Grand Baie, Mauritius
(Photo : Exotic Destinations)
“Arriving here as a racing man, you feel the way the returning
victorious Captain of a World Cup rugby team would in South Africa.”
Summerhill CEOJust a few days ago, I was waxing on about the therapy of a trip to the Wild Coast. The fishing tackle was ready, the bags were packed and the bait was in the freezer. Then voila! A hint from across the waves reminded me of my honorary membership of the second oldest racing club in the world, and we were winging our way to the Ile Maurice for this weekend’s Jockeys International at the Champs De Mars course, slap bang in the centre of the soulful heart of the island, Port Louis.
Sitting here in the delightful bungalow of our decades-long friends Jean Marc and Clotilde Ulcoq, with the lapping wavelets of Grand Baie at our feet, you’d have to say, it’s not a shabby alternative! Cheryl and I have not visited all of the island destinations of the world by any means, but for sheer bliss, atmosphere and the kaleidoscope of colours, cultures and creeds, this would be our pick.
You’d think, in this Indian Ocean idyll, you’d be a world away from racing, but nothing in Mauritius is very far from a conversation about the “game”. The man at passport control (he reads your occupation on the arrival form and instantly insists on a tip), the lady at the cellphone service provider, Orange, asks for complimentary tickets, and the restaurant waitress is already “on” a couple of fancies for Saturday. In a nutshell, racing is the national sport, bigger, much bigger, than football, and arriving here as a racing man, you feel the way the returning victorious Captain of a World Cup rugby team would in South Africa.
At 05h30 yesterday morning, I set sail for the gallops in my rented tomato-red Kia “bubble” (a good friend assured me at the airport that the smaller the car in Mauritius, the better for parking and the narrow lanes of Grand Baie, and he was right). I’ve said it already, but they really do have an obsession with racing here: yes, this is a big weekend, but I’m told that any Tuesday morning in season, you’ll find almost as many people in attendance as you will at the July gallops. The game is in rude health here, obviously, and while, for as long as I’ve known it, they’ve had their political issues (so the locals complain) it’s not unlike anywhere else in the world; just recently, Brough Scott referred to the “Newmarket soap opera” in his riveting work on the life of England’s master trainer, Henry Cecil. It’s just that with the Mauritians, there are no half measures, so the temperature gets a bit higher, and that’s all part of the intrigue. Dick Francis should have spent more time here!
There are other things about this island that have made it one of Africa’s most successful economies. A flat 15% tax rate (for companies, too), no tax on dividends, no capital gains tax, wonderful pothole-free roads and no exchange controls. While it may be true that South Africa still needs to maintain some control over the movement of money, it’s an ironic truism of this little country that despite the liberality of their approach to it, their currency has appreciated strongly against ours ever since they went into “free-fall”. What they have achieved, in the interim, is to set themselves up as the financial hub of the Indian Ocean and the African East Coast, and that’s apparent as you make your way from their spectacular new international airport to the North. HSBC, Barclays, Merrill Lynch, Standard Bank, they’re all here, and so is Stephen Saad’s mercurial Aspen Pharmaceuticals.
You wouldn’t be surprised then, to know that the place appears to be awash with money (some say it’s also a “cleansing” depot for some dodgy stuff) and that when they play the ponies, they play big. It’s not uncommon, so I’m told, to see a “bar” on a horse, so you can imagine the pressure on the trainer and the jockey. Bookmakers are said to hold independent fortunes on a single horse, and are rumoured to have ice in their veins (or whisky in their brains), though I haven’t seen a poor bookmaker yet. Of course, with any sport, the “legend” is often bigger than the reality, but in Mauritius, they’re adamant it’s the other way around. Stakes have not been increased in five years (though they’re well above their historic lows), costs are high (just about everything has to be imported), so betting is an imperative aspect of the racing economy. Like us, they’ve had to come to terms with no longer holding a monopoly on the gambling rupee, and are having to contend with stern competition from the lotto and sports betting, as well as (and you can bet on it) with the technological means now available, the flight of a fair stash to offshore betting havens. For a while, turnovers retreat until the custodians of the game (and a government that in most other spheres, appears to have come to the party) reinvent their business model.
My team back home keep reminding me there are no free lunches (not even at the Wild Coast, and especially not in Mauritius!) so they’ll be relieved to know that besides the altruistic purpose of paying my respects to the rare honour of my membership to the Mauritius Turf Club, the other side of our journey has also born fruit.
When we initially established the South African Equine Trade Council at the Summerhill boardroom table with Minister Alec Irwin (Trade and Industry) and Peter Miller (Finance, KZN) one of the first items of recognition, was the importance of our trade in horses with this island, and at Summerhill at least, we’ve maintained a healthy relationship with its horsemen. As part of their attempt at ingratiating themselves with the locals two years after their occupation in 1810, the British encouraged the establishment of the Mauritius Turf Club, and that tradition celebrated its bicentenary in 2012. Just about every horse in the country is of-South African-origin, and it’s been a happy continuance of our association with these racing fans, that last year’s Horse Of The Year Ice Axe, and this year’s finalist, Tales Of Bravery, both hold Summerhill connections, not to mention Hugues Maigrot’s handy little galloper, Iwayini, who runs for “us” on the weekend.
I’m not sure whether it’s the quality of the stock we’ve supplied in the past, or the prospect of a couple of days savouring Jackie Cameron’s cooking at Hartford House, but from a couple of conversations we’ve had at the gallops, it seems we can bank on the company of our old pal, Ricky Maingard, long-time customers Hugues Maigrot and Kiki Henry, top conditioner, Patrick Merven, Champion trainer (for the 3rd year) Gilbert Rousset and perhaps Sum Gujadhur at February’s Emperors Palace “Summer” Ready To Run Sale on the farm. No “free lunches” they say!
Editor’s Note: The only direct flight to Durban is early on a Sunday. With racing on both days of the weekend, we will unfortunately be stranded here for another week! As much as we’ll have to tear ourselves away from the environs of Grand Baie, our next port-of-call is one we know well: the beautiful bungalow of another pair of dear friends, Alain and Annick Tennant; they’re on the Eastern side of the island, in the vicinity of Saint Geran and Long Beach. While Grand Baie is as close to a Mediterranean experience as the Indian Ocean gets, Roche Noire (where we’re going), is the Mauritian equivalent of the Wild Coast. Best of both worlds!