Your arrival at the racecourse in this Indian Ocean paradise is greeted by a grand statue of King Edward VII, erected no doubt to continue the appeasement of the local French settlers, whose government had been displaced by the British. You see, a good harbour and a healthy climate was a sine quo non for a safe sea passage to India, and the encouragement of English sports and habits was part of the rapprochement of the local population following the occupation in 1810.
One thing you can’t beat the Mauritians at, is dates. It’s not only from a love of history, it’s born out of a sense of occasion. You’d expect them all to know that, founded in 1812, the Mauritius Turf Club (MTC) is the second-oldest racing institution in the world, but we’ve met old codgers here who recall the precise day they first went racing, whom they backed and how much they won (not many remember the “losers”.) The fellow at the car rental landed his first wager in May 1975, picked up 80,000 Rupees, paid for his wedding, and was forbidden by his new wife from ever going back. Tough life, when all around you are rabid punters.
While I vividly recall the visit, if only because of the momentous party that celebrated it, the former MTC stewards who made up the first delegation to Summerhill, will tell you it took place in the second week of July 1991, and that it included the indomitable Judge of Appeals, Jacques Vallat, Jackie Harel, the Piat brothers, Francois and Marc, and our friends since that day, Alain Tennant and Edouard Nairac. The man behind the organisation was Michel Nairac, at that time making his name as the island nation’s most famous bloodstocker of all time, and now one of the world’s most accomplished racing administrators.
With so much potential “trade” passing through our front gates, it was inevitable we’d one day “snare” one of them into owning a few mares with us, and I’m told by his wife (probably on account of the sacrifices she’s had to make to accommodate the keep of his horses!) that theirs “happened” in 1993. Jean Marc Ulcoq is nothing if he isn’t the most passionate racing man I know, and besides being one of the game’s most ardent historians, the former chairman of the MTC has performed just about every task a turf club can conjure, clerk of scales, handicapper, horse welfare, starter, you name it, as well as having to deal with the political issues that are part of the patina of the game wherever it’s played, and which are about as “colourful” as they get in the Ile Maurice. For the past fifteen years, he and his gracious wife, Clotilde, have been the international faces of the island’s number one sport at conferences and race meetings wherever they happen, Longchamps, Sha Tin, Randwick or Greyville.
For a country of a mere 1.4million people, the Mauritians maintain a remarkable tradition of racing excellence, fired by deep pockets and fanatical fans, and yesterday’s gathering at the Champ de Mars was another example of what you can do in life, if you put your shoulder and everything else you have, behind it. Another thing you never want to do, is underestimate the quality of their horses: South African racing has a masochistic system of penalising good horses out of the game, and there are plenty of examples of our former stars who’ve found a “second wind” at this tight track in the picture book bowl of the capital city, Port Louis. Most thrive, a few dive, but any top division line-up even on an ordinary Saturday, will feature more than a handful of our Group One performers. So when on an occasion like this, the card speaks of jockeys like Peslier, Soumillon, Parquier, Guyon, Oliver, Lloyd, Fradd, Coetzee, Marwing, they’ve all ridden here before, you know you have a class act on the programme. It was no different yesterday, with some of the most competitive racing I’ve witnessed in some time. You could’ve thrown a blanket over the first four at the end of every one of the eight contests, and for anyone who knows how tight and tricky the contours of the Champ de Mars are, that’s saying something. They have a quirky habit of leaping up and down like they’re on a jumping castle, do the 30,00 in the infield, but when it’s as tight as this, it’s more like a riot.
They have a novel way of resolving the weekend’s revelry here, with the entertainment stretching across both days, interspersed with mass political rallies in between. We go to the polls on Wednesday in Mauritius, and the start of racing is delayed to accommodate the utterances of the politicians. We all know that in developing countries, economics is informed by politics, and it’s no different here, though judging by the presence of the familiar brands, Aspen, Standard Bank, Investec, Woolworths, Pick ‘n Pay and Food Lovers’ Market, you know that this is one place they’ve got the recipe right.
But when the starter called them into line for the “first” at 5 minutes to 2pm this afternoon, it was apparent that even if the Prime Minister was not quite done with the propaganda, the bulk of the island’s population had already migrated to their spiritual home: at 13:45 the gates to the Champ de Mars were officially declared closed. Yes, that’s another thing about the Mauritians: when it comes to dyed-in the-wool, never-give-up racing fans, you’d never bet against them. Not at customs, not the taxi driver, not the hotel receptionist, not even at the supermarket till. Nothing runs “naked” here.