The thought of winding a silk propeller around my neck and listening to endless speeches from man-made champions has little personal appeal for me. I frankly find the entire idea of stodgy stiff upper lip dinners, where most of the people wear false teeth-gritting smiles and earn an Oscar pretending to like each other, all rather pretentious and engineered. Maybe I’m just jealous, too.
I haven’t degenerated into a spiritual Cat Stevens alter ego overnight, pursued by some imaginary moon shadow or the like. But any exclusive system that caters for and panders to probably 1% of the people that make the wheels turn in this industry, has got to be viewed with circumspection and suspicion. Even if it does serve a useful purpose, of sorts -but where was the Groom and the Punter Of The Year, as just two examples?
Not that it is the be all and end all, but a simple question: Have you ever been nominated for or invited to an Equus Awards? You have probably answered in the negative and that is hardly surprising as it is a performance based system designed to recognise and laud the cream of the crop. And let’s face it, most of us are really just average – if we are lucky.
Do you, the man-in-the-street even know what Equus are or who they are? Do you care? Don’t answer that.
With the also- rans in the majority, it is also not too difficult taking this alternative view of life from the other side of the running rail through my R50 shades which I bought at our local traffic intersection – against my Optometrist’s advice.
The only irony for me in the burgeoining free enterprise system that exists in that world of endless traffic lights and fender-benders , is that the glasses are the same price in winter as they are in summer – but always sold with a smile and appreciation of custom. So much for marketing and pricing the product and other dynamics, like diversification. The locals are plain lazy, but these industrious smiling foreign pirate salesmen could teach us a thing or two. Come rain or shine, business goes on – there are mouths to be fed. Huh?.
I am not opposed to Equus, but are we really going to survive the next century with power concentrated in the hands of so few and with sharing and involvement happening on the selective basis that it does?
These ra-ra occasions also merely serve to widen the gap between the haves and the have bugger-alls. And lest we forget that this is a sport that has its roots in the thrill of a universal appeal for the masses and the fact that even the poor whites, the coloureds, who have always seemed to be marginalised, and the blacks, could take an, admittedly separate, bus to Milnerton on a Saturday in the old days to enjoy a hot pie and a cold glass of milk while shouting for horses of the same colour. All the while, watching your PA banker run a dirty fourth in the final leg as the shadows lengthened before the miserable journey home.
These days, we could say that the core of black support has gravitated to the distractions of Bafana Bafana and the attractions of cash consuming side-shows like smart cars and larney shoes and Blackberries. Aren’t they such a pain? The Blackberries, I mean.
I believe that we never really tried with this population group though, and now we have lost them forever – even though a few will strut their stuff at the big days and come racing, lured by the on course politico’s and fashionistas – definitely the occasion more than the horses.
Then the whiteys. Hell, they generally can’t afford to even pay attention anymore and the starry-eyed small-time suburban racehorse owners of the late eighties and nineties have also largely disappeared into oblivion . Check a racecard from that time. They are G O N E. Some of them still get their fix punting, but they are shadows of their former selves. They used to get the call from the trainer – not about the account, but about the stable info for tomorrow. Today it is only ABSA that calls. And gone are the member’s parking area sticker – in fact, gone are the cars, the Friday evening stable braais and the feeling of belonging to a passion. They can and never will come back.
But back to Equus. Glits, glamour and bling.
Big money spent in the name of black-slapping and acknowledgement. Every component gets his five minutes of fame – even the exceptional talent of a horseman named Abram Makhubo – Workrider of The Year. The man is as good as any of our professional jockeys and has made good.
But what about his less fortunate colleagues, the Grooms who don’t ride work and earn the extra cash of riding in races regularly? Where was the Groom Of The Year? Or does Makhubo’s award quash the conscience on that front? My suggestion is that anybody who slept in a five star hotel bed and enjoyed a hearty meal at Equus, should go and muck out as a Groom in Cape Town in the first week of August. Then, and only then, can words like passion, commitment and dedication be thrown about in those cheesy post-race interviews.
And what about exceptional achievement? The Owner Of The Year award should be shared amongst every owner who supports Cape, Kimberley and PE racing with moderate animals. It might be plain stupid, but just have a look at how many horses run week in and week out and earn sweet nothing. Then spare a thought for the multitude of trainers who have strings of ten or twenty modest animals but keep the competition and the show going by robbing Peter to pay Paul and hopefully earning a stake every other week. There are plenty of them.
Trainer Mike De Kock and Anton Marcus magnanimously donated the cash equivalents of their Gold Circle season awards to the Coastal Horse Care Unit on Super Saturday. What about a jockey called Chris Taylor, who gave up months of his life and put his body on the line to run the Comrades Marathon to raise funds for horse care? He didn’t do it for the medal or an Equus Award, but surely a mention at one of the numerous awards dinners for a particularly selfless sacrifice was warranted?
Then the jockey championship is another area that has irked and riled many with the incorporation of the Zimbabwe winners allowing a young pretender like Gavin Lerena to rattle the cage of Superman. There is little doubt for me that Anton Marcus is a deserving winner of the award and, with the possible exception of the brilliant Piere Strydom, the best jock by a country mile in South Africa.
But the system is intrinsically flawed. How can we nominate and label a jockey a champion, when that guy rides the best horses for the best trainers and the biggest owners, race in and race out? He has surely got to ride more winners at the end of the day and all that happens is that the hole just gets bigger for those behind him.
It also has a downside for punters and for the talented jockey himself. I was watching Clairwood racing this past Sunday. Marcus rode a Paul Lafferty-trained Silvano filly called Electric Blue. She had run two average fifths and was backed into 33-10 favourite, but was the first horse beaten in the run for home, eventually finishing 8,85 lengths off 35-1 winner Jenna Jameson. Electric Blue should never have been favourite.
I feel the introduction of a wild-card grand prix system would give a far better indicator of who the very best jockey is for the season. Why can’t it work? Here’s how:
1.Designated fixed weight races can be allocated to the competition nationally on a monthly basis.
2. Riders, who will nominate themselves, will be drawn for random mounts and allocated by the NRB system.
3.Points will be allocated from first to fourth.
If we run say an average of 40 of these races every month, the imbalances will soon be ironed out and the competition can go into the final month of the season with possibly a few guys in the hunt for realistic glory.
And this rather than the ridiculous scenario where trainers and jockeys are switching and manipulating things to create clearer paths to glory.That is the platform for hollow and empty victories and completely unfair to the people without the necessary power contacts and friends.
Why do we always love to pretend it doesn’t work this way? Call me envious. Call me sour.