(Photo : Heather Morkel)
“Our good friend Wally Brits departed this earth on Thursday,
and he went too soon and too suddenly.”
Summerhill CEOSomehow, when good people go, you never quite fill the hole. Our good friend Wally Brits departed this earth on Thursday, and he went too soon and too suddenly. There are not enough Wally Brits’ in this world, and we shall all be the poorer for his going. One thing you can be sure of though, is that when Wally reaches the “pearly gates”, they’ll know he’s arrived. Besides being one of racing’s great sports, when Wally entered the room, there were no half measures. His love of life, a naughty sense of humour, and a never-say-die attitude was all-Wally, larger than life and a racing man from his socks to an enviable mop of locks. And if he was your mate, he was your mate for life, not that it mattered much to him if you chose otherwise.
Wally was able to own a sizeable string of racehorses because he made a success of his other life; he was able to buy the horses he wanted, the Cookie Monsters of this world, because when he went to work, he made it work; and when he played, he played hard. Wally Brits was not the sort of man you’d employ in the belief you could manage him, and he wasn’t the kind of man you’d tell to leave. He was his own kind of guy, and that’s why he was his own kind of success. If the good Lord intends taking him in hand when he gets up there, he’d be advised to lead him in a head collar with a snaffle bit, and as he did when Liloy arrived, he would do well to carry a piece of polypipe in the other. Between now and this time next year, he won’t get a better man than Wally Brits, and we and his horses are the losers for it.
(Photo : Summerhill Archives)
As it happens, the 9th September marked the 36th year of my Dad’s passing, and as I said at the outset, you never quite close the hole. Times like these remind us of our upbringing, and thinking back, there are two features that stand out. One had to do with values. Ours was an old pioneer family which had survived the rigours of the remotest place in South Africa, through hard work, hand-me-downs and a sense of adventure. The story books tell you, growing up is fun. For us, it was.
The other was horses. The Gosses and horses go back well into our Irish ancestry and my grandfather founded his stud at The Springs in the shadow of the Great Depression. There was no cash among our hand-me-downs, just old relationships, and the disease that afflicts us all in the horse game. Dad was big on the value of relationships, forever reminding us that transactions make turnovers, but people run the world.
My mother was a remarkable woman, but the one thing I could never quite understand was her reservation about our sport. She knew both the fascinations and the pitfalls of the turf: it’s about dreams, rather than probabilities. It involves risk, physical and financial, and here we’ve 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, ritualized codes of conduct.
My father on the other hand, had a different view. He felt that flawed people were more interesting than saints, and if you wanted to be a friend of Bryan Goss’, you needed to have character. It didn’t matter where you came from or who you were, there was little point in a lengthy conversation with him if it didn’t involve character. That’s why, if you called at the family home for a sundowner of an evening, you felt overdressed if you were in much else besides fishing gear. That’s why Tony Oats, the local telephone operator and the bus driver, Derek Wewege were “regulars”: they were good men with a good story, and they were good with a fishing rod. And that’s why sportsmen, like Bill Pohl, cricketing legend Roy McLean and Gilbey’s chairman Alan Bell, were always welcome at his watering hole, despite their exalted status. Men like Harold Almon, his solicitor; Terrence Larkan, his cattle-speculating partner; and Bruce Chapman, who’d supplied the family tractors for a half century and more, were his “everyday” mates. These friendships went with him to the grave.
Importantly, my Dad 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.
I’m not sure he would’ve approved of me becoming a stud farmer, because he worked too hard encouraging me to be a lawyer, but we have to remember that our parents’ generation grew up in the shadows of two World Wars and the greatest depression the world’s ever known; everybody wanted the best for their kids. Too many people he’d known had gone to the wall in the horse business, and with the natural inclination of parents to kick for touch when it comes to their children’s security, he would’ve wanted nothing but the best for my brother, Pat and me. That said, he knew that despite my mother’s protestations, I was smitten with the racehorse bug. From the time I first sat on a potty, I had a Duff’s Turf Guide in my hands, and I praticised my riding skills on a sweet-natured mare called Gift. When I was 15 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 horsehair, feed and hay. My arm reacted to everything. “That’s all right”, 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”.
The old man was a winner though, and just about everyone who knew him tells me he would’ve been a proud visitor to Summerhill today. While the championships would’ve pleased him no end, the one thing he would really have been proud of, is the atmosphere, the smiles on peoples’ faces and the sense of purpose and industry that pervades the place. These things point to a team that’s secure in its own skin, that sees South Africa not only for what it is, but for what it can be. He would’ve been proud to know too, that while some people have much to lose in defeat, in its attempt to meet the aspirations of its people, Summerhill was willing to venture everything for victory.