By Hans Ebert
“Have you seen the size of his nostrils? I remember (trainer) Tony Millard’s father telling me that you can tell a good horse by the size of their nostrils. It gives them that extra oxygen, and, man, he’s got huge nostrils.”
Felix Coetzee is talking about Silent Witness, the champion Hong Kong sprinter in 2003, 2004, 2005, and Time Magazine’s 100 Most Interesting People Of 2004 who the great South African rider partnered for every one of his seventeen wins including taking out The Japan Sprint Stakes in 2005.
“The Cat” had just been shown a picture of his old mate, now at the wonderful Living Legends equine retirement home, and words are hard to find to describe just how much this horse means to Coetzee, a true horseman and the most inquisitive person I know when it comes to understanding the psychology of our equine friends and how to get the most of the young Hong Kong apprentices he’s mentoring these days.
But talk to “The Cat” and the conversation can’t help but get back to the Tony Cruz-trained and Archie and Betty Da Silva owned Silent Witness, the magic and miracle horse that shone a positive light on Hong Kong when the city was under the very dark cloud of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) crisis.
Silent Witness offered hope at a time when offices were closed, people wore masks, very few countries welcomed tourists from Hong Kong, and “Asia’s World City” was not exactly a magnet to those from overseas. Almost trapped in this city, and which even saw brilliant, but erratic French jockey Eric Saint Martin, suddenly “escape” from Hong Kong with his family for “safety reasons”, racing and non-racing fans came together to watch this magnificent animal win. And win and win seventeen consecutive races. He was the equine Usain Bolt and he represented Hong Kong for the gold.
Looking at some recent photos taken of Silent Witness at Living Legend in Melbourne where he’s enjoying his retirement with other Hong Kong equine heroes like the somewhat underrated Good Ba Ba, former stablemate Bullish Luck- apparently not that popular with visitors from Hong Kong for being the horse to stop the Big Black’s winning run in the Champion’s Mile- champion sprinter Sacred Kingdom, who won at his debut in Shatin for jockey Danny Nikolic, grand old Lucky Nine and California Memory and Australia’s great Might And Power, Doreimus, Rogan Josh, Apache Cat and others, Felix Coetzee’s voice softens. “He’s looking a bit old,” he say. “Look at his eyes.”
He then perked up. “But he’s still got that look. He knows he’s the best. It’s like any great athlete. There’s a confidence they exude that borders on arrogance. And Silent Witness always knew he was the best. He knew there was him- and then there were the others- and that he was giving me the privilege of riding him. He was so competitive, man. We used to take him out last before a race because he wanted to race the others even when cantering down to the barriers. Same thing on the training track. He wanted to kick ass! He could be quite a handful for myself and Tony- (trainer Tony Cruz, the former champion jockey who had won races in Europe, the UK and Hong Kong on some great horses), not because of anything else, but his competitiveness and confidence. He really was like that Bruce Springsteen song: Born To Run. That was Silent Witness. Birthday: October 1, 1999. Time flies.
“When I last visited him at Living Legends, he showed he recognised me by turning my cap around, a game we used to play in Hong Kong when I visited him in his stable, but he was also aloof. When you’re a superstar, you’re careful about how much of your time you give people. I was just an old jockey to him who was had the opportunity to ride him”. Coetzee laughs. He roars with even greater laughter when I tell him that I believe Silent Witness thinks Living Legends was built for him and he was sent some new friends to play with. “Yeah, man, that’s him. He’s the boss. Always has been. When he won the second Hong Kong Sprint in 2004, it was a moment that will always live with me. Just cantering him to the starting barriers was incredible with over 60,000 people waving green and black coloured flags and cheering him on. He loved it. He expected it, man!”
Coetzee laughs again thinking of his “boss”. “When the barriers opened, I had him well placed, but he wanted to go faster. He wanted to give the others windburn. Then, I just clicked him up and said, ‘Come on, big boy, let’s show them who’s the boss.’ The combination of his hooves and 60,000 people breaking the sound barrier was music to my ears.
“After the race, I pumped the air with my fist which is really not something I would normally do. But I was caught up in the moment. And you think he (Silent Witness) didn’t love it? He was loving every minute of it. He was saying, ‘Look at me. I’m the boss. Like Muhammad Ali, I am the greatest, baby.”
We talk more about Silent Witness, and Coetzee reminds me that what made him winning the first International Sprint more remarkable was that he lost a shoe in the running. There was then the slight hiccup in Japan.
“The day before running in the Japan Stakes ( (Silent Witness ran a close and mighty third in the Yasuda Kinen the next year), he dumped me and galloped off during his morning gallop before the race. Tony (Cruz) wasn’t unduly concerned. He knew Silent Witness’ quirks. It was just him wanting to get out there and race- and win. I guess he was saying, “Tony, I don’t need to get ready for the race. I want to race NOW!” He was always a horse with such a heightened sense of awareness. He was just so special. and I really doubt that age has mellowed him. I’m sure he’s still the man at Living Legends.”