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Having fun, writing about the stuff I like

Going on Tour

Oscar Foulkes June 29, 2023 Uncategorized No comments

As a young adult in the mid-80s, I caught the tail end of racehorse breeders more-or-less taking over the Victoria Hotel for the National Yearling Sale. I did hear many stories, though, of the late-night shenanigans that went on in the decades prior. There is a sense of Nationals fulfilling the role of a tour, in the sports context, especially back in the day when the majority of the sale would have been supplied by breeders from remote parts of the Karoo. Perhaps the romance of the tour is part of what still draws breeders to Gosforth Park.

I could invite suggestions of who the main instigators of the rowdy behaviour may have been, but you know, what goes on tour, stays on tour.

On the subject of tours, a couple of years ago I inadvertently came into the possession of the tour diary of the Hamiltons Rugby Club Dynamiters old crocs tours. Spotting the familiar face of Marsh Shirtliff, I immediately got it back into safe hands. I suspect, though, that for all the anecdotes and pictures in the book, the most entertaining (or damning) stayed on tour. The Dynamiters tours are still going strong; this week they won the 11-a-side tournament in Phuket, with another racing personality, Wayne Mealing, in the team. By all accounts, these tours are legendary.

I had a little tour of my own this week. With us having just two weanlings on the Cape Racing Mixed Sale, I elected to pop them in the horsebox and transport them myself. The drive into Cape Town, on Wednesday, was somewhat eventful, but less so than if we’d got caught in Thursday’s mudslides.

One of the things that happens on tour is the special types of bonds that are formed when one spends that much time in proximity with the team. Of the two weanlings, one was sold (well done on your bargain purchase, Nigel Riley), while the Rafeef colt didn’t make his reserve and came home with us after the sale. OK, so he’s a horse and we didn’t drink a lake of beer together (and there was no fines meeting), but I definitely have the same sense of getting to really know his personality while on tour.

This guy took all this newness in his stride, bestriding the turf at Kenilworth as if he’d just won the Cape Flying Championship. He walked up and down as many times as he was asked, displaying his athleticism with a feline stalk. Throughout this, he remained as low-key as a churchgoing kid from a small town, while taking in everything going on around him.

For all the talking I did about his prospects on the Premier Sale in January, to be followed by an illustrious career on the racecourse, perhaps the most impressive thing about him was the way he took everything in his stride. In the stormy gloom of the late afternoon, when it the time came for us to go home, he walked up the horsebox ramp as if he’s an old hack that gets taken to shows every weekend.

A huge part of this colt’s behaviour is thanks to Kholiwe and Staci, the star grooms who took care of our weanlings. I am so impressed with their horsemanship, especially considering that both of them are new to this.

While the conclusion one could draw is that having women on tour leads to better behaviour, some may say that the whole point of a tour is NOT to be on best behaviour. As they say, “No great story started with someone eating a salad.”

On the other hand, if you call lucerne alfalfa, does it qualify as a salad?

Chasing Dreams

Oscar Foulkes October 4, 2022 Uncategorized No comments
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There are a several inherent problems in making movies about horse racing. The first of these is that it’s hard to simultaneously capture both the euphoric highs of winning, and the reality of the day-to-day. Also, when it comes to anticipated outcomes, Hollywood is much better at keeping the tension going when there’s a knife/gun-wielding invader with evil intent wandering around a dark building, than in a dramatised horse race.

It’s not a successful genre. I’d rather watch the grainy footage on YouTube of Secretariat’s record-setting romp in the Belmont Stakes, than the movie that was made. In fairness, having said all of this, I should go back and re-watch Phar Lap, Sea Biscuit and Secretariat.

This is a long way of getting to the point that Chasing the Win does a great job of showing you what it’s really like to be connected with racehorses. The official summary goes like this:

“Chasing the Win is a feature length documentary film that follows the meteoric rise of a rookie trainer, a long time owner, and their beloved racehorse after an unprecedented victory thrusts them into the global spotlight of horse racing. Success and fame are followed by the hard hitting reality of what it means to survive in the Sport of Kings.”

The driving force behind the excitement of being connected with racehorses is that success is not guaranteed, no matter how much money you spend. Owning a bigger yacht or faster car is a linearly predictable application of cash. Certain highly professional, well-funded outfits often outperform the averages, but success is never guaranteed.

In some cases, the biggest successes are the products of projects that were started decades ago. A case in point is Kirsten Rausing’s 2022 Arc winner, Alpinista. Rausing bought her fourth dam (that’s great-great-grandam) in 1985, channeling childhood learnings from her grandfather.

Competing for the same prizes are people of lesser means, who are driven by the same dreams. It happens more often than you’d think that the horse owned/trained/bred by the ‘small guy’ beats the one representing the elite. I should mention that the Irish loom large in all of this, with their affinity for horses.

Back to Chasing the Win, with its cast of Irishmen, led by the Sheehy brothers from County Kinsale, who have owned horses in the US for many decades, trying to find champions on a shoestring budget. Their horse Kinsale King has not shown any form as a young racehorse, and they turn him over to another Irishman, the struggling small-time trainer Carl O’Callaghan, who sorts out his issues and gets him winning.

The documentary opens with Kinsale King’s famous win the Dubai Golden Shaheen against the world’s top sprinters, following the horse and his people to the world’s top race meetings.

As someone who has owned shares of racehorses for many years, I can vouch for the authenticity of the story. A 1200m race may last just 70 seconds, but there are many hours of preparation and anticipation that go into it.

During the time that our horse Sergeant Hardy was racing, I had equivalent aspirations. He began his career as the underdog, with serious breathing issues, and nevertheless proved himself to be the best sprinter of his crop in South Africa. If African Horse Sickness travel restrictions weren’t an issue, I’d have actively pursued an invitation to the international race meetings in Hong Kong and elsewhere.

The film’s co-director is the owner’s daughter, Laura Sheehy, which may account for the authenticity of the behind-the-scenes stories.

I watched Chasing the Win on YouTube (here’s a link to other options).

Magic in Process

Oscar Foulkes September 11, 2022 Uncategorized No comments

I get all kinds of responses from people who hear me speak for the first time. I don’t blame them – before I open my mouth, I’m never entirely certain exactly what sound will come out. Usually, people think I have laryngitis. Once, a Woolies cashier openly laughed at me, and I often have call centre employees call me Ma’am.

I would have thought that the name Oscar is a big enough clue as to my gender, but hey, who knows these days?

At several points since 2006 I haven’t been able to do anything other than whisper, so I take this as a win. Being saved from phone calls is also a win, but it can be extremely frustrating to ring someone’s doorbell, and for them not to be able to hear me over the intercom. Joining in on dinner table conversations was generally impossible, and I went through periods of actively avoiding parties or restaurants. Even now, I often prefer to remain quiet.

I was once on my way to have a meeting with someone called Luke. At the entrance, the security guard asked me whom I was there to see. I don’t think he saw the humour of my Darth Vader-ish voice telling him I was there to see Luke (“I am your father, Luke”).

From about 2003 or 2004, my voice got progressively more hoarse, until I lost it entirely, in 2006. The cause of this was found to be cancerous growths on my vocal chords, and since then I’ve had six surgeries, as well as a six-week course of radiation. Vocal chords are extremely sensitive bits of equipment; while these treatments have left me without cancer, I have extensive scarring. Hence the voice.

There was a time that I referred to myself as the Boardroom Whisperer. My brother called me Il Voce (the voice).

Before this started, I had already started reading the Harry Potter series to my daughter. The growing hoarseness was progressive, but I just kept going, complete with made-up voices for all the main characters. Believe me, you’d rather listen to the Stephen Fry reading Harry Potter, but we’d already started, and even though she was perfectly capable of reading The Deathly Hallows herself, we had to finish it the way we’d started. The main problem was that the final book was more than three times as long as the first!

Books are a process. They have a defined structure, complete with start and end points. Words make up sentences. Sentences make paragraphs. Paragraphs make pages. Pages make chapters, and chapters make books. One step follows from another. Small bits cumulatively make something big. This also works in reverse for people writing books. Even writing just 500 words a day can be life changing for an aspirant author.

The point of this is that all of us who loved the Harry Potter books got completely drawn into the world of supernatural powers. I’m here to tell you that every one of us has superpowers, and they don’t require the use of spells, or finding horcruxes.

There is magic in process. Let me give you an example.

By the end of 2015, my surgeon had decided that he couldn’t keep cutting away at my vocal chords. He prescribed a six-week course of radiation, which resulted in the worst pain I’ve ever experienced. I lived on soup and morphine for something like two months in the first quarter of 2016. At the end of it I’d lost nearly 15% of my body weight, and it’s not as if I ever had much in reserve.

I already had an entry for the 2017 Cape Epic, which was almost exactly 12 months after I finished radiotherapy. I was a keen mountain biker, so it just seemed like a simple process of starting to ride again, and the rest would fall into place.

After my first few rides, I realised that this wasn’t going according to plan. In fact, I felt so bad on the bike that if I didn’t have the objective of getting fit for Epic I might have stopped right there. I could barely cycle around the block, and even the tiniest bit of exertion had me sounding like Darth Vader because I could barely breathe.

I went to the Sports Science Institute for a proper training programme. I stuck the programme onto the fridge, just as I had done with the schedule for my 33 radiotherapy appointments, and I followed the instructions to the letter.

13 weeks later, I completed the four-day Imana Wild Ride, along the coast from Morgan Bay to Umngazi, which is one of the most awe-inspiring bits of landscape in South Africa. I can highly recommend the experience!

Training continued from August until March, and then we rode the 2017 Cape Epic. It’s one of the toughest mountain biking stage races in the world. Over the course of eight days we covered nearly 700km, climbing 15000m. My body had got stronger, but I still made a lot of noise when breathing. I can’t tell you how many times fellow riders offered me asthma pumps, or how many times they rode ahead to let my partner know that I might be in trouble.

That we reached the finish line is a testament to the power of following a structured training programme – in other words, the Magic of Process.

After finishing Epic, I discovered that I’d trained for – and ridden – the event on something like 50% of my breathing capacity. It’s not quite the same as breathing through a straw, but it gives you an idea of the effect. Sometimes it’s better not to know things like this, because I might not even have attempted it if I’d known about this limitation.

I need to tell you a bit about my riding partner, Piet Viljoen. We met as a result of a blog I posted in February 2016, entitled Will You Be My Epic Valentine? At that point, I could barely whisper, I certainly wasn’t strong enough to exercise, and I still had nearly a month of treatment left. Piet, on the other hand, was about to run the Two Oceans Ultra, was in training for a full Iron Man, and would go on to do a bunch of extreme endurance events in 2017.

Piet is a value investor, but even a ‘reversion to mean’ model would have had difficulty forecasting the extent of my recovery. In my darkest days, I was the equivalent of buying into African Bank while it was in curatorship, or purchasing Greek bonds under threat of default. We couldn’t sensibly cycle together until the end of 2016, and yet Piet didn’t waver. His level of commitment puts his immediate “yes” on the level of “I do”. I have spent many hours looking at the back of Piet’s RECM cycling kit, with the strapline: “Follow your conviction.” Even if I’ve been the one doing the following, I can tell you that the conviction part is real.

And this was on the back of a brief coffee meeting with someone who until that point had been a complete stranger. It says a lot for the power of making a choice … and sticking to it.

I can tell you that it makes a HUGE difference to share a challenge with someone who has the kind of values, energy and commitment that support your objectives.

Far from the 2017 experience scaring us off, we repeated Cape Epic in 2018 and 2019.

There’s a little bit of synchronicity to my Epic story, in that a racehorse I co-owned with my mother, Sergeant Hardy, was at point the country’s top-rated sprinter despite having impaired breathing. Our Cape Epic team name was Hoarse Power (with an ‘a’), and we rode the first one in pink kit that was inspired by my mother’s racing colours.

There are a number of other learnings from the experience of riding Epic, or indeed any other endurance event. The simplest, and most obvious, is that as long as you keep turning the cranks you will get to the finish. What I’ve also learnt is that pain is not permanent. While you’re working your way up the mountain, it may feel as if the pain will never end, but before you know it you’ll find yourself having fun on the descents.

This is a phenomenon I’ve experienced in all kinds of real-life situations. Those feelings of difficulty pass. Whether it’s the “are we there yet?” of long journeys, or troubled times, they all pass.

A few months ago, I even found myself applying ‘Epic Mind’ during particularly unpleasant root canal treatment.

Attitude is a big contributor to how we deal with the stresses and difficulties that we encounter. Do we turn molehills into mountains, or the other way around?

I can’t point to empirical evidence, but I believe that one of the things that has helped me is that since the age of 17 I have meditated for 20 minutes twice a day. That’s well over 8000 hours of being in a deep state of relaxation. The daily benefits are release of stress, greater clarity of thinking, and better sleep, and I believe that the effects are cumulative. Whether this has helped me to be more resilient, I don’t know, but I couldn’t imagine living my life without it.

Every moment we’re alive, we’re being invited to answer the question, “What action are you going to take next?” The most obvious benefit of taking part in a series of directed actions – or what one could call a process – is that we are more likely to move closer to our objective.

The second benefit is that it’s very hard for us to feel that we’re victims when we keep taking conscious actions. There are times we may feel that we have no power, but the one thing that no-one can take away from us is the choice of how to respond. Even if all other power has been removed from us, we still have control over that choice.

A structured sequence of actions may seem like an extremely boring way of doing things, but it has a knack of delivering results … almost as if by magic.

What I like about having them listed on a sheet of paper on my fridge is that there’s no negotiation. Especially when it comes to training, if there isn’t a programme or plan, one can easily create all kinds of reasons to justify why one shouldn’t get onto the bike.

I like that the programme’s daily steps are binary. Either one has done what’s required, or one hasn’t. The power of those daily steps is cumulative. Each increment brings one closer to the objective.

By making each step manageable, we get positive feedback on a daily basis, which reinforces commitment to the process. People who work in the field of motivation recommend having a mental picture of oneself as the complete article. So, if I visualise myself as a Cape Epic finisher it’s easier to follow the actions that will get me there.

But this thing isn’t just about visualisation, or working my way through lists posted on the fridge. There has to be an element of selfishness to the way I allocate my time every week to make sure that I do the training that is required. Plus, if I have to be on the bike early on a Sunday morning I’m not exactly up for a big night of partying on a Saturday. In this respect, I’ve been extremely fortunate to have the buy-in and support of my entire family.

The other key person in the process is my coach, Erica Green. She may not be pedalling the bike, but she is as invested as each of her athletes.

The point is that we’re better off with a network of support around us.

While planning this talk, I’ve had the thought that it might have greater impact if the person standing here were an Olympian, or had national colours. However, that could create a disconnect because of the athlete’s superior capabilities. It could make the achievements seem out of reach.

I’m just a regular person. I didn’t start this with superior physical abilities.

Apart from the proper preparation, the one thing that all endurance activities share is the endurance part. Basically, no matter how tough the going gets, one needs to have the mental power to keep going. Mind over matter is a ‘thing’.

My friend Jonno Proudfoot, who swam from Mozambique to Madagascar, talks about creating a web of accountability, in which you are so committed to key people and sponsors that giving up is just not an option. This is the power of not just making the choice to tackle a challenge, but also telling family and friends about the decision. Once you’ve added sponsors and a support team, there are a LOT of people that you don’t possibly want to let down.

If you are well enough prepared, and pace yourself properly, you’re unlikely to find yourself in the zone where it’s too hard to keep going. However, even with the best preparation, there are days when the conditions are adverse, and you have to dig deep. When this happens, there are just two things to think about:

  • firstly, by maintaining movement you keep getting closer to the finish … in other words, what is the next action I need to take
  • secondly, giving up is not an option

Sometimes you just have to ‘vasbyt’.

Each of us has different dreams at different times in our lives. Putting together a series of directed actions is the magical process that turns dreams to reality … no wands required!

It was through reading to my kids that I discovered Dr Seuss’ wonderful book, Oh The Places You’ll Go. I highly recommend that you go out and get a copy, but I leave you with the first two paragraphs:

Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself 
any direction you choose.

(This was a talk I presented in 2018, with update reflecting the third Epic, in 2019)

The Elephant Outside the Room

Oscar Foulkes May 1, 2022 Uncategorized No comments
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There’s something a little bit extravagant, if not indulgent, about room service. Firstly, you have to be staying in a hotel of some luxury, because many hotels just don’t offer it. Secondly, someone has to spend the roughly ten minutes ferrying a specially packed tray or trolley to your room.

In my travelling days, I did occasionally make use of room service. A few occasions stand out. A pot of rich hot chocolate on an icy day, at a hotel in Oslo. A Sunday morning flask of coffee at a hotel in Hong Kong while reading the FT Weekend in bed.

There’s a lot to be said for the convenience of food and drink arriving at your door without you having to get properly dressed before going out in search of it.

I can’t recall the location of eating the inevitable club sandwich, that somewhat ridiculous multi-layered standard of room service menus, but I do remember the oral gymnastics required to eat around the skewer without piercing my lips or impaling my gums.

I’m almost certain that none of my room service experiences took place in a room large enough for me to eat a meal ‘properly’, and this seems one of

the dark secrets of the service. Hotel rooms deliver the minimum amount of space in which to sleep, wash, use the toilet and work. This doesn’t strike me as being the ideal space in which to also eat. Or, to sleep in the same confined space in which we’ve just eaten.

You’d think that this simple fact would be the elephant in the room, and you may not be far wrong.

No, the elephant is in the passage.

Having finished your room service meal, you definitely don’t want to sleep with it. So, the trolley gets wheeled outside, or the tray is dumped on the floor. Guests on their way back to their rooms, having dined in more salubrious surrounds, have to walk past the detritus of these meals.

I’m a big fan of leftovers when they’ve been retrieved from a sealed container in the fridge. Messy room service plates with congealed bit of sauce and pasta do the genre no favours.

What is needed, fellow travellers, is a shroud to cover the tray or trolley when it’s in the passage. We don’t need to be confronted with this horror.

It’s not (just) the legs

Oscar Foulkes April 4, 2022 Uncategorized No comments

Earlier this week, while checking on a colicky weanling at 9.30pm, I found myself in the path of a dozen charging baby racehorses. I’ve spent many hours with these guys, so I had no sense of danger. Not, for example, like the times I’ve encountered Cape Cobras, either on foot or while cycling.

In retrospect, it’s obvious that horses will be disorientated when they’re on the opposite side of a torch. And, in the absence of them wearing head torches, how are they supposed to know what’s in their way?

So, they kept coming straight at me.

The first one struck me with its shoulder. As I fell to the ground, I was hit by another. All I can say with certainty is that no hooves were involved (thankfully!).

Weanlings weigh around 200kg. Substantially more than the likes of Eben Etzebeth, Bakkies Botha or Jonah Lomu, and I really wouldn’t want to be shoulder-charged by any of them. Significantly, weanlings run a lot faster even than Makazole Mapimpi.

It hurt a lot.

My major injuries are to right thumb (badly sprained), ribs and chest on left side, and extensive, deep bruising to glutes/hips/pelvis/sacroiliac region. There are no slow motion replays (obvs), but it’s possible that the second weanling to hit me did so from behind. There are reasons why this is a red card offense on the rugby field.

Whatever the injuries, though, it could have been a lot worse.

Six days later, I ventured back on my bike. I had planned to go off-road, but after the first few turns of the cranks, I knew that a recovery spin on the road was all I was capable of.

There were a few spots where I tackled some singletrack, which brings me to my point in telling this story. The experience was clearly illustrative of how much of the body is involved in this sport that is theoretically based upon power in the legs.

I have previous experience of riding with a sprained wrist (no fun at all). Seeing as all gear changes on a mountain bike involve the right thumb, I was happy to not be on terrain that required frequent gear changes. There is also the small matter of being able to properly grip the handlebars, which does require the full use of both thumbs.

I also felt the lack of power in my glutes when climbing. The largest impact of all, though, was when I needed to engage the flexibility in my hip area to propel myself up little technical bits of trail. It’s a movement I generally do without thinking, but today my body made it abundantly clear that this was not going to be an option.

I have previously described the undertaking of getting up rocky trails as the act of wrestling the bike up the mountainside. Let’s just say that today I couldn’t wrestle a light summer duvet off the bed.

There’s nothing like losing some functionality to be reminded how much of a full-body exercise mountain biking can be!

Emotional Rescue

Oscar Foulkes July 14, 2021 Uncategorized No comments

Events like the Absa Cape Epic have done a great job of positioning the Western Cape as one of the world’s prime mountain biking destinations. We truly are spoilt for choice, with a multitude of trail options within an hour(ish) drive of Cape Town.

For outdoorsy types, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect city than Cape Town. It occupies a long peninsula that has a mountain running down the middle of it. Pick your sea- or land-based activity, and it’s all possible, most of it without much of a drive.

The rest of my family surf, dive, rock climb, walk and run. My activity is mountain biking. Cape Town’s network of trails used to be based upon some of the jeep tracks in the national park, but concerted efforts by persistent people have led to some hiking paths also being opened to mountain bikers.

We share the trails with runners, walkers, and dogs, so courtesy (and bells) are a basic requirement.

So far, so good. Everyone was more-or-less content with what we had. However, doing a loop of the mountain, whether via Noordhoek or Constantia Nek, required a lengthy section on Victoria Road from Camps Bay to Suikerbossie. Seeing as we’re mountain bikers, not roadies, this was not ideal.

Working via ‘someone who knows someone’, Rob Vogel made contact with the owner of the huge tract of quasi-reserve between Camps Bay and Oudekraal. Permission was gained to build a trail, so that we could ride off-road all the way to Llandudno, and so was born The Missing Link.

A bunch of people got involved in fundraising, and Walter Brosius started building. He also built the Belgian Waffle trail on Signal Hill (and others). Sadly, he’s returned to Europe, but the legacy he’s left us, in the form of many kilometres of sublime trails, has earned him the gratitude of Cape Town mountain bikers for many years to come.

Once the Missing Link was completed, it was discovered that the final part of the trail inadvertently traversed SAN Parks land, which turned it into a cul-de-sac for a while. Riding along the same trail both ways is no hardship, because it ‘rides’ differently, but a loop is better.

More money was raised, and Walter continued building. When he left, the team he trained remained, under the guidance of Harry Millar. We now have two return options. About 1.5km into The Missing Link is the Lobotomy DH (it cuts off the front part – geddit?), exiting on Ottowa Road. Another return loop starts beyond the Twelve Apostles Hotel, linking up with Lobotomy.

The entire loop, from Theresa Avenue, to Ottowa, is something like 11km of rugged singletrack overlooking the ocean. The setting is nothing short of magnificent, particularly for late afternoon sundowner rides.

The trail opened during the 2020 Lockdown, when other parts of the mountain were closed. For this reason, as well as the novelty factor, there was a lot of traffic to start. Now it’s a lot less busy, but that may be more a product of the trail having got harder to ride as small rocks have become exposed.

Actual trail building was done, but it was more a case of threading the trail through or around the worst obstacles than imposing a sculpted path onto the topography. It’s pretty close to natural, complete with some rock-strewn sections. All of it is rideable, and there’s nothing I would class as scary (i.e. crazy steep descents or drops). The parts one might call technical are the rocky inclines. These are best ridden in a gear that allows some torque (leading me to label one of my rides on Strava as “Torque, torque. All you do to me is torque, torque”).

The most appropriate song for the trail, though, is Emotional Rescue. While it’s obviously a physical experience riding it – and it’s certainly challenging – it is an experience that feeds my soul. It’s a special kind of rescue, and yes, there are some stones involved.

(There are several Missing Link videos on  YouTube. The one above isn’t the slickest production, but it does a pretty good job of illustrating the terrain and the landscape – and it has footage of a little crash.)

You can use the Table Mountain Bikers Snapscan code to contribute to trail maintenance.

Racing Through Generations

Oscar Foulkes February 5, 2020 Horse Racing No comments

This was my (unsuccessful) entry in the LQP Writers’ Contest.

I attended my first Queen’s Plate in 1984. Wolf Power was the winner, ridden by Jeff Lloyd. His sensational run of form over a magical 18-month period left the kind of impression that is unique to young people seeing their first champion. I can’t think of Wolf Power without imagining The Guv on his back, Lloyd’s extra-short stirrups thrusting his body into a pose matching that of an inverted isosceles triangle. His ‘look’ on the back of a horse was different to that of any other jockey.

Charles Faull’s iconic canter past picture of Wolf Power prior to the 1984 Queen’s Plate is a study in grey, black and white, with further grey provided by the smoke backdrop.

It seems appropriate, then, that a grass fire downwind of Kenilworth had sent thick clouds of smoke across the racetrack as we awaited the start of the 2020 L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate. My racing companion was my daughter, having her first LQP experience. My son had been with me the day before, also making his LQP debut.

There is a great deal of information for racing ‘newbies’ to absorb; far more than can be shared in one afternoon (not that my children are newbies in the same sense as the LQP party goers). I started by explaining the significance of this as the country’s most important 1600m race, because of the weight-for-age (WFA) conditions, as well as its long and proud history.

I then told them that their grandmother had bred the winner three times, twice with Winter Solstice, and then his close relative Mother Russia. My mother’s second cousin, Dan de Wet, bred Pocket Power, which meant that there was an unbroken seven-year sequence of LQP winners from the de Wet family.

You have to go back to 1951 to find another individual woman (i.e. not a de facto inclusion as part of a marital partnership) to have bred a winner, in the form of Peggy Kelly, the registered breeder of Black Cap. While those circumstances are unknown to me, the expectation is that Ms Kelly’s role wasn’t quite as hands-on – or riven with risk – as that of Veronica Foulkes.

My mother didn’t need to look far for female role models. Her own mother, Margaret de Wet was an inspiration.

When her husband, Oscar de Wet, died early in their marriage, my maternal grandmother took over the running of the family farm, Excelsior. Keeping with this essay’s theme of timely connection between past and present, the current issue of Farmer’s Weekly has an archive section in which they’ve reproduced an article about my grandmother that was first published in 1964. Woman farmers were scarcer than hen’s teeth in those days, and magazine articles about them fewer still. The discovery of this article brought my extended family to a reverent standstill.

When I was born (on my mother’s 21st birthday), my mother forever tied me to de Wet heritage by making it my second name. It’s become easier to make my initials “OD” or “ODW”, but the NHRA has stuck with the more correct “O de W”.

The de Wet family settled in Ashton in 1869, when my great great grandfather, Koos, purchased a large tract of land after eloping with his brother’s fiancée. In 1878, he bought the stallion Octavius Caesar from the stud of Queen Victoria (I haven’t been able to establish what impact his progeny had on the race that owes its genesis – and name – to this monarch).

The original farm was split between Koos’ three sons, into entities that still exist – Zandvliet, Prospect (divided once more) and Excelsior. All three were important studs at various periods in the 20th century.

Returning to the LQP Festival, my grandfather, Oscar de Wet, bred the winner of the second and third runnings of the Paddock Stakes, in the form of Country Cousin. At stud she produced the Sceptre Stakes winner, Tabor.

Looking back over the list of breeders with winners in the races that comprise the LQP Festival, primarily the Queen’s Plate, it’s striking how few have retained any kind of continuity. Most of them are no longer in operation. The line from Koos de Wet to Veronica Foulkes is admittedly not a direct one in a patriarchal sense, but it feels significant that it comes at the end of an unbroken 150-year heritage of breeding Thoroughbreds. Unless one of my children or nephews gets involved, I’m the last man standing.

It’s the final third of this history that obviously is most real to me, because these are filled with the broodmares and their descendants that I’ve been around since I was a little boy. Perhaps the most important of these – in a L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate context – was the mare Terpsichore, in that two of her daughters produced Queen’s Plate winners. To date, this is the only family to have produced multiple winners.

Breeding operations generally close down when a stud has had a run of bad stallions. This was especially true of Karoo studs, where it was not practical to send mares to outside stallions. The second reason internal to the stud is the degree of interest from the owner and future generations. Finally, there is the critically important external factor: commercial viability.

Racing faces tough times, partly due to the dire state of the South African economy, but mostly thanks to racing’s inability to hold onto its existing customer base, let alone grow it.

The LQP Festival plays a vital leadership role in the process of reversing decades of complacency if not outright incompetence. For those of us who are invested in the future of this great sport, blue and white are the colours of hope.

Every aspect of the event is managed with minute attention to detail and deep levels of care. It has been grown conservatively, getting just a little bit bigger every year, set against the best racing it is possible to assemble, on the country’s fairest racecourse (in both senses of the word). Of course there is glamour, fashion, celebrity and an after party, because racing is in a unique position to deliver those things. The core product – the horse/racing – delivers an immediate rush from up close, but is admittedly a longer, more complex journey, as it engages both mind and feeling.

At the moment, the direst of predictions might not see racing surviving another ten years, let alone have its future mirror the long history of many of the sport’s professionals.

It is up to my children to choose their fields of study, and ultimately the kind of work they’ll do, presumably in vibrant industries. I’m not going to push them into any direction. However, I owe it to them to share the things that are important to me, especially the ones I feel in the pit of my stomach. Thoroughbred racing and breeding is one of those.

I could wax lyrical about horses’ beauty, the power of them at gallop, the liberation of being on horseback, the wonderful experience of being surrounded by a group of inquisitive yearlings in a paddock, the hopes and dreams that plot the route back from disappointments, or the many hours of planning that precede bloodstock decisions. The fact is that all of the above is simply something I feel. And it’s good.

Over 1600m, the drag effect of weight is two pounds per length. It’s a handy entry point for making handicapping calculations over all other distances, by making a pro rata adjustment. Furthermore, handicapping is incomplete without an understanding of WFA. Could the WFA 1600m L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate also be an entry point for a broader reinvigoration of our sport? I do hope so.

The race’s record also happens to be a hook on which one can hang just about any story about the greatest of our jockeys, trainers, racehorses, stallions, broodmares and breeders, not to mention the owners that paid the bills. Eventually, all those stories intersect with the Queen’s Plate.

Smoke and fire have an obvious connection. I am willing a blue and white feathered phoenix to rise from those ashes.

Broodmare covering records in my great great grandmother’s notebook

My grandmother in 1964, with her trophy-winning yearling, Agricola.

Hardware vs Software

Oscar Foulkes October 21, 2019 Cape Epic No comments

If you’ve ever thought it’s ridiculous to ride a bicycle that costs the same as a small car, read on. If you’re someone who thinks it’s perfectly normal to ride such a bike, read on.

I’ve often marvelled at mountain bikes’ ability to take a beating on rough trails. Yes, some are more robust than others, but in general they get put through a lot.

However, it’s not enough for them to just handle the punishment without ending up in an Ikean state. We also want them to make it easy for us to ride the technical stuff – effectively compensating for the rider’s lack of talent – and we want all this in a lightweight package.

In this continuum of man and machine, there comes a point where – regardless of the technical genius of the machine – the rider has to have the skill (plus matching confidence) to stay on the bike. To borrow from the world of computers, this is the software.

I’ve been extremely fortunate to have been able to ride a wide range of bikes over the past three years. Switching from my old, low-spec bike (which i impulsively bought, lured by the social media campaigns led by The Marketing Heaven at the time) to Yeti gave me first-hand experience of the bike making trails easier. The same happened when I rode the Santa Cruz Tallboy, which is a super-forgiving ride.

But another thing happened. As the bikes made it easier for me ride ‘harder’ sections, my confidence and skill adjusted. So, when I went backwards (e.g. from Tallboy to Yeti, which is theoretically less forgiving) I didn’t need as much help from the bike. In a sense, my software got updated by interacting with the hardware.

I’ve written a few times about the Santa Cruz Blur, which is a super-lightweight racing machine intended for marathon events (i.e. theoretically not as technically demanding). However, with the Santa Cruz downhill pedigree behind its design, it was always going to handle that stuff well.

Blur comes with 2.25” tyres as standard, but I think it gives a much better ride with the extra volume of 2.35” tyres, ridden slightly softer. Yes, to non-riders this may seem as arcane as the shape of wine glass changing the wine’s aroma, but they’re both real.

After I became a Blur-liever, Santa Cruz added the TR version, which has bit more of a trail spec. To be more specific (and apologies for the technical references), the two big differences are that the TR comes with a dropper post as well as a more robust fork that has more travel. These changes bring it closer to the performance of a trail bike, like the Tallboy.

For my latest bike-switch, there was no available stock of the TR version, so I had to hack it, by adding those two elements to the standard Blur build kit. For an immersive technical view, read here.

I didn’t realise that it could be possible to love the Blur any more than I already did, but I’ve discovered that it is. What was a great ride is now a sensational ride – or whatever hyperbolic adjectives are appropriate. I also am embarrassed to admit that it’s taken me this long to start riding with a dropper.

It took me a couple of rides to get used to the experience, but I now cannot bear the restriction on movement caused by having the saddle between my legs on descents. Getting further back on the bike makes the steep stuff easier, and getting the saddle out of the way is great for riding bendy trails. On fast descents, dropping the saddle enables me to drop my centre of gravity, which makes the bike more stable.

I must be getting the hang of this new set-up, because yesterday, instead of braking when approaching a corner, I found myself crouching closer to the saddle (and shifting my weight even more). That is a game-changer.

I know that the fork is helping me over bigger obstacles, but the demonstration of this isn’t quite as obvious as the dropper.

I once read a quote, about us discovering particular books at a time when we need that knowledge (apologies for the poor paraphrasing). The same might be said of my new Blur set-up.

You see, I’ve been diagnosed with bilateral frozen shoulder, the cause of which is the subject of speculation. One of the theories is that three Cape Epics in three years, not long after completing radiotherapy, plus a bunch of other multi-day events and a punishing training programme, have caused general depletion. In the past month I’ve had cortisone injections into both shoulders, so I need to wait a few more weeks before we can do a battery of investigative blood tests.

In the interim, I’ve backed off the intensity and length of rides. Over the past few weeks my rides have been in the vicinity of an hour, with the climbs being included only for the purpose of getting me to the top of descents. I’m targeting the more technical trails that I’ve previously found more daunting, and trying to ride them as fast as possible.

What I’m getting at is that – in the absence of an upcoming ‘event goal’ – the new Blur has given my cycling a new kind of purpose. It’s almost like the books that cross our paths when we most need them.

If you followed my blog in the lead-up to this year’s Epic you’d know that a month before the event I was so fatigued that I took a couple of weeks off training. I’d had a sense for some time that my body just wasn’t ‘firing’. Subsequent to Epic, I haven’t experienced the usual post-Epic leap in performance. In fact, I got slower.

The endurance mindset would have me pushing through, and just keeping going, even with the frozen shoulders. But this isn’t supposed to be a case of suffering through the pain and discomfort, just because I can. Mountain biking is supposed to be fun, after all.

I’m enjoying the change of scenery, and I can say with certainty that I’ve never enjoyed riding a bike more than the TR-styled Blur.

This hardware is good for my software!

Similar set-up to my Blur (except that I have a black fork).

This Little Piggy

Oscar Foulkes June 4, 2019 Uncategorized No comments

Masterchef has many opportunities for drinking games. For example, when a contestant describes produce as “beautiful”, or when a dish is “me on a plate”. Then there is the old stand-by, “my food dream”. Every time these phrases are used, it’s time to drink.

I can’t say that I have a “food dream”. I cook because I love eating. Deliciousness rules my life (hence the name of this blog), whether it’s food or drink.

I regularly give loaves of my homebaked sourdough bread to friends, but I have less than no desire to open a bakery (a case of ‘zero dreams given’?).

And yet.

David Gelb’s brilliant series Chef’s Table and Street Food tease out the chefs’ stories. The food looks beautiful, but it’s more about the artist than the pieces of art (although there are times I’ve wished I could instantly teleport myself into their dining rooms).

Especially while watching Street Food, I could feel my insides swelling with a feeling of needing to express something. This also happens to me when I am driven to writing. I write to communicate, but I also write because there are things I need to express. The process of writing gives me pleasure.

I’m not going to open a bakery. For the same reason, I’m not going to open a restaurant.

But, there are other ways around this.

Pork belly, I’ve learnt, is a dish that can successfully be pre-cooked, and warmed up after spending some time in the fridge. Most importantly, I’ve done it WITHOUT LOSING THE CRACKLE.

Of all the animal proteins, pork is possibly the least well-supplied when it comes to being ethically pasture-reared. After much searching, I have finally found a farmer who will supply me with what I need.

As of this week, I therefore bring you This Little Piggy, with the headline offering of Slow-Roasted Pork Belly (complete with crackling, of course). It’s available to order only, with a minimum of two portions (at R160 for two portions).

Online orders are via the widget on this page. You can also drop me an email or whizz me a WhatsApp (083 297 3402). You can also order via Dish Food & Social (here). Collection is in Oranjezicht.

If your “food dream” is to be able to almost effortlessly serve delicious dinner to your family or guests, I’ve got you covered.

(Alongside, thanks to Pinterest, are some pork belly dishes you can easily knock together with pre-cooked pork belly. There are loads more on The Little Piggy Facebook page.

Use This Little Piggy’s slow-roasted pork belly to present a cutting edge plate like this, simply by adding the vegetables.

Use This Little Piggy’s slow-roasted pork belly to serve pork belly ramen.

On Epic & Pain

Oscar Foulkes March 27, 2019 Cape Epic No comments

“If you can’t deal with pain, you shouldn’t be riding Cape Epic.”

There may have been just a little bravado in my retort to the medic who was cleaning up the fairly impressive roastie around my elbow, following my Prologue tumble. As she did the clean-up, she warned me what bits were going to hurt. In truth, it wasn’t that sore, or maybe my ‘Epic mind’ had kicked in to manage the situation, or perhaps there was still enough adrenaline pumping through my system to mask it.

My way of managing pain – certainly in an on-the-bike endurance sense – involves three bits of framing:

  • pain is a transient experience
  • pain is relative
  • Epic and pain go together, so accept its presence and get on with the job

So, it helps to have benchmark memories of difficult climbs that have previously been endured/conquered. From that perspective, I can say to myself: “I’ve already done that one, and this one isn’t as bad.”

Even a long climb, like Groenlandberg, which takes me an hour, eventually comes to an end. And, although it’s an hour-long thing, some parts of it are less steep, so one has opportunities to recover a little.

We get used to things. For example, the excitement of a much-anticipated new car becomes jaded sooner than one might predict. Both pleasure and pain are transient experiences.

I might go quiet when I’m digging deep – even the famously vocal Spanish riders are silent on difficult parts of the route – and I might be hurting, but I know that there’s simple Physics involved. As long as I keep moving forward I’m going to reach the finish.

Everyone has their own way of dealing with these things; this is what works for me.

Versions of the above can also be applied in day-to-day life, but I’ll leave the pop psychology for another day.

Photo by Karin Schermbrucker/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS