SOUTH African racing’s First Lady, Bridget Oppenheimer has died, aged 92. “Mrs O” passed away after a short illness on Wednesday, 23 October.
Mrs O lived her long and eventful life to the full, even in her final years hosting garden parties and dinners, speaking at charity events and attending selected race meetings to watch her runners in action.
She rose to prominence at the side of mining magnate Harry Oppenheimer, continually in the news since the 1940s, but despite coming into enormous wealth remained elegant and dignified, endearing herself to the public at large.
Indeed, Bridget Oppenheimer was as close to South African royalty as you’d ever find. Measured, proud and always impeccably attired, she spoke stately English with just a faint local tinge. Her intelligence and nurtured eloquence served her well especially in her prime, when her high profile required her to move in the wealthiest and most influential of the world’s mid-20th century social circles.
Born Bridget Denison McCall on 28 September, 1921, her early years were “normal” by most standards. She finished school, trained as a nurse and in due course became a Signal Lieutenant, stationed on Robben Island during the Second World War. It was here, in 1940, that she met the charming Harry, a member of the Station Command. Her life was about to make a 360-degree turn.
Bridget and Harry were married in 1943 and before long the youthful wife of the billionaire-to-be realised that life had dealt her a hand of rare quality. She embraced this honourable fate with vigour and purpose, pursued her passions in relentless fashion and in the course of time became a revered symbol of class and stability, engrained in the fabric of a society notorious for its turbulence.
Harry and Bridget Oppenheimer.
Fascinated by horses and horseracing, the newlywed Oppenheimers focused on becoming the land’s leading thoroughbred owners. Driven by passion and a taste for excellence, they threw themselves heart and soul at their racing dream. During the next several decades they built a veritable racing and breeding empire which stood firm, highly successful and arguably unrivalled into the new millennium.
Mrs O revealed in a 2000 interview: “We were madly ambitious and we loved racing. We’d set our sights on being the best. We wanted to win every big race in South Africa and later we wanted to breed the winners of every big race in the country.”
Together the couple shared many glorious moments trackside, winning the country’s premier race, the Vodacom Durban July, four times, with Tiger Fish (1959), King Willow (1965), Principal Boy (1975) and Spanish Galliard (1992). After Harry’s death in 2000, Mrs O added two more “July” trophies to her roll of honour with Greys Inn (2004) and Hunting Tower (2007).
Other top horses who raced in the Oppenheimers’ black-and-yellow silks were 1953 Met winner Prince Bertrand (their first significant success), Bodrum (mid-1980s), Will-To-Win and Hengist, all of whom bring back fond memories of a golden period in South African horseracing.
In 1945, soon after they registered as racehorse owners, Harry decided to stand as a member of parliament and had to live in the constituency of Kimberley, leading to their purchase of Mauritzfontein Farm, an old remounting post on the outskirts of the town.
They developed the farm and experimented with stallions, finding early success with Wilwyn and Janus, followed by disappointments with Free Ride, Be Glorious and Bodrum. It took a full 50 years of trial and error before their breeding ventures produced a champion sire in Fort Wood. The top-notch Strike Smartly was a similarly promising find, but he died unexpectedly approaching the peak of his career.
Year after year Mauritzfontein produced some of the most talented horses in South Africa. Two of them – the mighty Horse Chestnut and Cherry On The Top – won the Triple Crown (1999) and Triple Tiara (2013) respectively.
Bridget Oppenheimer with her daughter, Mary Slack and granddaughter Jessica Slack. The Oppenheimer racing dynasty will continue.
Even when she became frail in her twilight years, horseracing remained Mrs O’s passion and she even got to Turffontein to watch her homebred Cherry On The Top win the SA Oaks, the final leg of the Triple Tiara.
Mrs O knew each of her horses intimately, from their pedigrees to their race records and, once they’d retired to the breeding paddocks, their offspring. She personally named all the horses bred at Mauritzfontein and any youngster she bought overseas.
The formidable Oppenheimer racing operation’s trainers were hand-picked, with John Breval (11 SA Oaks winners) and Mike de Kock (the July, the J&B Met, all the Derby’s, the Paddock Stakes and several Guineas), among the most successful.
The legendary Horse Chestnut and his now fellow-stallion Greys Inn aside, Mike de Kock added impressively to the Oppenheimers’ roll of honour, saddling the likes of Fort Defiance, Dog Wood, Monyela, Hilti, Mr Brock, Strelitzia, Rememberance, Cork Wood, Cape Badger and Kimberley Mine, among many others.
In 2009, following a scintillating ten-year association that brought Mike his first few National Championship Titles, he and Mrs O parted ways, but on Thursday the trainer expressed his admiration for his former patron: “Mr and Mrs O came along at the most important junction of my career, giving me my first major break. We shared some amazing times which I will always cherish. She was highly knowledgable, dedicated and always fully involved in the sport she adored. She resolved issues when they arose, there was no grey area with her. It was a case of black, or white, nothing in between. Her persona and character will be sadly missed, but I have no doubt that Mary Slack, a major success story herself, will honour her parents’ dynasty by carrying it forward or incorporating it into her own to reach perhaps even greater heights.”
Mrs O once remarked: “Racing is like the game of snakes and ladders – you’re either on the way down or on the way up!” Never on the slide herself, she thoroughly enjoyed her long and illustrious reign at the top. She revelled in the thrills and the joyous accolades racing bestowed on her – it was her right, after all, since she devoted almost her entire life to it!
Mrs O didn’t allow many individuals to get too close to her. Her wealth, coupled with her status and celebrity were natural barriers to familiarity with people outside of her family circle. Yet unlike so many others of her standing she was never smug, pompous or condescending. She enjoyed and appreciated compliments from all walks of life. Those fortunate enough to engage her in a conversation of sorts would be privy to her dry sense of humour, her genuine concerns about the state of government and the politics of racing and her timely pouring of liquid refreshments to accompany good chatter.
A profiler wrote in 2008: “Visiting Mrs Oppenheimer gives one a warm feeling. It is like sitting in the home of your own granny – this one is generous, friendly and caring in her own way. The difference is that Mrs O doesn’t spend her days knitting jerseys or sucking boiled sweets sold in cans. After lunch she settles down in her armchair, studies her latest copy of Computaform and watches horse races on her plasma screen while sipping good wine.”
We’ll really miss Mrs O, not only for being the doyenne of our beloved sport and for reminding us of a time when racing was a truly noble pastime run by passionate horse people, but also for diligently designing her life around the circumstances that destiny brought about on her journey.
Mrs O developed a rare individuality as a visionary leader in a tough-as-nails, male-dominated sport. She gained fame and respect without asking for it and left a lasting, invaluable mark on the world she’s now departed.
Bridget Oppenheimer is survived by her son Nicky and daughter Mary, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. In a big way, however, she’s also survived by the racing nation she served with such remarkable distinction for almost 70 years.
Mrs O was astute, clever and very rich, just three of many outstanding attributes that placed her in a league all of her own. But time and time again racing, the great leveller, brought her to the track as an ordinary racing fanatic mixing with others of that persuasion. She liked to arrive in a hat, carrying a picnic basket filled with home-made sandwiches, sausage rolls and strawberries. She shared her snacks with whoever was in her company.
Mrs O religiously put R10, R20 at a push, into the pool for a group Place Accumulator, trusting the judgement of the nominated form student of the day. She enjoyed articles written by veteran racing hack David Mollett, followed his tips and shouted just as hard as the racing groupies in her presence when horses came storming down the straight. Per custom, she always ensured that wine was poured at regular intervals.
Simply put, Bridget Oppenheimer was a racing purist, a proponent of the game in its unspoilt form. Perhaps she had more luck than the rest of us, but she used it not only to her own advantage and left us with one of life’s best lessons: She identified her true passion as a young woman and pursued it with great gusto to the end of her life. She let nothing stand in the way of her and her dreams and, in her own words, “had a truly sparkling time”!
Rest in peace, Mrs O!
-compiled by Charl Pretorius
-Selected, edited extracts from tabonline.co.za
-Photos by JC Photos
-Harry and Bridget photo from Daily Maverick (www.dailymaverick.co.za)