Please click above for a little racing nostalgia from 1946.
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(Photos : Summerhill Stud Archive)
“One horse can change everything.”
Success on the turf often has unpretentious beginnings. That’s part of the daydream that still tempts young people to persist with the prickly beast with bad legs that cost him a few thousand Rands, and arrived with a patched-up headstall and a torn rug. They remember the folklore, and are comforted by it. We should not be sniffy about these fantasies: racing runs on them. One horse can change everything.
The late great Sydney Laird trained seven “July” winners, more than any other man in history, yet for him the one that changed everything, that set him up for life, was probably the weakest of them. Kerason last-gasped the July at 40 to 1 in the 1961 edition, and everyone knew then that Syd had learnt his lessons well. He came up under the watchful eye of his uncle, the immortal Syd Garrett, and the ink under Left Wing’s name in 1960 (Garrett’s last July winner) was scarcely dry, when his apprentice handed the master a lesson in the art in what was his first year as a professional. I once asked an aging Syd over breakfast, whether the rumours about his tossing it in, were true. “I’ve got a number of youngsters in the yard, and nobody ever jumped from the top floor while he still had an unraced juvenile in his care”. That was Syd. Herman Brown Snr remembers Gatecrasher, while David Payne will tell you, his “one horse” was undoubtedly In Full Flight. Just one horse.
“Dynasty” is a word reserved for famous successions, and in the world of racehorses, we have our share. Syd Laird’s son, Alec, was fired up by London News, his champion trainer cousin, Charles by Novenna, while Dennis Drier, another scion of this “manure-in-the-footsteps” family, says it was Sea Cottage. They all suffer from the disease for which there is no cure, and it’s all because of one horse.
Mike de Kock, who trained Horse Chestnut (the best horse since Sea Cottage,) and Igugu (the best since Horse Chestnut,) would surprise you that his jolt came not from those two, but from Evening Mist, who delivered up his first Group One, and gave notice to the world that here was a young man capable of filling the ample boots of his mentor, Ricky Howard-Ginsberg. De Kock has trained 87 Group One winners, and while he isn’t that sentimental about horses, you knew that Evening Mist was the one horse who’d wriggled her way into his heart. One horse.
For my own part, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the horse that got my juices going, had to be St Pauls, diminutive winner of the 1946 Durban July for my grandfather, Pat Goss. I wasn’t around then, but my forebears earned their place in history when this graduate of Pony & Galloway handicaps (reserved for horses under 15 hands) became the smallest winner in the annals of Africa’s greatest horse race, from draw 20. I remember making a collect call during my military training in 1969, when the operator, as he was wont to do, asked for my name. When I volunteered it, he enquired whether I was related to the “St Pauls” Gosses? The operator was one Nic Claasen, in his reincarnation one of those indestructible characters of the South African turf, a man inspired by the money he’d made on St Pauls to become a racehorse trainer. Later in life, when old Nic wanted to emphasize a point to a television presenter, he would grab his forearm and squeeze it in a gesture of sincerity. Nic was never short of hope, and “for as long as you’re hoping, you’ve got a chance”. Then he’d grab the forearm again, and become a little fatherly. “One horse”, he used to say, “that’s all it takes”.
But for me it wasn’t St Pauls. For me it was a horse called Dan, who cut his teeth on the humble circuits of Eastern Cape country racing. Dan 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 near Lusikiki to his next engagement. One of my most cherished memories growing up, was a photograph of the erstwhile mentor to Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo (yes, the man after whom Africa’s biggest international airport is now named), saddling my grandfather’s entry for the Bizana Cup, as a bare-footed twelve-year-old.
Dan was no ordinary horse, and there was no ordinary transport to take him to his next assignment. Not that it would’ve helped. Pat Goss rescued him as a two year old, when he was down to be shot on a neighbouring spread, if he would 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, is he was a grandson of the 1911 July winner, Nobleman. An old strapper called Ndhlebende broke him in, and it was a riotous affair. For all that, his handler was a dyed-in-the-wool horseman; the horse became tractable, and with time, he actually took a liking to racing, as well as his groom.
He would set out fully a week before the next meeting on foot, his Dick King lookalike on top, and by the time he arrived, as one wag recently put it, he was “ready-to-run!” This was a foot soldier in the real sense of the word, 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.
Dan’s reward for his all-conquering exploits on the country circuit, was a crack at the big time. In one of racing’s great fairytales, he wound up earning a cheque in the “big two”, the Cape Metropolitan and St Seriol’s 1945 Durban July. How’s that for killing the giants?
As for St Pauls, his size (or rather the lack of it) prompted the decision 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 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, sometimes to his face, which never seemed to bother him. 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 horses, killing sheep for the butcher, breaking in horses and carting water. And here he was now, handling a live candidate for the Durban July.
A recent octogenarian visitor to Summerhill, Alistair Stubbs, reports that as a teenager, he was on hand at New Amalfi Station near the family farm, The Springs, when the owner was loading a rather non-descript little fellow onto a cattle truck, destined for Durban. “You’ve just seen the Durban July winner,” proclaimed the owner, a full four months before the race was due to get underway. Such was Pat Goss’ confidence that he booked out the Kew Hotel for the victory celebrations a few days later, and in one of those few stories in racing’s folklore that actually come true, he bolted home under Georgie Foster’s hands-and-heels urging in record time. The party, it is said, lasted two days, and within a few more, The Kew was a smouldering ruin. The little horse, who was named for the London cathedral that withstood the blitz of the Battle of Britain, had brought about, it seemed, the destruction of one of Durban’s most famous landmarks. But it wasn’t before every Durbanite who shared Pat Goss’ reverence for the Durban July, had joined the revelry at this queen of hotels.