Most days I drive along an atrocious dirt road to get on to the R716 that links Deneysville and Vereeniging. As I bump along, I pass a neglected farm that features a looped training track which suggests that it was once a racehorse centre. A scaffolding observation tower leans drunkenly somewhere within its centre. Not far from the tower stands a starter gate that doubtless once prepared horses to box without fuss then make a speedy start on race days.
As I drive I imagine those Thoroughbreds in training: thundering around a kilometre of track; steam streaming from flared nostrils; rolling whites of widened equine eyes and – the trainer on the tower – most likely equipped with bullhorn, binoculars and stopwatch – bellowing multi-directional commands across several hectares of frosty veld on chilly Highveld mornings.
This all happened a while back. In fact scenes like this last took place in the closing decade of the previous century. The person on the tower was ‘The Jean Machine’, South Africa’s most successful woman racehorse trainer. But outside the shadowy and arcane world of horse racing with its behind-the-door deals and common-posh veneer, she was Jean Heming, born a Briton and married to a South African. She was known for her reputation to turn out winning horses along with piles of money for clients who included such luminaries as the Oppenheimers and Gary Player. Almost certainly they didn’t need the money but instead hungered for those vainglorious moments when the owner is allowed to lead his or her successful equine around the winner’s circle; jockey still astride his saddle like a triumphant tokoloshe.
Heming’s racehorse facility could accommodate more than 100 horses at a time; many of them going out over the years on to the tracks of South Africa’s courses to win minor and major events.
‘Jean’s a money machine,’ commented a racing reporter in the Nineties. Hence the name – which stuck in racing circles.
As a family we were fascinated by the place as soon as we became aware of its existence; its training track, the rows of deserted stables, tennis court-like fences that had clearly never surrounded tennis courts and the abundance of outbuildings. So my wife, who can always be relied upon to investigate every corner of her on-going existence to leave no stone unturned, traced the current owner to a game farm in Limpopo province, and organised permission to visit.
‘There’s a guy living here,’ he told her. ‘He will show you around.’
I recall the visit with crystal clarity. It took place in the first half of last year before winter set in. It was like a family excursion with Heidi leading, her nose twitching with terrier excitement. As soon as I laid eyes on the ‘guy living there’, I remarked: ‘Oh fok.’
He was a tall gingery individual in his late ‘60s with bloodhound eyes and an improbably full head of hair. He wasn’t dirty but looked unkept. I remember telling myself that I shouldn’t hold that against him because I could also have been accused of looking a bit unkept. He had teeth that reminded me of Austin Powers.
But there was something disturbing about him that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. A type of restless resentment that I was finding increasingly prevalent amongst older white males in these parts. Very soon he’s going to start talking about The Blex, I predicted to myself.
‘You know this place wouldn’t be so bad if The Blex didn’t come over the wall to steal my things.
’You know we’re not allowed to call them what we used to call them.’ He pointed to a motley assortment of vehicles positioned at various points around there stables.
There was a Chinese car of dubious origin; a tatty Porsche 928 caught my eye; a flat-bottomed boat; a camper-van that might have been panel-beaten behind a shebeen in nearby Refengkgotso township; an elderly Merc ; a Land-Rover Discovery and several trailers. Some of the vehicles were on blocks while others were missing wheels and partially covered with tarpaulins or roof sheets.
‘My son says that the education curve will always be behind the population explosion curve,’ he continued obliquely. ‘That’s why I should get out. Leave South Africa before The Blex destroy the place completely.
‘But no country will have me,’ he added rather pathetically. ‘Not even Australia.’
Our visit had prompted him to take on a role something akin to local tour guide.
‘Here’s a septic tank,’ he said mournfully. ‘But you can see that it’s all caved in.
“These ponds can never be cleared. The pumps once worked but now they’re irreparable.’
It transpired that he was neither official guide, bywoner nor even caretaker. Although he fancied himself wearing all three of those hats, he was simply there. The Limpopo owner had given him a place to live along with his earthly goods and chattels including a BMW R69S and a Norton 500cc single cylinder racing bike which both lived in a locked room alongside his workshop.
‘I’ve got more at my house in Cape Town,’ he told me confidentially. I nodded.
But however much decay, doom and destruction he revealed, the more eagerly Heidi and Mila strode ahead and chattered.
‘Look the sheep can go in a right here at night. This is where we can put the farm stall and these can be feed rooms for horses.’
Look at that track,’ Mila murmured dreamily. ‘I would love to gallop Vera around this circuit.’
Several curious chestnut Thoroughbreds snuffled over to be greeted. They looked like ex-racehorses.
‘Whose animals are these?’ enquired my daughter.
‘Mine,’ replied he gingery man airily. ‘But I don’t allow myself to get too close to them.’ Mila shot him her ‘Hey dude, WTF?’ look.
I noticed that there was a lot of unusually heavy-duty infrastructure on the one side of the main buildings: solid steel roundbar making up a high-fence system with partitioned off sections of lawn.
‘This is where she kept her lion,’ remarked the gingery man after noticing my interest in the fencing system.
‘Of course I wouldn’t mind if the lion was still here. He would keep them out and stop them from stealing my stuff. You know they are very scared of lions.’ His mouth opened to form the semblance of a ghastly grin.
‘A lion?’ The intricate and unusual nature of the fencing, steelwork and external structures encouraged me to believe that he wasn’t spinning us a yarn.
‘Yes, a proper lion used to live here. She kept it behind all of this fencing.’ He gestured expansively around the property. ‘You know that this was at one time South Africa’s top racehorse training centre?’ I nodded again as if I had just learned something new.
‘With so many horses here, it’s only logical that a percentage of them would fall down and die.’ He looked around to see if anyone was eavesdropping. ‘So it follows that you would need a lion to take care of all the dead horses.’ He walked on; the seedy proprietor of a neglected little empire that he believed, mostly through default, had become his. His appropriation of its history had somehow validated his existence as its de facto manor lord.
The real architect of this weird world of ponds, round-log railing, extra-strong steel fences, lion lairs and rows of red-brick stables… Jean Heming… is long gone. The racing industry in South Africa is on its knees and weekly we hear of race horses heading to the abattoirs to end up in cans of dog food.
That Steinhoff swindler, Markus Jooste, once poster boy for those aspiring to be part of Stellenbosch’s Rich & Famous Set, is licking his wounds after being fined R122 million for insider trading. Jooste’s devious dealings which precipitated a global financial scandal, led to him resigning as a director of Phumelela Gaming & Leisure. He was also a major shareholder. Not long ago Phumelela Gaming & Leisure was an organisation that could have been described as a primary generator that powered the country’s horse racing industry. But the double whammy of Jooste’s misadventures and the subsequent vacuum caused by his departure, along with the negative impact of Covid left it moribund until the Oppenheimers stepped in to acquire its horse racing business for R550 million.
Being a trainer, jockey or groom in these times are uncertain vocations. Owners of training yards and stud farms would be feeling equally anxious. Horses, although they are billed as the star performers of this shabby act, occupy the bottom regions of its food chain.
But let us not dwell on the gloomy present but rather look back at what punters imagine to be a more glorious past. It was a time when The Jean Machine was queen of her game. I learned not long ago from our farmworker Jan who was around when Heming was operating at peak capacity, that although she was a stickler for discipline and functioning systems, she was a fair employer and general good person. Her success stemmed from getting her horses into absolute peak condition and ensuring that they were 110 percent fit for race days.
‘Ja, sy was ‘n goeie vrou,’ Jan told me as we passed the farm gates. ‘Ek het baie daar gebou.’
He spent a lot of time looking at the lion while he was building. ‘Yoh! Hy was kwaai.’
He was the love of Jean Heming’s life and his name was Caesar. She’d brought him up as a tiny cub with a bottle and for quite a long time he shared her bed with her. When he became too big, the intricate lair, exercise, and feeding system were built to accommodate the next phase in his life. Today all this paraphernalia is a somewhat tatty legacy of Caesar’s life on the farm. Eventually, he injured a pushy photographer who insisted on entering his area, then not long afterward he displayed jealous aggressive behaviour when his owner showed affection towards a dog. He grabbed her arm and wouldn’t let go. Heming put him down herself and said at the time that it nearly broke her heart.
‘You know she was shot here,’ the gingery man told me as we were returning past a line of stables.
‘Was it a robbery?’ I enquired.
‘Nobody knows he real story,’ he said. ‘It wasn’t The Blex and nothing was taken.’
Heming was shot four times in the chest and stomach while paying her grooms outside her stables in December 1993. It is largely believed that the shooter was a paid assassin with links to the MCM4 Gang, a group closely associated with the seamier side of the racing and betting industry. Perhaps there was a contract on her head for not dancing to the tune of those who control which horses win and which ones lose on South Africa’s tracks?
She survived the assassination attempt but was forced to give up training and confined to a wheelchair. She sold her farm and eventually moved back to the UK with her husband Mike Heming. She died in Scotland just more than two years ago.
Last week we put in an offer to buy the farm and make it our home. Its present owner up there in the Limpopo province on his game farm must have taken into account that on today’s market and in these depressed conditions, it was time to offload an asset that was depreciating in value.
Somewhat accusingly, people have often asked us why we always elect to live in strange places. If truth be told I don’t really know. But one thing that is certain is that my Heidi is not the type of person who likes to be floating along aimlessly in the mainstream. On reflection, the decision fits snugly into what we want to do with ourselves at this particular stage in our lives.
We will continue to rent Barnfires Farm because the guesthouse is an income source, it provides ample grazing for our animals (which we sorely missed in the Cape) and gives us access to an attractive stretch of the Vaal River. The new place, which we are calling FarSide Farm, all but adjoins Barnfires so we can to all intents and purposes run an integrated farming operation.
I will be building my much anticipated new cheesery and cool room in one of the outbuildings. I will also be setting up a charcuterie kitchen and smokehouse to make charcuterie products that will complement the cheese. We are offering a high-end livery service in 10 of the best stables which will provide a consistent income. And we will be converting some of the other stables to backpackers so that we will be able to provide accommodation to other than what is on offer at Barnfires.
As FarSide Farm is just off the tar road which links Gauteng tourists to the Vaal Dam, we are well-positioned to open up a farm deli and coffee shop to catch the passing trade. This makes economic sense for us because we can sell all of our farm produce, including my artisan cheese without having to deal with a middle man.
Mila is leaving for Germany indefinitely on Friday to take up a job at a big yard near the Belgian border. But before she goes, she’s already had her wish of galloping Vera – and Kali too – around Jean Heming’s once-famous training track.
And maybe that memory will be enough to bring her back sooner than she plans.