Once a year, Cheryl and I embark on our annual "marketing" pilgrimage to Mauritius to promote the virtues of our Summer Ready To Run sale on the farm. Mauritians have displayed great resilience as customers of the sale, and since good fortune has thus far been the regular companion of its graduates, finding a few willing accomplices each year is not terribly difficult. Which betrays the truth about our visit: it doesn't take up the full fortnight to fulfill the mission, even if it takes plenty of stamina and a good supply of "antacid" to cope with the zealous hospitality of our ever-gracious hosts. In this respect, there are none kinder than the former Turf Club stewards, Jean Marc Ulcoq and Alain Tennant and their wives, Clotilde and Annick.
This time, for the first time, we have our grandchildren, Hannah and Zoe, in tow, neither of whom have slept much since they first glimpsed the deep green of their gleaming new passports. So the social calendar starts with the sunrise, and as each day draws to an end, it's only a matter of changing gear and the "age" of the conversation in order to take on fresh company. I guess going home will be like taking a holiday.
The one thing young people do, is energise, and they remind you of the vigour of your own youth. Our 05h30 departure for the Champ de Mars on Tuesday and the sight of what could have been the contestants of a regular "mid-weeker" at home (so many are "South Africans") recalled my days as a student at Stellenbosch and the first time I'd ever presided over a little "discretionary" cash. What brought me to this point was the inveterate verve with which Mauritians go about their punting, and my own collection as a student of vouchers associated with future events. You see, I had a bit of "spare" generated courtesy of a rugby scholarship, cricket coaching at Paarl Boys' High and tutorial lectures in Xhosa, and I soon realised that speculating on the ponies was outstandingly the most entertaining and potentially rewarding endeavour I could apply these meagre surpluses to.
The local bookmaker was a colourful fellow by the name of Piet Louw, a great pal of one Syd Laird the legend, though "Oom Piet" would prefer to be labelled a former owner (or lessee) of the fabled Colorado King. "The King", for those old enough to know, was a winner of the Cape Derby and the Durban July, before scooping the Hollywood Gold Cup from under the noses of 40,000 mesmerised Californians. Piet was a trusting man who not only opened a credit account designed, I am sure, to keep me in his debt, but he also taught me that it was no accident that the specialist racing "dailies" in every country where bookmakers form a futures market, are more forward-looking, informative and vital than elsewhere. Little did he realise that in this revelation, I would soon apply this "vitality" to my own advantage in keeping him in my debt. His reasoning was that a "tote" punter with the foresight to select a juvenile to win the following year's Guineas has no means of expressing his opinions in terms of odds. Even on the day of the event, he claimed the coupling of horses for betting purposes was outmoded; simply because they came from the same stable, an investor's freedom of choice was severely inhibited. I wouldn't call "Oom Piet" a monopolist, but I have to confess his propaganda (and his association with "The King", of course) guaranteed my loyalties.
Win or lose, every punter recalls with relish the occasions when he beat the market through observation, information, intuition, luck or whatever. The truth is, with the scant means at my disposal, I simply couldn't afford to be a loser. There was a faint element of the first ingredient, a bit of the second and more of the third in the inspiration for my "tenner" on Sentinel to beat In Full Flight in the 1974 Guineas, invested six weeks or so before the "off". Likewise, when on "varsity vac" in my home village of Lusikisiki, I received somehow the "morning of" calamity that Bill Williamson had been "jocked off" Roberto in favour of Lester Piggott for that afternoon's English Derby. Knowing that the "Long Fellow" already had eight Derby scalps to his credit, I repaired as quick as the breeze would carry me to the one bloke in town who'd entertain a last minute flutter without the means to lay it off: Father Eric was the only Catholic priest I knew with the papal authority to both bless a race meeting and thereafter to hold money on its outcome. Or so his Irish eminency told me, and in the end, there was nothing a few minutes in the "confessional" couldn't cure, anyway.
There was a stage at which I was sorely tempted to take up "Oom Piet's" offer to act as one of his clerks on the course. I knew of course, that doing so would be a serious infringement on the terms of the scholarship which the late Danie Craven had so generously conferred upon me, mainly as it would clash occasionally with my responsibilities to the "Maties" rugby team, but as it turned out, the saving grace was my shorthand. Or the lack of it. In the time it took Miss Lindeman to complete the five furlongs of the Kenilworth straight against the southeaster, I could, I claimed, just about write "They're off" and read it back. But fluent I was not.
Another old friend among the commercial elite of Stellenbosch in those days, was the outfitter Pikkie Bloemaert, from whence we acquired the kit that befitted our representative sporting codes. As regular as I was as a clothing customer, I was probably even more prolific as a "pawn" debtor. It wasn't Pikkie's business to lend money, nor did he ever profit by it, but for a desperate student in whom he had some misplaced trust, he would always help out. I, in turn, insisted on securing my borrowings (usually incurred late on Saturdays when an impending date, arranged after bank closure, demanded a small loan). My late grandmother had graciously entrusted me with the custodianship of my late grandfather, Pat's silver cigarette case (he of the late Durban July winner, St Pauls), bearing the family crest – a dove carrying an olive branch (all Irishmen are descended from the Kings of Ireland) and the legend "The hand that will do no harm." That silver case was the first lesson I ever had in the business of leveraging a bit of value out of an asset, and it was in and out of Pikkie's shop like the cuckoo on a Swiss clock. The other lesson I quickly learned in that unpromising financial climate, was that punting needed to be selective, and profitable.
Amateur racing was alive and well in the form of the Cape Hunt and Polo Club in those days, an institution that had spawned the lofty likes of Terrence Millard, Ralph Rixon and in a slightly more contemporary era, Mike Bass. Fresh out of the army (it was every able-bodied 18 year old male's duty then to sacrifice a year or two in the nation's military cause), besides my yearning to try my hand at amateur racing, we were required to renew our military skills from time to time by attending "refresher" camps. On the racing front, I'd secured an understanding from "Oom Piet" to ride an ageing gelding whom he assured me was somehow related to Colorado King, and which he said would be available "soon". On the military front, I was mustered into a motley crew of two artists, an accountant, a builder, a bus driver, an engineer, a mechanic, a professional thief, a schoolmaster, a "spiv" and a window cleaner. Not that the peacetime thief revealed his job description: "I put myself down as a handyman" he confided one wet Western Cape Wednesday, at the height of racing at nearby Milnerton, "without telling 'em what I was handy at!"
We were assembled in squads of five with the driver (me) of the stretcher party vehicle sharing responsibilities on arrival at what was a rehearsal for an "incident". Thus, while other of our countrymen were either performing or preparing for more heroic contributions on the Namibian border, we placed the lives of the local citizenry in greater peril than the enemy had yet achieved, by speeding through the Blaauberg rush-hour precinct on interminable exercises. Horizontal in imaginary rubble, brave volunteers wore labels indicating the injuries to which we were required to apply first aid.
One of the first "casualties" was an unfortunate lady who, according to label, had suffered a severed artery, requiring a tourniquet. The crew did a good job up to the moment of placing her on a stretcher. In their anxiety to deliver the mock invalid to a waiting ambulance with maximum speed, they stumbled and tipped her out. Since, from the time we'd delivered her to "emergencies" at Tygerberg, she was in far better hands than our own, we did not wait for the diagnosis, but from the angle at which the "cannon bone" deviated from the knee, it seemed plain there was something in common with what we'd seen on the odd occasion at the racecourse.
I'd scarcely returned to my residence, Simonsberg, when I was summoned by the "huisvader", one Van Zyl Slabbert (future Leader of the Opposition) who dispensed the news that there was a delivery for me in the front driveway. Now you should know that the only association with racing known to Simonsbergers was an initiation process for "first years" called "the Met', yet here, large as life, was a haggard old gelding, supposedly related to some former hero of the Durban July. His name, "Gift" harked back to a horse of identical nomenclature and questionable virtues from my childhood, and I have to say, standing here before me in a ragtag of a headcollar, was a fellow no more assuring in his presence than the one I'd grown up with. While he had a headcollar, he had no saddle. Neither did I.
In that moment, I longed to be back in the rain with that motley crew on the outskirts of Milnerton. Nonetheless, this was a gift from "Oom Piet" (second only to the one from God), and it behoved some perseverance. The driver gave me a leg-up and wished me luck; within the minute we were grazing headstones across the unfenced churchyard of the Moederkerk, and an oncoming motorist obviously hadn't appreciated the impermanence of horse and man when the latter is riding bareback and without great skill. Back on course down the gravelled Coetzenberg road, every object encountered, represented a new experience in the hitherto sheltered life of my partner. So much for the Cape Hunt and Polo Club. For the time being, at least
This is what happens to the mind in the presence of azure waters at the height of the Mauritian summer. As they once said, "only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun".