The Sport of Kings? Prince Charles, Alas, Is Learning It from the Ground Up

updated 04/06/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/06/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

When the rider in the scarlet-and-blue silks was about to mount his horse for the Kim Muir Memorial Challenge Cup in Cheltenham, England two weeks ago, one indecorous fan shouted from the stands, "Hey, Charlie, have you got the super-glue?" Accounts differ as to whether H.R.H. the Prince of Wales returned an icy glare or a game wink, but the remark proved prophetic. Charles fared well enough over the first nine fences of the three-mile steeplechase, but at the 10th, his 12-year-old brown gelding, Good Prospect, stumbled on landing, sending His Highness alarmingly to the turf for the second time in five days. Growled Mike Dillon of Ladbroke, Britain's leading bookmaker: "You get sympathy if you fall off once, but not if it becomes a habit. He just hasn't had enough racing practice." Charles had gone to the post at 5-to-1 before the first fall and 25-to-1 before the second.

Most observers were not dismayed by losing a few bob on their bonnie prince, but they are well aware steeplechase jockeys can be severely injured, even killed. In his earlier fall at Sandown Park near London, Charles managed 17 fences before being pitched by Good Prospect, and he returned to the paddock with a conspicuously bloodied nose. At Cheltenham, although he was in grave danger of being trampled in the 20-horse field, he suffered nothing more than a royal flush. But some who had bidden the 5'11", 153-pound crown prince to dust himself off and ride again after the first fall were not so sure after the second. The Daily Express asked its readers, "Do you think Prince Charles should continue risking his neck?" And the Daily Mail had already decided he should not. "We do not wish to spoil his fun," ran the editorial. "We merely want to ensure that he goes unhurt to the altar in July and later on has a happy and prosperous reign."

The prince, for his part, was having none of it. "You see," he said in a pique, "I have this awful thing of wanting to do things well." So, alas, did the last Prince of Wales, Edward, later Duke of Windsor, whose father, King George V, grounded him after one bad fall too many. Two British kings, after all—William the Conqueror and William of Orange—died as a result of riding accidents. "We would hope that Prince Charles is old enough to make his own decisions," said a Buckingham Palace spokesman last week. "However, the Queen could, obviously, show her strong disapproval if she thought it necessary." So far, apparently, she had not—and Charles, whose mastery of scuba diving, skiing and sailing has earned him the sobriquet "Action-Man," is unlikely to dismount voluntarily. "If people could just understand the real thrill of steeplechasing," he says. "It's part of the British way of life and none of the other sports I've done bears any comparison."

Charles, 32, is adept at polo and fox hunting, but racing in close quarters at hell-for-leather speeds demands swift reflexes as well as exceptional courage. The prince has ridden in only a handful of races since finishing second in his first try on the flat—just a year ago. With a heavy calendar of royal duties, he has little time to develop the necessary skills.

Charles had the bad luck to lose his favorite mount, Allibar, in February, which hindered his progress still further. "The horse was experienced and ideal for Charles," says former jockey Dick Francis, whose new mystery, Reflex, is an odds-on best-seller. "It was unfortunate that he died of a heart attack. But it was a jolly good job that it didn't happen during a race." On Good Prospect, Allibar's replacement, for which Charles paid $35,000, his fortunes plummeted. "Good Prospect has won races in the past, but he is not the ideal ride for a beginner," says Francis. "He is very short at the front—from his ears to his withers—and his shoulders aren't big. Consequently when mistakes occur there is nothing to stop an inexperienced jockey from going over the top." In the wake of Charles' tumbles, a number of jockeys have offered him advice: lengthen his stirrups, lean back and crouch lower. But Francis says, "It was the horse that made the mistake at Cheltenham. Nine out of 10 jockeys would have gone down." The Sunday Telegraph speculated that the real reason for Charles' most recent fall was the sprawl of paparazzi littering the course and frightening the horses. No fewer than 80 photographers and 25,000 spectators were on hand when Charles took the plunge. Charles' fiancée, Lady Diana, was not. She had seen Charles tossed at Sandown and is not keen on horses anyway. "I fell off once," she explained, "and lost my nerve."

No one expects that Charles will. His ambition, reportedly, is to ride in the Grand National—the most brutal of all steeplechases. But the prince, who has only amateur status, must first gain a license to ride against professionals. To do so, he must show himself "fully competent and in no way a danger to himself or other riders." Would Charles qualify? "The prince has not applied," said a noncommittal spokesman for the Jockey Club. But if he runs true to form, he eventually will. As ex-jockey John Oaksey puts it: "The only effect of two well-publicized 'failures' will be to strengthen his determination. The risks only make it that much more certain Charles will try again, because that, by the grace of God, is the kind of prince we are lucky enough to have."

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