A short while ago the World Economic Forum's Global Shapers Annual Survey issued its list of the earth's most admired leaders. In arriving at their personal favourites, in some instances voters reached back well into the history books, while others had a more contemporary look to them. Encouragingly, from a South African perspective, two of the three most popular were compatriots; unsurprisingly, Nelson Mandela ranked comfortably ahead of Pope Francis, followed by the former Pretoria Boys High School pupil, Elon Musk, whose pioneering heroics in the sphere of carbon-free motor vehicles and space travel catapulted him earlier this year to the Number One box among the world's foremost innovators: here is a man who in one instant, beavers away at saving the planet, and at the same time is developing a means of leaving it.
High-ranking as well in the WEF's survey is another with South African connections, Mahatma Ghandi, whose extraordinary self-sacrifices and unyielding discipline were in the vanguard of the battle for India's independence in 1947. While my purpose is to introduce a few short stories from a personal compilation of racing's "most admired", you'll forgive me a moment of indulgence in a little "politicking". I realise it's as much a reflection of current thinking as anything else, but from a modern perspective, it's sad that a man of the ilk of Jan Smuts, who at one time was more famous even than his own country, was not sighted when the votes were counted. Yes, he suffers by reason that he failed to deal with the "race" issues confronting South Africa in the early 20th century, preferring to leave them to the wiser counsel of the more imaginative generations of the future, but then you have to ask why The Mahatma escapes the same fate; Ghandi's pronouncements during his 22 years in South Africa were clearly pro-Indian and anti-African, and to this day the land he liberated, remains a society divided not so much by colour, but certainly by class.
We forget that in his time, General Smuts not only led the British a merry dance during the Anglo-Boer War, but as a measure of the "big" man he was and his embrace of reconciliation, in little over a decade he was serving in Lloyd George's cabinet during the Great War; he was the originator of the concept of the British Commonwealth; he was a founding principal of the Royal Air Force, scribe of the constitution for the League of Nations, and author of the preamble to the document which founded the United Nations. The esteem in which he was held was such that England's king, George V, implored him to campaign for a seat in the British parliament with the Prime Minister's job in mind, while Winston Churchill, whose admiration knew few bounds, invited him during World War II to stand in for him as acting Prime Minister during a period of absence, and to his dying day proclaimed his faith in the South African as "unbreakable". It's true, Smuts was a remote personality, somewhat removed by his genius from the common man and in certain domestic circles, much reviled for his pro-British sentiments, yet he remains one of only four foreigners (out of a total of eleven) whose statues adorn London's Parliament square.
His fellow "outsiders" included Mandela, Ghandi and Abraham Lincoln, another who only fifty-odd years before Smuts' racial demons confronted him, declared that no black man would hold office in the public service in the United States, whether as judge, jury, administrator, politician or otherwise. Ironically, as Americans go, no former president besides George Washington, enjoys greater reverence among his countrymen than Lincoln.
It's apparent that each of this trio, Smuts, Ghandi and Lincoln, for all their virtues, were men of their times; their flawed belief in the "separatism" of human beings denied them the realisation at which the sane world has now arrived in acknowledging the uniqueness of every culture and the people behind it.
With that off my chest, let's turn to a possible "who's who" of those deserving of our admiration in the equine realm. There'll be many overlooked through the frailty of both my memory and my ignorance, and for that I seek the forgiveness of anyone who might feel offronted by his or her omission. No doubt, the names of some will unravel themselves only as we hop from anecdote to anecdote, so whoever receives mention in the next couple of weeks will have done so more because of the coincidence of their recurrence in the mists of my recollection, rather than as a result of any special importance of rank. Obvious candidates, in no particular order, include the Irishmen Vincent O' Brien and John Magnier, for England we salute Lester Piggott, Lord Derby and Henry Cecil, France's Marcel Boussac, Alec Head and the Aga Khan, America recalls Col. Bradley, "Bull" Hancock, Bill Shoemaker, the Wrights of Calumet and their storied trainer Ben Jones, Australasia remembers Bart Cummings, Tommy Smith, Patrick Hogan and John Messara, while South Africa reveres the Birch Brothers, the Ellises of Hartford, the Oppenheimers, Syd Garrett, Tiger Wright, Michael Roberts and Mike de Kock. In the literary and media spheres, racing has spawned more than its share of giants, Rudyard Kipling, Damon Runyon, Banjo Patterson, Red Smith, Ed Bowen, Peter O'Sullivan (Sir), Les Carlyon, Brough Scott and at home, Sir Mordaunt Milner.
The records of these luminaries have all previously been recorded in one form or another either in biographies or in countless press reports; it's not my intention to recapture their histories, but rather to give our readers a more intimate perspective of the odd personal encounter with those I have either known myself or got to "know" through others who knew them well. That said, and before I forget, anyone who follows these columns with fables of their own should feel free to add to the names I've here already mentioned, provided they have a worthwhile accompaniment to contribute.
I was lucky to have inherited the "disease" that inflicts the bulk of our sport's adherents, handed down Goss generation by Goss generation for as long as memory serves us, and certainly dating back to Ireland's Battle of the Boyne. I say so because the racing and breeding of racehorses has taken me to places I might never have been, and certainly to some of the most charming landscapes in creation. Equally, I know of no pursuit quite as decoratively adorned in character and personality as the world of the thoroughbred, and it was a case of felicitation that while others were repatriated in the immediate aftermath of World War II, my father's "demobbing" was delayed until March of the year St Pauls brought home the family's bacon in the Durban July, 1946.
He used his time in Europe well, visiting the breeding operations of several of the bloodstock world's most celebrated figures. Following the armistice, all the evidence supported the fact that wartime racing and breeding schedules in England and France would reflect more favourably on French horses. For a country which since 1940 had suffered the indignation of occupation, the vast bloodstock enterprise of the textile magnate Marcel Boussac (founder of the Christian Dior organisation) which had won seven French Derbys by 1945 and was to win another five, was remarkably unaffected. By contrast, most English studs had been converted, partially or wholly, to agricultural needs, and competition had been restricted. As a tenuous ability to communicate in French was one of my youthful Dad's few qualifications, it seemed a pity not to exercise it. More in optimism than in expectation of a favourable reaction, he wrote to Monsieur Boussac in early 1946 seeking an interview with the great man or at least a visit to his spectacularly successful farm, the Haras Fresnaye le Buffard. To his great joy and surprise, the request was granted, and "BPG," as his friends knew him, hastened to meet the man whose apricot jacket and white cap on the way to the start was as good as money in the bank.
The war's limitation on stamina tests coupled with surviving breeders' commercial needs to produce quick-maturing speed horses, had left Britain particularly vulnerable over a mile and beyond: especially as this coincided with the sustained success of the Boussac "in-breeding" formula. Towards the end of the interview, the "Patron," as he was widely known, suggested that BPG contact his manager, the charming Comte Francois de Brignac and request that he show him the horses at Boussac's Villa Pharis and Villa Djebel at Chantilly. The stable yards were timely reminders of the legacy Boussac was to leave French racing, named for two of the outstanding stallions of the era, and one which is perpetuated to this day in the foundation stock of what's great about the Aga Khan's studs in 2015. Within a matter of two months, the Boussac enterprise was to lambast les Anglais at their racing showpiece, Royal Ascot, where the charge was led by that fine old bandaged stayer, Marsyas, who with his romp in the Queen Alexandra Stakes, had won five of his six English starts, including the Goodwood and Doncaster Cups. Another "Boussac," Caracalla II, led a French one-two-three in Ascot's crown jewel, the Gold Cup, on the day before stable companion Priam II won the Hardwicke (which our much lamented Await The Dawn would annex in such consummate style in 2012).
French supremacy at the time was illustrated no more explicitly than in the "King George", where only three of the eleven runners were trained in England. When Souverian fulfilled his owner's confident predictions, he beat the English Derby ace Airborne, by an extended five lengths, yet when it came to the Gallic gamble of the decade, at Manchester at the end of the previous November, the overworked patron saint of bookmakers was on the alert. Mud at Manchester in November was as sure as snow on Mont Blanc in January, and the long-time compulsive gambler, William Raphael Johnston (alias Rae Johnston), legendary Australian jockey, like an alcoholic who has taken the cure, had totally foresworn betting. Otherwise he might've mortgaged his and his blonde French wife, Mary's Auteuil flat and all its contents for Dornet in the Manchester November Handicap. By a French Derby winner out of a French "1000" winner, Dornet was no handicapper, yet he'd been assessed to concede only one pound to his compatriot Quatrain, who would've needed a concession of two stone to match strides with him going to post. It had "come up mud" such as could only be seen at the nearby Castle Irwelle, and while others would be sunk without trace, Dornet handled such circumstances like a hydrofoil on a benign sea.
I know I've been diverted, yet all of these things happened in the space of a short interlude, and while I remain momentarily off sides of the "Boussac" topic, the evening after his interview with the "Patron", BPG made the unlikely acquaintance in the bar of the hotel George V of the French trainer, Joseph Lieux. If the horse they principally discussed turned out to be half as good as he sounded towards the end of an excellent dinner, the Royal Mint would have to step up production. Early the next morning, my old boy, young as he was then, took his hangover to Maison Lafitte to meet this priceless creature.
It was once said that when Russians witnessed Trotsky astride a ceremonial horse, they exclaimed "What a man!", but when Lenin was similarly positioned, they noted "What a horse!". Here was a duo which perfectly complimented each other: the Australian jockey with his indolent, natural grace and the heavily built Sayani, who was paradoxically so feather-light in his flowing action. Apparently when he arrived in the yard as a youngster, Sayani, brother to Archie Dell's outstanding South African sire Joy II, had evoked from the head lad the comment to Mme. Lieux "The master has bought a young ox among the yearlings this year". The "young ox" was to be a helluva horse once his astute handler had found the key to his optimum talent, which he would have to do to achieve a weight-carrying record for a three year old to win the big Newmarket Handicap under 9 stone 4 pounds. That was the reason for the son of Fair Copy starting as high as 25-1, despite considerable ante-post support for seven others in the 34 runner field. Whatever the odds, the toast that evening at dinner was "Sayani et, puet-etre, le Cambridgeshire!"
Ten days before the race, Sayani, who'd won the prestigious Prix Jacques le Morois at Deauville, was sent to Jack Reardon's at Epsom. M. Lieux flew over regularly just to "look at him", as Jack put it while insisting it was impossible for a horse to win the Cambridgeshire or any other race, on such a preparation. More than one English jockey who'd seen Sayani on the gallops condemned his chances for his resemblance to a bullock.
Horses jumped a lot less straight from behind the five strand-tape barrier than they do from the stalls we know these days. As the starter released the gate there was almost instant scrimmaging in the middle, and within 150 yards Sayani had stumbled onto his nose and looked "out with the washing". With two furlongs to run, it seemed as if Sayani might even make the first six, provided he sprouted wings. He did. When his jockey picked him up, taking a firmer hold and squeezing him but not administering any gratuitous "striping", the young ox devoured the hill as if it were the equine equivalent of caviar. Despite the centuries of their political rivalry and the dominance of their racing by the "enemy", the British crowd gave the victorious duo a rapturous welcome to the winner's circle. Interestingly, and my Dad remembered this indelibly, the senior Jockey Club starter, who had the best view of Sayani's early difficulties and who was not given to exaggeration, believed the winner to be the "best horse up to a mile and a quarter of the century".
One other incidental consequence of BPG's pilgrimage to the "Patron," was his friendship with the singer Joe Orlando, to whom he had confided news of Dornet's imminent victory. The dapper band leader, matineé idol of the local scene, shared his sentiment on his involvement in racing. It wasn't in his nature to be reproachful: rather, he referred to it wistfully in his Italo-Mancunian accent "Owners, they tell me when their horses are expected. The trainers, they let me know when they have something special. Jockeys ring me with hot news. Father Ryan over there" he nodded towards a Catholic priest, "blesses my ventures here. And when I lose, some bookmakers, they won't even take my money. And still I cannot break even."
So endeth the lesson.