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Racehorses also travelled by train in the UK for a while and the above is a picture of Ascot station on a race day. (museumofthehorse.org)

Off The Record With Charl Pretorius #4

Last week, 152 two-year-old thoroughbreds went through the auction ring at Bloodstock SA’s November Sale held at the TBA Complex, Gosforth Park. They were trucked in from stud farms around the country by mainly New Turf Carriers and Choice Carriers, the former using 15-berth Mercedes, Iveco and Volkswagen vehicles manned by selected drivers.

New Turf’s trucks have a separate compartment for grooms travelling along, and for the horses coming from the Western Cape they have a well-equipped halfway house at Colesberg, Northern Cape, where they are offloaded and stabled for a night’s rest before starting the second leg of their journey to Gauteng.

Today’s younger generation of sales enthusiasts may not be aware that, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in the years after the TBA Complex had been built, yearlings from the Western Cape and the Karoo regions destined for the National Sale were sent to Gosforth Park by train.

The annual loading of horses started at the Sandvliet railway siding near the De Wet family’s Zandvliet Stud in Ashton and stopped off to load more at places like Robertson, Worcester and Wellington, then on to Dordrecht in the Eastern Cape and through the Karoo and the Orange Free State to the TBA’s base at Gosforth Park in Germiston. Horses raised at Zandvliet made the trip every year, accompanied by others from the likes of Varsfontein Stud, Highlands Farms, Maine Chance Farms, Noreen Stud, Riverton Stud and the Birch Brothers’ Vogel Vlei Stud.

Carl de Vos of Varsfontein, who had the memorable pleasure of making one of the six train journeys that carried yearlings, quipped: “Just imagine hundreds of horses on a train for 36 hours including the tough, woolly and wild ones raised by the Birches. Add to that a group of spirited young breeders and dozens of grooms and you have a train ride of great proportions. I was a rookie back then in the company of some seasoned professionals.”

De Vos said: “The coaches, also referred to as cattle cars, were initially designed for the transportation of livestock. However, recognising that these carriages were not suitable for the specific needs of horses, modifications were made. A steel divider was welded on in the open area at the long sliding door of each car, allowing us to load one horse on the left and another on the right of it, with bedding laid on both sides.

“These modified carriages were surprisingly spacious, providing enough room for the horses to lie down comfortably. Additionally, makeshift mangers and water troughs, each equipped with lids, were installed. Food and buckets of water were stacked in the remaining space. With only two horses per carriage, the yearling train became a seriously long train that snaked its way through the dry wilderness.”

Zandvliet’s Dan de Wet and a young John Koster, long before his Klawervlei days, were named by their former fellow passengers as the ‘Voorbokke’ (Leaders of the Pack). Neither wished to accept sole responsibility for what took place, but both agreed that the TBA train journeys were some of the best days of their lives.

Dan de Wet said that the ‘Train Era’ had two parts, “Lientjiesbos” and “Caboose”.

He explained: “We named the first few years, ‘Lientjiesbos’, after the remote railway stop in the middle of the Great Karoo where John Koster got off the train, one very dark night, and almost never got back on! We had to sleep next to the horses on bales of hay inside the carriages for the first number of trips. We had a gas burner and a ‘skottel’ (standing cooking dish) and we enjoyed the most amazing two-inch fillet steaks cooked right there, served with pepper corns and washed down with some good wine.

“We didn’t have ablution facilities on those carriages and one night, during a brief stop at Lientjiesbos, John had no choice but to brave the darkness behind some bushes to relieve himself. He was still busy when another train came rolling by and then our train suddenly jerked and started moving. John was nowhere to be seen as we steadily picked up speed. We heard him shouting from the darkness. We saw the light of his torch bobbing up and down as he ran along the carriages, looking for his own. We screamed at him and torched back. He was at full pace and gasping for breath when, after some worrying moments, he found our carriage. We dragged him on, legs dangling dangerously, and everyone collapsed laughing.”

Perhaps this incident taught John not to have ‘one on board’ in the middle of nowhere ever again, but a new innovation came to his rescue. In the ‘Caboose’ Era, something he described as ‘half a truck’ was hooked to the back end of the train and the ablution problem was solved. This carriage had a toilet, fitted with a few cabins and a small kitchen with a table. The Caboose could carry more individuals in relative comfort, so the likes of older stalwarts Fred Doms (Saratoga Stud) and Jan de Clercq of Zevenbergen Stud were prepared to make the testing journey.

“The Caboose was more comfortable, but very noisy and that was a problem, especially for Fred Doms, who claimed to be hard of hearing due to ‘Skietoor’ (Gunshot Ear). But our supply of wine was always ample and the jokes and quips flowed with it. On top of the noise we had to shout some of the jokes out loud so Fred could also have a laugh,” De Wet recalled.

Koster concluded: “There was more, we could write a book. Did Dan de Wet mention the night in the bitter cold Karoo when he tried to borrow my second sleeping bag because his own was too thin? I said no, I was using it myself. He cursed under his breath and curled up. The next morning he was fast asleep with an Alsation puppy in his arms. Someone had asked us to deliver the puppy to Georgina Kramer at the TBA. The dog must have saved Dan from freezing to death!”