When Sebueng trotted up by 2.5 at Greyville towards the end of last week, we should’ve known something was cooking. This coming weekend the former Premier of KZN, Dr. Zweli Mkhize, hosts an old-style country race meeting at his farm near Pietermaritzburg’s Table Mountain, and we’d already agreed with His Majesty King Letsie that Saturday would be the filly’s swansong, notwithstanding Michael Roberts’ misgivings about testing her over this fresh patch of naked veldt. While that debate will rage on for the next couple of days, it’s probable Sebueng’s exertions have earned her a reprieve.
The Greyville celebration wasn’t the end of the Royal “connect” though: earlier in the week, the Monaco royals announced the birth of twins to Her Serene Highness Princess Charlene, the former Charlene Wittstock of Olympic swimming fame. Her Benoni-based Dad, Mike Wittstock is nothing if he is not a true-blue racing fan, with a history in the game that dates to his school days at Hamilton in the erstwhile Rhodesia. He represents the Monaco Syndicate, which co-owns the regally-bred and aptly-named Big Bucks with us and our old pal of many decades, Jeremy Jonsson. For the record, His Majesty is the patron of the Ready To Run Sale, inaugurated at Summerhill 28 years ago, while the Princess is the patron of the Ready To Run Cup, which made headlines last month as the richest race in African history.
Our Ready To Run team always thought Big Bucks would be good, and Geoff Woodruff has worked hard to make sure she’s good. On Saturday at the Vaal, she showed us just how good she is, with a command performance in the last furlong, stretching away by two despite a bit of a speed “wobble” in the closing stanza. We’ll not spend the rest of our lives waiting for her to follow up, though for the Monaco Syndicate, it was instant gratification as they were back in the winner’s enclosure a race later.
As weekends go though, this one was for the entire nation. While Cheryl and I were beating it up at Bernard Kantor’s famous annual bash at Stardust (a quite extraordinary evening of revelry in the class of the best party I’ve been to, and worth a visit to their website www.stardustcapetown.com for an inkling of what it takes to make it thus,) Branden Grace was on the verge of beating the world for the silver at the Dunhill Golf Championships at Leopard Creek; meanwhile, on the eastern seaboard the Blitzbokke were a night away from trouncing the All Blacks in the World Sevens tournament at the Nelson Mandela Bay stadium, a week after a similar demolition job in Dubai. While they have their big heroes, not every hero has to do the “big hero” thing; the Blitzbokke do the simple things over and over again, and never give up, seldom knowing they’re even doing it. You have to be South African to know how sweet a double-drubbing of an All Black rugby team is!
Yet the weekend was far from done: last evening, a medical student from the University of the Orange Free State, Rolene Strauss, took the world literally by storm when she became the first since Anneline Kriel (1974) and Penny Coelen (1958) to be crowned the planet’s most stunning woman at the Miss World pageant in London; we’re not only about brawn and beef hey, we’re also about beauty!
A notable absentee, particularly at a Bernard Kantor gathering, was one Markus Jooste, who just a week before had masterminded the biggest corporate acquisition in Johannesburg Stock Exchange history. His complaint was an appendectomy, which is something most of us undergo as a result of high living: I had mine out at the tender age of nine, and while it might be argued that the “Black Bull” had not yet clocked up the mileage on his “high-living” odometer, it’s more likely it takes of the order of R65 billion to get him into (and out of) hospital.
The great thing about our game, is there’s new history made every day, and it’s never short of a good story. A few hours in the company of Ricky Maingard is always well spent, whether it’s the intrigues of politics, a bit of Dick Francis-style skulduggery, or just a first class yarn. His engineering background means he’s always been something of an innovator, and I first got to know him when he kicked off his training career on private gallops across his neighbour’s backyards, including my brother Pat’s, in the erstwhile rural locality of Glen Furness (now part of the greater Kyalami estate). In those days, his charges included the exceptional fillies Run For Lily, Fairy Ring and Rhapsody’s Footsteps, all Group One calibre, so heaven knows why Michael Roberts is worrying about running a two-time winner like Sebueng over a similar stretch of dirt!
It wasn’t going to take a man of Maingard’s ilk long to get a champion like Wolf Power under his watch, and ever since I represented him in the sale of that great animal to the USA, “Maxime” and I have seldom missed a “catch up”. Last week, he made history (and a few waves!) again. Former champion jockey Felix Coetzee and I were in his box at the Champ de Mars in Mauritius, shortly before the main race on International Jockeys day, when the trainer left to saddle up. Two minutes later, he was back, the fastest saddling job, we thought, on record. It turns out, he’d complained to the stewards after the 4th race that his rider was inebriated, and wanted him stood down for the 6th, where he was scheduled to throw a leg over one of Maingard’s prized possessions, Desert Sheik. Now we all know that Ahmed Ajtebi is not only a retained rider for Dubai’s “Number One”, Sheikh Mohammed, but as a good Muslim boy, he’s bound to be a non-drinker, so we’ll desist from suggesting he was drunk, but he was certainly under the weather, from what we know not. In the event, the authorities declared him ok to ride, while Maingard feared he might endanger not only his horse but the entire field, and he declined to saddle up or provide instructions, leaving it to his assistant. There’s a certain inevitability to these things, so at this point I nudged Felix, suggesting we were about to witness new history, which, as it turned out, we were. While there wasn’t much help from the saddle, Desert Sheik ran like the good horse we know him to be, and in a moment of timing perfection, got up in the shadow of the post. In that instant, our friend Ricky filled his pockets as the co-owner of the winner, though the authorities relieved him of Rs50,000 a few hours later for their interpretation of the events. You see, it’s not all plain sailing in the Ile Maurice!
Whilst these things don’t normally warrant a mention as crabbed age creeps up on us, for the first time in many years I celebrated a birthday away from home. My bride of 37 years and I sidled down the east coast of Mauritius last Tuesday to the little-known village of Roche Noir, something of a spiritual home for our family dating back almost two decades. Good friends are the “not-negotiables” of a good birthday, and two of our oldest from that part of the world, Alain Tennant (he of the 1991 Turf Club visit to Summerhill) and his wife Annik, made it one to remember. Besides owning a deadly eye for a good horse and the memory of an elephant on the sport’s history, Alain is a man for an occasion. In half an hour his turbo-charged “Nobody” found an isolated peninsular in the azure warmth of a sea more resemblant of Bombay Sapphire than the Indian Ocean; the motors had scarcely died, when the cork popped on an ice-bathed bottle of “Moet”, and with an accompaniment of a Gallic-inspired spread of local cooking, voila! It was good to be 64! Imagine how tough it was getting up at 5:30 this morning for work.