In the remote coastal village of Paternoster, where the salty breeze whispers authentic fisherman’s tales, there is a man on horseback who seems to have emerged from the pages of a weathered cowboy novel.
Every day he navigates the narrow streets and rides onto the long strip of windswept beach wearing faded black jodhpurs and an old leather hat. His hair is on his shoulders, the colour of hay.
Former jockey Mark Truter can be mistaken for the rugged adventurer from the old ‘Camel’ cigarette adverts. Or, indeed, one who has outback survival skills and perhaps a big knife hidden in his saddle bag.
“Some of the townsfolk call me the ‘Crocodile Dundee’ of the West Coast, but I’m not that handy with a weapon,” he says with a peal of laughter that rings out frequently in our entertaining three-hour conversation.
Mark relates how he found his treasure of a hat.
“An old man stopped me in the street here in Paternoster one day and presented it. He said he’d inherited the hat from his grandfather, who told him to pass it on to someone who loves horses. It’s made from genuine leather and must be at least 50 years old.”
Some mornings Mark rides his trusted Arabian companion, Zahara, with three riderless horses in tow, on a rope.
For fun, to keep them all exercised and to teach them good beach behaviour. They’re all perfectly schooled for rides on Paternoster’s Long Beach – frequently booked by tourists and holidaymakers visiting Mark and his partner Marilyn Pharo’s West Coast Beach Rides situated on a smallholding next to the picturesque R399 on the approach to town.
“We are settled and happy here. We moved into Marilyn’s family house and to start our horse business, we rented half an acre of land from Margaret Lawson, a well-to-do Irish lady. We’ve enjoyed generous help from the community to get us on our feet and to keep things going,” said the man who has spent the last 50 years-plus travelling up and down the Cape Coast to carve out a living. He’s been on or around horses all the time.
“There was nothing on this land initially, it was irrigation ground for lavender and olives. ‘Dave The Builder’ came around one day – that’s Dave Westbrook who owns the Trading Post shop in town. Dave said, ‘Paternoster needs horses and beach rides for tourists, what do you need to start?’ We discussed it, he insisted on helping and the next day he delivered all the building materials needed for four stables, a feed room and paddocks. He covered everything, including the labour to get it built. We’ve added more stables since then.”
Recently, West Coast Beach Rides hosted 20 children from ‘Hoopsig’, the community project that provides underprivileged children with access to sports and physical activities.
They were shown all the parts of the saddle and bridle and given a rundown on the physical parts of a horse.
They had a chance to familiarise themselves with Mark’s well-schooled horse brigade and to sit on them.
Some of the kids even showed natural riding skills. There is room for future projects, like Equine Assisted Therapy (EAT).
“When we had a tough patch a few weeks ago, the Hoopsig management and racehorse owner Ivan Snyman sent us 200 bales of oat hay from Snyman’s farm up the road on the R399. The people here have been so helpful and kind. I’ve also had plenty of assistance from my old friend Tienie Maritz. Many years ago, I was able to help him when he suffered financially. Tienie is a wealthy man today, he gave me a Mercedes panel van to drive and they service it for me to keep it running. We cannot ask for more, we are so grateful.”
Time has etched its story on Mark’s features.
He’s experienced much adversity and hardship, but he speaks enthusiastically about days gone by, adventures explored on and off the racetrack and the intense demands and challenges faced by jockeys.
Mark started his apprenticeship alongside the likes of Basil Marcus and at more or less the same time as Karl Neisius, Tobie van Booma and Dennis Bosch.
Due to a need for apprentices in Cape Town he was sent to the Cape Academy aged 16 and joined Peter Kannemeyer at Milnerton.
He rode very well, with winners for Kannemeyer, Terrance Millard, Willie Kleb, ‘Poppas’ Prestage, Bobby Schutt, Chris Snaith and others.
He won the 1974 Majorca Stakes for Millard on Party Time and rode Windsor Lad for Kannemeyer in the 1975 Met, won by Michael Roberts on Sledgehammer.
One of the youngest ever jockeys to ride in a Cape feature race, Mark’s story was spotted by a national newspaper and, as a result, the education department knocked on the Academy’s door and he was sent back to Durban to complete the necessary scholastic qualifications.
But with no interest whatsoever in school, he was soon back in the Cape and, as things unfortunately turned out, became the go-to apprentice for trainers who wanted a ‘soft ride’ for their horses.
In the days when most trainers had to rely on betting to make a living, Mark, with his natural ability to ‘feel’ and control horses, was soon considered a good judge. He was often used, in racing terms, to ‘give horses a run’, to ‘look after them’ or even to ensure that rival runners from another stable were intimidated in favour of a pre-selected winner in the same race.
Before we judge: That was a different era, altogether. Some trainers started at 3:30am to be able to work second jobs later in the day. They raced on Saturdays only, rarely in midweek and were limited to 30 horses each, 40 at a push.
For survival and continuity, horses were ‘lined up’ for betting coups using methods tried and tested over decades by hundreds of horsemen. Crafty plots were the order of the day. Not all the coups were landed, but not for lack of trying.
Mark recalls: “It is not hard to stop a horse from winning. Some trainers even dictated the places they wanted for their horses, like ‘fifth, please’ and that could be achieved from time to time. Mostly, it was about ‘hiding’ a decent horse to run in the pack and be well beaten. After that, the connections were able to bet on the horse, at long odds, in a follow-up race or after a few unplaced runs. ‘Giving a horse a run’ is as old as racing itself, racing is far better policed with technology today, but back then we got away with a ‘soft’ run by starting slowly, racing wide, getting boxed on the fence, dropping the whip, losing a stirrup iron or dropping a rein. There are different ways of skinning a cat.”
Not content with being a second, or third rider of choice for Cape trainers, Mark started refusing to ‘pull’ horses in races and he tells: “I was battling it out with Basil Marcus for champion apprentice and I wanted to ride as many winners as a I could to win the title. I didn’t want to prepare horses for other jocks to win on!”
There was one incident where a trainer, annoyed with Mark’s unwillingness to give a top young newcomer to the track an ‘easy’ ride, gave the horse handfuls of salt to eat on the night before the race day, and then had two buckets of water ready in the saddling enclosure just before the race!
“When I cantered the horse down, I could hear ‘glug-glug-glug’ from all the water in his stomach and I was worried that he’d have to race that way. I trotted him around at the stalls and thankfully, just before the start, he stretched his back legs and let out an endless stream of urine. He was comfortable, ran a good race finishing third. But coming into the third box the trainer said to me, ‘You little sh*t, you’ll never ride for me again.’ There were owners and stipes nearby, they all heard him.”
Mark’s (unsubstantiated) theory is that his refusal to play along drew attention from Cape Racing’s top brass, who were well aware of what was going on but allowed things to run their course. Most of them owned horses who were being prepared for betting strikes. “I cannot mention names, but there was one bigwig in particular who haunted me for years and eventually drove me out of Cape Town. It wasn’t about me pulling horses, it was about me refusing to pull them! I believe to this day that they were all in on it, the entire community of insiders. Racing was exactly like a movie a with actors and a script playing out every week.”
To be a successful jockey one needs to have rigid discipline, a good measure of horsemanship, no weight problems, a thick skin and the ability to promote yourself. If just one of those attributes are missing, you’ll never, ever get to the top.
Mark said that Garth Puller, a few years his senior, was the ultimate showman. “Garth was a very talented jockey and he made sure everyone knew it. He’d say to trainers, ‘I’m the best, and if you want to back your horse, I will win on it!’ He enjoyed a long and glittering career.”
Perhaps Mark had to be patient just a few years longer, or try to copy Puller’s swashbuckling demeanour; the professional, mannered politeness of Basil Marcus or the gritty, unwavering determination of Karl Neisius.
Perhaps he just didn’t know how to deal with life as a young jockey as well as they did, and he semi-retired from the saddle as a final-year apprentice.
“I bought an aqualung and diving gear and started diving for crayfish in Sea Point for the guys who owned the old Carousel restaurant at the Sea Point Pavilion. The back end of the restaurant was out of view and accessible from the rocks. I dove on request, delivered big, fresh crayfish to their back door and got paid R50 a day. That was more than I could make on Saturdays at R15 a ride. I bought a fancy car, a Rodeo Hornet, and sped around the city like a rich man!”
When the law caught up with Mark’s crayfish exploits, he returned to the saddle with opportunities in Port Elizabeth and enjoyed a good run of winners for Andy Smith and Stanley Greeff.
He rode feature race wins on Keepsake, Desmona and his favourite horse, Outswinger.
“There was a day I was offered R5,000 to make sure Outswinger got beaten in a race, but I refused to do so. They paid another jock to knock us out of the race. Outswinger almost came down; his head was right down near the ground and he dropped out to the back. But he composed himself. I nudged him with my hands, I knew him so well. He picked up his stride, grabbed the bit and stormed back to win it. I had an aggressive argument with the jock who bumped us out of the race.”
“I said to the jock (let’s call him Paul), ‘Is my life worth R5,000 to you, you rubbish? I almost came off. I could’ve died!’ Outswinger started hanging in his races from that day on, first out and then both ways. He’d hurt his knees and wasn’t the same after the incident. I asked the stipes to view the patrol film to show them what had happened and they said the video had been damaged, they couldn’t view it!”
Weight caught up with Mark, who had to rely on the few available top-weighted rides to have an income.
He taught himself to shoe horses and became a useful part-time farrier, so good that he could supplement his income by shoeing for the PE trainers in between the odd ride. He put nine winners from just 11 rides on the board in 1979/80, his last season as a jockey – perhaps a record of sort, he reckons.
Mark’s farriery kept him going on the polo circuit in Plettenberg Bay for the next several years.
By chance, after shoeing some Arabian horses at the plush Roodefontein Stud, at the time owned by the notorious Italian businessman Vito Palazzo, he was asked to break them in for Palazzo’s wife. She wanted to sit on them for photos.
“I had to show how it was done in front of Mr Palazzo’s family and friends after a breakfast session at the farm.
There were big guys with machine guns everywhere. They patrolled the area and looked into the hills with binoculars. The Arabian stallion came into the paddock first. I went up to him, stroked him, felt his back and tummy, put the bridle on and that was it. He didn’t object at all and we paraded in the paddock.”
“Mr Palazzo, his security crew and family were quite taken by this. The other Arabians were brought in. I knew them from having shod them and there were no problems at all – bridle on, leg over. There was applause from the people around the paddock after each horse was backed. We left with accolades and smiles, accompanied by guards.”
As the years went by and Mark had actually lost a bit of weight, he tried to make a few desperate comebacks in 1990, again in 2000 and again as recently as 2015.
The first two stints yielded little success, he was out of favour in a new era and still not wanted in Cape Town, though asked to shoe their horses by several trainers including Terrance Millard and Chris Snaith, individuals he describes as ‘great gentlemen’.
His last application, lodged after a spell of successful work riding at Milnerton was rejected outright, even after he’d presented a document of support containing signatures from everyone, including Snaith and Dean Kannemeyer. “I was outraged, but perhaps they did me a favour, because that rejection led to our decision to retire in Paternoster.”
Mark Truter’s story has parallels with those of dozens of other ‘rejects’ who started in racing with big hopes and dreams, but suffered dark and often bitterly sad endings.
A number of Mark’s close friends committed suicide when they fell out of favour for weight problems and a lack of support. “I sat in a pub with jockey Herbie Lasker and a few others in Sea Point one day. He was troubled. We had beers, he was asking about how one would go about gassing oneself. We had a few too many, we didn’t take notice of what he was suggesting. Herbie was found in his car on the promenade the next day. He’d gassed himself.” Mark was also close to David Turner and Brian Deyes – both shot themselves at the lowest point of their careers.
Tex Lerena, chairman of the former SA Jockeys Association, commented:
“Many years ago, the late Gerald Turner and I sat down and made a list of jocks who had made the ultimate sacrifice when they couldn’t go on, or had to call it a day and battle on for the rest of their lives. We stopped after a while, there were a lot of names. From Mark Truter’s era there was Robbie Sivewright, Clive Hyde, Deyes, Lasker, David Turner, Theo Zurcher, Quinton Boutell, later Grant Kotzen, Eric Chapman, Jethro Carter, Graham Crealock and others.”
“Jockeys are under pressure from the moment they swing a leg over a horse for the first time. An unusually big proportion of licensed jockeys suffer from depression and diet problems. Many become alcoholics, others turn to drugs. Their divorce rate is high. There is no sport with a range of such unique and consistent demands. Only the toughest survive.”
Mark Truter managed to scrape through into his late 60’s in one piece, one of the lucky ones.
He works with his beloved thoroughbreds Greenlightforgo and Gimme a Dancer (Gimmethegreenlight), recently joined by off-the-the track racers Northern Song (Oratorio) and Service Ace (Wylie Hall). “They are beautiful, gentle horses who enjoy the beach. Their daily duties taking people out for rides is an easy pleasure for them, it’s not work.”
Mark is writing a daily script for his own beautiful movie.
He has the leading role and gets to cast the other characters without interference. He also gets to ride his own, select string of equine characters, the way he wants to ride them.