Old Mat was nothing if not a character. And if he was by no means more scrupulous than the rest of his profession, he had certain steadfast virtues not always to be found in his brethren of the Turf. He never drank, he never smoked, and, win or lose, he never swore. A great raconteur, his stories were most amusing and never obscene. And when late in life he married Patience Longstaffe, the daughter of the well-known preacher of God-First farm on the North of the Downs between Lewes and Cuckmere, nobody was much surprised. As Mr. Haggard, the Vicar of Cuckmere, said,
“Mat could always be expected to do the unexpected.”
That Patience Longstaffe, the Puritan daughter of Preacher Joe, should marry the old trainer was a matter of amazement to all. But she did; and nobody had reason to think that she ever regretted it.
Patience Longstaffe became in time Ma Woodburn, though she remained Patience Longstaffe still.
Mat and his Ma had one daughter between them, known to all and sundry in the racing world as Boy Woodburn.
Boy Shows Her Metal
The Polefax Meeting was small and friendly; never taken very seriously by the fraternity, and left almost entirely to local talent. Old Mat described it always as reg’lar old-fashioned. The countryside made of it an annual holiday and flocked to the fields under Polefax Beacon to see the horses and to enjoy Old Mat, who was the accepted centre-piece.
The Grand Stand was formed of Sussex wains drawn up end to end; and the Paddock was just roped off.
Outside the ropes, at the foot of the huge green wave of the Downs, were the merry-go-rounds, the cocoanut-shies and wagons of the gypsies; while under a group of elms the carts and carriages of the local farmers and gentry were drawn up.
There, too, of course, was Mat’s American buggy, a spidery concern, made to the old man’s design, seated like a double dog-cart, and looking amongst the solid carts and carriages that flanked it like a ghost amongst mortals. It was the most observed vehicle of them all, partly because of its unusual make and shape, and partly because that was the famous shay in which year after year Mat drove over the Downs from Putnam’s behind the horse with which he meant to win the Hunters’ Steeplechase.
That race, always the last item on the programme, and the most looked-for, was about to begin.
The quality in the Paddock were climbing to their places in the wagons. The voices of the bookies were raised vociferously. The crowd jostled about them, eager to back Old Mat’s old horse, Goosey Gander. They believed in the old man’s luck, they believed in the old man’s horse, they believed in the old man’s jockey, Monkey Brand, almost as famous locally as his master.
A boy slipped into the Paddock and began to bet surreptitiously behind the dressing-tent.