There was a time when this Indian Ocean paradise was part of our annual calendar, when Cheryl and I ventured here each year as honoured guests for the fourth leg of the local Classic, the Duchess of York Cup (every year in October). Those were the days my friends, pioneering times, when I was the Thoroughbred Breeder’s Association of South Africa’s committee man for marketing. We traversed the world, trawling for customers and trade, and when we netted our haul of foreign owners for South Africa, and for Summerhill what has become one of the most famous relationships (if not the most unlikely), in racing.That, of course, was the arrival of Dubai’s Rulers, the Sheikhs Maktoum, which not only changed our lives, but our entire racing landscape.
But now we speak of Mauritius, and specifically Mauritian racing, home to the oldest racing club in the Southern hemisphere, and the second oldest on earth, at the Champ de Mars, the 1400 metre circuit which lies, rather remarkably, in the epicentre of the capital Port Louis, they celebrate their bi-centenary in 2012. Two hundred years of the most exciting racing in the world.To look at it, you’d never believe that almost every Saturday they close the gates on just about 25,000 souls.The grandstand and the parade ring, which resemble a Mediterranean apartment block with its shutters and trailing geraniums, disgorges racing fans in frenzied thousands, and the in-field is transformed from a mid-week open lot, capable of holding virtually the entire Mauritian auto population, into a seething mass of worshippers, line upon line of bookmakers, and capable of an eruption in the face of a tight finish to rival Mount Etna.
Here the names of Shane Dye, Glen Hatt and Jeff Lloyd command hushed tones, while the names Henry, Rousset, Mainguard, Maigrot and Gudjadhar, among trainers, have been around almost as long as the bricks in the grandstand.
On parade we are reunited with some old war horses. Pick Six, hero of the Gomma Gomma and a multi millionaire back home, and Galant Gagnant, who last year came within a whisker of spoiling Russian Sage’s party in the Daily News 2000 (Gr1).
At Hughes Maigrot’s Floreal base, Cheryl and I catch up, literally, with Catchadane, in whom Summerhill retains a tiny share, and the erstwhile Andrew Yuen-owned Basil Marcus-trained, Governator, whose spectacularly white coat and drop-dead good looks guarantee him a post-racing home at an upmarket livery yard. Another ex-Summerhill and Maigrot graduate, who’s found fame in later life, is the blaze-faced chestnut, Epoch, at one time looking like a Horse of the Year candidate and now a contender for Jumper of the Year.
It’s a long while since I retired from TBA stewardship, and our last visit was more than 10 years ago. Two things have happened since then. The Mauritian government has understood, as well as any government, the value of tourism, to the degree that the road network has been immeasurably improved, and the villages, as quaint as any, are pristinely clean, bustling with charming, hardworking people. Looking at Mauritius, there is undoubtedly hope for Africa.
The other thing is the time value of their money. In the early 90’s we used to sell our horses, somewhat desperately, on a contingency, which meant that you got paid in tranches and only then when your horse won! In 1995, we came here and spent most of a balance in the bank, leaving a residue of just Rps10,000 behind. Untouched since then, we returned to find it now worth Rps33,000, thanks to the stewardship of Alain Tennant, an old friend and one-time MTC steward.
Which just goes to show, Warren Buffett was right when he spoke about the compound value of money.
Not that it goes an awful long way these days. We’re staying, courtesy of their old fashioned form of open generosity, at the cottage of the brothers Nairac, Edouard, a congenial Summerhill stalwart of many years, and Daniel, an Oxford-educated gentleman who applied his intelligence to the service of Anglo American and the E.U. in Brussels.
As charming a “bungalow”, as they’re known here, as you’ll find anywhere, the fishermen still rock up mid-morning on their bikes (though of the motorised variety these days), offering a choice of lobster, crab, prawns or fresh fish, caught this morning, and devoured naturally, this evening.This is where the Rupees don’t go an awfully long way. As a tourist, expect to pay in the order of R200 – R250 for a lobster and around R350 for a kilo of prawns. But then look out at where you’re sitting and try them just once, and you’ll thank the stars you once sold a son of Northern Guest (by name Stormy Sky, which is appropriate for July in Mauritius) on a contingency.
It doesn’t get much better!