Omar Sharif passed away on Friday at the age of 83. There are some that will brand him a wasted talent, a philanderer and a Lothario, while others, the more romantically-inclined among us, prefer to remember him as the hero of epic movies. Having met him, and knowing how much he loved the game we're in, I have to confess, I am a member of the latter club. If we were all conformists, if we all toed the conventional line, life would be very dull. Yes, he bathed in bubbly, he out-caroused Peter O'Toole, he seduced Hollywood co-stars galore and gambled away millions. In short, the star of Dr Zhivago, Funny Girl, and Lawrence of Arabia brought a smouldering intensity to the screen which captivated some of the world's most beautiful woman.
That said, the disarming gap-toothed smile of the dashing Egyptian star was not quite of the mournful innocence it portrayed: his "naughtiness" earned him a daily slap on the bum from his mother every day till his 14th birthday.
He and his Lawrence of Arabia co-star, Peter O'Toole were Hollywood's delinquent hell-raisers of their generation. To his wining and womanising, Sharif added a third vice he inherited specifically from his mother. He became an inveterate gambler, touring the casino tables of Europe, frittering away his fortune which he replenished through un-inspiring roles as the "foreign gentleman" or the "exotic lover" in a string of forgettable films. He eventually gave up acting, becoming a world-class bridge player and devoting his life to gambling instead. "I'd rather be playing bridge than making a bad movie". You see what I mean by "character"?
Yet his real love in life was the horses. His line in a commercial for Tierce magazine, "Racing, you know, it's my greatest passion", became a cult sensation. He lived that love every day, and Sharif once shared it with the man that crafted the first three horses past the post in last weekend's Vodacom Durban July, John Slade, and I at the Tattersalls December sales. There was an Oriental charm to his approach to breeding: "To select the mother and the father," he used to say with a look that sent most woman into meltdown, "It's a bit like playing God".
"He was a great man, a world-wide legend, but above all, he was my friend", explained his trainer David Smaga. "He knew me as a child in Egypt, and he had horses with me, but our relationship was about more than that". Just recently, the pink and black colours of this devotee of Deauville flew aboard Don Bosco, victor of the Prix Gontaut-Biron (Gr.3) and Lexirova, heroine of the Prix Miesque (Gr.3).
The passing of a character of such colour reminds us that in 1908, a romantic Neapoltian, Chevalier Ginistrelli, became the first Italian to own a winner of the world's most famous horse race of the time, the English Derby. Our eccentric had saddled Signorinetta to win both the Oaks and the Derby on consecutive days, a filly he'd bred from the vocally but untalented stallion next door, relying not on the form book, but on the boundless laws of sympathy and love.