Syd Laird with Sea Cottage / Durban Turf Club (p)

Syd Laird with Sea Cottage / Durban Turf Club (p)

When it comes to character, racing can be up there with war and poverty; and besides its horses, its characters are irresistible.
— Extract from the 2014/15 Summerhill Sires Brochure.

As the 1970s moved into the 80s, the bloodstock world became much more than an elegant diversion. It became an international business with a currency of its own. Nothing would be the same again. For that reason, I have favoured the anecdotal over the statistical, on the grounds that stories tell us about character, while statistics can lead to drowsiness. Racing might not always be character-building, but it sure as hell produces plenty of characters.

And here we’ve touched on a part of its greatness, the reason the turf inspires such a depth of stories dating back centuries. Ultimately, racing revolves around two eminently fallible creatures: man with all our vanity, our commonplace avarice and occasional nobility, and an animal of exquisite beauty, though born with a congenital tendency to self-destruct. Racing is good sport, great sport when it’s a contest of champions. It’s not always good business. When it comes to character, it can be up there with war and poverty; and besides its horses, its characters are irresistible.

I was lucky in my student days to know Paulie de Wet. If you were looking for the definition of the master horseman, look no further. Race days honed his competitive juices, they brought out his sartorial graces, and the old “clothes horse” spoke of the thoroughbreds he so clearly adored with an appealing mix of sentiment and intuition. In his later years, his hearing was not what it used to be. But far from being impeded by his partial deafness, he made a virtue of selective hearing, particularly in his entreaties with the fairer ones.

David Payne was my first trainer. I met him too, as a Stellenbosch student on the day his mighty In Full Flight dead-heated with the Hartford colour-bearer, Sentinel, for the Cape Of Good Hope Guineas. As the horses jogged back to scale, the crowd pressed in upon the paddock fence. Sentinel’s trainer Jo Joseph, was a study of septuagenarian bewilderment; Payne by contrast, was the embodiment of the twenty-something-year-old at the threshold of big things. A matronly figure blocking the gate to the winner’s box trilled in that inimitable “Millerton” accent, “If I ever own a horse, that boy’s going to train it.” You wonder what he ever did to deserve that.

We are here today because of a tiny filly called Pagoda. She was the first horse we bought at a sale, and David Payne was handed the reins. She won seven races, a Group One racehorse, and in the words of her trainer, she could “catch swallows”. Or should I say pigeons. Outside of horses, Payne’s great love growing up, was racing pigeons. To little avail, he kept telling me our diminutive conveyance was quick enough to catch his feathered friends. David Payne is a genius. There are few of them in the world, and even fewer who can tell you what makes them one. The day a genius attempts an explanation, he’s probably not one. They live in a world of gifts and intuition, and in the matter of horses, they plum the rich veins of mystery that pervade our sport, without knowing how or why.

In a game where the principals all compete in the same profession, and where success and failure are logged in the newspapers every day, swirling envies inevitably abound. While I was a “Payne” boy, the one man who always shared his insights generously, was Syd Laird. The winner of more Durban Julys than any other man, Syd was bigger than life and an inveterate punter. Life for him, particularly in his early years, was a rollercoaster, gyrating between rippling prosperity and dire poverty; he just couldn’t resist a punt on his own horses. “You can’t let them run naked” was the Laird creed.

It is said that later in life, a heart seizure dropped him at the work track. His colleagues were in panic. The doctor was asked what his chances were: “One in ten, I reckon”. Thought to be unconscious, Syd opened his eyes and took 100 to 10. If he’d died in that moment, it would’ve been akin to absolution. He was a generous benefactor of charitable causes, and though a Catholic himself, subscribed as well to Anglican, Presbyterian and Methodist building funds. Clearly this was one bet he wasn’t leaving to chance.

Thirty years ago, as the vice chair of the Bookmakers Control Committee, I was appointed to the unenviable task of presiding over a disciplinary enquiry involving a technical infringement. The penalties were prescribed by the law: our job was simply to decide the merits. We didn’t have to: the indictee, knowing the consequences, told us not to waste our time with the formalities: he was guilty as charged. The sanction was a year “off”. The man told me not to feel bad about it; the buck stopped with him. We’ve been the firmest of friends ever since. Joe Louis, who lasted a record 11 years as the king of the world’s boxing heavyweights, once defined a champion as one who, having been knocked down and unable to get up, does so. We should hesitate to burden Glanville Gardiner with the careless tag of “champion”, but he is surely the spiritual brother of old Joe. He got up from the canvas, and headed off in a new direction. Glanville’s gifts are not of style, but of character; it wasn’t long, and he was firmly back on his feet.

John Gcaleka was a survivor. He was a descendant of the “first people”, whose ancestors bestrode these plains millennia before the arrival of the first settlers. When the tribal troubles started, the Bushmen were hunted like vermin, to the point that the only visible signs of their existence today are the artworks that adorn the fastnesses of the Drakensberg, the finest examples of indigenous engravings and paintings on earth. What we know about the planet today, these people had long forgotten. The word “survivor” is an understatement. John was ageless, mainly because he couldn’t tell us when he was born, though he was quoted at a spread of 75 to 80 with Hollywood. His face was rotten with character, betraying his forebears refuge in the Kalahari; so lined, it resembled an aerial shot of the Okavango in the dry season. “Gcaleka,” as he liked to be known, was a silent man, occasionally given to stubbornness; a loner in an increasingly crowded world, a man of craft whose works spoke for him better than words. They spoke well. So well in fact, that he was the only member of the farm staff forgiven attendance at the morning roll call.

In one of those public-to-private moments that follow the commissioning of “monuments” at Summerhill, the opening of Gcaleka’s Bridge said as much about the man as it did about his talents. His pride in his dry-wall masterpiece, showed in a tear above the sunny smile that broke across the tundra of his face. For all his wonders, old Gcaleka could sometimes be a tough nut, but when he did things like this, you could forgive him anything.

These tales are the hot coals around which racing people warm their hands on cold winter’s nights. These are the kind of characters that inspired the writings of Banjo Paterson, Damon Runyon, Kipling, Mordaunt Milner and Les Carlyon. They are the irresistible spurs that raise our fingers at auctions, that tickle our spirits when a gamble comes off, and serve as the balm when it doesn’t.

And I simply remind you that their kind are in action at Greyville most Saturdays. No-one with the slightest pretensions to the “higher” things in life, should let them go round naked.

Enquiries :
Linda Norval 27 (0) 33 263 1081
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