“To this day, the taxi drivers will tell you that on a stormy night, you will often still see a horse galloping along the road next to the race course…”
By Cheryl ME McCrindle
“So she has foaled at last!”
John Gibson turned to his daughter and smiled, then looked again as the sturdy colt accelerated away from his dam with a long , low stride. The mare raised her head and nickered, but the foal galloped a full circle around the paddock, before coming back to her.
“Wow,” said Lena, “he thinks he’s winning the Durban July and he’s only a few hours old!” She laughed and pointed. “Look he has a lightning strike blaze!”
Lena was studying to be a trainer and rode work for her dad’s string of race-horses. They purchased Lightning Bolt (by First Light out of Bold Maiden) at the yearling sales and Lena played a major part in backing and riding him. Over time Lightning Bolt lived up to his name. He won four of his first five starts and was narrowly beaten into second place only once as a two year old. Then he started climbing the ladder fast and was running in First Division races as a three year old.
Lena established a bond with the tall, rangy stallion. He would nicker whenever she came into the stable and walk up to the paddock fence to have his poll scratched if he saw her passing. Often, when she felt down she would take over the duties as groom, washing him down and walking him dry after exercise on the gallops. As part–owner she would dress up on race days and cheer him on, sometimes leading him into the winner’s enclosure.
One race-day, after Lena had overseen the unloading of the horses at the race track and was just about to go across and get into her “glad rags” (the elegant dress, high heeled shoes and hat required in the stands), she heard a commotion. Lightning Bolt was settled in his stable and a groom was starting to plait his mane. The sun had barely risen and his race was only at 12h30. Further down the row a security officer was manhandling one of the grooms. She recognised Rolihlahla Puzi, a groom who had recently been getting into trouble for being drunk on duty.
Voices were raised and both the he and the security officer were swearing at each other. More security officers arrived. When she got closer to the stable where the fracas was occurring, she saw that the race horse inside it, called Blue Moon, was bleeding from a long shallow cut on the neck. The gelding was one of the two years olds in her father’s string. It shook its head and blood spattered on the walls of the stable. She opened the door and caught the dangling lead rope. A bloody knife lay amongst the shavings on the floor. She did not touch it, but started talking calmly to the frightened horse. Two grooms appeared with a first aid kit and she asked quietly for a dressing.
“Has anyone called the vet,” she asked
“Yes,” one of the grooms nodded. “He’s on his way.”
Her father stormed into the stable, followed by one of the Racing Stewards and the veterinarian.
“Its some sort of labour dispute!” he said angrily; then, “ Doc, can you get this stitched up, please.”
He turned to the steward, “Blue Moon will have to be scratched, I’ll talk to the owner. That man Rolli is a trouble maker. We’d better talk to the Union. “
Over the next few months, Lightning Bolt made a name for himself and became a punters’ favourite. In the background, the dispute with Rolli became more and more unpleasant after the stabbing of Blue Moon. One day, a few weeks after the stabbing, Rolli came up behind Lena when she was settling the horses after unloading them on a race day. He grabbed her arm tightly and pulled her round to face him.
“You better tell your father to pay me something if he doesn’t want another horse to be injured. The grooms all listen to me. They know they will be hurt if they work for you! We are all going on strike!” He threw her onto the ground hard, then turned and walked away. Lena picked herself up and called her dad on his cell phone. John Gibson reported the incident to the stewards and asked for security guards in the stable block.
Outside the stables, Rolli moved around stealthily to the back of the Parade Ring, where his brother was waiting. They both knew that there were no security cameras located at that spot. Sam Puzi worked for a bookmaking firm.
“You roughed her up,” he asked. Rolli nodded.
“Boss says you need to sideline this trainer Gibson. His horses are doing too well. That Lightning Bolt colt is the favourite for the big race at the end of October. If we can get the Union to call a strike the day before, we can nobble him. Just let the bets come in first. Boss says there is a lot of money for us if we get this right.”
“They are having a hearing. Unfair dismissal,” said Rolli. “Union lawyer says no ways they will get away with firing me for stabbing Blue Moon — it was an accident.” He laughed. “The grooms are too scared to work with the Gibson string. That stupid daughter of his will also be too scared to work in the stables on race days now. “
After this incident, the security detail at the race course was increased, but none of the grooms were prepared to work with the Gibson string at the race track. Those grooms employed at the training stables carried on working and the jockeys and apprentices kept the Gibson horses racing fit. Lena assisted with Lightning Bolt, riding him out on the gallops and often grooming him and mucking out his stable.
On race days she, her dad and her cousin Peter mucked out the stables at the race course. They also fed and groomed the racehorses that were running races . The home grooms were too scared to go to the race-course as Rolli seemed to be a powerful influence in the trade union and was threatening them.
“Dad,” said Lena, one evening, “Lightning Bolt is in very good form. His times are excellent on the gallops. I think he could win the big race next week “
Her dad nodded. “I am glad we entered him. He is the favourite at present. Its a mid-week race because it’s a public holiday… we will have to make a few changes to the training programme for the other five horses I’m entering as well. Only Lightning Bolt will run in the big race. We should talk to Peter – he can help with grooming.”
Rolli was also talking to people that day. He went down to the pub and asked which of the unemployed youths would like to join a riot. They moved outside and he bought a round of beer.
“We will meet here before sunrise on the public holiday,” he said. “I have organised two buses. The security will make sure the gates are not properly locked. The usual fee will be paid when the buses bring you back here afterwards.”
John, Peter and Lena were up early to get the five runners ready and loaded with the help of the grooms at the training yard. Themba, the head groom who had worked with John for many years, touched his arm and asked to speak to him.
“They are going to cause trouble today John,” he said quietly.
“Thanks for the warning, old friend,” said John. “We have organised a lot of security and I don’t think they will be able to do much.”
The horses were unloaded just before sunrise. John, Peter and Lena groomed and plaited them and filled the hay nets, before locking the stable doors and heading up to the main building to speak to the stewards and have a light breakfast.
They were on the top floor of the building when they suddenly heard a lot of shouting and whistling. A large group of men were rioting just outside the entrance to the stables. Lena was agitated.
“Dad,” she said, “what are we going to do? This is very scary!”
“Not to worry,” said John. “It’s very noisy, but they can’t get in. The gates to the stables are locked and the security is there to protect the horses.”
John stood up and walked quickly to the office. One of the stewards was on the phone to the police, asking for protection for racegoers later in the day.
“Better you and your daughter say up here,” said another official. “They are just holding a protest to reinstate that man Rolli who stabbed Blue Moon.”
Lena ran through. “They have got through the gates,” she screamed. “They have let the horses out! Please, we have to do something! They are throwing stones and chasing the horses!”
Below them the shouting had become triumphant and the horses were bolting out of the gates and down the main street.
“We need to stay up here,” said one of the stewards.” The police will be here soon.
It felt as though it took forever for the police to come. By the time they arrived it was close to midday and the rioters disappeared when they saw cars with blue lights coming up the road. John, Peter and Lena ran down to the stables. They grabbed halters and went out to catch the stray horses. Most of the horses were terrified and several were injured. The veterinarian had called for assistance from the local horse welfare association and they arrived at the same time as the police.
“Lightning Bolt is missing, Dad,” said Lena anxiously. “We have the other four horses and the vets are treating them. But I can’t find Lightning Bolt!!!”
At the end of the road outside the racetrack, Rolli and his brother were looking down at the badly injured stallion, lying on his side kicking. A large knobkierie (a traditional club used as a walking stick in South Africa) was attached around the horse’s neck by a long loop of baling twine. Both his front legs were broken and his neck was twisted at a horrible angle. Rolli kicked the stallion in the face and laughed.
“He won’t run again,” he said triumphantly. “If you tie a knobkierie like that they always break their legs! It was easy – that stupid girl Lena made him very tame!”
“I’ll just take a photo on my cell phone for the boss,” said Sam. “You and I gonna be rich bru!!! There was a lot of betting on him and now they will have to scratch him!” He looked round. “We had better get back to the bus. Boss gave me the money to pay the guys and I don’t want to be here when the police come. We can celebrate at the bar!”
It was several hours later that Lena found Lightning Bolt. He was still alive and nickered softly when he saw her and struggled to rise. She calmed him, sat down and pulled his head onto her lap. “I mustn’t cry,” she thought. “I mustn’t cry! It will make him frightened…” She talked softly to him, stroking his head and neck gently and he nickered again.
“We are going to have to shoot him,” said the veterinarian, who had come in response to her cell phone call. “It looks like a storm is coming up.”
The sky had darkened and the wind was rising as Lena stood up. Lightning Bolt was now lying still but his breath was laboured. Lightning flickered and thunder echoed distantly. The dark clouds were scudding overhead as the shot rang out and suddenly both Lena and the veterinarian were nearly blinded by a bright light and a tearing noise as lightning struck a nearby tree and the thunder was deafening. The rain sheeted down.
The rain was falling as Rolihlahla staggered home. It was pitch dark, although lightning flickered on the horizon and the thunder rolled nearer. A dark shadow stood next to his hut. It tossed its head and its eyes glinted as the lightning flashed briefly above him. It flashed again and the horse stepped towards him, its ears flat against its head and its white teeth bared. It squealed and half reared and he saw the knobkierie suspended between its front legs by an orange piece of baling twine around its neck.
When it reared and squealed again, he noticed the jagged white streak down the front of its face. This horse was dead, it could not be!!! For a moment he stood with his jaw hanging, then turned and ran. The thunder sounded like galloping hooves and the rain suddenly came down hard, blinding him. He ran faster, turning to look over his shoulder at the demonic steed. The air shivered as a huge lightning bolt flashed down….
There was a squeal of brakes as the taxi slewed to a halt on the muddy road. “Waugh!” said the driver “That strike nearly hit us! “
“There is someone lying on the road,” shouted a passenger, his voice almost drowned out by the drumming rain on the roof of the minibus.
Two passengers climbed out, their shared umbrella pulling in the wind and hardly keeping them dry as they bent over the body. They hurried back to the vehicle.
“He’s dead!” said one of them to the driver. “It looks like he has been kicked to death by a horse. There was a knobkerrie with a piece of string lying next to him. Much good it did to protect him.”
To this day, the taxi drivers will tell you that on a stormy night, you will often still see a horse galloping along the road next to the race course and if you do, you have to watch out for lightning. Especially at Halloween…