The Broken-link Handicap

(notes edited by John McGivering)


The story was published in the Civil and Military Gazette on April 6th 1887, in the first Indian edition of Plain Tales from the Hills in 1888, and in subsequent editions of that collection. See David Alan Richards p. 17.

The story

“Shackles”, a champion race-horse, is in for a big race. Many have betted against him, and many want his arrogant owner to lose, hence the name “The Broken-link Handicap”. He is ridden by Brunt, a jockey who has learned the difficult skill of just sitting while the horse runs the race. But Brunt was once involved in a bad fall in a race in Australia, in which four riders were killed. As many people knew, the last words of one rider, “God ha’ mercy, I’m done for!”, had haunted him ever since.

In this race he is leading, but at a crucial turn, he hears the same words in a whining voice. He screams, Shackles skids to a halt, and the race is lost. Someone had known that on this course it was possible to pitch one’s voice so that it could be clearly heard half a mile away.

This is an early expression of an idea which always interested Kipling, that one could be haunted throughout one’s life by a single fearful vision. (See the later tale “In the Same Boat”.

If the verse for “March” in the Almanac of Twelve Sports also represents Kipling’s views on horse-racing, he obviously disliked it.

The horse is ridden—the jockey rides—
The backers back—the owners own.
But … there are lots of things besides,
And I should leave this play alone.

See also the entry for “August”.

Some critical comments
Bonamy Dobrée (p.138) suggests that in the first instance this tale may have been meant to express Kipling’s dislike of horse-racing in India, but he also sees it as another retribution story wherein a man is punished for dishonesty.
Seymour-Smith (p. 90) sees this as ‘a mini-masterpiece.’ He wonders if some names – Shackles, Brunt etc. – had any particular significance, but does not answer his own question.

See also Kipling on Horses and Horsemen edited by John Welcome [Marlborough Books (Swindon), and Punchestown Books (Dublin) 1992] for comments on this story. Welcome quotes “The Ballad of Ahmed Shah”, and “The Ballad of the King’s Jest” (lines 38 and 39) in which Kipling reminds us that:

Four things greater than all things are, –
Women and Horses and Power and War.

Kipling Journal references

  • KJ 249/38 “Kipling and the Turf”; a letter from a reader, quoting Richard Peyton’s Deadly Odds: Crime and Mystery Stories of the Turf [Pan Books, 1986], calls this story ‘unforgettable’ and claims that there is a strong element of fact in it.
  • KJ 253/50 quotes a newspaper report of October 1989 about a race horse which was frightened by an “ultrasonic gun” and threw its rider. R. Balaam wrote to The Times quoting “The Broken-link Handicap”. The Rev. J. Farrimond wrote on 9 November quoting Numbers, 22, in which Balaam and his ass suffered in a similar manner.
  • KJ 109/02 on The Melbourne Cup (April 1954. This is the Australian equivalent of the classic English race, The Derby. While he was in Australia Kipling was asked to describe the race, but his copy was returned by the editor as “unsuitable.” See Something of Myself, where he says (p. 97) “…I knew it was not in my line.”

Some other horse stories and poems:


[J H McG]

©John McGivering 2012 All rights reserved