When David Mollett commented in his Business Day column a few weeks back, that we'd made a few waves in our time and that our announcement of a R3.85milliion prize for the Emperors Palace Ready To Run Cup in 2014, eclipsing all previous African records, was in the nature of a tsunami, we took it as a compliment. The truth though, is that this is no 'half way' game: seismic innovations in the horse business invoke emotions ranging from ecstasy to agony, if only in the latter case, because envy is part of the human condition. Some complain that trainers will put their horses under too much pressure, others that races of this nature distort the national statistics. To hell with it. We've done our best to lift the game to where it's never been before, and by the way, chasing the big dough on offer didn't seem to have a negative impact on the careers of Igugu, Imbongi, Hollywoodboulevard, Smanjemanje, Pierre Jourdan, Phunyuka, Mannequin, Checcetti, Fisani etc, when their turn came.
Followers of these columns know that racehorses are at the core of our affections, and we've always considered the thoroughbred the noblest creature on earth. Our histories, after all, were wrought alongside one another, in conveyance, combat, competition and companionship. The modern manifestation of that relationship is horse-racing, with human beings in their customary position, on their backs, as they always have been: the thoroughbred of the 21st century is the fastest weight-carrying animal in the world, and England's greatest gift to the animal kingdom.
In all of our endeavours here, we've sought to emphasise this gift to humankind, the grace, the nobility, the intelligence and the courage that epitomises the racehorse, and in promoting its cause to the market, we've attempted to peddle these virtues, more so in the development of the Ready To Run, which was founded right here on the farm. We've tried, and we'd like to think with some success, to develop the sale as an institutional event on the racing calendar, from the gallops with its attendant panel of judges (this Friday, 17th October 10am at Summerhill), to the festivities around the sale itself, and ultimately in the growth of the Cup to its current status as the richest race on the continent. In the process, we introduced the concept to a happy association of Emperors Palace, Phumelela, and the Racing Association, and that's what's taken us to this day.
It needs to be said, and the welfare of our business bears it out, relationships mean an awful lot to us. There was no financial inheritance at Summerhill, but the one thing we did get from our forebears was an understanding that there are no time limits on sound connections. So it is that in 2016, as a family, we will celebrate 100 years with Standard Bank; we'll pop the cork for a fuel supplier that we started out with around then under the name of the Atlantic Fuel and Firing Company, and now, after seven name changes, trades as Engen. One of our business entities is still audited by my grandfather's accounting firm, though we don't know the partners by sight, and we are 'family' with the tractor supplier Pat Goss Snr unearthed in the depths of the Great Depression. It's our intention then, that R3.85 million is not the end, nor is it the beginning of the end. 'Emperors' have predictably elected to keep their boat tied to our wharf, so that we can continue to challenge the other sponsors of the nation's premier events to keep pushing their envelopes, too.
Somehow the Ready To Run always had an air of destiny to it. Among the gathering that first day outside the farm office 28 years ago, was the world's most recognisable golfer, Gary Player; a pair of the planet's great cricketing all-rounders, Michael John Procter and a counterpart from the past, Johnny Watkins; in the company of a brotherhood of polo players was a former Miss World, Penny Rey Coelen. Pure, undiluted class; a precursor to the thoroughbreds to come, perhaps. And a sign that one day maybe, when the reins of government had passed from F.W. de Klerk to Nelson Mandela, it would no longer be just another sale. From now on, it would be an occasion where welcoming speeches would open with 'Their Majesties', where the associated Ready To Run Cup would be prefaced with 'Emperors Palace' and where the prize-money for the graduates would flaunt it as the richest race of its kind in the world.
Turffontein is a different place when the contest for the Ready To Run Cup is staged. The humans become twitchy at the sight of so much money and ceremony. This is no place for cool judgments; it is about speed rather than decorum. In this mounting yard of rising damp, men and horses tend to melt. We went down to wish Mark Dixon well when the big race was inaugurated eight years ago, and he smiled lopsidedly like he'd been a week with the dentist. Trouble is, they forgot to tell Umngazi to be nervous: there may have been greater 'Cup' winners, but in taking down the colours of a trio of Group One performers, few have shown more class.
Horseracing is about running, not walking, and the best thing about the Ready to Run, is you get what you see, not what you think you see. Imbongi had been the unwanted urchin of two salesrings, if only because his father had passed his 'sell-by' date. I'll never forget the look on Ronnie Napier's face the day we watched him gallop across that same piece of turf, in the summer of 2009. Ronnie knew, and I knew: while his true greatness might not have been seized upon in that moment, Imbongi's future was already being wrought. Imperial Despatch preached from the same book in an earlier epoch.
At the height of their trans-Atlantic rivalry, Galileo represented the best of Coolmore stallion-power, Street Cry the best of the Maktoums'. The best runners by either of those stallions on these shores, were graduates of the same 'Ready To Run'. Igugu's story is the stuff of legends, Hollywoodboulevard's one of unfulfilled ambition. If only because she was the first to lower Igugu's colours though, and for all her subsequent glories, 'Hollywood's' epitaph will forever recall her big victory on this biggest of big days. The tote board on the day repeated what the judges had told us at the gallops a full 12 months before: these two might just rank with the best fillies of all time. While Igugu was more of the Classic variety, 'Hollywood' was what you call 'buxom', the type for which a connoisseur would rob a bank. Even a bishop might hold his breath. We were all breathless when it was over.
When Igugu, the best graduate of the 'Emperors' of her generation, met the best of the previous one, Pierre Jourdan, in the continent's greatest contest, the Vodacom Durban July, Greyville racecourse was at its glorious best, mixing as only it can, a smiling dash of Zulu enthusiasm with three centuries of soaring thoroughbred tradition. As they stepped out of the tunnel into the sunshine of the track, there were fifteen millionaires in the parade.
The Greyville circuit is located within a couple of overthrows of the test pitch at Kingsmead cricket ground, but this was absolutely not cricket; the mad scramble at the start resembled more of a Grand Prix than a horserace. In a matter of two minutes, the fairytale unraveled itself. A princess by birth, Igugu was now Queen Of The Turf. Pierre Jourdan carried the number one saddlecloth in an historic Summerhill exacta. It doesn't get better. Not for us, not for the Ready To Run. Yet it might have done, but for the bob of a 'nose' and a single stride that separated Smanjemanje from a repeat performance in the next year's edition. You can't have it all.
What we do have in the 1400 metres of the Ready To Run though, is the richest 85 seconds in sport. Anywhere on the African continent. When the gates slam open on the first Saturday in November, they'll be racing for the best part of R50,000 every second of the journey. And we all know, when money and horses start to run, the cocktail is always 'heady'.