Power In The Blood

(Painter : Rick Timmons)

An appreciation of

the “Higher Things” in life.

Unlike motor racing, when the winner most times, is a foregone conclusion long before the chequered flag, and where “short heads” and “noses” are seldom descriptions for the margin of victory, never a week goes by that horseracing is without the thrill of a punishingly tight finish. The dross and the boredom of a motor engine wailing its way round and round the same old circuit, can never invoke the emotions a great ride and a great horse can for anyone with an appreciation of the “Higher Things” in life.

What inspired these feelings for me was the memory of the finish to the Champions Cup, in the year of the epic duel between Wolf Whistle and Yard Arm, when Strydom and Shea, Olympic class athletes if ever there were any, and horsemen at the world class end of their profession, bumped and bored and bollocked and bit their way to the line. I recall it especially well, because we ran third that day with an unwanted urchin of two sales rings, a millionaire racehorse who’d never missed a cheque in 33 starts, and who could’ve been anyone’s horse for R30,000. His name was Amphitheatre.

In the end, the race went to Wolf Whistle, the first horse owned by a long-time school and varsity pal, Paul Harris, (a fair hooker in his time, and later CEO of First National Bank), and to yet another fellow who had to overcome an education at Maritzburg College, Peter Seargent. That day at Turffontein reminded me again of the appeal of racing. Everything about Wolf Whistle had been so wild and improbable. He had been up against a horse of impregnable talent, a shoe-in for Horse Of The Year. While it turned out to be one of the great battles of all time, my own interest centred as much on the finish, as it did on Amphitheatre. As a five-year-old gelding, he’d been the subject of an enormous offer from Dubai, and I had insisted he take his place in this race as a swansong. In the end, he came out of it with an injury, and that was the end of the deal, a mortal blow to a Zulu farmer who could’ve done with the cash.

In the end, the gyrations of the crowd and the pulse of the chase, impaired my vision of the race, but what I did see was the bit that counted, and it was right up close. I saw Wolf Whistle’s eye when he got to Yard Arm’s girth, and he as much as told him “I’ve got you, pal”. As the American novelist, Cormac McCarthy wrote in a slightly different context, it was “a hot globe, and all the world burned in it”. The whips were flaying, elbows were flying, foam spewed from the gladiators’ mouths. In the heat of battle, none of these heroes felt any pain.

It was so obvious, so simple, I thought as I drove away. As our Aussie pal, Les Carlyon, once reminded us, horses and people, are the only things in racing that count. The rest is immaterial. Anyway, if racing were anything more, if it were a matter of business, its interpreter should have been Karl Marx. As a financial proposition, racing is about the re-distribution of incomes. It’s about socialism in a form so natural you’d hardly notice it. Hundreds of millions of Rands are each year supplied by businessmen from Dubai to Durban, by doctors and lawyers, by owners of car dealerships and merchant bankers, and by tax avoiders from all over.

The treasure they contribute is then re-distributed, slowly, a little each month so the trick doesn’t look too obvious, to trainers and jockeys, track riders, farriers, vets, clairvoyants, chiropractors, grooms, the bottlers of magical elixirs, owners of feed stores, horse psychologists and float drivers. When the cycle is over, the working classes have acquired most of the surplus capital of the bourgeois. The cycle then starts again with new players on the supply side, and the same clairvoyants and float drivers on the other side. Someone once said, the horsemen provide the experience, and the owners, the cash. When the cycle is over, the horse people have the cash, and the owners have the experience.

Racing is good sport, great sport when you see a Yard Arm or a Wolf Whistle in this kind of combat. It’s occasionally good business, but not often. Racing is a way of living, and a way of thinking. It has its own language and humour. It’s loaded with danger; physical and financial, and comes with a hint of conspiracy. It doesn’t necessarily build character, but it throws up some great characters. And that’s why, despite the recessions, the stock market crashes, the natural disasters, it survives year-in and year-out. The lure of the big horse and the prospect of grabbing the big one, the irrepressible dream.

Thanks for reminding us, Graeme Hawkins, with your presentation at our Winter School.