KRA GUINEAS (Grade 2)
Greyville, South Africa
I know it’s a week and a bit since the KRA Guineas, but class has no age limit. This race (previously known as the South African Guineas) has a roll call to envy: Sea Cottage, Politician, Bold Tropic, Royal Chalice, Ilustrador, Right Prerogative and Dynasty; a history of stars rivalling any other horse race on the continent. And I’m willing to bet that Saturday’s renewal was as good as any of them, a contest between a pair of young gladiators of the highest order in the hands of two of the world’s finest jockeys. His 1/7 odds told us everything about the public’s perception of Capetown Noir, whose dominance of his contemporaries looked complete, yet the money kept flowing for the as yet unbeaten but as yet untested Vercingetorix. Karl Neisius has been at the top of this game for decades now, and it’s an open secret that he rates Capetown Noir with the best he’s thrown a leg over. Anthony Delpech on the other hand, journeyman supreme himself, was known to harbour the deepest respect for the up-and-coming de Kock trainee, and while he wasn’t yet ready to call him an Igugu or a Bold Silvano, only the race was going to tell us how good he really is.
Who knows whether it was the run of the race or a lack of respect for the rest of the field, but Capetown Noir found himself further back than Neisius would have wanted him, and while it is so that Vercingetorix got a run on him turning for home, we should remember it was only the latter’s third visit to the races. Whatever, it was a battle for the ages, two fine three-year-olds in the hands of two masters, stride for stride, head for head, nose-up, nose-down, and then the impossible. Nobody in their heart of hearts really believed Capetown Noir could go down, but soon the numbers were up, and the number one box was somebody else’s. You may well argue that if you ran this race ten times again at the same stage in their lives, most times the result would favour Capetown Noir, but that doesn’t get away from the fact that in Vercingetorix, Mike de Kock has found another star. Frighteningly, he’s that good that by the time the season is out, he might well have broken Summerhill’s eight year reign at the head of the Breeders Premiership.
But that’s a matter for another day; this is about two fine horses and two great riders, and what a treat it is to be a bystander on such an occasion. When there is so little between two competitors, it matters, no, it really matters, who the driver is, and in this case, neither horse had an advantage. South Africa is many things, and we’ve produced some great sportsmen and some world-class companies, but none of these disciplines has been any more prolific in the production of stars than racing. It’s an unheralded fact that the most sought-after jockeys’ title in racing is Hong Kong’s, and that for 21 of the past 22 years, it’s been in the hands of a South African. Pofessionals of the calibre of Dougie Whyte, Basil Marcus, Felix Coetzee, Bartie Leischer and Weichong Marwing, have dominated this championship with unerring distinction for decades in the racing world’s richest jurisdiction. Yet they’d be the first to concede that men of the ilk of Jeffrey Lloyd, Michael Roberts, Piere Strydom, Anton Marcus, Delpech, Neisius and Kevin Shea, were all capable of riding the jockeys of other nations to sleep at the height of their powers.
Of course, we’re not alone in the art of jockeyship - the histories of nations were written on the backs of horses, and other countries have been turning out top men of the profession for three-and-a-half centuries now. But a good deal of dross is talked about jockeys. Take the row about the length of stirrup leathers, which has been dragging on for years. Of itself, it isn’t worth a fig. People forget that Lester Piggott, whom history would probably judge as master of all, won his first three Epsom Derbies with his leathers about the conventional length. He won his next six with his knees more or less tucked up under his chin. Lester won all of his Derbies because of his good hands.
The question should not be whether this or that jockey rides too short or too long, as though there can be mathematical certitude to all this. Rather, the question should go something like this: does the jockey have balance? Does he avoid bumping the poor beast with his backside, or screwing off to the side as he uses the whip? Does he stay ahead of the horse’s centre of gravity? And perhaps, above all things, does the jockey have hands?
A polo player can use his legs; a good horseman, by imperceptibly shifting his weight, can make a horse do anything. Great jockeys of the past, the Tiger Wrights and the Charlie Barendses, rode on longer stirrups and could use their legs, but the modern jockey, invariably perched up there with his feet on the dashboard, really has only his hands. Andrew Fortune has hands, the way Mercury, messenger of the gods, had legs. His horses travel on gossamer threads. This man is an essay in horsemanship.
All of these men, Wright and Barends excepted, were graduates of our little jockey’s academy at Summerveld. I say “little” in inverted commas, because it’s home to about 50 students, yet it continues to churn out Olympic class athletes with regular success, to a point of out-performing all known academies of any sporting variety, pound-for-pound, on the planet. I guess this “little” school, is no little school at all.
Reverting for a moment to Capetown Noir. In saying this, I mean no offence to Vercingetorix, who is still somewhat spare, somewhat of a work-in-progress, and could in the end become the real and the only thing. Meanwhile, Capetown Noir is made for Hollywood. Women race-goers drool over him. He is big, I would think approaching 16.1hh, and black with a white blaze that broadens as it splashes out over his muzzle. He has four jet black legs that leave the impression of invisibility at his quickest, and a big generous eye. He has lots of rein, a prominent wither and massive hindquarters. When he canters to the start, he hardly raises his knees; he knows he’s the leading man, and the others are extras and clapper-loaders.
The Bible tells us that God made man and the earth in seven days. Man has fashioned the thoroughbred over 350 years, and Capetown Noir is the point of perfection this God-given creature has reached in that time. He and Vercingetorix will be facing off again on Daily News day on the first weekend in June. The horns will be out, and so will the fans. Savour it - this is what racing was made for.