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Princess Anne Clears a New Hurdle: the Steeplechase

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In a British poll early this month Princess Diana was named the House of Windsor’s dumbest member, husband Charles the smartest (his public musings about Jung and Koestler must have impressed some voters) and Queen Elizabeth the hardest working. Now comes Princess Anne, surely the bravest British royal. At 36, the mother of two has decided to become a steeplechase jockey, and last week she rode in one of the most prestigious—and toughest—amateur races in England. The Horse and Hound Grand Military Gold Cup at Sandown Park, 15 miles southwest of London, draws many riders who rank in skill with the top professionals. The field goes banging over 22 fences, 4’6″ high, for three miles. At a steeplechase meeting in Stratford-upon-Avon the day before the Grand Military, three horses were killed in falls and one jockey survived a broken neck. Sandown Park on Friday, the 13th of March, therefore, might well have been daunting for the Princess who had competed in just one steeplechase before, finishing last.

Her Grand Military mount, a 10-year-old bay gelding named Cnoc Na Cuille (pronounced Knock-Nah-Quill-Uh, Gaelic for Hill of the Woods), was a 20-to-1 longshot. In the field of 15 the public favorite, Special Cargo, was owned by the Queen Mum, who was seeking a record fourth straight victory in the race, which is open only to owners with military connections and riders serving their country. Anne entered as the Chief Commandant of the Women’s Royal Navy Service, one of 24 honorary military positions she holds.

Though her horse’s blanket was discreetly marked by a crown with an “A” under it, the Princess, clad in royal hues (her racing silks are scarlet, purple and black), got more attention than her mount’s record—his last victory was three seasons ago—deserved. The gelding, at one point running second, clobbered the fifth fence. Anne later admitted, “I was just hanging around his neck.” But she drove him home a leg-weary eighth.

Anne’s goal had simply been to finish (three horses did not). She smiled broadly until confronted by photographers. Gracious at public functions, she has always vehemently clung to the idea that her private outings (she would class this as one, though thousands of spectators were on hand) are purely her concern. On such occasions, she regularly tells photographers to “sod off,” commonly using more vulgar synonyms for “sod.”

For years headstrong Anne was publicly disliked. Things reached a low point in 1978 when the good people of Boston, Lincolnshire, voted to change the name of a new street from Princess Anne Road because they felt she was so despised it would lower their property values. But by 1983 England was growing more sympathetic to Anne. Perhaps this was by design (palace PR is deft), or perhaps the Princess was seeking a more pleasing image to offset reports she was unhappy in her marriage to horseman-farmer Mark Phillips. In any case, she began to get recognition for her passionate work for public causes such as the Save the Children Fund, the relief organization for needy and hungry youngsters. On its behalf she has toured four continents and dangerous war zones, including Somalia and Beirut; in the 16 years she has worked for the Fund, its contributions have grown from $6 million to $75 million. A workhorse who does arduous jobs without fuss or privilege, she kept a record 501 public engagements in 1984. The new opinion poll named her the second-hardest-toiling member of the family. “I just didn’t fit the image the media thought I ought to have—a Princess coming from a fairy story,” Anne said back in 1983. “I still don’t.” For instance, she goes on package ski tours with her husband and early last month turned up on a TV quiz show. She answered 10 sports questions accurately and laughed heartily when a flustered co-host addressed her as “Pal.”

The betting now is that the Queen will name good sport Anne the Princess Royal, a courtesy title reserved for (but rarely given to) the monarch’s eldest daughter. But Anne apparently would rather be known as a winning rider. Says retired race champion Lord Oaksey, “For her to start steeplechases at her age, and in the public eye, is a very bold and determined thing to do. She is a brave lady.”