Success on the turf often has unpretentious beginnings. That’s part of the daydream that tempts young people to persist with the prickly beast with bad legs that cost them a few thousand Rands, and arrived with a patched-up headstall and a torn rug. They remember the folklore, and are comforted by it. We shouldn’t be sniffy about these fantasies: racing runs on them. One horse can change our lives.
You’ve often heard it said that horses are a language we can all share. Sometimes there are quiet asides, sometimes dramatic moments, but there is always a story to tell, and the Emperor’s Palace Ready To Run sale is littered with the sort of anecdotes on which the racing game survives. Its good horses have come from any number of backgrounds, and some of these stories are worth retelling.
Hear The Drums was a once-in-a-lifetime horse, literally. He went where no other racehorse in South Africa had ever been. He took the “around-they-go” sameness out of the game, except in the number of times he visited the Number One box. Here was a man who gave Peter Fabricius not one, but 35 undying moments. Yet his legs failed the inspection of everyone present at the sale. He would’ve failed the scrutiny of his owner too, if he’d not bought him on the telephone, for a “scrappy” R42 000. As the winningmost racehorse in South African history, he reminded us that there are other things to a champion, besides legs.
Pierre Jourdan isn’t that big, his parents weren’t famous, and he only cost R60 000 as a youngster. Gary Alexander saw at the pre-sale gallops what very few others did, and “PJ” was the one, above all, that he wanted to get his hands on. But the horse doesn’t know any of this, and when he raced home as the darling of the Joburg racing set in the South African Classic, the crowd cheered him all the way to the winners circle. PJ was briefly more a deity than a horse. A prominent member of the Catholic clergy was so overcome, he forgot the injunction against worshipping graven images. He asked for, and received, a few coppery hairs from PJ’s tail.
As for Imbongi, he was the unwanted urchin of two sales rings, having failed to make his modest R60 000 reserve at the National Sales and again at the Emperor’s Palace Ready To Run. A lifetime of observation at the races and the trust Ronnie Napier invests in relationships, led him and his erstwhile partner, Michael Fleischer, to lay claim to his ownership one Saturday morning at the Summerhill gallops. Imbongi returned the faith in no uncertain terms, as the top three year old miler of his generation, and then again as the leading earner of his year at the Dubai Racing Festival. A Group race victory in England put the cherry on the top of a career which accumulated more than R8 million in stakes.
As Mike de Kock left the mounting yard for Imbongi’s assault on the Zabeel Mile, the Meydan racecourse’s richest event at the trip, he said “no excuses today”. He didn’t need any. Destiny came rushing up to embrace him. When jockey Christophe Soumillon said “laissalle”, Imbongi surged away from his field, shaking off the hangers-on as much as Oscar Pistorius would farewell a bunch of neighbourhood joggers. That self-same day, de Kock claimed the laurels in the Fillies Guineas for Sheikh Mohammed and Ronnie Napier with yet another Ready To Run acquisition. The victress was Fisani, a girl whose heritage included Teenoso, winner of England’s greatest horserace. De Kock understands pedigrees.
And then there is Igugu, Horse of the Year and heroine of South Africa’s two richest races, the Vodacom Durban July and the J&B Met, as well as the nation’s first ever winner of the Triple Tiara. A daughter of the world’s hottest stallion, she represents the “toffs”. Predictably, she stripped a million from an unsuspecting wallet at the Emperors Palace Ready To Run Sale, but it wasn’t always like this for her buyer. Igugu’s original owner was a former battler and a one-time electrician, who’s come well of late.
He’s never managed a mention in Fortune magazine, but he did play scrumhalf for Diggers Fourths. As an apprentice, they paid Andre Macdonald two quid a week, and he used to punt half. He wrote his bets on his hand. That way he could keep track of his bank balance while he played. Igugu is such a celebrity these days, she’s found a home on cable TV, and even while she’s in quarantine in Mauritius, in the nascent blogosphere. When she romped home in the July, Andre Macdonald suffered a euphoria so intense, it was notifiable.
What else can we tell you about the Ready To Run? Apart from the fact that the stories just go on and on, the one thing we just said which wasn’t entirely accurate, was that Igugu won the two richest races in the nation. Of course, we forgot to mention that this year’s Emperor’s Palace Ready To Run Cup will be contested for R2.5 million, which means the J&B Met no longer stands alone as the second richest event in the land.