To Kill A Mockingbird

Robyn Louw chats to Charl Pretorius

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” – Richard Dawkins

Charl Pretorius

Charl’s Racingweb heydays

It is interesting how one forms opinions about things you read and the people who write them.  Well, perhaps the most interesting thing is why one forms those opinions, because they are usually less about the writer and more often about our own opinions about what they’ve said.  But nonetheless separating the two is considered hard work, which is why people generally don’t bother.  Anyway, like most people, I’d read a lot of Charl’s work, but first met him in the Kenilworth parade ring one sunny Queens Plate day many years ago.  He was still in his Racingweb heyday and the pictures I’d seen of him on-line were from before the current ‘selfie’ phase, but generally showed a larger than life character, frequently with a cigar hanging out of his mouth, hamming it up for the camera.  To be introduced to the spectacled, quietly spoken gentleman in a suit came as something of a shock.  He was taller and more distinguished than I’d expected and almost, shy I suppose would be the best description.

A lot of water has run under the bridge since then.  Racingweb famously went out in something of a blaze.  It may not have been a blaze of glory, but it was a conflagration, nevertheless.  Then followed his much spoken about, but less well documented, descent into disease.  And then there was silence.  The voice that had informed, poked, prodded, inspired and provoked was gone.  And we were all the poorer for it.

I heard that things were going better and that gave me comfort.  And then Charl got in touch to say that he was putting together another volume of Legends and I was delighted and put my name firmly down on the pre-order list.  The postman delivered one of those little slips of paper that promises an exciting post office delivery and I dropped everything to hurry into town.  I ripped open the packaging walking back to the car and turned the first page as I slid into the driver’s seat.  When I looked up again, the sun was setting, the post office was shut and the vagrants were settling down for the night.

Legends Volume 2

Legends Volume 2

For those who haven’t ordered a copy, do so.  Copies are available either by pre-order (email [email protected] or simply order online from www.amazon.com or www.amazon.co.uk).  I don’t generally go in for tipping, but I guarantee you won’t be sorry.  Charl has put together a collection of profiles of the greats of yesteryear and even yestermonth.  Some of the characters are long gone and exist only as grainy black and white pictures in old racing tomes.  With these only existing in small, scattered volumes belonging to small, scattered people, they are available only to the insatiably curious and the very determined and are in grave danger of being forgotten entirely.  There are some characters that we know and remember well, and a few early stories about folks who are still making headlines today.  It is a look at a few of the cogs that had a brief time turning the racing machinery wheel.  It is fascinating and as always, Charl makes the characters entirely accessible and friendly and it feels like you’ve been chatting to them over coffee in your sitting room.  It gave me the opportunity to ring Charl up and see how he’s doing.  I’m pleased to report that he is literally bristling with the old energy and enthusiasm and it is hard to keep up, nevermind take notes!

So how is Charl Pretorius? 

“Good.  Great actually.  I’m working in the automotive industry now and marketing an innovative car wash product – it enables you to wash and polish a car with a single litre of water.  It’s ahead of its time and it’s doing very well.  Listen, it’s chalk and cheese to what I was doing before and I’m doing things I never thought I could do.  I’m meeting new people and seeing new places.  It’s a completely different lifestyle.  I’m doing an eight to five!  I travel a lot, stay over in guest houses.  My life is interesting and I’m really enjoying it.

“Among it all, I’m trying to establish a writing niche again, but I want to get away from racing and into a different market.  I just need to open the grey matter to reach another audience.  I believe I’ll get there.  Publishing has changed.  There are a lot of opportunities for writers these days.  With self-publishers, there are writers all over the world and you can have a book done within a week if you want.  It’s a different ballgame. I’m still having fun with the Mike de Kock website, we launched it back in 2004 and it keeps me in touch, but writing for a racing audience is quite formulaic.  It’s either about a race or a person or a horse.  I am more interested in learning to be creative, writing stories and developing characters.  I believe that’s the future for me.  It’s also good to get away from racing, look at it from a distance and see how it works.  You can get so involved that it clouds your view and opinion.”

How did you get involved?

Completely different lifestyle.  Charl (right) in the old days with Mike de Kock & Robert Garner

Completely different lifestyle. Charl (right) in the old days with Mike de Kock & Robert Garner

“I started out about age 4 or 5.  We weren’t a horsey family, but my grandfather was a punter.  Every day I’d sit on his lap and he’d show me how to work out a PA.  He was an old PA shrewdie!  He taught me.  The first July I punted was Yataghan – he put some money on for me. From there I studied teaching, did a BA and got involved at Beeld, the Afrikaans newspaper, in 1988. That’s when I first met Mike de Kock.  We heard Ricky Howard-Ginsberg had died and some young guy had taken over.  I was sent to interview him.  He invited me for a braai, we got drunk and had a jol and have been friends ever since.  Only difference is he got rich and I got poor!”

“After Beeld I worked on Racing Digest with Alec Hogg, then was involved with the Premium Rate race service in the Cape for the Cape Turf Club.  It was a premium rate number that you could dial for all the race commentaries and results.  Those were the days when David Carswell, Shaheen Shaw and Rouvaun Smit started out, we worked together.  Telkom closed it down in about 1993 because of abuse – people weren’t paying, that sort of thing.  Then I did Hustler magazine for about 8 years and Loslyf – the Afrikaans version.  I got back into racing in about 1999/2000 with Mike de Kock and the Horse Chestnut book.  After that I worked for Phumelela for a while.  I launched the Racing Express in the Citizen and was the editor of Computaform for two or three years.  I was quite happy there in fact.  That’s when the international racing and all the on-line stuff started.  Those were the days of Derek Wiid and Brian Mell.  Then it was Jim Tenant and on to David Attenborough and Rian du Plessis.”

“I started Freeracer in about 2007.  It went for two years before it was bought over by Moneyweb and became Racingweb.  In hindsight it was probably a mistake.  I was encouraged to speak out and expose things, but when the heat came onto both Alec Hogg and I, things turned messy. Alec was eventually also forced out of the company he’d built.  At that moment, Racingweb was over and I suddenly found myself without a job and with all the doors closed.  All the contracts with Phumelela, TBA, etc were cancelled in the blink of an eye.  I lost a lot.  I tried to revive Freeracer, but it was hard with no income.

What happened?

“I’d been trying to keep the purist racing dream alive, fighting the tides of change.  When I realised that those days were gone and that those in control had the power (and the desire) to crush you like a little ant, that’s when my whole system shorted and the wheels came off.  I crashed into rehab for 10 days in Stikland in the acute male ward.  It was quite fun actually.   The fact that I could get decent cigarettes smuggled in (I got Dunhill Lights instead of the Royals that everyone else had) meant I was king of the party!  Anyway, with the right medication they put me on the right track.  I’m not making excuses or anything, I know it’s the result of my own decisions and choices.  I’m fortunate enough to have a few friends who kept me going and helped make me strong again.”

“The racing world I knew and wrote about is no longer there.  Life is expensive – normal people can’t afford racing anymore.  The purist died back in 2000 with corporatisation – I’d guess there are about 1000 left, if that.  This book is not going to sell thousands of copies, but it’s a tribute to the people and the way things were and it’s for the few people who will still appreciate it.  I enjoyed writing it and it’s my personal tribute to the legends from a time of my life that was wonderful and joyful.”

“Racing is turning into a brand new thing.  It’s becoming a niche industry geared to the big breeders, the big owners and the big trainers.  They hold the power and they call the shots.  It’s the same with the overseas market.  And that’s the reason we have the export issues.  Until the few in power overseas are given enough incentive to do so, our restrictive export protocols are unlikely to change. It has nothing to do with AHS; all to do with getting to the right palms to grease! The world is changing and that’s the way the game is going.”

“If you want to stay involved, there’s no choice – you either adapt or you find something else to do.  Otherwise you won’t survive.  I’ve never been one to play the game, even though I’ve been advised so many times ‘play the game and you’ll prosper’ but I can’t.  I can’t work with people who are all about manipulation and control.  There have been offers, but I just can’t.  I’ll either have to get lucky or I’ll die a pauper!”

Tell us about the book

Charl "doing great"

Charl “doing great”

The book is really my way of paying tribute to the legends of racing’s glory days.  When you grow up watching these people, they seem so far away, so untouchable and elusive, but when you get to meet them, they’ve got so much to share and so much knowledge to pass on.  Peter Kannemeyer was a particular highlight – I did it in two parts, but there should really have been 20 parts, he’s got so much to tell.  Raymond Rhodes was another favourite.  He was a great, but has moved out of the industry completely.  Jean Heming was another.  She’s living in a tiny little town called Tetbury in England.  It was a fascinating interview.”

“Anyway, there are a few racing purists left who are still interested in all that stuff – I’d say probably about a thousand, if that.  This book is for all of them and just a way of putting this stuff down and having some sort of reference.  I’ve had orders from all over the world – Jeff Lloyd, David Payne ordered two, I got wonderful feedback from Felix Coetzee.  There have been orders from Michael de Broglio, Chris van Niekerk, Vidrik Thurling, Ian Longmore and Amanda de Vos.  It’s much appreciated that there are still those who see the value and appreciate the history.  That’s the reason this book is published.”

They say racing is good sport, but it is seldom good business.  I think Les Carlyon put it best, “Racing is a way of living and a way of thinking.  It has its own language and its own humour.  It is loaded with danger, physical and financial, and comes with the hint of a conspiracy.  It doesn’t necessarily build character but it throws up some great characters.”

Doesn’t it just.

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