Variety Club and Team - Champions Mile (Group 1) / HKJC (p)

Variety Club belongs to another order, the guild that takes in Sea Cottage, Mowgli, Hawaii and Horse Chestnut.
— Mick Goss / Summerhill CEO
Mick Goss - Summerhill CEO
Mick Goss - Summerhill CEO

Superlatives are the cut flowers of sports reporting. They look good for a few days, then they wilt. Facts are better. Facts are for the ages. So here goes: no foreign-trained racehorse has been able to take out Hong Kong’s Champions Mile (Gr.1) in the past ten years. The former British colony has been a fortress for top milers and sprinters for decades now, and as a foreign raider, you have been warned. The extent of the Hong Kong punters’ belief in their “own” was amply reflected in yesterday morning’s opening betting: 3/5 Able Friend, 10/1 the local Group One winners, Glorious Days and Dan Excel, and only then our Horse of the Year, Variety Club, at 20/1. Astonishingly, for a competitor who’d just come off a Group One victory against the best milers in Australia, Gordon Lord Byron best exemplified the local disdain for overseas competition with a quote of 40/1. Able Friend bestrides the Sha Tin turf like a demi-god; Gordon Lord Byron has won Group Ones in England, and now he’s done the same in Australia. But these and others merely inspire admiration.

Variety Club belongs to another order, the guild that takes in Sea Cottage, Mowgli, Hawaii and Horse Chestnut. No, this is not my line-up of their abilities; what links them is more mysterious than that. All could inspire affection; they came to be loved before they were admired. Because of the way they did things, they made people feel good and the sport seems even grander than it is. And grandeur is what Variety Club gave Sha Tin on Sunday, just as London News had done for South Africa 17 years ago. Both from the outside slot.

Variety Club did it at both ends. He rushed to the lead going out of the back straight, and didn’t stop-start like some front runners. He kept lifting the tempo, upping the stakes, gradually making the contest unbearable, reeling off furlong after furlong in less than twelve seconds on a sticky surface. Long before the home turn, agony and panic had broken out behind him. When the “faithful” expected him to come back to their heroes, he kicked clear, galloping extravagantly, zestfully, a cruel and wonderful machine.

The horse is a champion in the old fashioned sense of the word; a freak. He does things others can’t do. He is our best advert since Horse Chestnut, who was the best since Sea Cottage, who was the best since Mowgli. Never mind Hawaii, who won an American Eclipse award and sired an English Derby winner. At a time when we’re all trying to convince the world about the virtues of the South African racehorse and the need to facilitate a more sensible passage to international meetings, nothing was more heart-warming than the sight of Variety Club’s connections on the victor’s podium. Anyone who knows Markus Jooste, will tell you singing is not his forte‘, but the ecstasy of this triumph was enough to elicit a public rendition of the anthem, in particular the part that starts with “uit die blou van onse hemel!”. The truth is though, the nation owes its debt to Mike de Kock, who’s single-handedly raised the tempo for South Africa more than the rest of us put together.

In the week leading up to the yearling sale, our team popped in on a Turffontein meeting to watch a son of Brave Tin Soldier dismember a vaunted assembly of juveniles. In the “poorly” maiden that followed, De Kock sent forth an expensive import to clobber a field of relative no-hopers. As he made his way to greet the winner, a rather loud, matronly sort from the other side of Boksburg exclaimed in an accent that betrayed her origins: “If I ever own a racehorse, he’s going to train it”. You wonder what the poor man did to deserve that!

Just two months ago in Dubai, Variety Club suffered his first (and only) defeat in more than 2 years. Officially the horse was trained by Joey Ramsden, but the reality is, De Kock and his team had done the bulk of the work. De Kock has broad shoulders, and the buck stopped there. Like a good general, he knows that winning the war is more important than winning the battle. He knows when to go to the well. Yesterday, (as well as a month later in Dubai,) he was vindicated. While there was plenty of money on the line, on the podium yesterday, his eyes were telling us something that went beyond mere “loot”. Winning is everything with De Kock.

You might say the same about the jockey Anton Marcus, who is a master of his trade, and yesterday he was at his most masterful. As we’ve come to know him, he sat motionless for most of the journey, low down on his steed’s neck. Like the true master, his pace-making was flawless. He didn’t have to resort to the sabre; he simply ran them off their feet. Behind him, a clutch of former Australian “jocks” were sitting up, flailing away, and generally demonstrating why they are no longer the toast of this town. The Hong Kong Jockey’s title has been in South African hands for all but one of the past 23 years. Variety Club changed the history of the Champions Mile; Anton Marcus may yet change the way Aussie jockeys ride.

While I’m on a tack concerning champions, it would be remiss of me if I didn’t mention another. This time of the human variety. Thirty years ago, as the vice chair of the Bookmakers Control Committee, I was appointed to the unenviable task of presiding over a disciplinary enquiry involving a technical infringement. The penalties were prescribed by the law: our job was simply to decide the merits. We didn’t have to: the indictee, knowing the consequences, simply told us not to waste our time: he was guilty as charged. The sanction was a year “off”. The man told me not to feel bad about it; like de Kock, the buck stopped with him. We’ve been the firmest of friends ever since. Joe Louis, who lasted a record 11 years as the king of the world’s boxing heavyweights, once defined a champion as one who, having been knocked down and unable to get up, does so. We should hesitate to burden Glanville Gardiner with the careless tag of “champion”, but he is surely the spiritual brother of old Joe. He got up from the canvas, and headed off in a new direction. Glanville’s gifts are not of style, but of character; it wasn’t long, and he was firmly back on his feet.

A few years later, as the first crop of Coastal debuted at the National Yearling Sale, we had a grand specimen of a colt from the stallion in our draft. He was the first foal of the first mare the owner of the now-famous Drakenstein Stud, had acquired. By name Final Coast, Gaynor Rupert had consigned him to the sale in an attempt (I suspect) at demonstrating the viability (good sense?) of her equine ventures to her extraordinarily successful banker-husband. He by contrast, was disinterested in viability: he’d had plenty of that in his life already, and as he’d shown with his fascination for vintage cars, he was “a collector, not a seller”. Playing it by the book has always been part of the Rupert mantra, and the ethical thing to do, now that the horse was ensconced in Block “A” at the sales ground, was to buy him from his wife in the ring.

Enter Glanville Gardiner, from 700 kilometres away in Ballito on the North Coast. For one reason, and one only: to buy Final Coast. Like Mr Rupert, our man has a fine sense for fine things, and he has an uncanny knack for picking good horses. As a good pal, I told him he couldn’t buy the colt, because he’d have to take on a very rich man. In typical Gardiner style, his response was “He’ll need buckets”.

As a business proposition, the decision to take on Johann Rupert in the ring, was in the category that sends accountants into apoplexy. As a racing decision, well, it’s the kind of thing that separates racing from business. Damn the arithmetic; Glanville Gardner is a racing man. Gardner was right, he did need buckets, but he was cerebral enough to know that as much as he liked the colt, there was a tipping point. The horse turned out a compliment to both men’s taste: Final Coast gave more than a few “bookies” the goosebumps when he rose to challenge National Emblem in the Premier’s Classic (Gr.1), and he might have won a J&B Met if it weren’t for his aversion to aeroplanes as one of the ruling favourites for that august horserace. In the event, our man turned his attention to a seductive-looking daughter of the same sire, who, besides scooping four races herself, delivered up an East Cape Horse Of The Year in Coastal Waltz. Between us, we bought this admirable lady back when her racing days were over, and last week, the wisdom of that acquisition came in the form of a R1.4million bid for her Visionaire daughter, Yoruba.

Meanwhile though, much water has flowed under the bridge. Our great friend has been stricken with a debilitating illness, which he’s battled, as only he could, for a long while now. Times like these take us back into our lives: the doctors call it “introspection”. Often enough, they’re lonely times, and the only things that count are family, friends and the things that fascinate us. Besides his family, there are two things that really get the juices going with Glanville Gardner: fishing and the finishing line. No amount of hospitalization, doctors’ rooms and treatment after treatment has dimmed his extraordinary will, and the giant Mozambique kingfish still shudder when they know he’s planning an expedition. Like Lazurus, like Joe Lewis, he keeps finding his feet.

Just two years ago, at the inaugural Emperors Palace Summer Ready To Run Sale in our “School” venue on the farm, we had a very smart Kahal colt from Coastal Waltz in the catalogue. He wasn’t the best “engineered”, but he’d shown us some gears on the gallops. I was desperate that my old mate should be one of the twenty at the start to the Vodacom Durban July (Gr.1,) rather than one of the 60,000 in the stands, and I encouraged him to buy No Worries. None of us reckoned on the sales debut performance of “Buffalo Bill” Burnard however, and neither of us knew he’d have pockets as long as Johann Rupert’s. At R440,000, No Worries went to Gavin van Zyl’s yard and in 2013, he came within a nose of giving Vercingetorix a bloodied one in the Daily News 2000 (Gr.1). And in a prophecy fulfilled, he picked up a cheque in the “July”. Last week, the good mare came good again, at R1.4million in the sales ring.

The turf is an ongoing pageant of people and the outrageous fortunes that attend them. The straight and the shifty. Horsemen with an artist’s brush in their hands, and more than a few camel drivers. Sensational bores who regale you with how they nearly got the exacta, and the in-house cavalcade of toffs and nobs. Jockeys with those lived-in, used-up faces, somehow transplanted on young bodies.

And then there are the champions, the Glanville Gardners of this world: always true, always dependable, and forever undefeated.