Last week took me back to 1979 and my short spell at university in Pietermaritzburg. Money was tight, so any opportunity to earn was grabbed - tending the bar at Polo Tavern paid best. I also did my share of selling tickets at Woodburn Rugby Stadium.
That was the year when the racing bug took a strong hold on my young mind. Someone at the zoo we called William O'Brien Residence discovered that in horseraces where pace was key, your financial circumstances could be enhanced by having a bet on the kings of the turf, Michael Roberts and Basil Marcus. Particularly in races over 2000m or longer and especially either was riding a 6/1 chance. Have no idea what the precise record was, but the theory worked well enough for me to follow the formula as a matter of course.
Three decades and a bit later, and here we were having a spectacular dinner with these two legends. It was one of those special 'Hartford House' evenings hosted by my good friend, Summerhill's Mick Goss. This time it was to honour his VIP visitors, Australian racing personalities Vin Cox (MD of Magic Millions) and Rowena Smith (marketing boss at Aushorse). The Aussies were seated too far away for much talk-time. But with Roberts and Marcus close, it became an evening to remember.
First Michael, now 58 and one of KZN's top trainers. His relocation from the Karkloof to Summerveld has gone well. Verna Roberts tells me that although her husband leaves home at 4am every morning and often only returns at 6pm, he doesn't regard this as a hardship. The multiple SA and UK Champion Jockey loves his horses and having had years of doing a lot of the heavy lifting himself, really appreciates Gold Circle's services like tending Summerveld's tracks and daily removal of bedding. It's a happy yard. I've got the feeling we'll be soon seeing another big horse from Roberts.
Basil Marcus, who ten years ago made an immediate impact as a trainer with a string of top race winners including the legendary Jay Peg, returned from his Singaporean adventure a few months back and is delighted to be home in Cape Town. He is adamant that he won't be training again, preferring for now to spend time with his two Rhodesian Ridgebacks. That they cost R170,000 to bring back home from Singapore gives some idea how close they are to this former ace jockey.
Basil remembers a radio interview we had four years back, which was part of a series to enlighten the public about the attraction of buying racehorses. A bit like his one time boss Herman Brown Snr, Basil says he will be quietly in the background helping his 20-something son Adam who is now the family's licensed trainer. He remains a class act. Despite ample opportunity, he refused to point any fingers or even discuss a Singaporean campaign that didn't work out the way everyone hoped. He is proud, though, at the way the horses he took there have performed - four of his former inmates are among Singapore's top 10.
Given Marcus's global brand value, obvious intellect and engaging personality, it would be a terrible waste for him to drift off into early retirement. His unique insights into the Far East (6 times Hong Kong Champion Jockey) could be invaluable for this country's efforts to participate in the potentially explosive growth of Chinese racing. Apart from adding star appeal, Marcus would in my view have plenty of good ideas for Peter Gibson's Racing South Africa team. He should be roped in. Like last week.
What will stay with me most about the evening, though, was the way these great rivals in the saddle have remained such fast friends. Apart from banter about the other's waistlines (both claim to be impressive 32cm), good-natured stories about times together speak to a long, deep friendship.
Extract from www.gracelandfarm.co.za
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