Racehorses are explosive, hot-blooded creatures. That’s the way we’ve moulded them: imposing, powerful, fast; very fast, some of them like Hear The Drums, and because of it, prone to brittleness; noble; intelligent, yet when they’re startled, alarmingly implacable. Horsemen will tell you, they’re like elephants when it comes to memory, with little faith in the unknown. If they trust you though, they’ll take on the world for you, even a brick wall.
You don’t own their trust, you earn it, and we start that process the moment they’re born. First impressions come from their mothers as well as their handlers, and if you’re wanting sensible, uncomplicated racehorses, you’d better have sensible, uncomplicated staff. Problem is, gestation in the thoroughbred is an extended affair, and the next child needs everything the mother can give. At five months, it’s time for separation, for the mare to concentrate her resources on the foal she’s carrying, and for someone else to take over as role-model. That’s where the “old timers” come in.
Without wishing to distract you, we should start with a confession. We’re victims of this disease for which there is no cure. For us, horses are not so much a way of making a living; they’re a way of life. We revere our champions, we admire our battlers, and they’re as heroic to us as Patrick Lambie is to the Sharks and Warren Whitely to the Lions. For those that’ve upheld the name, that brought home the silver of the Championships, there’s a place in the heavens when their racing days are over. They come home to mentor the kids, they step up in place of the “mums” when the weaning takes place; they are the providers of wisdom and decorum, the pacifiers and the high priests, and just occasionally, they’ll show the youngsters what made them as good as they were.
To give you an idea of what they’re taking on, allow us to paint you a picture. Summerhill is home to some of the nation’s most celebrated broodmares, some of them famous racehorses, others exceptional producers, the odd one a bit of both. In the passage of time, our paddocks have been populated by three of history’s four Durban July-winning mares, Devon Air, Tecla Bluff and Igugu, as well as the dams of July heroes Mowgli, Dancing Duel and Royal Chalice. Today they include the “mums” of the seasons Classic laureates Rabada, Heaps Of Fun and Witchcraft. They’re used to people coming to visit; it happens every other day. There’s no thought of knocking you over either, as some of them used to do at the races when the commentators would say “she just went whoosh”.
In early autumn, these Ladies of the Valley, who’ve delivered up a modern record of nine Breeder’s premierships, stand with their foals in rolling paddocks of yellowing grass, which sways like an ocean swell in the north westerly breezes that do their best to suck the last of the summer moisture out of the land. They nicker to their foals, one of whom, a colt, has been testing the towbar on the feeding van, and is trying to establish whether the windscreen wiper is bolted on. When he comes over to his mother for a drink, she nips him on the rump to tell him he’s being rough on her udder. She looks you over with a big glassy eye. No suspicion, no fear: she was brought up at Summerhill. Again, no thought of knocking you over: she’s a picture of motherhood and contentment, but the little beast at her side, love him as she does, is becoming a touch tiresome. It’s time for the “old timers”.
Senor Santa loved this place. His looks and his demeanour told you so. He wandered up, brushing his creamy hooves through the clover, head down, his eyes soft and benign, to ask you what you want. Till his last breath, he was as relaxed as the former cow herd up at the foreman’s house. You might’ve expected that of a Frank Freeman protégé.
We don’t know about you, but we don’t remember a faster racehorse in our lifetime. “The Senor” was here because he was the best son of the most famous resident Summerhill has known. We remember the day he rolled the pride of the nation in the Computaform. Perhaps we should say “days,” because he did it again, and again.
He was always the picture of composure, unfussed by the circus pressing on the parade ring fence. We remember him swinging his great hips so that the imprint of his hind foot would land about 30 centimetres ahead of that left by the front foot. Danehill did it like that, so did Sadler’s Wells, and those that do it this way usually have an unusually long stride at the gallop. But the truth about this game is that when horses win good races, they always look better to us watchers. We see things we didn’t when they were losing. We dismiss faults as trifling issues of cosmetics. There was so much to like about Senor Santa: he gave us many opportunities to see him this way.
When he’s wasn’t looking after the babies, he shared a meadow with Hear The Drums, who won more races for Peter Fabricius than any other racehorse in history. To do that, he had to pass the record of Sentinel, another graduate of these ancient pastures. Like The Senor, his forté was speed, buckets of it. Unlike The Senor, he did it in spite of his engineering. But the sounds of his adoring fans are like distant drums these days: he was living with greatness, where Senor Santa was the boss. The Senor would bite him hard on the rump, leaving parallel marks like a railway line. “The Drummer” flinched, but he never retaliated. He lived with greatness, remember. And it came at a price.