Public Holiday Special: A Day at the Races

April, as well as the start of May, in South Africa have been riddled with public holidays this year.


Not that I’m complaining, but it does seem that people get rather a lot here – a massive 12 on top of their annual leave compared to the UK’s much more miserly eight. But this year, it also seems that a whole load of them came all at once.


First we had the four-day movable Feast of Easter. This welcome little break was swiftly followed by last weekend’s Freedom Day celebrations and its extra Monday off because 27 April fell on a Sunday.


Freedom Day was established to commemorate the country’s first inclusive democratic elections, but is also about paying tribute to those who died in the liberation struggle. And being the 20-year anniversary, it was an extra big deal this time around, even having a special new Freedom song and dance commissioned in its honour.


But later this same week on May 1, we’ll also have Worker’s Day, which is known as Labour Day elsewhere, joined by yet another ad hoc holiday next Wednesday.


May 7, of course, is when the five-yearly national and provincial elections take place and its public holiday status is intended to ensure that everyone gets the chance to vote as queues apparently get really long.


One of the happy upshots of these official respites though is that Joburg’s usually hideously congested roads have been pretty much deserted for the last few weeks, with lots of people taking extra days to give themselves a nice, long break.


And although autumn may not seem the best time of year to be taking it, the truth is that the weather is still amazingly good over here. While it can undoubtedly get pretty chilly at night with temperatures falling to as low as three degrees Centigrade, it’s a different story during the day. By lunchtime, it’s routinely hitting the early – and even mid – 20s most of the time.


A day at the races


Another plus is that, unlike the summer months, there’s not a drop of rain, or whisper of a storm, to be had. It’s the joys of living in a warm, temperate and very agreeable climate – so while Jozi may not get quite as hot as the Cape, you also don’t have to suffer its appalling, wet and windy winters either.


One thing that has disappointed me a bit though is the autumn tree display. Coming from the UK where the multiple hues of autumn are truly spectacular in all of their green, gold and copper magnificence, I’d expected something similar in a city that constantly boasts of being an urban forest made up of six million trees.


Sadly, however, the leaves here just either seem to go a bit yellow or die right up there on their branches in a dirty brown and dry-looking kind of way. But they still manage to get everywhere, as a quick glance at our garden and pool would testify.


Anyway, given the lovely weather and the fact that we had yet another public holiday to make the most of, I was excited to spot a listing in for a day at the horse races last weekend.


Although no experts, my Beloved and I spent a number of happy days at the Cheltenham Festival when we lived there, as well as making various trips to Epsom, Ascot and even the race course in Killarney in Ireland over the years.


This weekend though, it was the turn of the South African Derby Day at the Turffontein racetrack in Jozi’s southern suburbs. Built in 1887, Turffontein is one of the country’s oldest horse racing venues and is also counted among its toughest, hosting one of the nation’s three biggest racing events each November, The Summer Cup.


The other two major festivals are the J&B Met, which takes place in Cape Town during February, and the Durban July, all of which are hugely popular in a country that, I’m told, loves its racing almost as much as the British do.


But it turned out that this Derby, which, like the Epsom original means that only three-year-old horses can run in it, was a special one. A beautiful beast called Louis the King was favourite to become South Africa’s first Triple Crown winner in 15 years, claiming a R2 million bonus in the process.


International flavour


To do so meant that he had to win the R1 million Gauteng Guineas over 1,600m, the R2 million SA Classic over 1,800m and the R1.5 million SA Derby over 2,450m, all within a mere eight weeks of each other, which is some going by anyone’s standards.


And to my delight seeing as I’d bet on him, he summarily did. Which helped my Beloved and I to break even for the day, give or take R80 (£4.50) or so, aided by a very sweet teller with a cheeky grin.


Her continual mishearing of how we wished to place our extravagant R25 (£1.40) bets worked so spectacularly in our favour that even our usual ineptness at all things gambling was suitably mitigated.


But even if she hadn’t unwittingly acted as our Knight, we discovered that the other punters at the race course were just as helpful to obvious beginners as they ever are elsewhere.


Always a friendly bunch, it must be said that the gamblers here didn’t seem quite as boisterous as at home, although that could have had something to do with the rather more family-focused and rather less-alcohol-fuelled side-shows that were taking place.


These included various females on a stage indulging in everything from belly- to Bollywood dancing, a competition for best vaguely-foreignly-dressed couple, and a number of food stalls of international flavour, presumably invited so the event could live up to its slightly incongruous tag of ‘Intercontinental Village Day’.


My favourite stall though had to be the tartan-bedecked one under the moniker, ‘St Andrews’ Scottish Society’, manned by a handful of volunteers with not a Scottish accent between them


While the Indians sold scrumptious home-made lamb curry (according to my Beloved) and the Chinese a rather excellent veggie chow mein (according to me), the Scots treated the world to greasy sausage-and-fried-egg baps, bags of shop-bought chocolate and plastic figurines wearing kilts.

How terribly British. I had to laugh.


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