It snowed here this week, which means there must be something out of the ordinary in the offing. While snow in November is not unique, you have to reach back a long way into the memory bank to recall its last happening. That many years ago, we took a quick excursion to the Weenen Game Reserve in the company of a couple of old rugger pals, Barry Clements, Dave Mitchell, John Le Roux and Jerry Watt (all of them former "Stormers" and "Ikeys" of the early 70s in the company of our other mates Ian McCallum, Derek Van Den Bergh, Dougald McDonald, Steve Hillock and Bruce Cloete). From a baking 44 degree Mtunzini picnic site, we gazed west onto a snow-decked Giant's Castle. In an attempt to date the occasion and give us a sense of how unusual November snow is, we all still had a bit of hair in those days, so it was a heck of a long time ago. While you wouldn't want to compare it with the scarcity of the police-escorted arrival of American Pharoah at Coolmore's Ashford division in Lexington Kentucky on Tuesday, our "out-of-the-blue" happening involved the delivery of a man we've had our eyes on for a while as a young stallion prospect of the future.
The only Group One-winning son of Dubawi in continental Africa, we fancied Willow Magic long before his sire led the world's 2015 stallion rankings with 9 individual Group One winners and well ahead of yesterday's announcement that at £225.000, Dubawi would be the world's second most expensive stallion. And we did so for nothing in particular but Willow Magic's masculine bearing and his excellent juvenile and springtime sophomore form. While there were others who grabbed the early headlines among his contemporaries, come the end of his two year old season, Willow Magic was awarded not for his Group One victory alone in the South African Nursery, but as much for his consistency among the top echelon of his generation. That he'd trained on and franked his trainer's unshakeable belief in him was clear from his dominant performance in the Highveld summer's biggest three year old clash, The Dingaans, and the fact that by season's end, he was the highest rated three year old of the year.
While plans for Willow Magic's future are yet to be cast in concrete, he joined our team today in the sort of shape we've come to expect of horses from champion trainer Sean Tarry's yard. He's all "man" this fellow, and come Stallion Day next year, there'll be plenty of cooing from the female brigade on the banks of the School of Excellence's amphitheatre.
On a different level, America's "Pharaoh" took a motorcade escort from Bob Baffert's training yard to his new home at Ashford. He's the best news American racing has had since Affirmed's Triple Crown almost four decades ago, and he must be the first racehorse in a long while to warrant the company of a trooper's platoon on the day of his retirement. In the 37 year gap since Affirmed was anointed, something shifted in racing's narrative; the longer the game went without an identifiable, iconic champion that owned the hearts, that grabbed the attention of the nation, the deeper the yearning for a horse of a generation to come along and hit the reset button which would restore racing to its rightful place as the king of sports.
At times, that narrative seemed to be contrived, even desperate. If you've been going to work with racehorses every day or plied your trade in the industry, you begin to think that the notion of a single horse "saving" the sport was not grounded in reality. It's also folly to reach back for the glory days, because, for all its traditions, the call for a return to the way things used to be does little for its growth and its progress.
Yet earlier this year, the long-awaited, larger-than-life gift horse turned up at last, and he not only swept the Triple Crown in imperious style, but he turned up again in Monmouth's Haskell Invitational for a geared-down two-and-a-half length romp before the only set-back of his career in Saratoga's Travers.
On Saturday though, the real "Pharaoh" turned up again, and his Hall Of Fame conditioner knew that when he saddled him. "I could tell he was full of himself, he was right. I was so worried, I just wanted to make sure everything went just right. I felt extreme pressure. In the paddock, I told Victor he was right today and just to ride him. Down the backside, with the way he was going, I knew from then on, and turning for home, I knew it was all over".
Baffert proclaimed him "the best horse I've ever had. I was crying when he turned for home. I was thinking of my parents. This horse has an angel on his back. He is a gift from God. He had the brilliance, the speed and the personality. He was the perfect racehorse". Amen.
Editor's note. Let's pray for an angel on Willow Magic's back - or at least a bit of magic.
Giant's Castle / Cheryl Goss (p)