This weekend sees an echo of those days, though there are no ships involved and the horses travel a rather less romantic route on tar roads.
Eight of the 16 runners in the Algoa Cup at Port Elizabeth’s Fairview racecourse on Sunday are coming from Cape Town.
There’ll be no stomach-churning two-day journey on heaving seas, from the Cape of Storms to Algoa Bay. Today’s horses are “floated” in modern horse-boxes, with the trip taking a few hours on modern highways. But the intention is the same as with the intrepid seafarers – to raid, pillage and carry off booty.
Nowadays Port Elizabeth is a minor racing centre, but it was once a main place. With all those English and Irish settlers, racing was a big part of everyday life in the 19th and 20th centuries and the Jockey Club of South Africa – the game’s all-powerful administrative and policing body – was constituted in the city in 1882.
Though its national status has ebbed, Eastern Cape racing remains reasonably robust, with a close-knit community whose love of the game often borders on fanatical.
Port Elizabeth families are prone to passing on the racing bug through the blood, the Smiths and Greeffs being notable examples. The region’s honours boards of the past 50 years are awash with these names.
Trainer Gavin Smith’s father and grandfather were racing heroes in Port Elizabeth and he works tirelessly to match, perhaps surpass, their achievements.
Similarly, Alan Greeff is making a real go of the monumental task of living up to his father Stanley’s legend as a master trainer.
The Smith and Greeff show is being challenged, however; notably by a female front in the shape of Yvette Bremner and Tara Laing.
Bremner saddles two runners in Sunday’s Cup, with Laing, Smith and Greeff preparing one each. They’re all on home turf, but will have to produce something special if they are to beat off the invading horde from the Cape Town yards of Justin Snaith, Dean Kannemeyer, Darryl Hodgson, Glen Kotzen, Stan Elley and Vaughan Marshall.
Interestingly, while Cape Town is seen as a major racing centre, its Grade 2 Green Point Stakes on Saturday carries a smaller purse than the Algoa Cup, a Grade 3 event – R300000 versus R350000.
Some observers put this down to Phumelela, which runs things in Eastern Cape, being a more business-minded operation than Gold Circle, which has held sway to the west. With the Competition Tribunal last week finally clearing the way for Phumelela to take over the reins in Cape Town, folk in the shadow of Table Mountain are openly saying they’re looking forward to being a bit more like Die Baai. Who’d have believed it?
Fairview, Sunday, Algoa Cup (Race 7): 5 Indian Hawk, 14 Parceval, 10 Punta Arenas, 2 Fabiani