The abandoning of the orange all-clear flag by the South African Turf Club early in December turned out to be more than symbolic. The warning light replacing it flashed out to the starter, as warning lights do at every other track in the country, and racing went on seemingly unaware of the change. There was no indication that a week later the entire Cape summer season would be abandoned, too - the link between flag and calamity probably occurring only to those rare minds nurtured on myth and the wrath of slighted gods.
As it happens, the race meeting was particularly successful. The smart Roland Gardens colt Honey Bear confirmed his classic potential with an impressive win in the Computaform Stakes, as did the runner-up, the Northfields' filly Alpine Silk, and as a result the racecourse hummed with speculation: How would Honey Bear fare against the stars of the year in the Richelieu Guineas, Bush Telegraph and Main Man, and would Alpine Silk be a match for Allure and Jungle Class in the BAR Valley Classic? More than ever, the weeks ahead were filled with interest.
In spite of this excitement, however, several racegoers saw fit to object to the disappearance of the orange flag - an inevitable reaction at the Cape to change, tradition here still being seen as more important than progress. After all, the flag was a link with the days when racing was held on Green Point Common, more than a century ago, and had to be raised before each start to signify that the track was clear of browsing cows.
Doubtless, the objectors regarded the flag as a symbol of a gracious past which enabled them to feel, as they looked at racegoers elsewhere: thank God, we are not as they are! For had not the foundation members of the club been "Officers of the Navy and Army, the gentlemen and respectable inhabitants of the Colony" - and way back in 1802?
Particularly vociferous in his condemnation was Colonel George Ascayne-Whyte who, according to the Cape Times, regarded the replacing of the flag with a flashing light as a "damned impertinence" and felt that playing fast and loose with tradition would "result in the whole tone of the club going to hell."
Others, among them Mr Clifford Dooley, Chairman of the newly-formed Punters Union, were equally incensed by this leap into the 20th century. "The fact is that a flagman has been replaced by an electric light bulb," Mr Dooley said. "This is not of great significance in itself. Men today are always being replaced by light bulbs. But one has to see the matter in a wider context. If a man can be replaced by a light bulb why can't a horse. And then what happens to racing?'
But it was left to Mr Oswald Delanger to put into words the thought that was troubling most punters: "Even though the cows are gone the orange flag did give punters some assurance that the track was also clear of donkeys."
Just where the flag controversy would have ended it is hard to say; for this turned out to be the last summer race meeting at the Cape. The following week, traditionally the opening of the season, equine flu wiped out the meeting only hours before it was due to begin.
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