“One horse he’d say, that’s all it takes.”
Pat Goss Snr was an unusual man. Firstly, in a family in which there was an anticipation you’d either be a devout Catholic or a confirmed alcoholic, he was neither. In fact, he was a tee-totaller, an enterprising man, a consummate stockman and a devotee, if ever there was one, of the affairs of the turf.
Secondly, he was the first, and as it turns out, the only, Pondo trader ever to own a Durban July winner. His love of the game was rewarded in 1946 when St Pauls led home a procession in record time from the outside draw. I wasn’t around then, but my forebears earned their place in history when this graduate of Pony and Galloway handicaps became the smallest winner in the annals of the continent’s greatest horse race. When Pat Goss wanted to emphasise a point to a press man or a racing man, he would squeeze his forearm in a gesture of sincerity. Pat was never short of hope and “as long as you are hoping, you’ve got a chance”. Then he’d grab the forearm again, and become a little fatherly. One horse he’d say, that’s all it takes.
His addiction to the ponies was not surprising. The Gosses have had an affinity for them dating back to the Battle of the Boyne when they fought alongside the Maguires, the former kings of Ireland. At the same battle, one of the founders of the thoroughbred breed as we know it, the Byerley Turk, took the field as Captain Robert Byerley’s charge, having been captured in the East at the battle of Buda in 1689. Just last week, we were reminded of this history by one of our Irish relatives, Andy Goss, who sent pictures of the home from whence the original settler, Michael Goss went forth on his way to South Africa in 1820. I’m lucky to have this intrepid man’s name.
In an episode which exemplified for me as I grew up, that Pat Goss was a man with a love for the game, it was the story about Giant, who cut his teeth on the humble circuits of Eastern Cape country racing. Giant grew up in the shadow of the First World War and the greatest depression the world has known, and he used to walk from my grandfather’s base in Lusikisiki to his next engagement. One of my most cherished memories growing up, was a photograph of Nelson Mandela’s mentor, Oliver Tambo (for whom Africa’s biggest international airport is named today) saddling my grandfather’s entry for the Bizana Cup, as a barefooted teenager.
Giant was no ordinary horse, but as a youngster he was certainly what the Aussies would describe as an “ornery” fellow. My grandfather rescued him as a two-year-old, when he was down to be shot on a neighbouring spread, if he’d only stand still for long enough. A big, fractious lump of a bay with a hunter’s head, he was running wild on the stockman’s property, but he must’ve been handled at least once, because he’d been gelded. No-one could catch him, and he was rumoured to be feral. The truth though, was that he was a grandson of the 1911 Durban July winner, Nobleman. An old strapper called Ndhlebende broke him in, and it was a riotous affair. His handler was a dyed-in-the-wool horseman though, and the horse soon settled. With time, he took a liking to racing, and it’s said he liked his groom, too.
Giant would set out fully a week before the next big meeting on foot, Ndhlebende on board, and by the time he arrived, he was “ready-to-run”. This was a foot soldier in the real sense, reputed to have walked more than 1600 miles during his career to these bush meetings, where he was something of a legend, not only for the distances he covered, but for the silver he took home. Pat Goss rewarded him for his exploits with a crack at the big time. It’s something of a fairy-tale that he wound up earning a cheque in Extinguisher’s 1938 Durban July. This man stood on the shoulders of giants.
Size never deterred Pat Goss, though it might have affected his judgment. St Pauls’ size (or rather the lack of it) prompted Pat to start him out in a maiden at a village meet near Kokstad. His trainer was a 76-year-old father of 13, and Duggie Talbot, as dapper as he might’ve been in the Durban Turf Club parade ring, was the owner of a badly scuffed float, which had been sighted carting horses to race tracks from Matatiele to Mthathta. Here was a battler since his first race ride in 1918, when General Botha was still Prime Minister, and Pamphlet won the first of his two Durban Julys.
Talbot was a little man with twinkling blue eyes, rosy cheeks and the cocky air of a bantam rooster. He had a rolling gait and a falsetto voice which people liked to imitate. The voice was somehow right: part of him would always be a little boy, full of hope and derring-do. Another part of him was granite hard: he knew the world would stomp all over you, if you lay down or showed fear.
He was like a man before his tenth birthday; he’d grown up on the Western plains of the Karoo, red dust, clay pans that gave off a hard white light, hardly a tree. He lived in a slab hut with an earthen floor, and rooms divided off by chaff bags, sewn together with baling twine. Kerosene lamps provided little pools of light. Before Talbot was ten, he was working the scoop behind a team of draught oxen, killing sheep for the butcher, breaking in horses and carting water. And here he was now, handling a live candidate for the Durban July. One horse, that’s all it took.
I was prompted to recall these stories about my grandfather by a letter received from a Hartford House visitor last week. Norman Herring is an old mate and a mine of information about the old days in East Griqualand, where my grandfather had his farm. Pat’s “home” racecourses, besides those in Pondoland, were Matatiele, Cedarville and Kokstad. Getting to any of these places from the farm was a mission, as he used to go by horse and buggy, like most of his neighbours. Coming home in the twilight one day with some forty miles to travel, he found himself alongside Alex Macdonald (father of the famous Springbok polo player, Doug Macdonald). I told you at the beginning that Pat Goss was a teetotaller, but that wasn’t the case with old man Macdonald. When they reached Alex’s farm, The Meads, Pat found his travelling companion fast asleep on his buggy, and if the truth be told, his faithful horse had probably brought his comatose corpse most of the way, without him even knowing it.
So as to ensure that the buggy did not stray too far with its precious cargo, Pat only outspanned the horse, walked him through the farm gate, passed the buggy’s disselboom through the fence, and inspanned the horse on the other side. And then went on his way.
Moral of the story. Don’t drink and drive.