Back in May 2014, Bill Barich and Don Watson gave some very thought-provoking presentations at the Asian Racing Conference on connecting racing with popular culture (if you haven’t seen them, I highly recommend taking a look). It sparked a discussion and some exchange on how I thought racing could be marketed and how I could convey my ideas to the powers that be in clear, simple terms (I obviously am not very good at this, or people wouldn’t get so cross with me all the time !!).
Along with Messrs Barich and Watson, I like to think that anyone with a modicum of intelligence knows that racing is about the sport and more specifically about the horse, hence my frustration with trying to push the sport with girls at every opportunity. And so the discussion meandered on to whether racing could, or even should be sexy. It is clear that a number of people seem to think the answer is yes. Of course, the problem lies in the fact that people have very different ideas about what that is.
I don’t consider myself a particularly visual person and there are other things that stimulate my interest besides the obvious. Mainly because it’s just so, well, obvious. Racing is also supposedly the brain game and so I don’t think racing needs that sort of bald-faced approach either. I don’t think racing needs to be sexy. In my opinion, it just needs to be sincere. That’s really the key to success in just about anything I’ve ever witnessed. Whether you’re big, small, brash or ballsy, if you are honest and sincere and genuinely believe in yourself and what you do, then you’re half way there.
These days we see so much fluff and polish and gloss and so little substance. Racing of course is DROWNING in substance, but we don’t use it. Because we’re not supposed to talk about it. Because we’re ambitious and flawed and outrageous and drunk and we cheat and scheme and connive and no-one wants THAT on the front page. But that’s real. And people love real. Because if you’re real, then they can know and understand you. And if people can do that, then they can trust you. All the spin and polish and artifice that we insist on plastering onto everything in great dollops makes things confusing because people never know if they’re grabbing something real or just holding a handful of thin air. My biggest question was not whether racing should be sexy, but rather whether racing was still capable of being sincere. And last Saturday I got my answer.
While things like RA girls’ outfits drive me to drink and make me wonder how we can possibly get things so far wrong, on the other end of the spectrum we have the other extreme, where we get it so so right. Last week some kind soul said I never say anything nice. While they are entitled to their opinion, I don’t think it’s entirely true. I try to be honest – with myself and with everyone else – and so I only say nice things when I genuinely believe them. That’s quite an important difference, I think. And therefore it’s important that when I am nice (or when I’m not) that I genuinely mean it, because anything less would be meaningless. Either way, hang onto your hats folks, coz I’ve got a lot of nice this week.
Last weekend’s racing
I’ll be honest, I was being a bit of a Grinch and not looking particularly forward to it. There was a great big marquee tent plonked in exactly the wrong place, I was going to have to share the course with a bunch of racing greenies, the dress code was smart which doubles the amount of time it takes to get out of the house (ugh) and frankly, I was expecting something of a frosty reception. But what’s life without a few challenges? As it turned out, the day was fabulous. Yes, there were a few silly outfits, a few silly ‘hat-type things’, and overly generous early hospitality judging by some of our presenters. The load-shedding caused a few hiccups, but overall the extra folk were in party mood and lent a festive flair, the weather played along and the racing was nothing short of top drawer. There was a nail-biter in the first, with Aldo Domeyer giving ‘King Karl’ a run for his money, Billy Prestage’s Milton showed why he helped Brutal Force to a 90 Merit Rating by trouncing the field by 3.25 lengths in the second, Karl got his own back on Aldo in the 3rd and despite a small field, the Kenilworth Cup also delivered an exciting finish. The Green Point Stakes was an emotional triumph for July heroes, Legislate and Richard Fourie and at a little after 4:15pm, the Selangor Cup delivered Piere Strydom’s magical milestone of 5000 lifetime winners.
Apart from the punters all united in willing Striker across the line, my favourite bit of the day was Piere’s speech. Neil Andrews (and his hat) were on hand to ask “What is going through Piere Strydom’s mind right now?” and then that wonderful, unforgettable response. “Finally! You know, obviously I try to not put myself under pressure, but you’ve got the journalists coming, my fiancé & kids, every meeting, hoping you’re going to make it….” And then his voice cracks and the strain and emotion finally overcome him.
Whether you were on course or whether you were watching from home – there was no-way anyone who watched Piere’s speech didn’t also suddenly have a catch in their throat and a tear in their eye. It just got to you. Because it was REAL. It was searingly honest and heartfelt and it embodied absolutely everything that is good and pure about our sport and that we had started to believe may have been lost forever.
And god love you guys, on Saturday, we set aside all the posturing and posing and trying to make ourselves clever and shiny and into something we’re not, and we just focussed on celebrating this wonderful man, doing what he does best. And do you know what – we got it right. I could have hugged each and every last one of you. Even the RA girls.
For the first time in as long as I can remember, we weren’t talking about the Pick Six, the cars we’re giving away, the celeb spotting, the craft beers, the ‘Jozi jockeys’ or any of the other tat. We were focussed on the sport and on the real stars – the horses and the people who ride them – because that’s what we’re about and that’s what we do best.
And when racing does that, when we just set aside all the rubbish about our ‘brand’ and our ‘image’ and about who we want the rest of the world to think we are, THAT’S when we get it right. And we nailed it on Saturday.
Save the cheerleader, save the world
For a blessed moment there was no bluster, no buzzwords and no bullshit. We just all took a step back and a moment to celebrate someone who is good at his job. And perhaps what makes it all the more special is that Piere, perhaps more than most, understands that it’s not about having a big job, or being a super star. And that we can’t do it on our own.
We can’t all be chiefs. But then we can’t all be Indians either. It’s just about being honest, and doing your job – no matter how big or how small – and doing it to the very best of your ability. For 33 years, Piere has been getting up every day and doing just that. And it’s got him to five thousand wins. What a fabulous example and reminder of what the sport is all about.
Despite his incredible achievement, Piere was characteristically humble and quick to share the glory. “I just have to thank each and every owner and trainer. I’ve been hired and fired so many times. But I still thank you. Because if I’d missed out one of your rides, I wouldn’t have been at 5000. Thank you so much and I hope I can keep going for a while longer.” I think we all do too.
Game of inches
At times like these, we start bandying around big words and lavish compliments and, particularly with the benefit of the numbers behind him, it wouldn’t seem too wide of the mark to call Piere Strydom a genius in the saddle. However, like most people who are good at their job, he also knows that genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.
Races aren’t usually won by huge margins. Despite what the conspiracy theorists think, races are seldom won on the strength of a single well-kept secret. It’s a game of teamwork and of doing lots of little things and trying to do each little thing as well as you possibly can. And it’s those inches, won in the small, boring, seemingly insignificant day to day details, that add up to the big glamorous flashes past the post. Those don’t arrive by magic. Those inches, short heads, necks and lengths, are the cumulative products of days, months and years of work. And that’s the good stuff. The stuff we can really hang our hat on.
The folks who understand that, are generally not the ones in front of the camera – they’re the ones off making sure the job gets done. As honestly and properly as possible. As Gary Player said, you truly do get luckier the harder you work.
Thank you Striker, for the reminder. And thank you, racing. When you get it right, you get it so so right.