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Apocalypse considered as a Steeplechase

(Issued by the Committee for a better Armageddon)

Welcome to the 2020 Apocalypse Memorial Shield From Aintree.

This annual handicap steeplechase over four miles, two and a half furlongs, a favourite with serious gamblers, will be run by the traditional Four Horsemen. Based on a year in which the Four Riders have seen considerable change in handicap, the traditional draw for stall placing Pestilence on the inside, Famine, then War, with Death on the outside. With Death nap and Pestilence outsider, this has been touted as one of the most exciting races since the 1914 Sarajevo Steeplechase to end all Steeplechases.

The traditional silks of Pestilents White, Warmongers Red, Mortuarists Pale Green, and Ravenours Black are much in evidence with silks, this year, accidentally designed by Grace Wales Bonner in a moment of inattentive reverie. Described as comfortable, the Silks of all the Riders have been made from the saliva of Bombyx mandarina fed with selectively bred bois d’arc: Maclura pomifera var. mors, Maclura pomifera var. bellum, Maclura pomifera var. mors, Maclura pomifera var. fames, Maclura pomifera var. pestis. A triumph for both fashion and biology.

Betting, as is traditional, has been restricted to that parimutuel paragon of vice: the Tote. Bets offered being Win, Place, Trifecta, Exacta, and Swinger. The Tote, this year, having been provided by the historic Ellerslie Racecourse Totalisator as built by Sir George Alfred Julius. The Totalisator has been operated by the elected Members of Westminster since 1945 and this year is no different. With all Members – apart from the Whips whose role is on the track, and the Speaker who is up in the Box – putting their shoulders to the wheel.

As is custom and practice, our Commentator has been summoned using the Planchette of Allan Kardec as invented on the tenth day of June 1853 alongside a custom made Kennard Novelty Company Ouija Baord crafted partner Elijah Bond. Although Ouija Boards date to the first of July 1890, the tradition of summoning our Commentator only dates back to the ninth of July 1892. Inspired by the Volume 103 edition of Punch where a cartoon depicting an imp pushed a planchette toward a prediction of the next Derby winner gave the Apocalypse Memorial Shield Committee a kick in the rump to make one of the rare innovations in the Event.

Sir Peter O’Sullevan, summoned by Ouija will be commentating, the 2020 Apocalypse Memorial Shield has shaped up to be as magnificent as the, now infamous, 1876, Budapest, Kétévesek Versenye victory for Kincsem. A race more familiar for the off-track activities than the turf beating. The Four Horsemen have drawn a veil over that in the same manner as discretion has discreetly set aside the International Cross Country, Course à la mer of 1914 where the Schlieffen-Moltke Cup was awarded.

We join the Race, now, with a pre-event chat from our esteemed Commentator from the Oliver “Eddie” Cromwell Memorial Royal Box And Buffet Lounge which boasts a view all the way to Wango Lane on a clear day. The Buffet, being sumptuous and appropriate to the theme of the day consists of an indeterminate number of cheeses, crackers, ports, angels on horseback, Crudités, devils on horseback, pigs in blankets, Mezze, Sweetbreads, Martabak, haggis pakora and a psychoactive Russian roulette of various mushrooms. Refreshments, having been provided by a respected local hostelry, on condition that the antipasto be inacessible.

The Four Stables of the Apocalypse are well known to Accountants, Auditors and Ledger Makers of the Turf. Each having triumphed in previous meeting and putting up the best croup, withers, loin, flank, and gaskin of previous winners for the traditional Buffet has done them no harm. The Four Stables of the Apocalypse have a definitive policy of no glue and no gelatine. An approach that has garnered them no small amount of criticism from Animal Welfare Campaigners and Book Burners alike. The former concerned with Humane Ethics and compassion for living thing while the latter dislike the thick black smoke when incinerating their banned books. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice being most vocal in this matter. The Four Stables of the Apocalypse are denounced, on a regular basis, by those taking part in International Book Burning Day. A day in May, each year, chosen by the cast of dice. It is a regular occurence that the Four Stables Old Nag Cook Book is burned on International Book Burning Day.

Pestilence, Famine, War, and Death have, once again, fielded from their own bloodstock and happenstance has that they are all, this year, Novice Geldings. The monastic resonance has never been lost on the seasoned punter but etiquette is never to mention the Buffet. The draw has made the day out for these maidens an interesting race. Pestilence has never been happy on the inside track and Death prefers to avoid the outside track. Between the misery and dislike, War and Famine have never really enjoyed rubbing shoulders that closely. Their proximity has resulted in more than one non-runner from if the going is anything other than perfect.

A good price has been placed on all the Runners. It would be at odds with good manners to elaborate in any great detail. It is sufficient to say: winnings will be acceptable to even the most rakish.

The channelling of O’Sullevan by distant descendants of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in measured acapella chant comes as no surprise. The day when the Ouija could keep up with anything vigorish having long since past. We rejoin the Commentary just  as events move into the disconcerting sotto voce of Mediumistic garrulity.

They are under starters orders. There is a collective hostage taking of breath.

The Horses being up from the paddocks to the starting line: the Starting Ball drops: the balloon goes up: and they are off with immediate turn of foot and an exciting outing is underway for the nine hundredth and twelfth Apocalypse Memorial Shield.

There is not a nose between them as the afternoon begins.

And they are off. Galloping with a find polyphony and a relentless ostinato motorik. With Pestilence edging ahead of Famine. Famine neck and neck with War. And Death trailing a good length behind the pack. The field is open as they approach the first fence. The thirteen and a half hands of Ullswater spruce looms up as Pestllence, Famine, War, and Death all launch themselves into the void. The first jump made and Pestilence and Famine are jockeying for first while War and Death hang back and the jump made we hear the familiar paradiddling of the amen break as the approach the second fence with Famine, Pestilence, War, and Death hunched in a bunch and launching themselves once more into the void about thirteen and three quarter hands of Basenthwaite spruce above terra firma.

As they hang there in the air we can see the strong lines of Death, blurring pale green across the field and the clean white Pestilential silks being spattered with the first soil of the season. There is a communal gasp as eight hooves simultaneously clop the ground with the resonance of kettle drums and snares.

The audacity of the riders is unbridled as they head for the Buttermere firs and a small open ditch. The fence is a mere three quarters of a hand higher but helps War to jostle ahead of Pestilence whose early start is almost a memory now. Famine is setting the pace as the motorik returns with a vengeance. Traditionally the fence where the forgotten Cardinal Sins of Acedia and Vainglory cheer on their top tip for the Shield. This year, the Vainglorious take up voice in favour of Pestilence while the Careless merely cheer on death with a listless burble.

Pestilence is trailing on the outside and Death is moving up in the middle. Famine and Ware are riding hard as they  repeat the leap, in height if not in fact. The Brotherswater firs rattling as the withers of Famine, War, Death, and Pestilence caress the height of the hedge in a moment of silence between equine paradiddles. It is an excitement of the turf  not seen since the 1915 Ottoman Syria locust infestation when War and Famine managed to combine their talents yet were frustrated by the edict of egg collection.

The black, red, green and white Silks landing to a resounding cascade of flack and kick, the muzzles of Famine and Death and of War and Pestilence align. Pestilence determined not to be left behind in this four horse race while Death is applying the crop. A matter that has lead to stewards enquiries in the past. The Ennerdale firs swish and swoosh as all sixteen hooves clear the fifteen hand fence. An otherworldly grace takes hold and the nobility of the Apocalypse strikes everyone for the first time. There is a collective holding of breath. Famine, with a cheekily malevolent grin, stroke an ergot across Death’s crop ensuring a ‘noxious pustule in the ear of grain’ for the grasses downwind. The excitement has mounted as the pack approach the first great obstacle: Bechers Brook.

This year, Bechers Brook has been dressed with Esthwaite firs. Hand cut by the Brothers and Sisters of the Free Spirit. A controversial dip into Heresy that has not pleased some. The fifteen hand rise and the eighty one quarter hands fall of the fence being of more concern. The last fall at Betchers Brook in the Apocalypse Memorial Shield was in the year after the, no cancelled, Fall Stakes. Death and the move from the Original Racecourse of Eden. It is not a fence where falling is known to happen but that has not stopped Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, and Pride from making it their base of operations for the entire race. In the past, Lust has distracted Death with a Maiden but not achieved a fall. Without incident, Famine, Death, Pestilence and War land safely, bringing horror and a terrible foreboding to the sedation of Foinavon.

With a diddle and a rough, drag and flam these Maidens launch over the treetops of the Grasmere firs at Foinavon. Famine, Pestilence, Death, and War all vying for some advantage, yet all keeping the sedate pace by now associated with the jump. At the turning point of the parabola – a mere thirteen and a half hands from terra firma – the eerie silence descends and the shades of Dictator, Clansman, Counsellor, and The Sailor join the pack for a momentary memento mori until Blue Pill, The Curate Equinox and Kilfane thunder prior to the traditional dispersal with O’Connell. Pulling away from the real horrors of the Apocalypse, and scattering the Grasmere fir branches about the course, the Race has entered a new and more energetic phase that might only end in a Joachimite rescheduling of the Apocalypse.

And the race enters a new phase of determination. Coming to the Canal Turn and fifteen hands of Haweswater firs, Pestilence puts a gallop on putting Famine Death and War behind for the launch over Valentines Brook and another fifteen hands, of Hayeswater firs, as the dock and the hock and the croup of the arse of the one hundred to four Valentine whose sauntering and corkscrewed leap in 1840 led to the eponymous post canal ninth. Where Pestilence again took an edge over the pack leaving Famine, Death and War jockeying a length behind.

With a thundering pataflafa and a flam-paradiddle-diddle both Famine and Death edged upwards to Pestilence leaving War trailing in a fuming reminiscence of former glories. The tenth fence looming, at fifteen hands of Kentmere spruce and some hint of kestrel guano about the needles, giving the Horsemen of the Apocalypse a handy moments pause before rising over the fifteen hands of fir concealing an additional eight hands of ditch amid the Loweswater firs arrayed for the approval of the shades of The Duke, Polyanthus, Cockahoop, Percy at three, five, nine, and nine to one respectively. The applause of Captain Martin Becher, Dick Christian, Bartholomew Bretherton and the mysterious W. Tempest giving recognition to the departure of Pestilence a length ahead of Famine a length ahead of Death a length and a muzzle ahead of War and an uncommonly raucous post-mortuary greeting to Solicitor and one time Jockey, Mister Horatio Nelson Powell whose death in a buggy accident has been a regular fixture at the elventh fence since 1870.

With a nod to the Thirlmere firs, Pestilence and Death, edging forward from Famine and War, took the full fifteen hands of the twelfth fence eliciting a gasp from the crowd as a flam drag of hooves mutated into a double ratamacue and a shock of cowbell. Thundering into a cascade of dragadiddles, paradiddles and more flim flam than the Wastwater firs could muffle as Pestilence, Death, War, and Famine galloped with a pell mell catenary peaking at thirteen and three quarter hands above the firm green sod. In a moment of sedentary excursion War, whose arse is wider this year despite having been disciplined in diet and exercise, gave a flick of the crop and, in a matter that might go to a stewards enquiry, flogged Death’s Horse. To no avail. Pestilence, Death, War and Famine tumbrelled over the fence in a deja vu that many will swear to be jamais vu in the post race hostelry autopsies.

The fresh green of the Windemere firs rustled only momentarily as Pestilence once again lolloped back into the pack between Death and War. The lower fence of the fourteenth – and the third to be thirteen and a half hands – gave Death, Pestilence, War and Famine a reasonably relaxed moment with an Amen Break and a particularly sinister cadence that might drive the more inexperienced Turf Accountant clean from their mind before confronting the Chair. The tallest fence, preceded by an eighteen hand ditch and situated in front of the Grandstand. Having left the unlucky thirteenth fence – resplendent in the firs of Wastwater – behind, the Pestilence, Death, War and Famine coming up on the outside transformed in a moment of surprise to Death, Pestilence, War, with Famine still riding hard and coming up on the outside. As the pack approached the Chair the jostle provided the Grandstand Spectators with the most perfect moment of synchronisation as Death, Pestilence, War and Famine, in a dead heat, rose a full eighteen hands in the air, clearing two and a half hands between themselves and The Chair.

The audible gasp from this Year’s Grandstand – including the shade of Joseph Wynne whose seat in the nearby Sefton Arms Public House is a Monument to the folly of the pursuit – rose. Not more than a few belches away, framed in the Seathwaite Tarn firs was seven and a half hands of water from which the gathered Grandstand might oblige the cavalcade of Apocalyptic Riders to repeat their pursuit of folly. With a Buffet to dispose of and a Hogshead of Higsons, twenty seven rundlets of Bass, a firkin of Vaux Breweries and sundry bottles for the ladies, the descent into oblivion, misanthropy and a second circuit has become inevitable. The shade of Vivian Mercer, not known for his charity to Four Horse Races, muttering a summation as a race in which nothing happens – twice. A pint of porter for the plain man of Clara.

In an effort to keep the attention rapt and the narrative flowing, the Commentary now rises a fifth. A pitch ratio of three to two and, thereby, odds that are almost even. Like the twinkling, twinkling, of so many bats. With only twelve fences between the Riders of the Apocalypse and the inevitable exorcisms that accompany the annual raising of spirits, the jockeying for position takes on an intensity that only a shift from the bactrian to the dromedary can communicate. So it is, as the gasp of the Grandstand fades and silence falls, that there is nothing but the Voice beating out the syllables of the Horsemen and the hooves beating out the tattoo of a well organised, back to fundamentals, Apocalypse. From the Grandstand, the Committee for a Better Armageddon, once again, retire to enjoy an afternoon of decline into the West.

It is Death on the inside, however little, followed by Famine, Pestilence and War trailing on the outside. And then they leap with  Death, Famine, and War all ahead of a Pestilence whose early promise seems to have vanished as they rise up and clatter the clear air with frogs and nails. Which seems a fillip to Pestilence as the White Silks and the White Horse edge ahead of Famine pushing War to a rattling second place as  Death,War,Pestilence, and Famine repeat their previous leap, yet silently and ominously. The withering of the cheers and the lowering of the waved cards being more poignant for each passing moment as War, then Death and Pestilence, then Famine land again in their own hoofprints. The Crowd is cheering for Famine as Pestilence, once again, falls behind. It is a poor year for the pestilences and an even worse year for Death as Famine seems intent upon taking the Crown. With War keeping a pace followed by Death challenged by Famine and trailed by Pestilence we can see the shine of their horseshoes as they rise again, yet changed, yet higher. And suddenly it is War and Famine challenging each other with Death and Pestilence trailing on the outside. It looks like the race is all but decided. Yet anything can happen. And it does. Pestilence pulls forwards. With
War and Famine covering the inside Pestilence passing Death on the outside, there is a chill in the silence as the Four Horsemen rise again. The terror is palpable in the pale horse pulls closer to War. Pestilence has pulled away from Famine and Death leaving them to battle out for third place, surely. And it is War and Pestilence with Famine and Death trailing on the outside, skeeting through the air and leaving a trail of nether belched miasma boding a season of ill will to all men. The huddling pack certainly surprising us as Pestilence edges a nuzzle forward ,War strains a muzzle backward  and Famine and Death ride hard into each other on the outside. Death has a crop like a fiddler’s elbow as the final hoof clatters down and we are already rising for the penultimate fence where War claws back a lead from Pestilence who puts a length from dock to forelock of Death leaving Famine sadly trailing and they land with a renewed mission coming up to the final fence and in sight of the winning line it looks to be a photo finish as Pestilence and War vy for the first and Death and Famine compete for the third. There has not been a more exciting finish since a Spectator nailed the gate shut in 1836. The overture and crescendo, the preamble and preparation come down to the wire and there it is Pestilence, War, Death and Famine all cross the line for the 2020 Apocalypse Memorial Shield From Aintree.

War is fuming. Death is devastated. Famine is sanguine. Pestilence is jubilant as the victory parade begins and the tribulations of the World, in a more organised, more effective, more efficient and overall better Armageddon. Which has pleased the Committee and generated enough paperwork to plaster a small office block. Callipygean tears race down the cluneal cleft’s of the joyful crowd of Bookmakers whose profit on the day is undoubtably immense. This year, as in others, there was talk of a fifth rider and a considerable amount of backing was placed – sight unseen – on that prospect. The winner of the 2020 Apocalypse Memorial Shield, and not for the first time, is Pestilence.

We leave the Racecourse as the sound of bells tinkling and the merest hints of “Ephpheta, quod est, Adaperire” as the Grandstand is cleared and the Ouija Board Summoned Commentator is dispelled. Back to the studio for the Julien Torma Chess Boxing League First Round results.

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