“THE DURBAN JULY”
Long ago, before Ben Hur won the first Interdominion, the philosopher Diogenes envisioned a race as big as the Durban July. Clothed under various sponsor’s mantles since its inception in 1897, the great race is to Durbanites what the Melbourne Cup is to Melbourne.
For any self-respecting citizen of Durban, the July is a reference point. A few wounded, fresh returned from the nightmare of Delville Wood, limped around Greyville to see Pamphlet blast home in 1918. The year after the Second World War, the hero named for the cathedral which survived the “blitz”, St Pauls kicked the butt of Moscow, just as the Allies realised they’d licked Hitler, only to inherit Stalin. In 1966, the race was “robbed” of one of its most famous sons, Sea Cottage, through the treachery of a gunman’s bullet. In the same year, an assassin delivered a similar fate to apartheid’s principal architect, the Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd.
Yet it’s hard to explain the July to an outsider. The English and Kentucky Derbies are about the supremacy of genes and the buying power of the ruling classes. The public is allowed to join in for the crowd scenes. The best colt usually wins and is hurried off to stud for fear of losing his value.
Our July is quirky. Got up by the people, for the people. A cross between a horse race and a folk festival. It mocks convention because it’s a handicap, which means the outcome is not preordained. One of the cherished pieces of Durban’s folklore is that any battler can win the July. And a few have, though fewer than mythology allows. In 1977, Dessie Rich, a struggling dairy farmer from our village, turned history on its head with Lightning Shot. The stewards invited him to the committee lounge for a drink. “Thanks,” he said, but he had to rush home to milk the cows.
For the past 116 years, the Durban Turf Club has hosted “Africa’s greatest horserace” on the first Saturday in July. The Birch Bros of Doordrecht, who dominated the national breeding scene for almost half of the last century, produced six of its winners. We rank second, with four that’ve have tasted the green, green grass of home.
Which brings us back to St Pauls. The July was different in 1946, the first time the crowd numbered more than 100,000. These days, horses fly in for the contest with a personal dietician. St Pauls came by train with cattle and sheep, and they unloaded first. He was the pride of Pat Goss, a former stock inspector, who, like some of us, was quite at home with a pair of sheep shears in his hands. And that’s the part that tickles us. In Mooi River, a sheep shearer has always been thought as good as a Sheikh. Better really, because a Sheikh isn’t much use if your merinos need a clip. Mowgli, who was trained from the end box of the Hartford yard, as most of our top horses of that era were, was one of the all-time greats of the South African turf. He may even have been the greatest if it weren’t for a wind affliction which plagued him to death, literally in the end. When he settled the July field in ‘52, he collapsed within yards of passing the post. Minutes later, he rose, Lazarus on four legs, and walked away. Here finally, was proof that racing exists mainly to remind us of our fallibility. Here was the horse that took the round-they-go-again sameness out of the sport. Here was the horse who gave us not one, but ten undying moments.
Mowgli dominated the 50s the way Mohammed Ali dominated the heavyweights in the 1970s, and the analogy is not meant to be trite. Mowgli was that rare thing: a natural. He made the hard things look easy, the mundane look graceful. The qualities which, in any sport, separate the gifted from the sloggers.
Racing is good sport. It is great sport when you see an Igugu and a Pierre Jourdan in full flight down the Greyville straight, tooth-and-nail for the biggest prize in racing. It isn’t always good business, but when you win the July, it most certainly is. Racing is a way of living, and a way of thinking. It has its own language and its own humour. It is loaded with danger, physical and financial, and it comes with a hint of conspiracy. It doesn’t necessarily build character, but it throws up some great characters. Igugu is trained by one of them. Mike de Kock is the man everyone wants to know. He’s become the idol of a social set to which he never belonged, and to which, you suspect, he never wanted to belong. De Kock knows the rich and famous, he has himself become rich and famous. Yet fame has not changed him, not outwardly anyway. He doesn’t conform. He can’t; he isn’t like anyone else.
When de Kock entered the Summerhill box after the July, we asked him if he’d like a drink. “Or is that a silly question?” It was a silly question.