A white horse (pronounced “harse” by my Jamaican and Kittian friends) walked into a rum shop near the Garrison Savannah in Barbados. The bartender, accustomed to horses, tried to make some light conversation. “You know,” he said conversationally, “we have a brand of Scotch whisky named after you?” “Incredible,” the horse replied. “You have a whisky named George?”
Another time when a horse slouched into the same establishment and ordered a double Eclipse neat, the bartender asked, “Why the long face?”
Horses have been around for almost fifty-five million years and there is evidence that horse racing featured in the Olympic Games in Greece in 648 B.C. Horses have also influenced the English Language with phrases like a “horse of a different colour” meaning “another matter entirely”; “pony up” or to “pay” up; “dark horse” (something like Black Beauty but really an “outsider”); “off to a flying start” meaning behaving like Pegasus without the wings; and as a hors d’oeuvre “get your goat”.
What does a goat have to do with horse-related language or is that mere horseplay on my part? The relationship between goats and horses goes back a long time. Goats are supposed to have a calming effect on high-strung thoroughbred horses perhaps because when the Almighty was giving out the sense of smell the horses sniffed at it and went galloping off.
Horse owners used to place a goat in the horse’s stall on the night before the race. Unscrupulous opponents would then steal the goat in an effort to upset the horse and cause it to lose the race. Thought I was just “kicksing”, didn’t you?
So why am I so full of horse-feathers today? It is because for the first time in many years I was at Santa Rosa Park in Trinidad on the fringes of a major event in Caribbean racing history – the inaugural Caribbean Nations Racing Challenge. I had not paid much attention to racing except a brief foray at the picturesque Beaumont Park in St Kitt’s, a gem of a track set between the blue Caribbean Sea and high misty mountains. The horses looked good but I did not know enough about horses to know exactly how good they were.
So there I was in Trinidad, at the racetrack, looking for some information. Next to the Paddock there was a little room with a door marked “Secretariat”. I was stunned. The last time I had seen Secretariat was in 1974 on television when it won the Triple Crown. Having Secretariat in Trinidad had to be the jewel in the country’s horse racing crown.
I joined the folks in line and pushed open the door only to find Chris Armond who, although inducted into the Hall of Fame of Thoroughbred Racing in Jamaica, and a heavyweight in his own right, does not command the same stud fees. Chris was, however, the coordinator of the event and head of the Secretariat.
The fact that he generally kept his cool and produced a winner justifies his place in the Hall of Fame and in charge of the major Caribbean racing event.
Caribbean people are not easy to work with. There are only two options. You can take the CARICOM path and talk all the time without achieving anything or getting anywhere, or you can face the emotional storms in teacups and shot-glasses, shout, scream, seduce, whisper when you have to while all the time keeping your eye on the main event and dragging the participants kicking and screaming across the finish line.
I suppose if you ask Chris why he did it he might give the same reason the youngster stood at the back of a horse – for kicks. But it worked and has to be the start of a new Caribbean racing tradition.
I had no inkling of this when I agreed to be part of it. My participation started with grass. Horses consume what is left after my Rastafarian friends are through with it. They also eat hay, oats and carrots. They drink different kinds of tonic including Guinness.
In fact, there is a story about a very sick-looking horse that limped into a bar with a bandage round his head and ordered a glass of champagne, a vintage brandy and two pints of Guinness. He noisily quaffed down all of it and said to the barman ruefully, “I shouldn’t really be drinking this with what I’ve got?” “Why, what have you got?” the barman asked. The horse shook his head sadly, “About two dollars and a carrot.”
It seemed that the Kittitian horses turn up their noses at Pangola grass, hate Para grass, but love freshly cut, soft Guinea grass, with a side order of Bahamas and some Medina (known in Trinidad as “speed-weed”) for dessert. This is in addition to imported hay, high-protein feed and Quaker Oats.
I volunteered to see if I could help the Kittitian cause by ensuring a continuity of supply of the right grass over the two week period the horses would be in Trinidad. I realized that I had bitten off more than I could chew when the horses landed and everyone from the vet to the horse-van drivers opened their eyes wide and said, “These horses will win every race they enter.”
One of the horses is named “Tiz Big” but nobody would have been surprised if any or all of the St Kitts entrants had that name. They created a stir wherever they went. I looked at them balefully. Big, fit and fast they ate grass by the truckloads.
The going was sloppy. Three of the four Kittitian entrants won. I did not do so well. A friend gave me a tip, pointing out a horse he said was a “mudder”. I argued saying that a horse that had just foaled should not be running. He clarified the term saying it was a horse that liked a muddy track. The horse came last and I understood why it was called a “mudder” when I heard what some of the punters called it as, head bent, it made its way back to the paddock.
*Tony Deyal was last seen saying that a dead horse, tired of being flogged by the Trinidad Government, walked into a bar in Arima and ordered an Old Oak. The bartender said, “Sorry sir, we don’t serve spirits in here.”
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