Kipling - Tixall Lock
When old-timers talk about memories of the Vodacom Durban July they inevitably mention the name, Mowgli. And, by any reckoning, the colt who won the 1952 running of South Africa’s premier race was a phenomenon.
Mowgli is mainly remembered for his thrilling, short-head July victory over lion-hearted Radlington after the pair duelled neck-and-neck down the full length of the Greyville straight.
Racing scribe Stewart Ramsay said it was “one of the most sensational finishes” to the July. Columnist Molly Reinhardt described the battle as “desperate”, while historian Jean Jaffee called it “…one of the most spectacular ever…”
But Mowgli’s lofty ranking in the game is due to his incredible performances throughout that 1952 Natal winter season, when he won six Group 1 races, including the July, within 12 weeks - over distances ranging from 1200m to 2100m.
Adding burnish to the legend is the fact that the colt achieved all this with a serious breathing problem that saw him collapse as a juvenile before a shocked crowd in the Greyville grandstand. He was the first racehorse in the country to undergo a Hobday operation - then went on to write his special chapter in history.
In a 1999 poll of the best South African racehorses of the 20th century, Mowgli was named among the top five - the others were Colorado King, Hawaii, Sea Cottage and Horse Chestnut.
He was a product of the Ellis family racing operation, a breeding and training dynasty that shone brightly in South Africa for 40 years from the early 1940s.
Ray Ellis started it all after retiring from business to farms in Mooi River and Colesberg. He had no involvement with horses but after spelling broodmares, he developed an interest in thoroughbreds. He bought a few fillies and became very successful as a breeder, owner and trainer.
Before Mowgli came along, the top Ellis horse was Cape Heath, who saw Ray collect the King’s Cup from George VI after a famous victory at Turffontein in 1947.
As a yearling he transferred to the family farm Hartford, near Mooi River, and went into training with Ray’s son Graham. Hartford had its own training track which still in use today as part of the expanded estate of champion stud farm Summerhill.
To go racing, the Hartford horses had to leave the stables at 4am, sometimes in -6°C winter conditions, and walk several kilometres down country roads to Mooi River station to be railed to Durban. From Durban’s Berea station they were led through the city streets to Greyville (6km) or Clairwood (15km). Then there was the return journey… The feats of Mowgli and other Ellis champions seem even more remarkable when one considers all this.
Mowgli, a huge, almost-black colt, had the pedigree and conformation to be a good horse. On the course he showed immediate promise, winning two of his first three races in 1950.
Then disaster struck. Veteran journalist Jack Ramsay was at Greyville that day in April and remembers the scene well: “It was a juvenile feature and Mowgli was the 5-4 favourite. He was six or seven lengths in front at the old jockey number board, with a furlong (200m) to go, when he collapsed on to the turf. Harry Berry was riding and came crashing down onto the rail, but wasn’t injured. But Mowgli just lay there. Everyone thought it was a heart attack. But then he just got up. It was an amazing sight.”
Vets at the scene diagnosed both heat exhaustion and heart failure and Graham Ellis poured a bucket of water over the horse - after which Mowgli opened his eyes, lifted his head and got to his feet, ready to be led away.
It was discovered that Mowgli’s problem was an epiglottal shut-down when stretching out at full gallop. These days a tie-back operation can quickly sort out such a problem, but back then the usual remedy - very often unsuccessful - was a plastic tube inserted into the throat before a race.
Graham Ellis opted for the then-revolutionary Hobday operation. In 1950 this involved cutting a hole in the epiglottis, rather than a tie-back.
Despite the procedure, racing authorities were reluctant to let Mowgli race again, fearing horses and jockeys might be endangered if he collapsed. But, fatefully, he did return to the track after 18 months out, making an immediate mark in winning a B division contest at Clairwood. Then he showed his extraordinary versatility by defeating top sprinter Moll over 1000m before running third in the Natal Derby over 2400m, then second in the SA Derby. He failed in the Met in Cape Town, but bounced back to trounce the great Black Cap in a sprint.
June 1952 arrived and Mowgli’s time had come. He shrugged off a narrow defeat to Black Cap in the 1200m Newbury Stakes at Greyville by winning the 1800m Ascot Stakes.
At Clairwood, he claimed the June Handicap by five lengths. A week later came the famous Mowgli-Radlington July, with the race then run over 2100m.
Nine days later Mowgli won the Merchants at Greyville over 1000m, carrying 60kg and beating Trencon, to whom he conceded 10kg.
Still in the month of July, there was the Clairwood Winter Handicap, in which he carried 59kg to victory over useful campaigner Prince Bertrand .
Having turned five on 1 August, he saw off Exeter Chimes by five lengths in the Champion Stakes at Greyville.
Mowgli was the hero of all racegoers who saw him perform these feats and those still alive today count his July win among their fondest memories in the game - as 92-year-old Jack Ramsay did just last week on Tellytrack.
The 1952 July was the first to be run over the new subway; previously horses had to negotiate sawdust covering the tar of Marriot Road, which traverses Greyville racecourse.
Mowgli was favourite at 3-1, with Lord Louis at 7-2 and Radlington at 10-1.
Basil Lewis, in the Ellis black with green sash silks, had his charge well placed from the bell, some five lengths off the pace as the field swept behind the Drill Hall. Radlington, under another top jockey, Snowy Martin, was a little further back.
Both moved up smartly on the final turn for home, with Mowgli grabbing the initiative on the fence. Radlington was balked as he went for a gap and switched out for his run.
Radlington got on terms with several hundred metres to race and looked likely to pull clear as they reached the number board. But Lewis, riding the race of his life, kept Mowgli to his task and the adversaries swept past the post as one.
It took the judge 10 min and a scrutiny of four photos to pronounce Mowgli the victor.
The enormity of the colt’s achievement became clear later when Graham Ellis revealed that, even after the breathing operation, Mowgli would hold his breath during races - perhaps instinctively, given his earlier problems. “He would fill his lungs up at the start; during the race he would empty them, then breathe in again and hold his breath until the finish.”
Knowing that the horse ran in snatches, Lewis didn’t use his whip much, fearing it might disrupt the strange breathing pattern. There are stories that Mowgli often collapsed after his victories due to this peculiarity.
Mowgli was retired to Hartford Stud in 1953 and had a lamentably short time as a stallion. In five crops, his best son was Council Rock, who, like his father, won the Durban Merchants over 1200m, before also showing versatility in taking the Cape of Good Hope Guineas over 1600m.
Various stories still circulate about how Mowgli died. One has it that he was struck by lightning, another that he was killed in a fight with another stallion. In her book on the July, Reinhardt wrote that Graham Ellis told her: “A loose horse galloped past his paddock. Mowgli went to join him, crashed into the paddock rails and broke his back.”
One thing not in dispute is that Mowgli was one of our greatest horses, whose heroics will never be forgotten.
Extract from Tab Online