Sentries report Curlins to the Southwest...thousands of 'em!

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 rejoicing."

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 little girl?

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 seem suggestible).

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 1).

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 Dawn.

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 squares".

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 Ulundi.

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 happened yet.

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.

Zurlin Dawn

That'd be my name for the filly.  What about you?

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