Business Day column: Tripling horse race the closest Wakkerstroom gets to being ‘wakker’

WAKKERSTROOM should be called Slaapstroom, if not Doodstroom (meaning lively-, sleepy-and dead-stream respectively), as I explained in an earlier column. Except, that is, when it hosts a uniquely local and lekker horse race, which is so extraordinary it should be famous, yet is virtually unknown.

Apart from race day, the tiny village punches above its weight by hosting many surprises. It nestles beside a massive wetland roughly half-way between Johannesburg and Durban on the "old" road, 20 minutes East of Volksrust, hometown of our recent Miss World, Rolene Strauss.

It hosts a splendid (mostly classical) music festival, an indulgent "vleivees" (wetland festival, which should be called "vleisfees" or meat festival), a well-attended natural fibre fair (centred on its charming alpacas), a handicraft festival (focused on its charming people), a dirt biker’s venue (cue alien dirty bikers), Birdlife Africa (around a wetland birding paradise), world class antique and interior design dealers (showing off the House of Baxburg), hiking trails (with such scenic attractions as Honeymoon Valley, named after its unmentionable topographical appearance), and much more.

Despite all of which, the closest Wakkerstroom gets to being wakker is when up to 300 horses arrive from remote farms and towns. For no obvious reason, police cruise and walk through a gathering throng of spectators and jockeys ignoring illegal racing, betting, liquor and food, all of which should, of course, be deregulated. They ignore trespassing, which is fine because so do residents. Their presence discourages aggression by increasingly drunk spectators.

The most remarkable feature of the races is that the horses run with a curious gait called "tripling" or "umhambo". Little seems to be known about the indigenous origins of tripling. The only documented analysis I found was commissioned by the East Cape Gambling Board (ECGBB-12/13-RFQ-10). Rhodes University researchers found so little that they had to rely on their own contemporary research. They found "numerous tracks" in East Cape villages for races called "mdyarho". Before horses were introduced in the 19th century, Xhosa and Zulu men raced oxen, sometimes against settlers. No one knows why tripling was invented when Wakkerstroom racing started, or why a four-beat gait is called a "triple".

Tripling was apparently invented in south-eastern parts of Southern Africa. It is "somewhere between cantering and galloping" — slightly slower than the latter. There is, for riders, no bouncing or rising as with other gaits. Unlike the others, instead of bouncing, riders glide as if driving a car. Instead of leaning forward like conventional jockeys, they lean far back to discourage horses from breaking into a gallop. It is hard to describe the gait. Natural gaits are a walk, a trot (two-beat grounded diagonal feet), a canter and extended canter (three-beat diagonals), a pace (two-beat grounded laterals), and a gallop. Tripling is an unnatural four-beat gait involving a foreleg trot and hind-leg canter.

Sunday’s races, which were scheduled to start at 10.30am, started, to no-one’s surprise, at 3pm. Jockeys are black South Africans ranging from young boys to middle-aged men. Organisers charge entry fees for horses and give winners live sheep. Informal vendors sell food, alcohol and merchandise that would sicken our Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi. A temporary 2km track is cleared, either along the straight wetland boundary or around a square field. Teams do most of the betting.

Tripling races are one of many examples of the two worlds in which we live. When I researched and wrote my earlier column on Wakkerstroom’s "profound secret" (harmonious racial and socioeconomic integration throughout and since apartheid), no one mentioned its other secret (tripling horse races). Both reflect the degree to which there is a documented and regulated "formal" SA and a liberated, undocumented South Africa that thrives under the noses of avaricious politicians and bureaucrats.

• Louw is executive director of the Free Market Foundation

This article was first published by Business Day - 4 May 2016.

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