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Having fun, writing about the stuff I like

Wax On, Wax Off

Oscar Foulkes May 24, 2016 Uncategorized No comments

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Karate Kid was one of the great movie successes of the 80s. Its dose of feel-good was so strong that when I think of the movie today I still have the feeling, more than 30 years later. For me, it’s impossible to think of the movie without remembering Mr Miyagi’s “Wax on, wax off.”

His teenaged student, Daniel, didn’t understand how the cleaning of a car could have anything to do with the learning of a martial art, but in time it all fell into place.

My own ‘wax on, wax off’ experience started in 1982 (two years before the release of Karate Kid) when my parents took me, aged 15, to the offices of Form Organisation, with the request that Charles Faull and his team teach me something about horse racing and breeding. It was an escape from boarding school that I dove straight into, using all kinds of excuses to leave the school grounds for a few hours. These ranged from runs around Rondebosch Common to shopping trips for essential items.

One of the main pieces of work I did was to transcribe onto special stationery (from the Stud Book) the names of all foals by a stallion, separated into colts and fillies. Then, using the Racing Calendar, I had to look up the racing performances of these horses, recording number of races won, as well as their top performances.

I learnt a huge amount from a time consuming and apparently tedious exercise. Apart from exposure to the performances of great horses and their sires, the most valuable learning may have been seeing the rarity of top racehorses. Rarer still, are stallions that sire a high percentage of top horses.

The breeding and racing of horses are pursuits that involve a low level of predictability, if not a huge amount of chance, but there is room for knowledge to be used to improve the probabilities.

Bayes’ theorem improves our understanding of probability, because it incorporates the concept of base rate. Through all those hours that I sat doing this research I was brought face-to-face with base rate, which in the case of top-class racehorses is alarmingly low.

An important race, awaited with great anticipation, is a focal high point, releasing a rush of excitement. Underlying it all is an endlessly fascinating intellectual pursuit of trying to beat the odds. If you’re a breeder you are matching stallions and mares in the hope that the resulting DNA will produce an athlete. Owners (and their advisers) scour auction sales looking for the unraced youngster that will grow up to be an athlete. Punters study form with the hope of gleaning an insight that will give them an edge at the betting windows.

From start to finish, it’s a great intellectual pursuit.

The focus of all this attention is the Thoroughbred, an athlete so magnificent that we are eventually forced to put aside all intellectualising, and just feel.

I would have loved it anyway, but the ‘wax on, wax off’ has added valuable dimensions to the experience.

Epic Shit #4: Burn that shit

Oscar Foulkes May 9, 2016 Uncategorized No comments
Here’s an insight that came to me during AfrikaBurn, which I attended for the third time this year. Apart from the visual spectacle, and otherworld experience, I find it to be a deeply emotional space. Each year is different.

This time, because of lingering pain, as well as generally depleted energy levels, I took it easy, not venturing out to the burns until the last night. I have written before about the apparent lunacy of spending weeks building magnificent, artistic structures. And then burning them.

Those nighttime burns, especially the silent ones, are an awe-inspiring spectacle. It’s easy to enter a contemplative as you stand around a massive burn with thousands of other people.

My contemplation during the last night’s silent burn is that we carry a lot of shit around with us. Experiences become memories, which have emotions attached to them. Some of these are happy ones, but we are often just as likely to carry around feelings that either taint our relationships, or limit what we achieve.

There no value in hoarding shit. It’s bad for us.

Fire can be an important part of renewal; take all those limiting attitudes/beliefs/emotions and burn that shit.

epic_shitI was given this notebook by a friend, at the conclusion of a six-week course of radiotherapy to my throat. Radiotherapy is targeted at specific areas, so it’s theoretically an easier experience than chemotherapy. However, my throat became extremely painful, which affected eating and drinking, speech and more. I’m a better ‘writer’ on keyboard than with pen in hand, so here goes with a selection of things I would have written in the notebook if I could.

Epic Shit #3: Shit is easier to manage if it is expected

Oscar Foulkes March 30, 2016 Uncategorized 2 comments
I was comprehensively briefed in advance of the start of my course of radiotherapy. I knew what to expect, especially when side effects kicked in. There was a structure to the treatment, with a designated number of weekday visits to the hospital, weekly consultations with a doctor, and a clear sense of a beginning and an end. I had various medications for pain, spearheaded by morphine.

The side effects were horrible, but after each treatment I crossed off another day on my chart. I also had control over my pain medication.

It is now a little over three weeks since the end of my treatment. I can unequivocally say that the last two months represent probably the physically roughest period of my life, and in a way, the post-treatment period has been the worst. Yes, pain has abated to the point where I no longer need the morphine, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not experiencing a range of unpleasant side effects.

It’s one thing to sit out a process when you have the timeline in advance. The problem with post-treatment is that there is no schedule, no daily structure. No end date, nothing to cross off a list. I know I must be getting better, but oddly, it seems harder to manage than when I was getting worse.

epic_shitI was given this notebook by a friend, at the conclusion of a six-week course of radiotherapy to my throat. Radiotherapy is targeted at specific areas, so it’s theoretically an easier experience than chemotherapy. However, my throat became extremely painful, which affected eating and drinking, speech and more. I’m a better ‘writer’ on keyboard than with pen in hand, so here goes with a selection of things I would have written in the notebook if I could.

Epic Shit #2: There is worse shit

Oscar Foulkes March 22, 2016 Uncategorized No comments
It was relatively easy for me to be gung ho in the early stages of treatment. This type of cancer has a tiny probability of killing me, and to start with I wasn’t feeling any side effects.

After five weeks of daily radiation I was feeling much less chipper.

I got chatting to someone who is in a work-related WhatsApp group with me. As a result of cancer treatments, he was fed by nose tube for nine months. Two years later, all his nutrition is sipped through a straw. His permanent discomfort is considerable.

The insight is that shit can be worse. If we’re able to shift our perspective to see that, then we can find things for which we can be grateful.

Gratitude is an excellent antidote to suffering.

epic_shitI was given this notebook by a friend, at the conclusion of a six-week course of radiotherapy to my throat. Radiotherapy is targeted at specific areas, so it’s theoretically an easier experience than chemotherapy. However, my throat became extremely painful, which affected eating and drinking, speech and more. I’m a better ‘writer’ on keyboard than with pen in hand, so here goes with a selection of things I would have written in the notebook if I could.

Epic Shit #1: Imagined shit is worse than real shit

Oscar Foulkes March 21, 2016 Uncategorized No comments
This insight came to me as I was kneeling at the toilet bowl. A few days before, my wife had spent a night fighting an attack of gastro. I was quaking at the thought of finding myself in the same situation. Think about it – I could barely swallow sips of water. How horrible would it be to have a reversed flow of acid-laced stomach contents rushing up through my raw throat?

Well, here I was, without any control over the situation; having to endure whatever came my way. I won’t deny that it was horrible (I certainly shed a retch-induced tear), but the unpleasant situation was a lot more bearable than I thought it would be.

We get apprehensive about things in advance of them happening, probably rightly so, but it’s amazing how well we cope with situations, relative to how we imagined we would, when there just isn’t any option.

There’s a lot to be said for ‘stiff upper lip’.

epic_shitI was given this notebook by a friend, at the conclusion of a six-week course of radiotherapy to my throat. Radiotherapy is targeted at specific areas, so it’s theoretically an easier experience than chemotherapy. However, my throat became extremely painful, which affected eating and drinking, speech and more. I’m a better ‘writer’ on keyboard than with pen in hand, so here goes with a selection of things I would have written in the notebook if I could.

Be my Epic Valentine

Oscar Foulkes February 13, 2016 Uncategorized No comments
I still have the first Valentine’s card I ever received. It was homemade, with the message: “The smog and pollution have nothing to do with it. I get all choked up just thinking of you.” I never found out who sent it to me. Maybe that’s why I’ve kept it for over 35 years.

In 2017, I’m planning to ride (well, start) the Cape Epic. However, I have a small problem, in that all my usual riding buddies just outright laugh in my face when I raise the possibility. I don’t blame them. In the words of Talking Heads: “This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around.”

I’ve done numerous two, three and four day stage races, most of which a reasonably fit weekend warrior can do on a last minute call up. Similar to the observation that “one does not simply walk into Mordor”, the Cape Epic is not simply a case of pulling on some lycra, jumping onto a Specialized (whatever its components), and starting to pedal.

The Cape Epic is eight days of pain, covering 800km with 15 000m of climbing. It’s euphemistically billed as “eight days of courage”.

But it’s not just the eight days of riding. There’s a year of preparation, bicycle components that get worn out several times before the race even starts, and a whole lot of money to enter.

Hence their reticence.

So, why do I want to do it? Well, there’s partly a ‘moth to a flame’ element. I’m fascinated, in an admittedly weird way. The Prologue once went past my front gate, and in 2015 took place on routes I ride every week. It’s probably no coincidence that in 2017 I’ll be 50. If only partially sub-consciously, I’m just another MAMIL clinging to a fantasy of virility.

There’s another thing, which is that I’m halfway through a six-week course of radiotherapy to finally nail laryngeal cancer that has resulted in me having five surgeries since 2006. I may not be able to control microscopic rogue cells inside my body, but I can ‘force my heart and nerve and sinew’ to endure what needs to be done to complete a mission. Taking on this test of endurance is physical manifestation of some kind of power. I know it may seem very shallow to list such things, but I need to be honest about my reasons for taking this on.

The bedrock, I suppose, is that I am hardwired for endurance. Despite the inevitable pain, there comes a point at which I get a kick out of overcoming – or, at the least, enduring – the challenge.

But, as I said, I cannot do all this alone. I need a partner.

Will you be my Epic Valentine?

My preference is for someone who will also be 50, although this is not a necessity. You need to know that I am of average ability (in other words, definitely not a racing snake, but also not the last person home each day), and I’m a really crap bike mechanic. Residence in Cape Town is probably necessary, for reasons of training together.

There’s no need to send me a hand drawn card, by the way, just add a comment to this post, and I’ll contact you.

Sponsorship may be a pipe dream for middle-aged Average Joes (that is, me and my Epic Valentine), but if your company makes or sells stuff you think we can use, please drop me a line. We’ll do our best to make sure that you get as much marketing value as you would by sponsoring a racing snake.

Photo by Karin Schermbrucker/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

Photo by Karin Schermbrucker/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

Mind Games in Horse Racing

Oscar Foulkes October 25, 2015 Horse Racing No comments
Arezzo-wins-Listed-Settlers-TrophyHorse racing is pitched as “the intelligent bet” because there are so many dimensions that can be critically examined. I’m going to illustrate this by means of a race that was run yesterday at Kenilworth.

This does come with an advance apology. Much of what follows may be somewhat technical (or, ‘higher grade’, as some may say), but I’ll try to keep it as accessible as possible. It’s not for nothing that I’ve used “mind games” in the title of this post!

On Monday last week, the field was published for the Woolavington Handicap, to be run over 2400m at Kenilworth:

Zante 4yo filly 61kg
Deputy Ryder 4yo filly 58kg
Desert Swirl 5yo colt 58kg
Friendly Tibbs 5yo gelding 57.5kg
Ovidio 5yo gelding 55kg
Arezzo 4yo colt 52.5kg
Parachute Man 4yo gelding 52kg
Forte de Ouro 4yo colt 52kg
A Time To Kill 5yo gelding 52kg
Private Doowaley 6yo colt 52kg

A handicap is a race in which the horses carry weights – assigned by the handicapper – that will theoretically result in a dead heat. In other words, the weight is used to equalise the relative merit of the runners. However, the South African merit rating system, as used by the handicappers, is something of a blunt instrument, in that horses often end up with ratings so high that they are rendered uncompetitive at the weights they then have to carry.

On this basis, I immediately wrote off Zante and Deputy Ryder, both of which are good fillies, but nowhere near good enough to carry 61kg and 58kg against a decent field of colts.

With the exception of Ovidio, many of these horses met a month earlier, in the Settlers Trophy. I’ll go into the rationale shortly, but immediately upon seeing the Woolavington field, I sent Jono Snaith this message: “I think Ovidio is a big runner if he gets the extra 400m (assuming his 4.5 length beating of A Time to Kill is a fair reflection).” Like Arezzo, Ovidio is trained by Justin Snaith. My interest in all this comes about as a result of my tiny shareholding in Arezzo.

Jono was confident that he would get the distance. My doubts lay in the first two generations of Ovidio’s pedigree, which is loaded with horses who were best up to about a mile. However, his grandam was by Kenmare, a solid 2400m influence. Further stamina can be found in his third generation, but it needed to leapfrog the more immediate ancestors.

As you can see, all of this analysis is multi-dimensional, bringing together not just handicapping, but also genealogy.

Before we get to the actual races that make up this analysis, a bit of background on handicapping. Weight has a drag effect, which is measurable – Newton’s Second Law in action. The conversion of weight to lengths beaten over different distances is not widely publicised. The work of Phil Bull, the founder of Timeform, is key to this, but given that he did his work without the benefit of computers, the conversion rates are in user-friendly round numbers, rather than pesky decimals.

Establishing the data for ‘lengths beaten’ is a minefield of its own, because of the different ways of calculating it. For the sake of this explanation, let’s just accept the data as recorded officially.

Timeform do not publish their pounds-per-length conversion. This is what the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) uses:
5 furlongs: 3lbs per length
6 furlongs: 2.5lbs per length
7f-8f: 2lbs per length
9-10f: 1.75lbs per length
11-13f: 1.5lbs per length
14f: 1.25lbs per length
15f+: 1lb per length
(one furlong is approximately 200m)

Locally, Charles Faull uses these conversions:
1000-1400m: 3lbs per length
1500-1900m: 2lbs per length
2000-2300m: 1.5lbs per length
2400m+: 1lb per length

If we use 2lbs per length at 1600m as the mid-point, then a mathematical suggestion is:
1000m: 3,20lbs
1200m: 2,67lbs
1400m: 2,29lbs
1600m: 2,00lbs
1800m: 1,78lbs
2000m: 1,60lbs
2200m: 1,45lbs
2400m: 1,33lbs

For an apparently scientific view on the same stuff (yielding a conversion of 2.26 pounds per length for a mile run at a pace that results in a time of 98 seconds), click here.

For the rest of the exercise, I’m going to use 1.4lbs per length for 2400m, and 1.75lbs per length for 1800m, which is a kind-of consensus between BHA and an Excel assisted extrapolation from 2lbs per length over 1600m.

Still with me? OK, let’s get into some form study, by looking at the last meeting beween Ovidio and A Time To Kill:

Kenilworth 1800m on 29 August 2015
Pos Horse Wgt Beaten Relative Merit
1st Ovidio 56.5kg 0 113
4th A Time to Kill 54kg 4.5 lengths 100

To calculate relative merit, multiply the distance beaten by the pounds-per-length conversion, and then add/subtract the difference in weights (expressed in lbs). Relative merit can be equated to ‘merit rating’, but I haven’t used that terminology here because I’m working with a small group of horses, not the entire racing population.

The form of this race suggests that Ovidio is 13lbs better than A Time To Kill. My message to Jono Snaith was prompted by the difference in weights in the Woolavington, in which Ovidio carried just 3kg (6.6lbs) more than A Time To Kill, making him the better handicapped of the two.

At the time, I thought that A Time To Kill had improved over the additional distance of the Settlers Trophy (he goes into this carrying the notional 100 rating from the race against Ovidio):

Durbanville 2400m on 26 September
Pos Horse Wgt Beaten Relative Merit
1st Arezzo 52kg 0 102
2nd A Time To Kill 52kg 1.25 100
3rd Friendly Tibbs 58kg 1.75 113
4th Forte de Ouro 52kg 2.15 99
5th Parachute Man 52.5kg 3.65 98
6th Paddy O’Reilly 64.5kg 4.4 123
7th Desert Swirl 58.5kg 6.4 109

To keep things simpler, I have rounded the decimals when calculating relative merit.

Right, so what did they do when they all raced against each other yesterday (I’ve carried Friendly Tibbs’ relative merit through, using him as the link horse here):

Kenilworth 2400m on 24 October
Pos Horse Wgt Beaten Relative Merit
1st Ovidio 55kg 0 110
2nd Desert Swirl 58kg 1.25 115
3rd Friendly Tibbs 57.5kg 2 113
4th Arezzo 52.5kg 2.2 101
5th Parachute Man 52kg 4.45 97
6th A Time To Kill 52kg 5.7 95
7th Zante 61kg 6.95 113

The suggestion is that A Time To Kill ran a bit below best yesterday, as well as Ovidio (marginally), but the result more-or-less stacks up with what the horses had done against each other previously, adjusted for weight differences. Perhaps Ovidio isn’t quite as good over 2400m as he is over 1800m. Time will tell.

Arezzo’s jockey thought that he was disadvantaged by a slowish pace down the back straight, as well as losing a shoe, but he finished more-or-less where expected, relative to Friendly Tibbs.

Anyone looking at the result of this race without taking the weights into account would deduce that Zante did not do anything significant. She was, after all, unplaced, finishing nearly seven lengths behind the winner. Under handicap conditions she’s likely to struggle until her official merit rating is reduced. However, the J&B Reserve Stayers, on J&B Met day, is a conditions race in which she’ll carry 55.5kg. Under that weight she’ll be much more competitive.

I find that stayers’ races (e.g. 2400m+) are fairly reliable from a handicapping perspective, because the horses are generally mature, and are therefore not prone to the rapid improvement one sees in young horses.

The analysis I’ve laid out above may look complex, but the point is that analysis/logic is possible. And, even if you aren’t gambling, it adds an entirely different dimension to a day at the races.

I’ve left weight-for-age out of the above analysis, which takes into account the improvement a horse makes as it matures, expressed as a difference in weights carried between horses of different ages. This varies according to distance run and time of year. I’ll do a separate post about this soon.

Vinnovation

Oscar Foulkes September 19, 2015 Uncategorized No comments
When I joined Cloof late in 2002 it was an operation that almost exclusively sold bulk wine. I should add that this was transacted at a price that could not cover the costs of running the business. Providing a return on the capital invested was out of the question. The other notable feature of Cloof at that time was that Pinotage was the most planted grape variety on the farm.

If I had known how hard it would be to sell Pinotage I may well have decided against taking the job. Not since my days of attempting to shed bachelorhood have I been rejected as often as I was in those days. Despite the constant refrain that my ‘package’ (i.e. wine) was not up to scratch, I was very positive about blending Pinotage with Shiraz and Cinsaut.

For the 2005 vintage I worked with winemaker Christopher van Dieren in putting together just such a blend. A portion of the blend had been aged in barriques, with the result that the wine was a notch above what normally retailed at its price point. That vintage earned four stars from the Platter Guide, which was quite an accolade for a ‘cheapie’. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Especially when tasted from tank soon after the vintage, Cloof’s Pinotage has a colour so deep that I often called it “inky”. It wasn’t long before my brain populated itself with an entire brand concept, with “inky” as the starting point. Inkspot became the brand name, because Cloof is the spot where inky wines are made.

I further elaborated on the concept by calling the blend “Vin Noir”, thereby creating the world’s first black wine, to join vin rouge and vin blanc. When I briefed Nic Jooste for the label design, I told him that I wanted to use the printing process that creates a raised, glossy effect for the type, as if the ink is still wet. And, I said, I wanted to explore the possibility of creating an nibbed ink pen effect. Well, Nic knocked it out of the park, complete with ink splotches.

Inkspot became a vehicle for selling vast quantities of Pinotage, and has remained that since my departure from Cloof at the end of 2009.

I was delighted to discover earlier today that my creation was selected as a finalist in the 2015 ABSA Cape Blends competition, alongside nine other wines that sell for a LOT more money. Well done to the Cloof team!
Inkspot_Zoom
(The video alongside was filmed during Rocking the Daisies, which celebrates its 10th birthday this year. I can still remember the moment when I received a mass email from the organisers, and my immediate response to Brian Little: “Yes, we’d love to host the event!” The rest, as they say, is history.)

Stranded by Standard

Oscar Foulkes September 14, 2015 Uncategorized No comments
Judging by the number of people calling in to CapeTalk about Standard Bank freezing their accounts as a result of FICA issues (South Africa’s version of ‘know your customer’), the bank has some serious admin problems.

My experience with Standard Bank’s admin comes as a result of dealing with my brother’s deceased estate. According to PSG Trust, the joint-executors of his estate, they sent originals of all relevant documentation to Standard Bank soon after being appointed (that was more than three months ago). Standard responded by couriering back the very documents that had been sent to them.

Yes, I know, it seems impossible, but they did.

Of course, PSG Trust sent them back, but Standard appeared to do nothing with them. Documents were then emailed, but still no action.

All the while, the money is sitting in an account that does not bear interest. In addition, there are monthly charges for holding the account. Fortunately, my sister-in-law and nephew are not in immediate need, but imagine the pickle they would have been in if they were relying on this money for their living expenses.

In frustration, last week I tweeted Standard Bank with a request to escalate the issue. In a series of direct messages I shared my brother’s ID number as well as my cell number. I was assured that I would be given assistance.

My follow-up messages were met with a stony silence.

I contacted them via direct message again this morning, to which they responded by asking if I had contacted the deceased estates department. Duh! I began the process by requesting that the matter get escalated. Why would I contact the very people who thus far have demonstrated no interest in getting the matter resolved?

It is inconceivable that it can take this long for Standard Bank to hand the credit balance over to the estate, not to mention monumentally frustrating that the bank is devoid of both a sense of urgency, or anyone willing to take responsibility. And, on top of that, to utterly disregard a concerned person’s plea for assistance when the regular channels have failed.

I have no doubt that this will eventually be resolved. What are the chances that Standard Bank will offer to compensate the interest that has been lost?

By all means, bank with Standard. Just make sure your money is elsewhere when you die. The admin problems could drive your heirs mad.

Millstock Cars is the most impressive team I’ve dealt with following my brother’s death. They’re a slick, professional outfit. Everything they’ve said they would do, they’ve done. And the admin has been brilliant!

Waking up to Whisky

Oscar Foulkes August 27, 2015 Uncategorized
A shared bottle of wine – usually red – is a standard feature of our household. Recently, however, we have taken our nightly drinks in a new direction.

It all started in May when I was involved in several gatherings (mini-wakes) following the death of my brother. Single malt was the drink of choice at all of these, leading me to state that coffins float into the hereafter on a river of whisky.

I found that I enjoyed the quiet sipping of whisky, and having ended up with some bottles at home, had a few evenings of replacing wine with whisky. Flavour, taste – call it what you want – has been a daily part of my life for over 20 years, and single malt has more than enough complexity to excite even the most jaded of palates.

I’ve learnt a few more things. Firstly, after a sip of single malt (assuming it’s drunk close to neat), the flavour hangs around the mouth for much longer than the aftertaste of wine. As a result, I find, a drink lasts much longer, which means that an evening can go by with much less alcohol getting consumed.

It’s far too easy, when a delicious bottle of wine is being drunk, to broach the second bottle, which isn’t great for productivity the following day!

The other thing I’ve discovered is that whisky is comparatively better value than wine. Using Johnnie Walker Black Label as the entry-level benchmark, a single tot costs around R9. This is not the same amount of absolute alcohol as a modest glass of wine, but one can stretch it to last the same length of time. It’s probably fairest to regard a double tot as equating to a glass of wine, in which case the cost of a drink is R18.

At current wine prices, that equates to a fairly average bottle of under-R100 red wine.

If you take the whisky up a notch, or two, to the lower tiers of single malt, a single tot/drink can be had for R15 to R20. And, you can have one fabulous drink without having to open an expensive bottle of wine.

It is perhaps no coincidence that this period of renewed interest in whisky has been accompanied by us (i.e. Dish Food & Social) doing a lot of development of dishes to pair with Three Ships whisky. It’s all been very stimulating.

I remain, predominantly, a wine drinker, but I am enjoying making my way through the world of good whisky.

(Similar calculations can be done in other markets, on the basis that a bottle of basic single malt is around five times the cost of a an above-average bottle of wine.)

Single Malt by Alvaro Calix on 500px.com