Followers of these columns know that country racing has been a part of my ancestry since the first Goss settler set foot on the shores of the Eastern Cape in 1820; we know too, that the Irish side of my pedigree were avid participants in the sport long before the Battle of the Boyne. As for me, I grew up in the midst of a country racing circuit that found its expression in remote metropolises like Mthatha, Matatiele and Mantlanene, and while farmers like Pat Goss snr chose a horse and trap as their conveyance to race meetings, that era passed me by. What didn’t, was the fervour among racegoers that greeted the horse races; the circus coming to your village was one thing, but nothing quite matched a gathering of the racing clan.
At this time, I would ask that you cast your minds back to early August, when I penned a piece about my first visit to the Duke of Richmond’s fabulous racecourse in Goodwood, scene of one of the most stirring mile contests ever staged, when Kingman decimated last year’s hero, Toronado in as potent a display of power galloping as I’d ever witnessed. Goodwood has a centuries-old history of attracting racegoers from every spectrum of society, and one of its quaint eccentricities is the “free-entry” vantage point afforded by Trundle Hill, an Iron Age fort at the top of the straight. The coachloads come in their happy droves and everything about Goodwood conspires to celebrate the homely feel of that marvellous institution, the Great British Day Out. My only former impression of the Duke’s great estate was the black and white television memory of a motor raceway that dates to the days of Stirling Moss and Jack Brabham, and more recently of a quirky racecourse of ups-and-downs, switchbacks and loops, and the undulations more reminiscent of a point-to-point venue than a testing ground for thoroughbreds.
Truth is, it’s all of that, and more, but importantly, it’s both staggeringly beautiful and what the purists would call a “bloody good” racecourse, where only the best riders are left standing when the five days of festivity are over. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a “pint and pork pie” man or operate at the loftier end, where Lanson and lobsters rule, because the view and the atmosphere come together with all prices. Make your way into the grandstand and the panorama is timeless, fields and woods that’ve changed not at all in 300 years, and not a house in sight. England as she was and, in rare spots like the Goodwood estate, England as she remains.
On Sunday, the Summerhill team ascended upon the South African version of “Glorious Goodwood”, the annual Willowfountain Country Race Day some 20 kms beyond the provincial capital, Pietermaritzburg. While the green hills of the racecourse precinct are strikingly resemblant of the Sussex countryside, and like Goodwood, the course is perched on top of a range of hills, that’s about as far as the comparisions go. The road to Goodwood is decorated with baronial landscapes, rich men’s weekend retreats and the Duke of Norfolk’s Arundel Castle; the way to Willowfountain passes initially through mile upon mile of the pleasing sight of the lifestyle the “new” South Africa’s middle class have crafted out for themselves in the traditional townships of Edendale and Imbali. Then it passes into a typically delightful rural scene of mud huts, cattle, goats and well-tended acreages of vegetables and crops; here is a community making a fistful of both the pleasures of country life as well as the benefits of their proximity to their occupations in the city. The trail of smart BMWs, some of them of the “ministerial” sort, SUVs and Mini Coopers suddenly finds itself abandoned by the macadamized road that leads this way, for an agonisingly long, rain-gouged mountain track punctuated every few metres by the excruciating sound of metal on rocks.
You’d have thought they’d summited Everest, such was the relief of the smart set in their low-slung “limos” as the hills levelled off; across the way the occasion is celebrated in a profusion of marquees, horse floats that have journeyed from the remote fastnesses of Lesotho, the Eastern Cape and the Free State, and the faraway chatter and clamour we all know from our occasional excursions to Durban’s Municipal market. At a distance, this scene could be early Goodwood, gleaming white tents in the distance, a car park brimming with new models, and a racetrack that undulates across the ups-and-downs, though the language and the volume is distinctly its own.
Racing is said to have taken its place on these hills for more than a century, fostered by the kindred talents of a local population whose skills of horsemanship stand alone in the world. Yet this meeting is immediately different, and you know it for the presence of a squadron of police cars and black limousines that occupy the space immediately opposite the winning post. We’re blessed in this province with a political leadership whose affection for racing is as deep as our own, and you soon realise, the closer you get to the VIP enclosure, that this is as important an address in racing parlance as Greyville, Kenilworth or Turffontein. There are three legs to the Country Racing Triple Crown, the most famous of which is former Premier Sbu Ndebele’s Dundee July, and here we are for the final (and arguably the crowning event,) of the year, in the district which gave birth to another ex-premier and current Treasurer General of the ruling party, Dr Zweli Mkhize, as well as the encumbant MEC for Agriculture, Cyril Xaba, and the MEC for Health, Dr. Sibongiseni Dhlomo.
Of course, they’re all here, revisiting the hills on which they once tended the family herds and honed their skills on horseback, and where now, despite their elevated glory, they’re back to relive their childhood memories. If ever you had any doubts about the pulling-power of the day’s proceedings, you need only look at the number plates in the car park: they’ve come too, from the distant lands of Limpopo, the North West Cape and Gauteng, and they’re here to win, and win well, for the celebration is not so much about the money, but the contest. Like the British aristocracy, whose pursuit of the sport in its earliest manifestations was all about one nobleman’s horse beating another, this is a joust for the right to occupy the “holy acre” in front of the crowds, more than it is about the dough. For those of us among their loyal subjects, there is comfort knowing that these men, for all their lofty status, have not forgotten their roots, nor have they have forsaken their communities.
Everywhere, there are signs of a visionary commitment by Gold Circle to the nurturing of country racing and what it stands for, and the list of those whose patronage has made it possible, tells us there are others besides ourselves, like Cape Thoroughbred Sales, who share these ideals. We are instantly spoilt as we enter the car park, greeted with the courtesy and the warmth you extend to your brother; soon enough, you recall the atmosphere of racing as it used to be, and that while winning and losing are the unavoidable ingredients of the game, just being here and living the moment is why the kids have turned up. You know it when well-wishes extend all the way down to the tail-enders, and you know it especially when the roars and ululations attend the arrival of the last horse home, even if he’s half a furlong adrift.
The sight of a team of television presenters and cameramen, the embrace of a nine year old jockey in the number one box by the chairman, and the frenetic organisational to-ing and fro-ing of the Horse Care Unit and Hazel Kayiya, a year out of her graduation from our School Of Equine Management Excellence, tell us that Gold Circle has taken rural racing to heart. The presence in the racecard of the purple, crimson sash, gold sleeves and cap of King Letsie III of Lesotho, is the best evidence that there are still those who remember that mankind’s history was wrought on the backs of these splendid animals.
And finally, a word about the riders; you all know the thrall in which we hold the skills of our local horsemen, yet if ever you doubted us, make a hole in your diary for the 2015 renewal. No other jockey in South African history has won twelve titles, let alone ridden the British to sleep as well; Sunday’s proceedings were dignified by the presence of such a man, Michael Roberts, who like us, was mesmerised by the stirrupless wonders these riders performed. I was quickly reassured when I saw that the Summerhill contingent, Michael Booysen, Thabani Nzimande and John Motaung had their address books out, scribbling down the contact numbers of these youngsters. Most of them are unemployed, apart from for the odd job they pick up for an art in which riders who are comparably equipped in more fashionable realms, are assured of a lucrative existence of smart homes, flashy cars and richly-adorned women. With a bit of help from our friends in government, some of these fellows can dream now of a graduation through Summerhill and its School of Equine Management Excellence, and of a meaningful life in the saddle.