Nic Claaseen with Geepee S
2008 Allan Robertson Fillies Championship (Grade 1)
(Photo : Gold Circle)
1926 - 2010
There are many who will tell you that racing is character building. Whether or not that is true, one thing is for certain : it’s not short of characters. Nic Claasen was one of them.
My personal association with this colourful man goes back to 1969, when I was doing my basic training in the South African Defence Force. In those days, we used to make reverse charge calls when we were short of money (which I always was) and Nic Claasen was a telephone operator. Those that knew the system of collect calls, will remember that we were required to give our name to the operator, so that when he connected you with the number you wished to speak to, he could enquire whether the receiver was willing to accept the charges. Upon disclosure of my surname “Goss”, Nic enquired whether I was related to the Gosses of St Pauls fame, and hero of the 1946 Durban July.
This was my grandfather’s horse, remembered still as the smallest ever winner of Africa’s greatest horserace. Nic proceeded to tell me that in the year of St Pauls, he was an operator in the former Lourenço Marques, capital city of Mozambique. In those days, the big bookmakers (and we mean the really big ones) used to frequent the Polana Hotel, one of the African continent’s most famous hostelries. These men lived in spectacular luxury, and ran their Johannesburg-based businesses by telephone, remembering that in those days telephones were crank jobs, and nothing could be achieved without a connection through the operator.
Booking a trunk call meant sitting around waiting for it to come through, in some cases for hours. In the event, Nic became the “messenger” laying their bets and accepting odds through his exchange. For a modestly rewarded telephonist in the civil service, Nic was at once elevated to a position of unusual power, privy to all this remarkable information about the chances of horses at the races.
It turns out, as much as anything, that my grandfather Pat’s reservation of the Kew Hotel for the victory celebrations some 3 months before the race, was fuelling the frenzy, and every nanny and granny it seems, was on board. Imagine Nic’s amazement then, when he witnessed the odds on a former “pony and galloway” handicapper (as St Pauls was,) firming from 66/1 to 10/1, despite his outside draw, and history’s reminder that no horse had ever won from there.
Nic’s plunge on St Pauls was the stuff of a titan. The proceeds bought him his discharge from the Post Office; he acquired his first house and he funded his beginnings as trainer with what was left.
Nic distinguished himself in his field in both Johannesburg and the Eastern Cape. He and Stanley Greeff (another dear friend, who is stricken with illness as we write) are the doyens of East Cape trainers, and between them, they could probably tell more stories than the rest of the industry coupled together. Apart from his training talents, you knew when you dealt with Nic Claasen, that a deal was a deal, and that his word was his bond. Our association goes back to a R5,000 purchase by the name of Mount McKinley, who was 2nd for Andre Macdonald in the South African Derby (Gr.1) of 1983. Other standouts included Grade One winners, Forest King, Forest Fantasy and Geepee S.
Racing has its share of characters. Nic Claasen was up there with the best.