Sometimes one needs a bit of a break from the harsh reality of life and it’s always good to have a few feel-good stories handy in a pinch. It’s been a tough week on the political front with our president shuffling his cabinet and while the Grand National can usually be relied on to throw up some kind of ruckus or high drama on the racing pages, this week the bad news came from the Southern Hemisphere.
Luckily there was also some good news and for me, that came in the form of photographs of Felix Coetzee dropping in to visit Silent Witness at Australia’s Living Legends last week. As a happiness shared is a happiness doubled, I thought I’d do just that.
Silent Witness catapulted onto the racing stage with his incredible 17 race unbroken win streak back in the early 2000’s. It is difficult to comprehend the magnitude of his importance to the Hong Kong racing public, but arriving as he did in the middle of their SARS crisis his performances were seized on by the local community as a beacon of hope during some very dark times. His achievements were so significant that Murray Bell wrote a book dedicated to Silent Witness titled ‘The Spirit of Hong Kong’ and in 2009 the Hong Kong Jockey Club erected a life-size commemorative sculpture of Silent Witness on the Sha Tin Racecourse public forecourt.
As Felix Coetzee partnered him in all his starts, his own star rose along with the great horse. Perhaps the very pinnacle of their achievements was their 17th victory, an incredible second consecutive Hong Kong International Sprint in 2004. Felix remembers, “Everyone was waving flags and up in the grandstand someone had a massive banner with his colours. Seeing the whole of Hong Kong behind him – you get caught up in that kind of emotion. There were horses from all over the world that people had been talking up, but I looked at those crowds and thought, ‘How can anything beat us?’ It’s something I would never normally do, but I put my fist in the air and the whole grandstand erupted. It gave me goosebumps. It’s hard to describe, but it was just one of those moments that really means something. It gives you a power and a confidence that you’re unbeatable. It’s once in a lifetime that you get a horse like Silent Witness.”
Where the Sprint was one of the highlights of Felix and Silent Witness’ career, so their very next start, the 2005 Champions Mile, would be one of their worst as they got beaten on the line by stable mate Bullish Luck and jockey Gerald Mosse. In an interview with the SCMP’s Michael Cox, Mosse recalled: “You don’t usually notice the crowd while you are riding, but that day it was very loud, all the way down the straight, but in the final strides something very strange happened – when it was clear I would win, the crowd just stopped. All of a sudden, it was like somebody switched off the volume.”
In all, Silent Witness raced 29 times for 18 wins and 5 places and Felix Coetzee partnered him throughout his career. Silent Witness retired to Living Legends after his last start on 4 February 2007.
Felix is currently contracted by the Hong Kong Jockey Club to work as part of their apprentice development programme. En route to New Zealand last week, he stopped off in Australia to consult with a local equine sports psychologist and on his way back to the airport, he stopped in to check in on Silent Witness.
“Living Legends is about 6 minutes from Melbourne airport, so it was really convenient to pop in on my way before I left,” he explains. The first time Felix visited was about a year after Silent Witness retired. “That time I went specifically from HK. When I went through customs in Australia they asked ‘what’s the reason for your visit?’ and I said I’ve come to visit a horse. They said, ‘Go and stand in that queue please’ and gave me a thorough grilling because I was flying out the same day and not staying over. It took about ¾ of an hour to get through customs. After my visit, I went back to the airport and the guys recognized me and said ‘You were here this morning – why are you back?’ I felt that they they’d already given me a hard time coming in, so I thought I’d be cheeky and said I came to visit a horse’ and we went through the same process all over again. They drug tested me and all those things!” he laughs. As they say, no good deed goes unpunished!
Fortunately this time things were a lot less eventful. “I specifically got there early so that I could spend some time with him. Unfortunately, when I arrived they had just unloaded the feed van, so he was eating. He’s in a paddock with Good Ba Ba and not interested in me all that much. All he wanted to do was eat! He is in terrific condition. He carries a lot of weight now and is in one of their bigger paddocks to allow him to do a bit more exercise.”
“I had time, so I just hung around. He totally ignored me in the beginning. Once he’d eaten enough, I tried to get his attention, but he wasn’t having much of it,” laughed Felix. “He walked, picked at some grass and eventually decided he would give me a bit of time – that’s when the pictures happened.”
“It was very, very nice. He gave me about 10 minutes like that. When I say ‘he gave me 10 minutes’, I talk about him like that because that’s just him. He’s got this massive presence, this ego. They tell me he’s the boss there. They’ve put a few horses in with him and he just dominates them. Good Ba Ba he gets on with and it’s a good relationship, but when it was feed time, he decided which side he was going to eat from. You can see he’s in control there!”
On his terms
Did Silent Witness remember him? “It was very much a riding kind of relationship that I had with him in Hong Kong. It is very different to what I have with horses now – breaking in and all that sort of thing. It’s quite a different feeling. But I’ve always been aware of his persona, his attitude, his character and he just, he has always known that he’s great. He’s like a supreme athlete. I don’t know why, but Carl Lewis always jumps to mind when I want to compare him to a person’s character. I always remember thinking Carl Lewis has this air of supremacy about him and that’s what Silent has got. And he showed me that again last week. It was like ‘Oh OK, now I will give you some attention.’ It was a funny thing – one of the first things he did was to put his head above mine, as though he was saying, “Let’s get the pecking order right!” he laughs.
Back in their Hong Kong days, the pair reportedly had a ritual greeting that they would go through. “What he would do was take my cap and fiddle with it with his mouth and then move it around, so that it sat facing the back of my head. When I visited, I particularly took my cap with me. I put it on and he grabbed hold of the peak and started pulling it, so I moved my head and he pulled the cap off and dropped it. I picked it up again and he did it again. It was nice to have that again,” he reminisces. “I’ve got two big slobber marks on my cap, which I probably won’t wash off.”
Silent Witness is 17 years old now, but still looking great. Felix reports, “One of the girls there tells me she’s been looking after him for 6 years and that he’s never a problem – his feet are good, his coat is good, he’s healthy. The only problem is keeping his weight down! It was lovely to see him looking so good. I can’t even say he’s an old man or anything like that. For me, when I’m standing with him and so on, he’s still got his character, his aura about him, everything is there. He’s something else. He just knows he’s great.”
“One thing I always said was that he’s got these wild instincts about him. Like a horse in the wild, he would always notice things in the distance – he was sharp with things like that. If you look at the pictures you can see how soft his eyes can be and also how alert he can be, because I managed to get pictures of both. When he’s got his ears pricked, you see a different kind of eye. I’m glad that I got a few of those softer moments with him where he gave me his attention, but it took me, oh boy, a good 45 minutes till he would do that. And I only got it for about 10 minutes and then that was it and he went off and did his own stuff again. I actually struggled to get a picture of him with his head up – he just eats! If his head is not in his haynet, then he’s eating grass.”
Silent Witness’ old foe Bullish Luck occupies the paddock next door and although Felix rode Bullish Luck to victory in the 2004 Hong Kong Gold Cup, the pain of the 2005 Champions Mile defeat still runs deep. Felix says, “Think what you like, I don’t care, I didn’t say hello to him and couldn’t find a reason why I should. I did win the Hong Kong Gold Cup on him but that was enough for me.”
“I was making ready to leave and thinking to myself, I don’t know when I’m going to be here again. You sort of want to say ‘cheerio, old chap’, but he’s not interested. I was the lucky one to come and see him.”