JOURNALIST Charl Pretorius won the 2008 Vodacom Journalist of the Year Award (Gauteng, online), for his article “Lunch With Mrs O”, published on mikedekockracing.com. He was nominated as a finalist for the 2008 National Award.
BRIDGET Oppenheimer has enjoyed an extraordinary run of success in the first three months of the 2006/7 racing season, racking up 35 own-bred winners. This is a terrific achievement and I am asked to jot down her comments.
“No, let’s speak eye to eye,’’ she says when I place the call. “Come over for lunch at Blue Skies. Can you make it Thursday at 12pm?’’
I have a prior engagement, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have a private lunch with the Doyenne of South African racing, the 80-something Grand Dame of one of the most prominent families in the world!
So I proudly accept the invitation. Thursday at 12, it is.
I have known Mrs. O for several years, good enough to know that she treasures punctuality. On appointment day I almost wipe out a newspaper vendor and a stray pedestrian on the way, but as fate would have it I am late by 15 minutes.
“We’ve been waiting for you sir,’’ says a member of her staff who welcomes me at the door of the plush, tree-lined Blue Skies residence in the north of Johannesburg. He is dressed in a black waistcoat and dons a pair of white gloves.
Vague memories of the butler “Cadbury” from my favourite 1970s comic, Richie Rich, cross my mind as I enter the plush home. But this “butler’’ smiles more than my imaginery servant. He is not American or English, so I can’t think of him as “Cadbury’’ or even “Jeeves’’, Later, I am told that his name is “Rexon’’.
He escorts me to Mrs. O’s sitting room, a light, flowery place, tastefully decorated with paintings and antiques, a couch with scattered cushions and a comfy wingback chair – clearly a favourite – from which the Lady Of The House gets up to greet me.
I fall in with the “bad traffic’’ excuse, but she responds by offering me a glass of Waterford Sauvignon Blanc, in which she drops two cubes of ice.
“You know, I was in traffic with my driver earlier today and I was shocked by the way people drive!’’ Mrs O says in her familiar upper-class English, refined over many decades and blended with just a hint of South African to become a pitch unique to her.
“I saw a truck carrying a huge load of bricks. It was overloaded. He must have been going at 140km an hour in the fast lane and he couldn’t care less for anyone around him.’’
She shrugs her shoulders. “I wanted to take down his registration number but I realised nobody would do anything about it. There is carnage on these roads!’
Mrs. O offers me sliced biltong and potato crisps, feeds some to Speedy, her over-sized Jack Russell, and fiddles with the volume button of a small transistor radio at her side. The main item in the news bulletin concerns the alleged mafia boss Glenn Agliotti, who has just been arrested. This is a case that interests her. “Frightful,’’ she comments. “What is happening in this country is scary.’’
We turn our attention to racing and I ask if she could recall a previous run of Oppenheimer-owned horses winning so many races in a short period of time.
“We had several good spells with John Breval,’’ she recalls, “but none as good as this. But you have to keep in mind that there was a lot less racing in those days, only once or twice a week. I now have horses running in three centres every week and everything just came together so nicely this time. It is lovely.’’
Mrs. O pages through her Thursday copy of Computaform. Race 3 at the Vaal is clearly circled and she says: “Let’s watch Climax. He might win today.’’ She points a remote control to a big-screen television on the far side of the room.
Climax is an offspring of the legendary Horse Chestnut. He is no great shakes, but this is a weak race that he should be able to win. They jump from the pens and she watches attentively, making comments as they race along.
Climax sets the pace under Weichong Marwing, runs a good race but is collared close to the line. “I don’t think he likes the sand,’’ she says and gets on the phone to Mike de Kock, who agrees to run Climax on grass next time.
It’s time for more wine and with that she gestures that we should move to the dining room, where a large window looks out on a beautifully manicured garden.
The table is set, exquisitely, for two. For wont of a better word, a “butler’’ called Patrick is in attendance, white gloves and all.
My first move is a correct move. I wait until she takes her place before I seat myself, feeling self-conscious. But now the fun starts. There is a variety of forks, knives and spoons placed on both sides of the plate, surrounded by at least four crystal glasses.
I have no idea where to start, and I remember that Mike de Kock went through much the same experience when he dined here for the first time. Mrs O is watching me from the corner of her eye and I detect a glint of humour.
Patrick serves Italian bread and soft rolls on a plate. Sensing my discomfort, Mrs O shows me which knife is the butter knife. She laughs gleefully when I remind her how Mike de Kock himself battled to distinguish a fancy steak knife from a Swiss Army knife.
For “okes’’ like us, who normally plonk down in the local Spur, eat with our hands and wipe strands of fat and sauce from our faces with serviettes, this experience is quite out of the ordinary.
Patrick is on hand with a pasta dish, spaghetti with a sun-dried tomato topping. A Candid Camera moment follows as I attempt to drag the spaghetti onto my plate with my knife, and mess embarrassingly on the table cloth.
“Look carefully now,’’ Mrs O commands, reaching for a spaghetti spoon and her fork. She lifts the spaghetti high up from the dish, and with her fork eases it perfectly down on her plate. “Remember,’’ she instructs. “Lift it up with this spoon, and then drop it down. Top, and then down.’’
Dessert is made up of sweet figs, kumquarts and orange rind, served with a soupcon of Quince Jelly. Never before have fruits like these passed my lips, but hey, how nice they are!
“Have some of this new cheese,’’ Mrs O says as she slices a piece from Patrick’s cheese and fruit platter. I savour the flavour of Dulce Duette, a soft white cheese filled with bits of figs and walnuts, which the gourmet chef Salmon Nel later reliably informs me is available at selected outlets of “Woolies’’.
Back in the homely sitting room, I inquire whether Mrs O sits down for a similarly smart breakfast and dinner. “Dinner yes,’’ she responds, “but breakfast is always in bed!’’
She goes on to tell me how she spends her nights. “I never really sleep. Sometimes an hour or two a night. I don’t need it. Often I read throughout the night, sitting down in a chair. I love reading!’’
For decades Mrs O has kept scrapbooks containing every article ever written about herself, her thoroughbreds, or general articles of interest. Local and international newspapers are delivered every day, and she even has some printed here on request, using advanced computer files and a special printing process.
She never misses a day, collecting everything she can find in print about her horses, her family or the Anglo-American Company. Every new scrapbook is leather-bound in the famous Brenthurst Library and filed away. “There must be hundreds of them by now,’’ she says.
Mrs O shows me the latest catalogue from her Mauritzfontein Stud. The long list of mares brings back good recent memories: Bay Tree, Chinchuna, Idle Fancy, Monyela, Water Berry, Wild Olive, Dog Wood, and many more.
Their foals promise exciting things for the future. Fort Wood has sired a filly from star race mare Escoleta Fitz, and there is a colt from her new stallion Strike Smartly out of Carolina Cherry.
“I’m looking forward to this bunch,’’ she tells. “Racing keeps me going, I love everything about it. Gavin Schafer is an excellent stud manager. He gets us many good horses every year.’’
I turn back to Horse Chestnut and she says: “He’s produced many good horses from limited mares, including some Group winners. He seemed to throw better turf horses than sand horses, so I tried to bring him back to South Africa, but they wouldn’t budge.’’
I inquire: “Was it the right decision to sell him to Claiborne Farm in the first place?’’ “Yes,’’ comes the answer. “At the time Harry and I made a joint decision and it was the right one.’’
With that, more coffee is served, and we watch another race on the big screen. I leave after a delightful afternoon which could have continued for another hour or two.
Visiting Mrs Oppenheimer gives one a warm feeling. It is like sitting with your own granny, generous, friendly and caring in her own way. The only difference is that Mrs O doesn’t knit jerseys and she doesn’t suck boiled sweets sold in cans. She studies her Computaform, watches horse races and sips good wine. My kind of Grandma!