Mark Anthony looks back on a memorable racing weekend and offers kudos
to the event organisers.
Circling over Cape Town airport on Friday afternoon, with the big race just
over 24 hours away, I am struck by a poignant thought. This year is the 20th
anniversary of my namesake`s runaway Met victory, an awe-inspiring seven-length
demolition job in a then record time. Of course, injury robbed us of Mark
Anthony soon afterwards and it must rank up there with the greatest of all
losses to South African racing. I have no doubt that had bad luck not
intervened, and his career followed its natural trajectory, we would today be
speaking of the giant son of Royal Prerogative in the same breath as a Horse
Chestnut, Empress Club or Politician.
Parveen Dalvie of Eddy Cassar Public Relations has been left in charge of
media arrangements and my first impression upon landing is a favourable one,
with my hotel transfer ready and waiting. As I am to observe throughout the
weekend, it seems that all Capetonians in the service industries are encouraged
to be ambassadors for their city and there is a lot to like about the
friendliness and strong service ethic on display, none more so than the obliging
staff at the Cape Sun where the media contingent is being put up.
Friday evening sees the traditional pre-Met party, an exclusive affair
combining dinner, fashion and general merriment and socialising. Parveen rounds
us all up for the short bus trip to the Waterfront, where the initial speeches
are made on the Primi Piatti balcony with its fetching sea view. Prudently, the
speechmaking is kept short and sweet, and we are then whisked off to the other
end of the mall for dinner at newly-opened restaurant "221".
The official highlight of the evening is an avant-garde fashion show - not
the most engaging experience for a racing hack who has come down with his mind
firmly focused on the horses, but it would be churlish to complain as it garners
a generally enthusiastic reception from the crowd.
221 looks to be a pretty expensive place to dine, but it is an establishment
that oozes class with its tasteful decor, immaculately set tables and
sensational panoramic view of Table Mountain. With so many guests
descending for a single function, it is not an easy task for the staff to cope,
but they rise admirably to the occasion. Some initial confusion around seating
is quickly sorted out and restaurant manager Jean impresses with his calm,
polite and friendly demeanour, ensuring that any potential sources of
frustration are quickly defused and that all attendees are kept happy. There is
a lot to be said for old-fashioned courtesy and good manners and in this regard,
Jean and co offer the best possible advertisement for 221. I make a mental
note that I shall make a point of dining there the next time I`m in Cape Town
and would happily recommend any visitors there to give it a try.
With guests having been fed and watered, it is now time to return to stable
and prepare oneself for Saturday.
Getting to Kenilworth is something of a nightmare, understandably so with a
crowd of some 50,000 expected, and there is the inevitable crawl in traffic as
one gets closer to the racecourse. I travel there with SAHorseracing.COM M.D, Ash Maharaj and
having eventually navigated our way to the press area behind the stands, we are
greeted by Gill Simpkins who promptly and obligingly sorts out our press
The weather is perfect, although some may argue that that is not an
appropriate description in baking 34-degree heat. It strikes me that having
watched every Met for the past 25 years, I can only remember three occasions
when the race was not run in bright sunshine - Mark Anthony, Empress Club and
Horse Chestnut all won under cloudy skies. Interesting coincidence, as there is
a strong case that they are the three best winners of the race in that period.
Met Day at Kenilworth is much more than a race meeting. It is a social
occasion par excellence and I am struck by the number of visitors, particularly
the younger brigade, who have little or no interest in the horses, but are
thoroughly into the fashions and the general partying on offer. For the ladies
in particular, it seems to be a chance to dress up in attire of varying degrees
of modesty, but one sees more than one male partner who has made an effort as
well. Some uncharitable thoughts arise about people with no racing knowledge or
interest taking up space, but I am then reminded of a conversation I had with
one of racing`s elder statesmen last year. A day such as this, he said, is not
just about the purists who gather to watch and talk horses. The more non-racing
fans who attend, the greater the chance that they will, by sheer exposure, be
drawn to the sport of kings eventually - and this is certainly not a bad thing
for an industry struggling to hold its own in terms of public popularity.
Once the racing itself begins, there is plenty to enthuse over, with
Sparkling Jewel an impressive winner of the listed juvenile sprint over 1000m.
Granted, she has the benefit of a light weight, which she fully exploits, but
there is a lot to like about the way she keeps going after making the early
running and we should be hearing a bit more from her.
While the Met itself is the obvious focus of attention, my personal highlight
of the day comes in the race before. Always a sucker for a beautiful woman, I
fell in love with Dancer`s Daughter the first time I saw her on TV and I
fervently hope that the gorgeous grey import will deliver in the Fancourt
Majorca Stakes. Positioned on the stand-side rail some 50m from the winning
post, I am alarmed when she hits the front a bit too early for my liking, but
despite a late charge from the talented but enigmatic Royal Fantasy, she has
enough in hand and crosses the line with first prize safely in the bag, yours
truly having screamed himself hoarse in the meantime!
Time to dash back to the press box to file an article on the race (where I
try to maintain journalistic neutrality, but don`t do a very good job of it) and
then it`s off to the parade ring to view the contenders for the Met itself. Of
course, all the talk is about Pocket Power and whether he will emulate
Politician by completing the Queens Plate-Met double for the second time. The
general consensus is that barring bad luck in running, he cannot lose,
especially at the weights. I have to agree, but of course, he is odds-on and one
has to search for some value from a betting point of view. It`s a pretty forlorn
task, though and I can only offer Hunting Tower as an alternative. Looking at
the reigning champion in the ring, I can`t see how anything can beat him. He
looks at peace with himself and as expected from master conditioner Mike Bass,
looks tuned to the minute.
With the excitement and sense of anticipation mounting, I make my way back to
the press enclosure on the outside rail, virtually opposite the winning post.
The starting stalls open and it`s time to try to decipher the commentary over
the roar of the crowd. The sun makes it difficult to make out images on the big
screen, but after some feverish discussion with those around me, I decide that
Likeithot is setting the pace for the strong Charles Laird contingent. The
noise levels predictably increase as we sight the runners at the top of the
straight and although it reaches a crescendo at about the 200m mark, I am able
to decipher the commentator`s voice when he hollers the favourite`s name. As
Pocket Power eases to the front and completes the final rites, I kneel down to
get a better view - and sense - of this brilliant son of Jet Master covering the
turf with his huge stride. It`s a thrilling sight and I am aware of only one
thought running through my head: "He`s too good. He`s just too good."
It`s been a fantastic achievement by horse and trainer - few people realise
just what is required to keep a horse sound over a series of tough races and
Mike Bass`s skill becomes the more pronounced when one considers that Pocket
Power has experienced problems with his legs in the past. Full credit too to
jockey Bernard Fayd`Herbe. As he had proclaimed bullishly before the race, he
was on the best horse on the field, but even so, he still had to keep the
favourite out of trouble and ensure that everything went to plan, which he did
with utmost precision.
This is a truly historic occasion and one feels privileged to have been there
to see this hugely talented thoroughbred in the flesh.
Later in the day, conversation will turn to how Pocket Power measures up to
Politician. This is, of course, a completely pointless exercise, as it is futile
to compare champions from different generations, with no head-to-head or even
collateral form to go on. In this case, the debate is even trickier, because of
Politician`s iconic status, which means that any discussion is bound to be
coloured by emotion and nostalgia, rather than assessing the bare facts.
Ultimately, though, the numbers stack up in favour of Politician. He had to
concede a lot more weight to his rivals when winning his two Mets and of course
he won the July under top weight. Pocket Power came desperately close to
achieving the latter, and he can be considered a moral victor in last year`s
July, considering he was beaten so narrowly under 58kg. However, Politician won
under 57kg with a wider spread of weights in the field and overall, plundered
eleven Gr 1 races to Pocket Power`s four (although the latter should add to this
tally, such is the form he looks to be in).
This comparison is not to demean Pocket Power and one must emphasise that it
does not in any way diminish his magnificent achievement. Ultimately, racing
fans should be happy that two such high-calibre horses, racing three decades
apart, have drawn the crowds to the racecourse and given us such superb
performances to enthuse over. Both should be lauded and thanked for the thrills
they have given us and racing is the winner under these circumstances.
The Met has been a highly satisfactory affair as the best horse has stamped
his authority and I can`t help thinking that this is usually the case in the
Cape showpiece, unlike the July, where the top-rated performer in the race often
comes undone, whether through weight or other circumstances.
It`s also a source of great joy to see a son of Jet Master do so well, having
so enjoyed the latter`s racing days and having had no inkling at the time that
he would turn out to be such a sensation at stud.
There is still a bit of racing to come, though, with the Cape Derby next up.
Upon being pressed for a selection, I suggest rank outsider Casey`s Son, as I
have long considered him a Derby type and the fact that he is around 40/1 makes
him a tempting bet. Alas! it is not to be. The race is run at a crawl and he is
caught near the rear, so tough luck for anyone who had the temerity to listen to
me. I am suitably impressed by winner Russian Sage, though, a horse I considered
to be a doubtful stayer. He not only has a touch of class about him, but loads
of courage and he fights on doggedly to deny Tan Can in a tight finish.
There is still one more graded event to come, the J & B Reserve Stayers over
2800m - a race for which I am thankful to the sponsors, as one needs to nurture
our staying ranks, however dubious the denizens may be considered to be in terms
of class. On sentimental grounds, I hope that the Joey Ramsden pair of Major
Bluff and Omaha Beach - in that order - will do well, although logic dictates
that between them, the combination of age, injury and weight will surely be too
much for them. So it proves - the Major has far too much to do turning for home,
while his stablemate, bidding for a treble in this event, runs a very gallant
race only to tire late under top weight.
There are howls of anguish from a colleague in the press box as Prince Asad
bounds home an impressive winner at 9/1. Prior to the race, he had spoken of
backing Geoff Woodruff`s charge, but hadn`t gotten around to placing his bet. I
commiserate with him and also reflect upon the pitfalls of becoming emotionally
attached to horses. It will always be a source of great sadness to me that Major
Bluff, a genuinely heroic performer over the years, has not enjoyed more than
the ten victories that he will retire with under his belt and I envy those
writers who are able to write dispassionately about racing without getting too
personally involved with our equine athletes.
With the racing over and articles filed, the box gradually empties. There is
plenty of partying to look forward to under the sponsor`s marquee, but for some
of us, it`s preferable to return to the hotel, have a bit of a rest and reflect
on what has been a very good day`s racing.
At the last minute, dinner is arranged with Ash and family and a thoroughly
enjoyable evening ensues. Ash`s dad has owned several horses in his time and it
transpires that we have the same taste in stallions, our soft spots being for
Jungle Cove, Royal Prerogative and Dancing Champ.
The wake-up call comes all too soon on Sunday morning - one would happily
have taken an extra hour or two in bed - but it`s time to go. Parveen is her
usual efficient self, ensuring the various guests are seen off to the airport
and I join the final group of the morning. It`s been an enjoyable weekend and
considering that journalists are often perceived as being (a) cynical (b) overly
critical (c) negative (d) all of the above, it`s nice to be in a position to say
thank you and well done to everyone concerned. We`ve certainly been well looked
after and one can be forgiven for already looking forward to
2009..........especially if a certain horse should line up for a J & B Met