Horse Racing Context for "My Old Man"
Most of us have been in love and been dumped, so Wyatt's "They Flee from Me" is not too much of a stretch to understand in its literal and affective senses. The semiotic context of late-medieval and early-Renaissance English court culture can be inferred from some of the poem's physical details (sleeping in chambers, walking barefoot between rooms, visiting lovers by night, If you don't know much about horse racing, "My Old Man" may confuse you somewhat. The races Hemingway is describing with "jumps" are "steeple chase" racing, in which the horses navigate a complex route on grass that takes them over many hurdles, usually composed of hedges and fences, but sometimes also including shallow moats filled with water. Click here for the web site devoted to the great American steeplechase winner, "Cigar," who began his long career running "on the flat" where he won 15 straight races. Virginia's "Gold Cup" is America's most famous steeplechase, and the "Grand National" at Aintree, England, is its immediate ancestor (and the race featured in the novel and film, National Velvet). The course at Longchamps outside Paris, is the steeplechase venue for the concluding episode of Hemingway's "My Old Man." If, as an experiment, you search using Google for "steeplechase videos," almost all of them will feature violent collisions and falls. The added danger of the jumps and the lack of "lanes" creates a far more hazardous situation than flat racing for both horse and jockey.
The "flat race" on an oval dirt track is the most common thoroughbred race in the United States. Its main examples are the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes (AKA the "Triple Crown"). Mine That Bird, at 50-1 odds, wins the 2009 Kentucky Derby by an "impossible" 8 lengths. The announcer does not even see the horse and jockey make their move up the inside rail at about 1:40 into the race on the far turn--watch for the jockey's white silks. Rachel Alexandra (AKA "Super Filly") wins the 2009 Kentucky Oaks stakes race by 20 lengths. In the home stretch, she runs away from the field so fast that the camera cannot keep her and the rest of the horses in the same shot. Secretariat wins the Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown in 1973 by a distance later calculated to be 31 lengths. Nicknamed "Big Red," Secretariat stood a little over 68 inches at the shoulder, four inches taller than today's average thoroughbred, his heart (measured at postmortem autopsy) was three times the average thoroughbred size, and his "stride angle" (the maximum opening from front to hind leg at a gallop) was 110 degrees, 5 degrees larger than any major racing horse of the past century. In this footage, the camera steadily zooms back and back to try to keep Secretariat in the same frame as the next nearest horse until there is only 248 feet of empty track behind him.