The horse’s name was Whimsy. I have never forgotten that. It seemed to stare at me with wild eyes, foam on its mouth, just before it was led into the parade ring.
That was the one I fancied, I told my mother with all the assurance of an 11-year-old attending his first “real” horse racing meeting.
No sooner had the words got out of my mouth than Whimsy began bucking and prancing, trying to toss its jockey overboard and rip the bridle out of the groom’s hands as the parade began.
My mother looked at me and laughed. “That’s your horse! That’s not going anywhere!”
Sure enough, when the animals were lining up to enter the starting gates, Whimsy caused even more trouble, baulking a few times before finally going in.
Even at the off, the horse remained stubbornly at the back.
At about the halfway mark, something suddenly changed and Whimsy shot past every other competitor, flashing by the winning post with the rest trailing five or six lengths behind.
After all these years, the number 14 sticks in my mind. It may have been the horse’s number, but it may also have been the odds.
My mother refused to place a small bet on my behalf when she heard Whimsy was a 14-1 outsider.
My father, an Irishman who grew up on a farm, loved horses and equestrian sport.
And he would drag us to all manner of them, from flat racing, to “trotting” (or harness racing as the Americans call it) and even dressage and show jumping.
It seems strange to believe, after all these years, that I used to find the showjumping events at the annual agricultural show quite exciting…
My mother, whose family was Irish, was also interested in the “gee-gees”, although in a rather “girlie” way.
She and her friends in the office, when they did have a “flutter”, would often go on the names of the nags, and not on form.
My father spent time explaining things like weights, distances, “going”, previous accomplishments, even trainers.
In the beginning I found it interesting but soon tired of it because, deep down, I was more emotional, like my mother.
The Fitzpatrick approach to gambling – which is what horse racing is – was that it was also some form of mysterious witchcraft. So, superstitions were what counted.
A horse’s name, a jockey’s name, the colour of the racing clothes … somehow that was how the Universe spoke to you when it came to horse racing.
Needless to say, our family never bought a yacht with the proceeds of our combined winnings.
Horse racing has, since then, not been on my radar.
But since I’ve been here at The Citizen, the country’s top racing paper, it’s come back into my life.
I still don’t understand the science of it all, but I look at the photos we run of the magnificent racing thoroughbreds and am in awe of the effort and preparation that goes into the sport.
With the Durban July coming up this coming weekend, I am looking forward to the glitz and glamour that accompany it.
I am fascinated at how such an apparently “colonial” undertaking has become a playground for the new black elite.
But I do have a tip for you for Saturday. Back Number 14, no matter the horse, trainer or rider.
If you don’t, don’t moan to me afterwards…
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