Good horse country…
(Photo : Leigh Willson)
Excerpt from the forthcoming Summerhill Sires brochure.
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Summerhill CEOI was lucky where I grew up, 20 miles outside the remotest village in 1950s Pondoland. Home was a trading station, where my father dealt in general goods and fattened cattle. Life was tough but it was good, and before my schooldays, my only friends were young Pondo boys from the local community. My first language was Xhosa, and my first love was cricket. In the context of our modern South African society, it was the ideal upbringing. Somehow though, horses were always destined to intervene in my life. Ever since I sat on a potty, I had a Duff’s Turf Guide in my hands, and I practised my riding skills on a sweet-natured mare called Gift. This was the life, and it’s what we called “home”.
My mother knew both the fascinations and the pitfalls of the turf. It is about dreams, rather than probabilities. It involves risk, physical and financial. And here we have touched on a part of its greatness, one of the reasons for all the lore and the literature. All great sport involves putting something on the line. All great sport demands some pain, the element of mortal chance, ritualised codes of conduct. That is why racing, rugby and cricket have spawned such great writing. That is why jogging has not, and remains forever a middle class fad.
My father had a different view. He felt that flawed people were more interesting than saints, so that the outrageous Randolph Churchill seemed a richer character than his canonised father. He taught me to know stock. He had an infallible eye. He knew that some faults and blemishes didn’t matter too much, and that others, like straight shoulders and shallow girths, were the road to poverty. He taught me about pedigrees, but he knew that a pedigree was just a piece of paper. You had to feed a horse to make that pedigree run. Sometimes that pedigree would not run, no matter what you fed it. He also taught me the art, a gentle art in this case, of persuading people of the virtues of owning a racehorse.
The hamlet of Lusikisiki was a hub of civilization in those days: we even had a resident doctor. It was a melting pot of tribes, of cults and cultures, a tiny metropolis in a distant world. The one thing about which there was no argument, was religion. You were either Catholic, or you were Protestant. The village hall, which doubled as a “flick” house as well as the local boxing gym, still stands. Catholic funerals were sometimes held there, along with the St Patrick’s Night Ball. I once heard somewhere that the Gosses were either “devout Catholics or confirmed alcoholics”. Our branch was Protestant, and I guess that’s why in 1820, my settler namesake, Michael, forsook the Emerald Isle.
The railway goods shed is still there too, its corrugated iron walls shot through with rust. Pigeons look down proprietorially from the roof spars, and the floor is carpeted with their feathers. The cemetery is east of the village. The Catholic section is hard up against the fence on the eastern side. The Protestants are hard up against the western fence. Between the two is a gap of perhaps 50 yards, which this afternoon, is populated by three non-denominational pied crows, lazing about in the sun. There wasn’t much more to Lusiksiki besides the local watering hole, the “Royal”, the cricket pitch and the racecourse. But it was home.
You wouldn’t recognise our little ‘dorp’ these days. It is a frenetic, aromatic, run-through-the- bushes trading post, scruffy on the inside, bleak on the outside. Twenty-four hours of this kind of energy, makes you long for your mother. Yet it produced the owner of the 1946 Durban July winner, which in turn planted the seeds for eight National Breeders’ titles. And still, it was home.
Beyond cricket, the one thing that thrived in our country villages, was horseracing. In addition to blessing the races, the Catholic fathers even provided the bookmakers. My grandfather taught my father to love the game, and my father taught me to do the same. Dad won a race at Matatiele one day, and doing a little arithmetic as the truck floated us home, he reckoned he’d paid out nearly as much in slings, gratuities and effervescent note-shoving, as he’d taken in prize money. It never bothered him at all. He was a racing man: damn the arithmetic. The same day, a partnership of ten had won a R600 race, and promptly spent R700 on framed photographs of the finish.
Our isolation was no cure for the racehorse “disease”. I remember vividly the six-hour, three-puncture dirt road journey to the Durban July, through the “racing” suburbs of Clairwood and Montclair. These places were all about the South Africa of that era, a land of beef, wool, sugar and flat-topped flamboyant trees. Here was a pastoral enclave which smelt of the country, even if it was within walking distance of the inner city. The produce of the hinterland ended up here, wool from the sandstone hills of East Griqualand, fat lambs from the Natal Midlands, and bullocks from the verdant valleys of Mooi River. Here were wool stores, the headquarters of the Woolbrokers Federation, the sugar terminal, great brick edifices built for the ages, and long warehouses crammed with hides, the stiff pelts of sheep, cattle, jackals and rabbits. Everywhere there were racing yards.
Despite my mother’s protestations, I was smitten, a victim for life of the racehorse drug. When I was fifteen and suffering from an allergy, my father took me to a specialist in Durban, who scratched my arm and exposed it to the toxins from horse hair, feed and hay. My arm reacted to everything. “That’s alright”, the doctor said, “all you have to do to be free of this for the rest of your life, is stay away from horses and stables”. Outside, as we walked up the Marine Parade, I turned to my dad and said “We’ve done our dough”.
For all its other attractions and its proximity to the Wild Coast, Lusikisiki was not great farming country. Sometimes it was feast, most times it was famine. For a few of the earliest years, God, even if he was a Catholic, smiled on old “Siki”. For a while, farmhouses and trading stations sprang up till there were some that were in sight of each other. Then there were years of locusts, internecene riots, droughts and dust storms. The proverb was wrong: the rain didn’t always follow the plough. But it was still home.
That’s why, when our turn came, we did what my dad had taught us. Good ground, good water and a good climate, are the “not-negotiables” of good horse country. Toss in good people, and you find yourself in Mooi River. Summer in some parts of the horse-rearing world means dust and a blazing sun that gives off a white glare. Summer at Summerhill is sublimely warm. There is always moisture in the soil, the grass holds a generous tinge of the green, and the clover stands to attention. Here there’s no need for farmers to struggle with stringy merino wethers; you can run five big Friesian cows to the hectare, without difficulty. Things grow. This is the Tipperary of the South. Kind country, paddocks bordered with clipped hedges of Drakensberg privet or sweet-smelling may, poplars, planes and liquid ambers along the farm lanes, old oaks encrusted with lichen around the farmhouses. Horses thrive here, partly because the land is generous, but also because the men and women who raise them, are stockmen. Unlike their counterparts in the cheque-book world you read about in overseas magazines, where buying a nomination to the hottest stallion in town is thought to be the panacea for breeding a good horse, these people live with their horses. They are not just pedigree pages, they are flesh and blood.
Like me, my wife comes from a background of toil at the grindstone, of modest living and hard habits. As the eldest child in a Catholic family of seven, she left school early to lessen the burden on a prolific father. Like us though, old Stanley Harrison is a die-hard racing man of the Nelson Mandela vintage. And like the rest of the Summerhill family, for the past thirty-five years, he’s enjoyed calling this place “home”.