Senor Santa / Leigh Willson (p)

Senor Santa / Leigh Willson (p)


We don’t remember a faster racehorse in our lifetime.

If you happen to be passing the Summerhill stallion barn, you can’t miss the Hero’s Acre, a long narrow strip of good land on the left hand side of the road to D Block. The dappled light of winter shines down on the tombstones of our fallen heroes, names like, Northern Guest, Home Guard, Liloy, Coastal, Fard, Rambo Dancer, Stronghold, Cataloochee and Bankable whose place in this holy patch owes its existence to the immensity of their achievements. This morning, we added the name of Senor Santa to an honour roll remembered by Lawrence Binyon’s perfect verse, inscribed on the headstone at the top end of the cemetery.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Senor Santa’s story is straightforward: he earned his place at Summerhill because he happened to be the best racing son of the best stallion ever to stand here. He earned it too, because he happened to one of the “nicest” guys in racing. Strange for a fellow who cobbled together as many seven Group One victories in a five season campaign. That’s just scratching the surface though, because it belies the fact that his Group One victories extended from 1000 to 1600 metres, and they were earned at the height of a golden era of South African speed merchants. They say you can’t give start in a 1000 metre sprint, but Senor Santa did so every time he faced the starter, and we wonder whether he ever passed third gear running them down from the back of the pack. They also say that “nice guys” come second in life, but here again, he was the golden exception. Then they said he wouldn’t get the 1600 metres of the Germiston November Handicap and they left him out, hence his famous match race with the winner of that year’s event, Northern Princess, ironically a daughter of his own sire Northern Guest. His drawing power was such that on a day when there was a cricket test at Kingsmead, a surfing international at North Beach and the usual distractions of New Year’s Day, Senor Santa packed them into Greyville for the “match” so that only the July outpointed him for attendance. Truth is, whatever they said, he said otherwise.

He was 29 when Dr Bechard saved him this morning from the agony of the arthritis that finally got him, and the only humane thing we could do was to end it all as gently and as kindly as we could.

Senor Santa loved this place. His looks and his demeanor told you so. He used to wander up, brushing his creamy hooves through the clover, head down, his eyes soft and benign, to ask you what you wanted. Tony Rivalland will tell you he was always like that, even as a juvenile. In his dotage, he was as relaxed as the former sheep shearer up at the foreman’s house. We don’t know about you, but we don’t remember a faster racehorse in our lifetime. We remember the day he “rolled” the pride of the nation in the Computaform. Perhaps we should say “days,” because he did it again, and again.

He was always the picture of composure, unfussed by the circus pressing on the parade ring fence. We remember him swinging his great hips so that the imprint of his hind foot would land about 30 centimetres ahead of that left by the front foot. Danehill did it like that, so did Sadler’s Wells, and those that do it this way usually have an unusually long stride at the gallop. The truth about this game though, is that when horses win good races, they always look better to us watchers. We see things we didn’t when they were losing.

We dismiss faults as trifling issues of cosmetics. There was so much to like about Senor Santa: he gave us many opportunities to see him this way.

Racehorses are explosive, hot-blooded creatures. That’s the way we’ve moulded them: imposing, powerful, fast; very fast, some of them, and because of it, prone to brittleness; noble; intelligent, yet when they’re startled, alarmingly implacable. Horsemen will tell you, they’re like elephants when it comes to memory, with little faith in the unknown. If they trust you though, they’ll take on the world for you, even a brick wall.

You don’t own their trust, you earn it, and we start that process here the moment they’re born. First impressions come from their mums as well as their handlers, and if you’re wanting sensible, uncomplicated racehorses, you’d better have sensible, uncomplicated staff. Problem is, gestation in the thoroughbred is an extended affair, and the next child needs everything the mother can give. At five months, it’s time for separation, for the mare to concentrate her resources on the foal she’s carrying, and for someone to take over as role-model. That’s where the “Old Timers”, the Senor Santas, come in.

Without wishing to distract you, we should start with a confession. We revere our champions, we admire our battlers, and they’re as heroic to us as Patrick Lambie is to the Sharks. For those that’ve upheld the name, that brought home the silver and made sure of Championships, there’s a place at Summerhill when their racing days are over. They come home to mentor the kids, they step up in place of the “mums” when the weaning takes place; they are the providers of decorum, the pacifiers and the high priests, and just occasionally, they’ll show the youngsters what made them as good as they were.

When he wasn’t looking after the babies, he shared a meadow with some other old stalwarts; Hear The Drums won more races for Peter Fabricius than any other racehorse in history. To do that, he had to pass the record of Sentinel, another graduate of these old paddocks. Like the “Senor”, his forte’ was speed, buckets of it. Unlike the Senor, he did it in spite of his engineering. Now he lived with greatness, where Senor Santa was the boss. Just occasionally, the Senor would bite him hard on the rump, leaving parallel marks resembling a railway line. The “drummer” would flinch, but he wouldn’t retaliate; he was living with greatness, remember, and it came at a price.

Farwell old friend, rest well, you’ve earned it. This evening, your legion of fans and your mates on the farm, will remember you.

summerhill stud, south africa

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Linda Norval 27 (0) 33 263 1081
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