J&B MET (Grade 1)
Kenilworth, Turf, 2000m
2 February 2013
It’s scarcely a year ago, and we were celebrating our third J&B Met victory with Igugu. While this correspondent is languishing down in the faraway climes of the Wild Coast, the principal Met trials, the L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate (Gr.1) and the Peninsula Handicap (Gr.2), will be playing themselves out on the new course at Kenilworth. These are always madly competitive affairs, as the obvious ones hone their fitness for the big race, and those on the fringe scramble for a page on the final line-up. It’s helter-skelter at this time of the year, because the Met ranks up there with the “most-wanted” in the land.
Yes, the Vodacom Durban July is the ultimate. But when it gets down to a sense of occasion and glamour, the J&B Met has it covered. Cape Town, in the end, is the “Mother of them all,” she has a stateliness that belongs to her, and her alone. In the pantheon of the world’s great cities, she is always part of the exacta. The elegance of the Met is a salute to her grandeur, and that on its own, is why we all want to win the Met. Besides its R2.5million prize, of course.
When we first acquired the old Hartford farm, it stood apart as the premier private bloodstock enterprise of its era. Stepping into those shoes was a daunting responsibility. In his treatise on the great private breeders of the world, Sir Mordaunt Milner wrote of England’s Lord Derby and the Aga Khan, of Marcel Boussac in France, of Tesio the Italian, Hancock, Bradley and Calumet in the States, and Ellis of Hartford. From here, the Hartford Stud had bred, raised and trained the winners of every major race on the South African calendar. Except the Met. It was part of our resolve to change that, and change it we did. Icy Air, Imperial Despatch and Rusty Pelican all took us within a whisker, but it wasn’t until La Fabulous cruised home in red, yellow and black in ‘96, that the job was finally done.
From the “death” draw in 2003, Angus gave Sabine Plattner the ride of her life, all the way to the most costly piece of real estate in Cape Town: the “J&B” winner’s podium. It’s always tempting to compare one victory with another; and for Summerhill, Igugu has given us many to celebrate, particularly her epic battle with Pierre Jourdan in the 2011 version of the Vodacom Durban July, so we won’t. Igugu has moved on since then, and showed us another dimension that summer. By the New Year, she’d been to the well several times again, her preparation had been seriously impaired, and her mind was making appointments her body didn’t want to keep.
In the days leading to the Met, there was all manner of conjecture on her condition in the popular press, most of the doomsday variety. There were any number of warnings from those who supposedly knew better, but the public would have none of it. They nailed Igugu down solidly to favouritism; these were the converted, and the pilgrims were already in Jerusalem. In nine consecutive outings, she never looked like letting them down, and she wasn’t going to start now. Yet here was something different: she faced the cream of the nation’s athletic talent, she was going in half-cocked, and whatever her history and origins, there are limits to all of us and what we can do.
When they turned for home, the 40,000 in the stands let rip. With 300 to go, there was no sign of Igugu, no fusillade of the usual gear changes. The crowd fell silent. In that instant, she lowered her head like she felt their anxiety, she gathered her limbs and summoned the last ounce of her will. Her body wanted to die, but her mind wouldn’t let it. Nine strides from the post, anyone of three others looked the winner. Igugu lunged at them, Bravura turned his head to look at her. The fire in his eye seemed to dim. One should suspect humans who carelessly put words into the mouths of animals, but it appeared as though Bravura was saying “oh no, not you again”. As he slid off after the race, you could read the thoughts of Bravura’s rider, Anton Marcus. “I had her beaten, but when you’re dealing with Igugu, it’s always only half-over”. Igugu won by a growing neck. When Anthony Delpech dismounted, the champion journeyman dissolved in tears. It was love and pain and the whole darned thing. In an enchanted interlude, he wins the Met; it was all too much.
The crowd gave Igugu a standing ovation as she passed the post, with the yellow lights of the infield timing board showing she’d equalled the long-standing record, which meant Bravura must’ve come close too. But it was Igugu’s day, she owned Kenilworth as no horse had since Empress Club. Briefly, the sport had returned to its most glorious days. For a moment, the punt doesn’t matter. For a moment, a horse is queen. Legless, but standing. Wave after wave of cheering rushed over sunny Kenilworth, the horses and jockeys were exhausted. It had all been too brave.
In the public mind, Sheikh Mohammed had been transformed. Before the arrival of Igugu, he was known as one of those rich blokes with hundreds of horses, a distant and regal figure, which is unfair when you know him. He’d never tried to be anything but what he was: his family had come from the land of the Bedouin, and they’d started out with a few camels, goats, the odd horse, not much else. Of course there’s been oil and much more since, but now, and mainly because of Igugu, like Andre Macdonald, his former-electrician partner, Sheikh Mohammed was a folk hero, a good bloke, just like the rest of us.
Editor’s Note: There are no “weak” Mets. This year, the talk is all about the two outstanding three-year-olds of last season, Variety Club and Jackson, and both appear to be peaking at the right time. Yet the whole complexion of the race is thrown into disarray when a three-year-old who looks capable of taking on his elders, emerges. As Christmas dawned, Capetown Noir gave notice of his brilliance, and reminded us that while for many decades sophomores tended to head for the Cape of Good Hope Derby rather than the Met, all of this was altered by the daring of one Mike de Kock, when Horse Chestnut pulverised them back in 1999. Since then, there’s been the odd one brave enough to take his place, and a few of them have rewarded the faith. Yet both the Met and the Queen’s Plate are placed to “internationalise”, given their timing and their location in the quarantine zone which, when we first negotiated the foundation to our present import and export protocols with the rest of the world through the “Black Bush” accord in Paris in 1995, were intended to be our showcase international events. That this has not been the case, is a sad indictment on what nations do to prevent competition when they feel threatened, and especially what others will do when they are ignorant of the scientific facts behind the intermittent bans on our exports. That of course is a story for another day, but let’s not forget that there are other consequences to internationalisation.
Look at the Australians for an example, who, for well over 100 years, had an Australasian monopoly on the entries for the Melbourne Cup. In the past couple of years since they encouraged the participation of the world, there have barely been a handful of horses bred in the region good enough to make the cut. The international invasion has been overwhelming, and often enough, the three-handled trophy either goes North, or falls to a horse bred in the nether regions. When they first opened the race to “outsiders”, most locals thought it was a good idea. It was assumed they’d lose, and that their connections would then fall about saying what super horses they had in Australia and what an honour it was to listen to Bill Hayden, the Governor-General of the time, reading prepared notes with all the spontaneity of a dissident at one of Stalin’s show trials.
The Aussies don’t lose well - few of us do, but the one thing they like least of all, is losing to the English. At least for the time being, if there are consolations in this thing, it’s that the Met and its spoils will remain among us. But there can be few of us, if any, who wouldn’t want to see these two great events, the Queen’s Plate and the Met, internationalised.
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