At Ngong Racecourse with Horses and a Book

When I was at the Ngong Racecourse a few weeks ago for the Concours, I saw a notice in the office of the Jockey Club that they had a book for sale on the history of horseracing in Kenya. Now, I am interested in any history of Kenya, whether it is about people, places – or even horses. And I hadn’t been to the races for a few years. So I thought I should go one Sunday to enjoy the races and also buy the book.

So last Sunday I went and did both.

I was surprised at how few people were there. I mean, the Concours gets up to ten thousand spectators, but at the races last Sunday there were only a few hundred. Is it because we appreciate cars more than horses? Maybe there’s some truth in that. But I reckon a good many of the youngsters who turn up at the Concours are not necessarily there for the cars – they are there for the entertainments, for the dressing up and the partying. So perhaps the Jockey Club should think about some add-on entertainments.

Otherwise, the racecourse setting is magnificent. The racing was good and competitive. It’s great to see so many enthusiastic and skilful Kenyan jockeys. The photograph you see here is of one of them – Tanui, the winner of the feature race, the Geoffrey Griffin Trophy.

I used to be a racer myself – not in cars or on horses but on my own feet. I used to enjoy competing in one mile handicap races at the agricultural shows around Lincolnshire in England. When I began, I was told to ‘work my mark’ by deliberately not trying to win until I got a maximum start of 195 yards over scratch. I thought that it would be the same in horse racing. But Frank Morby, who used to be the champion jockey in Kenya for a number of years, soon disabused me. ‘When you decided not to win you knew what you were doing,’ he said. ‘But if you pull a horse he will get confused and you could ruin him as a racer.’

My first article for the Nation back in the late 1980s was about Frank – about what it means to ride a winner. He became a friend, and he has wonderful stories about his years as a jockey in England and in Kenya. I hope he uses his retirement in Diani to write down some of those stories.

I’m glad to see that there is a full page about Frank in the book by Shel Arensen, ‘And They’re Off: More than 100 years of racing in Kenya’. It’s a great achievement – a delightful book, packed with information and illustrated with so many fascinating photographs.

It’s not a book to read from cover to cover; it’s one to dip into. And the dipping will often be lucky. For example, it gets off to a good start: ‘The first horse race in Kenya may have been arranged by the King of Malindi on the beach, to amuse the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama in 1498’. But what Shel Arensen calls a ‘proper’ race meeting in East Africa was at Machakos back in June 1879. In Nairobi an important beginning was when a few enthusiasts established the East African Turf Club in 1904. In early colonial times, the Nairobi race week was the biggest entertainment of the year. In 1920 the Turf Club became the Jockey Club of Kenya, and it has guided the race meetings ever since. The book tells the story. And it is crammed with fascinating characters.

You can get the book at Bookstop in Yaya. Or you can buy it at the racecourse. Why not go along for the next race meeting on Sunday, 17th November? The gates open at 12 pm. Entrance is 500 shillings for adults and 50 shillings for children.

A Website.