International Jockeys Challenge - Champ de Mars
International Jockeys Challenge - Champ de Mars

International Jockeys Challenge - Champ de Mars

(Photo : Mauritius Turf Club)

“We raced in the 1800’s splendour of the Champ de Mars on the weekend,

and we were treated to some champagne sport.”

Mick Goss - Summerhill CEO
Mick Goss - Summerhill CEO

Mick Goss

Summerhill CEOIf you ever had any doubts about which hemisphere to live in, just tune in to the BBC for a half hour. Max today for London is 5ᵒ, Paris is six, and if you have any desire to visit the jewels of St Petersburg, pick your time carefully - they’re sitting at -3ᵒ for the top of the mercury. Besides, they’re restless in the Ukraine, there’s anarchy in Bangkok and Syria’s a mess.

We South Africans are tough on ourselves, so just occasionally, we probably need reminding how lucky we are. And if you happen to be sitting on the front verandah at either the Ulcoq’s in Grand Baie or the Tennant’s bungalow in Roche Noires, Mauritius, as Cheryl and I are, you can count your lucky stars, many of them, as it’s “new moon,” and the ebbing and flowing of the spring tides bring fresh glories at each end of their spectrums.

We raced in the 1800’s splendour of the Champ de Mars on the weekend, and we were treated to some champagne sport. It’s hard to explain Mauritian racing: a frenzied cocktail of a sport spawned by the British aristocracy three centuries and a half ago, a fanatical fan base that shuts the gates whenever the good horses are in town, and a helter-skelter of a racecourse just 1200m around, which means you’re not only close to the action, but you’re bang in the middle of the “audio”. In many ways, it’s more of an arena than a park, more of a gladiatorial joust than an equine contest. One fan’s comment on an especially daring dash from the French champion jockey, Olivier Peslier, was “incroyable”, an uncanny echo of General Pierre Bosquet’s words after he’d witnessed the Charge Of The Light Brigade in the Crimean War - “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas le guerre. C’est de la folie”. (It’s magnificent, but it’s not war. It is madness.”)

Another thing that differentiates Mauritian racing from most other places, is the deep tradition of connectivity with racing in general and horses in particular, that pervades most of the old settler tribes. The Gujadhurs, for instance, are one of the old sugar baron families, whose prosperity from the “sweet life” endowed them with the means to a life-long involvement in racing, and the privilege of running one of the last-remaining private stables on the planet. Champion trainer Gilbert Rousset, comes from a lineage of horsemen who’ve occupied the upper echelons of the log for generations; brothers Kiki and Phillippe Henry have distinguished themselves not only as titleholders, but, like several of their colleagues, have managed to combine their prowess in the “horsey” world with success in business (how many of us have the devotion to get up at “sparrow,” attend the track and still make a full fist of a day at the office?). Another consummate professional of local racing is Hughes Maigrot, whose father managed to script a successful career as a trainer in tandem with an unlikely but very distinguished one as a barrister and notary public. Patrick Merven is the island’s second (and a very close “second” at that) top conditioner, and to illustrate the depth of the family’s involvement, brother Gilbert is the Club president; guaranteeing the longevity. Patrick’s son Camille, is an aspiring candidate for next year’s School Of Management Excellence at Summerhill. As well as any racing nation on earth, the Mauritians know that the lure of the racehorse is centuries old, that it is the fastest weight-carrying creature in the world and that ever since the British occupied the island in 1810, they knew it was Britain’s greatest gift to the animal kingdom.

The weekend belonged to an old pal, Maxime Henri Maingard, who despite some foreboding in the days before, saddled up four individual victorians and a stream of place-getters. How far and fast a horse should go and who should ride him are the piano notes of a trainer’s day, and they are best played by feel than from any existing song sheet. Ever since he started out training on the stark and frosty backyards of his neighbours’ Highveldt properties, “Ricky” Maingard’s success has been rooted not only in an intimacy with his horses, but in his choice of who sits on them. That’s how Lester Piggott got the mount on Run For Lily, and Jeff Lloyd came to be associated with Wolf Power.

The problem with International Jockey’s days, is they’re a bit of a lottery; you don’t get to pick and choose, you take the wheel as it spins. For a man as fastidious as Maingard, roulette is not a game he likes to play, and like most trainers of his achievement, patience with non-compliant riders would not be his strongest suit. As we get older, our likes and dislikes become more apparent; I have noticed in the odd conversation with him, that he appears to be a little hard of hearing these days, though far from being impeded by his partial deafness, I suspect he may be making a virtue of using it selectively!

As the cards were dealt, Maingard revealed a pretty good hand. Twice he hit the sweet spot with the Aussie legend, Gai Waterhouse’s retainer, Nash Rawiller, though nobody was sure what sort of display to suspect from Dubai’s Ahmad Ajtebi beyond the confines of his desert lair. In the Mauritian context, there were more than a few at Tuesday’s gallops who wondered if this was a fish out of water.

They needn’t have bothered. One of Maingard’s former preoccupations was racing pigeons, and as the aptly named Glory Boy thrust his neck around the final bend, Ajtebi’s camel-driven conveyance found the gears to catch every one of his feathered friends.

As for Rawiller, he marches to a different drum. The only “international” to walk the rain sodden track early Saturday morning, the things that had brought him to this day, were the things that mattered that afternoon. As a growing teenager, Rawiller was too big to be a jockey, too gruff to be a singer and too slow to be a flyhalf, so what was he to be? Great race jockeys need all the skills of an Olympic sportsman and the instincts of a Grand Prix driver. Sharper, for that matter, as there’s no steering, no brakes and much tighter traffic. Rawiller had all these qualities in spades, especially the determination that drives great sportsmen, and the will for the sacrifices involved in maintaining the weights demanded of a top flight race-rider. Twice on Saturday, he found himself impossibly far behind from the worst of the draw, twice he circled the field when he found the pace too slow, and twice on horses he’d never sat on before, he found the post before anyone else could.

So what makes a Rawiller as good as he is? Often, the worst thing for people with inexplicable gifts to do, is try to explain them. As only his Glasglow “directness” could do, football star Kenny Dalglish once said of his goal-scoring talent. “If I have to talk about it, I may not be able to do it anymore.”

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