(Photos : Malcolm Draper)
“Lester himself said later it was the greatest race he ever rode.”
With all the interest a recent post has drawn, we thought we’d let you have some insight into the thoughts of one of our readers, Malcolm Draper:
“I appreciate your paying homage to late greats. It is fascinating that Basil Cooper and The Maltster have come to light again after all these years. Mooi River may be a little village, but is far from being a backwater given the greats who have paraded through there, including Lester Piggott. My point is that it may be Piggott in Pietermaritzburg rather than Durban, where the original legendary race was run.
I knew he had ridden the Maltster but the story had become foggy over the decades. I knew that Basil was connected to Irish racing and that Vincent O’Brien paid him visits but I did not know the rest of the Cooper connections.
I see the chaps have been debating what really happened online. I will set them straight once my facts are verified.
According to Sean Magee, for the book, “My Greatest Race”, Piggott nominated winning a race at Pietermaritzburg in 1975 on The Maltster after his stall had failed to open properly and they had been left 30 lengths. So it was the horse, not the Gold Cup in 1979, which Piggott was referring to, although the Gold Cup must have made an impression.
Jack Ramsey concurs in the story of the most extraordinary thing he’s seen on a racecourse. This he says was “back at home, at Scottsville in Pietermaritzburg, when Lester Piggott won a minor race on a horse called The Maltster in the 1970s. The starter lifted the old starting barrier tapes with the visiting British champion jockey and his mount still facing the wrong way. He was left hopelessly about a furlong behind. No-one there that day gave him any chance of even making a place. But he somehow got that horse up to win going away. Lester himself said later it was the greatest race he ever rode.
I was not a witness to either of these races as he was at stud when I came on the scene to work for Basil Cooper as his unlicensed assistant for a time in the 80s. But I remember The Malster and Basil’s stories about him. He was a fierce fellow, and if he took a dislike to you, would take a chunk. Stable lads would be picked up by the shoulder and flung out of his stall. His licensed assistant (a rather nutty female who shall remain nameless here) was bitten on and picked up by her breast and was seldom seen at the stables thereafter. While his father Speciality was fond of Basil and used to nicker at him in recognition, he told me that the rogue son once pinned him down, knelt on him and savaged his head. I was advised to ride him with a whip in each hand when exercising him lest he bite my knees off.
Basil told me that The Maltster hated greys in particular. He was a dark horse in more than colour. He would often slow down to try and take a chunk as he went by. So more than likely, it was this which caused his head to be in the stall next to him at the Gold Cup and him to be facing backwards at Scottsville. He was a dirty but great fighter nevertheless, and Basil said he never saw him as happy as he was with Piggott on his back, since he had great hands.
I dug out some pictures and found one I took of The Maltster with the head groom Sipho (his surname eludes). He was, as Basil used to say, a proper horseman who could manage The Maltster and the punishment he would mete out to his charges while cleaning the rogue’s stable. I do recall Basil telling me that I should notch up to my achievements in that I had ridden a Gold Cup winner that had been jockeyed by Lester Piggott, the world’s greatest. Horses carry more than our hopes; they carry our stories and make them impossible to forget, but I did not know how significant The Malster was in world terms. Once again, many thanks.”
Malcolm’s note about the pictures above:
“Here are some fading instamatic memories digitized before disappearing. The first photo shows Basil seated and me standing. His sister and brother in-law were visiting and I think took some of the snaps. Basil tried to get me riding work and only just won by a neck. Today we take better pics with our phones but there is something charming about the sepia hues that is evocative of nostalgia for a time when we relied on sense in our heads rather than helmets on them. None are posed except The Maltster with Sipho, whose horsemanship Basil respected and relied upon, an admirable Irish-African team they were.
I looked again at the race report of The Maltster and see that at the bottom there is the 1975 Scottsville race which I originally missed thinking it was only the Gold Cup of 1979. The very faded race pictures show that Lester Piggot’s backside was above his head, Muis’s was level and the rest of the SA jocks had their heads a tad higher than their butts.
Pictures speak a thousand words. Digging out these old pics brought back a flood of memories. Coincidentally tomorrow I am giving a talk about horsemen’s childhood memories at a Memory Studies Symposium. It’s mostly about how both famous ‘horse whisperers’ Monty Roberts and Buck Brannaman have older brothers that remember childhood differently to their famous little brother’s stories.