Punchestown and a tragic hero of polar exploration

Punchestown can be a cold place. Old hands at the April meeting keep an eye on the weather-vane overlooking the parade ring and surmounted by the distinctive emblem of a Kildare Hunt fox. If the weather vane points to the prevailing south-westerly wind then the top coat can be taken off and Punchestown’s natural amphitheatre becomes a sun trap. But if the weather vane swings to an easterly direction then layers are needed to keep out the icy breeze.

Punchestown can be a cold place. Old hands at the April meeting keep an eye on the weather-vane overlooking the parade ring and surmounted by the distinctive emblem of a Kildare Hunt fox. If the weather vane points to the prevailing south-westerly wind then the top coat can be taken off and Punchestown’s natural amphitheatre becomes a sun trap. But if the weather vane swings to an easterly direction then layers are needed to keep out the icy breeze.

- The Looking Back column with Liam Kenny appears every week in the Leinster Leader -

Cold winds of a much more extreme kind were to lead to a polar exploration tragedy one hundred years ago and, weather aside, there is a Punchestown connection with that poignant event. In March 1912 five members of a British expedition to the South Pole perished as they hauled their sledges through an onslaught of snow and storm. One of these was a Captain Lawrence Oates whose self-sacrifice transfixed the British public and became the epitome of how a tragic story can be transformed into a heroic epic. On 17 March 1912, a weakened Oates, fearing that he was slowing his companions on their desperate trek, walked out of their tent knowing that exposure would hasten certain death. What caught the imagination of the public was the understated manner of his leaving: “ I am going outside and may be some time.” These words were recorded in a diary found on the body of the expedition leader Capt. Robert Falcon Scott who himself perished some days after.

In an earlier life the stoic Lawrence Oates battled with weather conditions but in a very different context when he came to Punchestown as an owner, trainer and jockey for the Festival meetings in 1904 and 1905. Stationed in the Curragh with a cavalry regiment Lawrence Oates’ life had revolved around equestrian pursuits. He had successes at race meetings in Dundalk and Leopardstown but Punchestown was the big attraction for an all-round horseman.

His name first appears on the race-card for the 1904 Festival when he rode his own horse, “Blucher”, to third place in the Grand Military Cup. The following year Oates was back with a stronger stable. However on the first day rain softened the ground and his two entries struggled. The Kildare Observer reporting the April 1905 meeting noted that “the weather might have been on better behaviour, particularly on the opening day.” A drizzly start to the second day of the festival improved to give a beautiful spring day. Oates decided to run the star of his small stable, a horse named “Angel Gabriel” which had won the prestigious St. Stephen’s Day Plate at Leopardstown the previous year. Oates was now training his own horses as he had a falling-out with his previous trainer, Fetherstonhaugh of the Curragh. He entered “Gabriel” for the “Irish Grand Military cup”. He saddled-up fellow cavalry officer Richard Moreton-Wood as jockey. Oates had been groomsman the previous February when Moreton-Wood married Miss Marguerite Mansfield of Morristown-Lattin near Newbridge.

The race got underway and after the first few jumps things were not looking promising for “Gabriel”. He had taken an early lead but had fallen back passing the stand on the first circuit. However that most notorious of Punchestown obstacles, the Big Double, was to upset the leaders in the field. A horse named “Captain Danger” had been leading but bungled at the Double and Moreton-Wood seized the chance to drive “Gabriel” to the front. Watching from the stand Lawrence Oates could barely conceal his emotions: “ My eyes got so full of tears I could not see the horses and had to keep asking the man beside me how my horse was going.” When he did look again “Gabriel” was leading at another legendary Punchestown obstacle – the Stone Wall. The Oates’ runner jumped brilliantly and struck for home. Or in the more elegant words of the Kildare Observer racing reporter: “ Angel Gabriel fenced flippantly and taking command a mile out, shook off the favourite in the straight.” It was a happy occasion for Oates, his training skills and choice of jockey vindicated by a Punchestown win.

However his later life took him far from the equine pleasures of Co. Kildare and to ultimate tragedy. In 1910 he was recruited – ironically on the strength of his equestrian experience – to participate in Scott’s expedition to the Antarctic. Two years later he was part of Scott’s five man crew who attempted to be the first to reach the South Pole. It was a disaster – they were beaten to the Pole by Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer, and, exhausted and under-nourished, they died on their desperate attempt to return to base camp. Although a failure the heroism perceived in Scott’s expedition fulfilled the British public’s need for a heroic failure. And this was epitomised by Oates’ self-sacrifice. As one polar historian wrote: “With a final selfless salutation to his weakening comrades, Oates exited the camp and earned his place in the glorious annals of exploration.”

So if that chill wind does sweep down from the Wicklow mountains, Punchestown racegoers might reflect on the story of Capt. Lawrence Oates, once a Punchestown winner, but better known in modern times as a tragic hero of man’s quest to conquer nature at its most extreme.

Footnote: for a brilliant visualisation of the history of Punchestown – including the Capt. Oates – story see the new video ‘Punchestown - Seeing out the distance’ which is available from http://www.bankostales.com/ or local DVD stockists. Series no: 277