds of troopers hovered near the officers’ HQ waiting for word on the first three place-getters.
At 6 pm in the Jordan Valley the heat had been taken out of the day and the humidity was at its lowest. The fifteen starters in the Jericho Cup variously sauntered, trotted, pranced and cantered to the start line. There were no stalls, just a taut rope across the track which would be dropped when signalled by the starter’s revolver.
Mullagh was the only jockey to ride bareback. In the scores of truncated rides he had had on Bill, he found this was the best way to go. He was also the only rider not to mount up on the way to the start line. An officer acting as the chief steward asked him why he had not done so.
‘I can’t risk it,’ Mullagh said, clearly suffering from nerves. ‘I don’t want him to bolt before the race begins.’
Mullagh had walked Bill for an hour at dawn. He had taken him for a nailbiting short run of about a furlong before a long drink and a further relaxing walk. His lungs were opened. While the other races were on Mullagh had walked him a third time and had risked another ride, a quick second furlong dash.
One writer to record the event was the author and cricket specialist A Sumner Reed, who had covered the Melbourne races when a junior reporter at the Herald. He was a member of the brigade’s brass band, which had struck up before each race. After drumming in the earlier events, the balding 50-year-old Anglo-Australian retired to write a full report on the event. He positioned himself on horseback halfway around the course and took notes, which he would have typed up for posterity. He, like all the other onlookers, had no idea that the race was part of a ruse to fool the Turks into a false sense of security.
Reed was intrigued by all the impressive thoroughbreds but planned to watch Bill the Bastard with particular interest. He had seen quite big side-bets put on the distance that the big Waler would travel before he removed his jockey. Most picked the first half-mile for Mullagh’s dislodgement.