The forums are always a good place to look when you’re casting around for something to write about. Someone is always annoyed or excited about something ! It is also a great place to find out about people who are doing extraordinary things and when I read that local jockey Chris Taylor was running the Comrades this year, I thought I’d ring up and find out a bit more.
Chris, better known as Chippy, is about one of the friendliest, chattiest people you are likely to meet. He rode in his first race on his 16th birthday and has not looked back. He was valet to Michael Roberts in 1997 when he won The Durban July and served his apprenticeship under the likes of Robin Watkinson and David Ferraris, affording the opportunity to work with horses such as Classic Flag, Travel North and Young Rake. He received his license in January 1999 and cut his qualified teeth under Cliffie Miller in Kimberley. Chippy’s motto is ‘have saddle, will travel’ and he certainly has not let the grass grow beneath his feet. His travels have taken him from Zimbabwe to Dubai, Qatar, Bahrain and South Korea. His CV boasts stints caretaking some of Mike De Kock’s superstars such as Ipi Tombe, Right Approach and Victory Moon as well as galloping Herman Brown’s fabulous Jay Peg . It is always hard to break into a new community, but Chippy’s cheerful character, ‘can do’ attitude and uncompromising work ethic have earned him accolades across the board, resulting in a contract for UAE president Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed al Nayyan last season. Not only has Chippy ridden champion thoroughbreds, he has also found success aboard their ancient ancestors, purebred Arabians, successfully partnering horses such as Mizzna (owned by Sheik Mansour bin Zayed, owner of Man City Football Club), Nil Blanc and Dynamite.
So why go from four legs to two ? Always having been an avid sportsman, good friend Paddy Wynne invited him a 10km fun run and Chippy says he really enjoyed it and things have sort of gone from there. Why the Comrades ? Well, says Chippy, in his trademark frank manner, it’s easier to work towards something when you have a set goal. Mine is the Comrades.
The World’s Greatest Race
The Comrades, billed as one of the world’s top ultra-distance races or even in some quarters, the world’s greatest race, was the brain child of First World War veteran, Vic Clapham. The horrors and deprivations of war left a deep impression on Clapham, but no more so than the bravery and camaraderie that he witnessed among his fellow servicemen. When the war ended, Clapham felt that serviceman should be remembered and honoured in some way and he wanted a living memorial to those South African soldiers killed in the war. He wanted the memorial to be a unique test of the physical endurance of the entrants to celebrate mankind’s spirit over adversity. Having endured a 2 700-kilometre route march through sweltering German East Africa, he settled on the idea of a marathon.
His idea led him to the League of Comrades of the Great War who Clapham approached for permission to stage a 56 mile (approx. 90km) race between Pietermaritzburg and Durban. He proposed that the race be called the Comrades Marathon and that it should become a living memorial to the spirit of the soldiers of the Great War. Although the League were resistant initially, Clapham eventually won them over with the argument that if a person could be taken off the street given a rifle and 60lb pack and marched all over Africa, then surely a fit and able athlete could complete the distance.
The first Comrades Marathon was run on 24th May, 1921, and started outside Pietermaritzburg’s City Hall. There were 34 participants. However, from those humble beginnings it has grown to become an institution on the South African calendar with 19,590 entries last year. It has been run every year since its inception, except for the war years of 1941-1945, with the direction alternating each year between Pietermaritzburg and Durban.
People participate in the Comrades all manner of reasons. With the race now a fixture on the international calendar, it attracts a number of serious sportsmen and professional athletes, but like Chippy, a lot of folks run to commemorate someone or in support of a charity. There is no fanfare or who-ha – just a determination and commitment to serve and make a difference to their community. Chippy is running in support of the Coastal Horse Care Unit, an affiliate of the national Horse Care Unit group, who have been up running since July 2009.
The Coastal Horse Care Unit is based in Cato Ridge and run by the hugely energetic Gillian Olmesdahl. Like most charities they are short on funds, but big on energy and enthusiasm and even a brief visit to their website or Facebook page bears testament to the staggering work they carry out. I caught up with Gill after their most recent Rural Outreach in Umzimkhulu where she tells me they treated 88 horses. With limited time and resources, the team focus on dipping, deworming and inoculating the horses and educating the owners. Ticks are a huge problem with horses suffering terrible damage, particularly to their ears if left untreated. We are all aware of the importance of managing AHS and the team does important work inoculating as many rurally-situated horses as possible. Tack and basic maintenance are major problems and with a lot of rural horse owners not having either the knowledge or the access to ‘normal’ standards of care such as good quality hoof care and safe, comfortable tack. One of the Unit’s functions is to educate members of the rural community in skills such as leatherwork and farriery, which empowers them with the means to earn a living as well, but most importantly, gives them the know how to help the local horse population. All horses presented for treatment at Outreach days have their tack inspected and any unsuitable or ill-fitting items are confiscated and replaced with better fitting, safer and more comfortable equipment. There is always an on-going need for medical supplies and tack, with saddle pads high on the wish list.
Gill says that they do come across a number of Thoroughbreds on their Outreach days and while Thoroughbreds are not considered the hardiest breed in the world, some rural owners do a good job in caring for them really well.
The Unit assists with two main annual events – the Dundee July and the Summer Cup (all run at the same time as their more formal name sakes !). The team help by educating and informing participants of the race requirements and they also inspect the horses to ensure that all are fit and sound enough to take part, disqualifying any horses deemed lame or unfit to race.
Being a Section 21, the unit is entirely dependent on donations and they fund-raise extensively. The racing community are already firmly on side with Gold Circle being a long-standing supporter and stalwart members of the racing community such as Ronnie Napier on the board of NHT and Dean Latimer on the Board of CHCU. The Unit fund-raises heavily and their most successful initiative is their annual Horse and Hound day which is held at Easter Time. This is run in conjunction with a local Dog Rescue Centre and the day is generously sponsored by Royal Canin. There are a myriad of events to entertain young and old, including Best Dressed Dog, Best Matching Outfits, Best Hair-Do, Best Trick, Owner/Dog look-alike, Most Vocal and Cutest Dog on Show. There is also a Super Dog Challenge for the agility minded, a market, walks across the farm for hounds and their humans, an Easter Egg hunt for the small humans, carriage rides and even a display by Malcolm Draper titled The Naked Horse (sorry, that unfortunately is ‘Horse’ and not ‘Horseman’, for those of you who were hoping !). There is R25 entry fee per car and it is a guaranteed fun and worthwhile family day out.
When I ask Chippy whether his running training is helping his riding, he says that it actually works the other way round. Because jockeys have to be so fit, he had a pretty good base to work from. He also already has the strong mental focus and resolve to push through the long hours of training and the physical discomforts. As he says cheerily – you can always repair the blisters, you can only run the race once.
He’s already completed 2 marathons, the most recent being the Maritzburg Marathon where he crossed the line in 3 hours and 33 minutes and finished a very creditable 346th out of 4,000 entries. His next goal is the Two Oceans half marathon in April.
If he can keep his training going at this pace, he hopes to achieve a respectable time in the Comrades, but Chippy says at this point is main objective is just to finish.
It is a tough and gruelling race and there are legions of stories of race day war stories. Bruce Fordyce made the race his own during the 80’s with incredible 9 victories (8 of those back to back), earning masses of fans and really raising the profile and popularity of the event. However, one of the memorable Comrades moments was Wally Hayward’s finish in 1989, when he completed the down run at the age of 80. With the stadium packed and viewers glued to their television sets across the country, I don’t think there was a dry eye in the land as he laboured across the line in obvious distress, to make the 11 hours cut-off time by a mere 1 minute and 57 seconds. To this day, he remains the oldest finisher in the history of the Comrades Marathon.
No ‘Flyer’ column is complete without a bit of borrowed wisdom, and today’s one is the Starfish Story by Loren Eisley. A man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean. Intrigued, he approached the boy and asked what he was doing. The youth replied, ’Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die’. ‘Son’, the man replied, ‘don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference!’ The boy listened politely, then bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf. Then, smiling shyly at the man, he said ‘I made a difference for that one’.
Life’s problems can sometimes seem overwhelming and small gestures may feel small and insignificant when pitted against the bigger picture, but I like the Star Fish story and believe that small changes can make a difference.
This year’s Comrades takes place on Sunday, 3 June 2012. It is the downhill course and runners will be under starter’s orders at the Pietermaritzburg City Hall from 5:30am. If you would like to help Chippy or the Coastal Horse Care Unit throw a few star fish back into the ocean, Chris’s details are posted on Facebook, Twitter (@chippy7) and the African Betting Clan Forum (who have started the ball rolling with a donation of R500). You can find the details for the Coastal Horse Care unit on Facebook and the web.