I do like mornings, it’s just a shame that they always happen so early. January is becoming much the same. I do like lots of what happens in January, I just wish it didn’t all happen quite so fast and all on top of each other.
Not only are we still reeling from Christmas and New Year (remember them?) which are traumatic on a number of levels, adding to the level of difficulty we now have the L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate, the CTS Cape Premier Yearling Sale, Met gallops and the Met all in the same month. Quite how the poor studs manage with yearling prep, admin such as X-rays, farm viewings, all those crazy public holidays and festive season staff issues on top of it all is quite beyond me. And this year, we had the addition of the ITBF congress in the middle of it all, plus a two-day Queen’s Plate festival.
A week after most are still trying to recover from New Year hangovers and figure out what day of the week it is, we suddenly realise we need to raid our wardrobes for two L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate outfits (and pray that they still fit). Given all the above, plus a rather pernicious Southeaster that chased me in through Kenilworth’s Wetton Road gates on Friday afternoon, I did not arrive in the most festive of spirits. However, the best experiences are often the ones you least expect and L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate Friday has just been promoted to my new favourite race day.
SA’s First Festival
Somehow everyone on L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate day seems to have a smile on their face. The parking attendants waved me through so merrily that by the time I’d parked up, I was already feeling decidedly more cheery. The course was already decorated for Saturday and Kenilworth was dressed to the nines with pots of flowers, hanging baskets and all manner of decoration and prettiness that my vocabulary doesn’t cover, all over the place. It looked and felt gorgeous and with lots of race day favourites there – both on the ground and on the horses – it really did feel like having the most wonderful private party all to ourselves.
The garden party area had a jazz band, a harvest table laden with gorgeous breads and the freshest bagels. I couldn’t say why I love bagels so much, but for some reason I consider them a special treat – even if I have to hold onto my plate with the other hand to eat them! I bumped into an old friend from my TV studio days to share lunch with and there was even a soft serve ice-cream stand for afters, so my day was pretty much made by lunchtime. The garden party also included complimentary sparkling wine all day, which did much to raise spirits among the crowd.
The racing was fun and I liked the 8-race short format, which with two features (the Listed Jamaica Handicap won by Epona, Joey Ramsden’s half sister to Jay Peg, and the Gr2 Sceptre Stakes won by a flying Live Life and delivering Candice Bass-Robinson her second Gr2 in 3 weeks) was just enough to leave one wanting more. There wasn’t a huge crowd on course, but those who did venture out, had a great time. Even the wind eventually let up and the afternoon finished pleasantly with the garden party crowd lingering to enjoy the late afternoon sun. However, with Saturday to prepare for, most headed home at a sensible hour.
Having done a few rounds ‘upstairs’ before going home, I stopped for a chat with the team setting up the piano in the foyer and the tuner kindly played me a few songs. With all the activity of people scurrying around tidying up after the day’s racing and adding final touches to get everything just perfect for Saturday, I left with the sort of breathless anticipation of the night before Christmas.
After such a cozy, intimate outing on Friday, I was fretting slightly about having to share the course with the throngs on Saturday, but as usual, I needn’t have worried. Everything was beautifully spaced out and there was ample room for everyone. Plus, like Friday, everyone was in such a jolly mood that I found I didn’t mind too much after all.
The Beholder’s Share
There was once a (nonsensical IMHO) comment made by one of our top brass that electronic and telephone betting meant we don’t need people at the races anymore, but I beg to differ. There’s that old joke which poses the conundrum, “If a man says something in a forest and his wife isn’t there to hear him, is he still wrong?” It’s a bit of a frivolous example, but you get the general idea. Racing, much like other sporting events, works of art, music and so on, needs one vital ingredient to give it value – an audience.
In his book The Age Of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present, Nobel Prize winner Eric R. Kandel wrote, “Art is not art without the direct involvement of the viewer”. What then can sport possibly be without spectators?
I do like people, just not lots of them at the same time and not when I’m trying to get from A to B (particularly when there are horses at B!). But I think Mr Kandel has a point and I do think we need people at the races – not only because it makes it more fun if there is a bit of atmosphere, but also because our horses and jockeys so deserve it. It ups the stakes, it ups the adrenalin, but it also ups the performance and the reward when you get it right and judging by some of the reactions on course on Saturday, everyone was having a blast. And the best thing about people having a good time is that it’s infectious, which is perhaps why the L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate is always such a lovely day out.
Even more thrilling (for me, but I do get excited over odd things) was the fact that there was a discernible roar from the crowd at the start of one or two of the races of the kind normally reserved for the Met. It was so unexpected (I’m not sure why), that I had to pause simply to take in the sea of faces in the stands, all straining to see the horses. If we are trying to bring the crowds back to racing, then the L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate is a shining example of how to get it right. It was one of my standout moments of the entire weekend.
The fact that the L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate manages to be elegant as well as making you feel entirely at home at the same time is another of my favourite aspects. The fact that we’re all there for the horses fosters immediate friendships and cozy confidences which results in some surprising and fun encounters. I wandered down the chute to photograph horses cantering to the start and spotting a particularly pretty hat, couldn’t help complimenting its owner. She thanked me with a smile and we both continued watching the horses. It was not until the presentations that I realised my new friend was Princess Eugenie! Equally, down near the finish line, a grubby cheeked young boy leaned over the rail, eager to tell me his picks for the day and boast that he KNEW Legal Eagle was going to win. The L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate is just like that.
Of course, the crowds also got their money’s worth. There was plenty of entertainment value from the podium after Whiskey Baron’s win, with much being made of his improvement since gelding, the 2015 CTS CPYS sale topper Horizon is truly magnificent to behold in the flesh and it was wonderful to see him win a well-deserved Gr3 Politician Stakes. The Paddock Stakes was simply unbelievable – what a field, what a filly, what a finish! And one needs a book of superlatives for the main event itself. While it’s unfortunate that only one can win, it was another vintage assembly and the privilege of watching horses and riders like that is the reason we go racing. It is a day of champions in all senses of the word and at the risk of repeating myself, it was a privilege to be on course to see Legal Eagle defend his title and win a second consecutive L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate. Quite, quite remarkable and congratulations to all the connections. It was also special to have Princess Eugenie on hand to present the trophies – again, a lovely touch – but as always, L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate day was full of them.
It’s always fun to try and spot what’s new year on year and I have to hand it to the team who did an amazing job of dressing the stage and doing a quick wardrobe change between prize givings, which made it all rather fun and interesting. There were lots of Bedouin tents placed around the course allowing for respite from the sun and wind, but they were thoughtfully placed back from the rail so that those who wished to socialise could do so, while enjoying a view of the goings on, allowing the rail gloriously free for fans to get close to the horses. The LQP lettering was a huge hit in the garden party space and must be the most photographed installation in Cape Town. The carousel in the picnic area served much the same purpose and there were selfies aplenty – not only a fun and aesthetic touch, but also a very clever marketing and social media win.
The sponsors were enormously generous with their best dressed prizes and those of a sartorial nature went all out.
The cashless Howler initiative seemed to work well and given South Africa’s unfortunate problem with petty crime with events like this, was a resourceful way of trying to address this problem.
I did take a walk through the public spaces and there were plenty of celebs (not that I’m all that good at playing who’s who) and beautiful people, also beautiful food served by a host of tirelessly smiling staff.
Perhaps the only niggle was the Southeaster, which did pick up through the afternoon, only finally exhausting itself on Sunday (typical!), but on the other hand, it did serve to keep things relatively cool. Either way, as always, the L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate delivered. The friendliness of the lovely young ladies in the blue and white really sets the tone, but I have to compliment all the support staff who worked so hard on the day. Everyone was smiling and helpful and nothing was too much trouble. Wherever you went, it felt as though people wanted you to have a good time. And perhaps the best compliment I can pay the organisers is that it certainly appeared that everyone did.
There were breeders, owners and racing personalities aplenty and lots of people to wish well for the New Year and exchange hugs and news and gossip with. It is always such fun having everyone all in one place. In fact, it’s something one of our overseas visitors made a point of remarking on, saying how wonderful it was to see the camaraderie of our local racing folk. It is perhaps something I am in danger of taking for granted from time to time, but I couldn’t agree more. Despite the ups and downs and undoubted pressures of the mad and wonderful industry we choose to make our own, it is a real credit that we still find time to be kind to one another.
A sincere thank you to Gaynor and the many hardworking hands behind the scenes for another memorable L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate.