In a sport in which a week can be a long time, twenty six years is like a lifetime. What seems obvious today, might’ve been inconceivable then. It was. Imagine a world in which today’s most popular landscape in racehorse marketing, Ready To Run sales, was as vacant as the moon, where a King and a Queen, a Princess and her princely consort was, at best, a daydream of the “plebs”. Imagine a sale whose origins were the shade of the old oak tree outside the farm office, a few hay bales for an auctioneers’ rostrum and an assembly of customers outnumbered by the farm staff and the sales organisers.
Yet somehow, the Ready To Run always had an air of destiny to it. Among the gathering that day, was the world’s most recognisable golfer, Gary Player; a pair of the planet’s great 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.
We are distracted. In those early years, the candidates were housed in the stone-clad rotunda of the Final Call barn, boxes with great hinges cast by a blacksmith. The place had mood; when the sale was over and the roar of the bar and the chant of the auctioneers had died, the cats came out. They stretched languorously, changing their positions only to follow the last of the sun. You heard the rustle of straw, the sigh of a yearling at rest and the whinny from one who sees his paddock-mate of the spring sold, and taken away. There is a sense of peace and timelessness here, a foil to the bustle and bluster, the frantic one-upmanship of the sale.
In the soft light and the chill air that passes for a Mooi River morning these days, the youngsters are saddling for morning work. The light through the trees is fractured and filtered, and a farrier’s hammer taps the finishing touches to a loose shoe. This is the delicate cameo of a racing yard. The smell of liniment on the colt’s legs, the clatter of hooves as Michael Booysens calls them to mount, the same routines that gave us the likes of Igugu, Imbongi, Bold Ellinore, Hear The Drums, Pierre Jourdan, Fisani, the Gold Cup heroes Desert Links and Cereus,and the Champion juveniles, Imperial Despatch, Hot Guard, Spook and Diesel and Carnadore. In a matter of minutes we’re watching the string cantering up the twelve furlongs of the”“Imperial Despatch”, the best piece of private turf on the African continent, a ritual that dates back to the days when Generals Botha and Joubert exchanged their epaulettes in the guardian shadow of Nthaba Nqumo. You could be anywhere in the civilised world, and if it weren’t for the plastic bridles and the grooms in “guccis”, it could be any time in the past 100 years.
Turffontein, by contrast, 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 quartet 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 unravelled 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 a 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”.
Linda Norval 27 (0) 33 263 1081
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