By Kevin Stafford, The Aspiring Horseplayer
By now the news has already reached many of you. Or perhaps,
like me, the return to the post holiday work grind has left you a bit dazed and
unable to process all that is happening around us? The world is reeling
from the horrific disaster that has befallen Haiti,with perhaps hundreds of
thousands of our fellow human beings gone, and a great many more in desperate
condition. The recession marches on. Two wars continue. The list
is endless, but we've heard it all before.
Closer to home in the horse racing world, the battle lines have
once again sharpened as we brace for the eminent announcement of Horse of the
Year, in perhaps the most hotly contested voting we have ever seen (the power
of the internet showing its full abilities in the raging online discourse that
has permeated racing sites since the Breeders' Cup).
As if on cue, out of the dire and contentious atmosphere we find
ourselves, in comes a trickle of good news. A glimmer of hope in an
otherwise dark night. A momentary reprieve from the bombardment of
spirit-sapping news and ceaseless argument.
Curlin has become a papa.
Yes, on Tuesday the big red horse became
the proud sire of his first offspring, a filly from the mare Zophie.
I do believe, in the spirit of the indomitable comedy troop Monty
Python, that this calls for "much
Thanks to a Facebook friend, I've become aware of a link
to a photo of the young filly from Burleson
farms. Given that Curlin was at one point reported to have over 120 mares
in foal to him, this is obviously the first of many such offspring coming our
way. No doubt she is an absolute beauty to behold. Obviously it's
a bit silly to wish that she might inherit some of her father's abilities, but
this little gal need not worry about that. The important thing is that
she carries on his line - and will pass it on to future generations of horses.
In an era where many of the top runners break down with
alarming repetition, it's encouraging to know that the sport's "iron man" has
infused the next generation with his own ingredients.
Of course, the obvious question left now is what to name the
Zurlin sounds intimidating in my humble opinion, like some sort of
mad Greek god. One could imagine warriors from a
bearded Mediterranean people in the late bronze age marching off to
battle after several days of feast and sacrifice to the mighty Zurlin - god (or
in this case, goddess) of victory!
Ah yes, much better than the more obvious "Curlphie" or "Curlie"
(which sounds entirely too similar to a certain famous stooge to
What if we take it a step farther? We'll keep Zurlin, but
shouldn't the name also reference the fact that she is the first of her line?
The forbearer of all future Curlin offspring to come?
Behold: Zurlin Dawn
The "Dawn" part being not only a reference to the birth of the
filly seeming to usher in the event horizon of what will soon follow, but also
pays homage to another topic that has captured my obsession from time to time.
There just happens to be a historical tie-in here (big surprise
to regular readers here, no doubt) that warrants mention. Indeed, the 131
anniversary of which falls exactly one week from today, on 1/22/10.
The historical moment I speak of is the battle of Isandlwana,
fought in January of 1879, and one of the darker days in colonial British
military history. By contrast, it stands as the signature victory of the
proud Zulu people over their foreign colonial antagonists. The fight
itself has been the subject of intense scrutiny and debate over the intervening
decades, due in no small part to the fact that nearly all the Europeans present
at the start of the battle were slain at the hands of the 20,000 strong Zulu
army (with the notable exception of Horace Smith-Dorrien, who would go on to
command the British Expeditionary Force, or BEF, at the beginning of World War
The great Richard Burton, once the "voice of England" perhaps
described the scene best in the opening narration of the classical film "Zulu".
The opening narration from the
1964 film Zulu
Gallant defenses indeed. Colonel Mike Snook, author and
historian of the South Wales Borderers (whom the 24th regiment has become over
the years) describes a bitterly fought and ferociously contested end to the six
redcoat rifle companies and their allies that morning in
his indispensable work "How Can
Man Die Better: The Secrets of Isandlwana Revealed."
What secrets, you ask? Well, for decades the accepted story
was that the English were quickly overrun by the fast-moving Zulu amabutho
(regiments), and easily put to the sword (spear). This interpretation has
largely been built on the testimonies of survivors who, Snook argues, must have
fled the fighting before the "great denouement." The logic being that had
they been in the camp long enough to see the bloody individual stands that
marked the final moments of each rifle company's existence, they would not have
been able to escape the encircling Zulu warriors.
Instead, the image Snook portrays (and does so quite persuasively)
is that the companies of the 24th must've held the Zulus at bay as long as they
could, falling back hundreds of yards from their positions on the forward (and
much celebrated in the history of the battle) "firing line" before reaching
their own tent lines in the camp proper. It was in and immediately around
the camp, you see, where the great clusters of grizzly remains of the once
proud companies were found. Indeed, the Zulu themselves tell oral histories of
the battle, which while rightfully steeped in praise for their own braves that
day, also pay homage to the tenacity of the English soldiers, and the deadly
precision with which they plied their trade - at first with shot and shell, and
at the end with bayonet, dagger, and fist.
A century after the battle of Isandlwana, the story of the
engagement was celebrated on film. An all-star cast was assembled.
Peter O'Toole, Burt Lancaster, Bob Hoskins - and a healthy budget
bestowed upon the ambitious visionaries whose idea the undertaken had been.
A decade before, Zulu had won some critical acclaim for telling the story
of the battle that followed Isandlwana at Rorke's Drift, and now it was thought
to be time to give Isandlwana it's due.
The result, unfortunately, is the largely forgettable film Zulu
Don't get me wrong, the climatic battle scenes are entertaining
(if not rife with inaccuracies), but the film itself fails to capture the gut
wrenching drama that it's predecessor, the aforementioned Zulu, so eloquently
achieved the decade before. Plagued by a long-winded plot
development cycle, and gratuitous overacting by the likes of Lancaster (his death
scene as Col. Anthony Durnford at the end of the film being one of the
cheesiest of its genre), the film is largely forgotten - usually relegated to
the DVD bargain bin.
Where "Zulu" had been beautiful (if a war film can ever be called
so), with the opposing forces dueling in song before exchanging spear and
bayonet blows in the film's final attack scene, Zulu Dawn felt like
an entirely different animal. The Zulu were not anywhere near as
courageously and magnificently portrayed. Rather than showing the cunning
skill with which they stalked and unleashed their famed "horns of the buffalo"
double envelopment maneuver, the Zulu are instead depicted as standing in
a giant phalanx and charging full-speed, head long into punishing volley fire.
While this did happen in the protracted struggle at Rorke's Drift as
depicted in the film Zulu, the truth of the matter at Isandlwana is that the
Zulus "skirmished" with a marked precision across the open field and were able
to frustrate English attempts to deliver massed firepower upon them in densely
packed groups- until of course the encirclement was complete, the
flanks were turned, the game was up, and it was time to start hacking apart the
individual redcoat infantry companies in their last-stand "refuse cavalry
The "song of the warriors" from
the closing battle scene in the 1964 film Zulu
Somewhere along the spur that ran into the western or "scree"
slope of Isandlwana hill, a namesake (and for all I know a distant relative of
yours truly) named Captain Stafford, attached to the Natal Native Contingent,
fell in support of Captain William E. Mostyn's E Company, 1st/24th and Captain
Charles Cavaye's F Company, 1st/24th. According to both Zulu and English
legend, the last rifle company to perish was Company C, 1st/24th, commanded by
the dashing Lt. Reginald Younghusband. They are thought to have held off
the Zulu until their ammunition was out, and then with approximately 50 or so
men, advanced in a suicidal bayonet charge into the sea of Zulu warriors
waiting for them.
For students of American history - think of this engagement as the
South African version of "Custer's Last Stand" - with a supremely confident and
well equipped imperial force being utterly destroyed at the hands of
natives, whose war making abilities the Imperials seemed to have had utter
contempt for. Indeed, much like the true story of Little Big Horn is that
the Sioux and Cheyenne actually had the 7th cavalry totally out gunned, so the
Zulus likely brought more rifles to the field than the English that morning.
No doubt many of these were of dubious quality, and the marksmanship of
the average Zulu warrior was not likely to be on par with that of a
Martini-Henry armed redcoat, but at close range (and in such numbers) such
concerns become trivial.
The Zulu, despite the total annihilation of the English force
defending the camp at Isandlwana and despite early success in frustrating the
operations of other British columns (most notably at Eshowe), were utterly
defeated by war's end. The warrior-peoples way of life that had been
forged by the great Shaka a century earlier having been unable to resist the
encroachment of their Victorian enemies, and ultimately shattered itself in brave
but hopeless fashion upon the disciplined British volleys at the battle of
The results of this engagement still reverberate to this day.
The proud Zulu people being able to look back through the fog of history
and know that on that fateful January morning, their warriors rose up
successfully and shocked the world, defeating the best troops the British had
in the entire South African theater. Despite the decades of unrest that
followed, and the utter annihilation of their way of life, they can
always look back proudly and have that day for themselves.
I guess at some level I find some comforting familiarity with that
notion. I am, afterall, a proud native of Alabama by birth, and thus
someone who knows that his "people" were soundly defeated in the climatic U.S.
Civil War of 1861-1865.
In the celebrated Ken Burns documentary The Civil War, late
historian Shelby Foote noted that famed American author William Faulkner
intended a passage of his work"Intruder
in the Dust" to mean
that "for every southern boy, it's within his reach to imagine it being 3
o'clock in the afternoon on an early July day in 1863. The guns are laid,
the troops are formed and waiting to be moved. The flags are out of their
cases and waiting to be unfurled - but IT (with "it" meaning the disastrous
infantry advance immortalized as "Pickett's Charge" at Gettysburg) hasn't
happened yet - and he can always go back to just before the war was going to be
lost and have that moment for himself."
Perhaps somewhere in South Africa a middle-aged man of Zulu
descent feels the same way about the destructive Anglo-Zulu war, and can return
through the memory of his people's triumphs to that moment just before the
"horns of the buffalo" were unleashed upon the British camp at Isandlwana.
The death, destruction, and annihilation that soon followed having not
If so, I salute you, young man/woman. We share a kinship of
valor and understanding. We know what it means to maintain our pride
despite the knowledge that our brethren suffered crushing military defeat.
With this in mind, I offer that this offspring of the great Curlin
(himself named for a former slave turned soldier in the Civil War, don't
forget) be named, at least partly, in tribute to that victory which forever
cemented the legacy of the mighty Zulu war machine into the annals of history.
The film the name references may not be noteworthy, but the memory of the
brave combatants on both sides who struggled that morning certainly are.
That'd be my name for the filly. What about you?