Whistlejacket stopped the traffic – Turf Talk: 4 November 2019


GEORGE Stubbs mares and foals.

WHY should we tell the university and college population of South Africa all about Whistlejacket to popularise racing?

Because intelligent people grasp a proper story. Fashion parades, novelty competitions and prawns are all very well, but if we don’t instil a sense of the magnificence of our horses in the youth of South Africa, we’ll be playing catch-up here to the point of extinction. Exports or no exports.

When Whistlejacket was projected all across the face of The National Gallery in London, the traffic in Trafalgar Square stopped. That’s a lot of traffic. And a lot of people getting out of their vehicles to look at a horse.

George Stubbs (1724 – 1806) is regarded in his home country and in USA – and arguably throughout the “world of western art” – as the daddy of them all when it comes to painting racehorses. He was the first to paint them realistically. He painted some with no background at all, focussing entirely on the detail of the horse. He wrote – a milestone work – The Anatomy of the Horse in 1766, self-taught including spending hundreds of hours dissecting horse cadavers to learn the physiology in extraordinary and probably stinking, retching detail.

At that time, science in the broad sense did not take much notice of the make-up of animals. It was only the beginning of widespread horse breeds having collective identities, instead of local definitions trapped by tiny horizons.


WHISTLEJACKET by George Stubbs. (The National Gallery).

For that sort of reason, Stubbs did not receive recognition and acclaim until the mid 19th century or later. Prior to that, an animal painter would be somewhat lower life than a painter of landscapes and people – Gainsborough was a contemporary – much like a designer of haute couture would (and still does) outrank designers of clothes that the whole world wears.

Stubbs was “in on” the birth of the thoroughbred, more or less. The Godolphin Barb was born in the same year, and it is he – of the three founding stallions, the other two being the Darley Arabian foaled 1700 and the Byerley Turk, earlier – who begat Mogul who begat Whistlejacket.

Although I grew up calling him The Godolphin Barb, there are those who get a slap on the wrist for doing so. “The Godolphin Arabian” is the received wisdom these days, ruining the flow when you say the three names together.

But this handle recognises that although the stallion came from Tunis (The Barbary Coast), he had almost certainly been foaled in what is now Yemen, poor souls, and had been exported via Syria, ditto.

Further research has suggested that The Godolphin Arabian was a Turkoman horse. For any of you kind enough to have read my other stuff (specifically about Kazakhstan and the other “stans”), that means he was an Akhal-Teke with 3,000 years of glorious, beautiful history originating in what is now Turkmenistan and often trading for huge sums of money. A visiting national President might be presented with one. They only come with glistening metallic paint, and the thought of that lineage makes my typing fingers tingle.

But never mind me. Back to our South African students. So far, we would have hooked some History of Art people; medical and veterinary specialists; perhaps someone reading English history or even archaeology/anthropology about to write a thesis on the impact of the horse over centuries.

All very mortar-board and restricted; important nonetheless. What we need is to grab the crowd.

“Whistlejacket” is George Stubbs’ most famous painting, not least because it is 9½ x 8 feet (around 3m x 2m). It has no distracting background, and it depicts veins, muscles and small physical characteristics unique to Whistlejacket.

Whistlejacket’s owner the Marquess of Rockingham – briefly British Prime Minister – commissioned the painting amongst a bunch of others which were held in the family until 1997 when this one was released for sale. Supported by donations in a sort of crowdfunding appeal plus National Lottery money, the painting was bought by The National Gallery for 11 million pounds. “Saved for the Nation” as the saying goes. You can pop in and see it any time you are passing. Free.

They also say, in a wistful 18th century sort of way, that Whistlejacket was a temperamental chap who disliked the painting. Believe that if you like, but a lot of people stopped to admire him when, in 1997, he was projected across the face of The National Gallery at the top of Trafalgar Square. 11 million quid for a painting made headlines then. Multiple multiples now.

This column will not presume to nominate a dozen South African college and other buildings on which to project technologically advanced images to catch the student eye, but the subject must be carefully chosen.

It will be no good using today’s famous racehorse (gone tomorrow). It might have worked when Pocket Power retired – he having “been around” at the top for a number of years because his crumbly feet made him unsuitable for export and racing overseas. There was a lot of emotion to be transmitted when he stopped, and it was barely transmitted. But now we have no thoroughbred sports superstar – in the national sense.


AKHAL-Tekes everywhere.

I have advocated turning some jockeys into superstars/ poster boys like they did in Japan. We can still do that. But what we want on the side of those buildings is a fabulous looking horse.

People love Champions. The word champion – two words – World Champion – are topical right now. Catch the wave. We have a very special type of thoroughbred champion every year. Quite often coming back to retain his title. Champion Sire.

Get a beautiful picture of South Africa’s champion sire all over the walls, on 31st July. It shouldn’t cost so much.

Enough people will want to know more, who, why, how, where from? Social Media can take care of that. Slo-mo movement, impressively statuesque, close ups of his eye. A star.

Please don’t allow the argument that the champion sire owner will benefit. We are not advertising to mare owners. We are looking to introduce more and more people to magnificent creatures. We are trying to advertise our sport, not – as we do – to advertise eternally to each other. – tt.