Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Thanks for the memories, Doc


PROUD OFFSPRING: The children of the late Dr Steve Bennett at the launch of his autobiography, Singing Steve, at The Readers Bookshop in St James on November 28. From left, Robyn Rostant, Kerren-Sue Costelloe, Douglas Bennett, Patricia Rostant and Charlene Costelloe. —Photos: STEPHEN DOOBAY

(BI) Feedloader User

THE only knock against Singing Steve is that there's not enough of it.

And, unfortunately, its author is now regaling his old acquaintances and new-found friends with the cuckoo clock joke at the old Shamrock Club in the sky, so we'll just have to make do with what he's left for us in the 103 pages of his very readable and entertaining memoir.

Singing Steve is but a fraction of the life story of Dr Stephen Penlyn Bennett, an acclaimed son of the soil who was born in Princes Town in 1922 and left his mark many times over before he walked through life's departure lounge last December at the age of 89.

And we just have to be grateful that before he took his leave, he found the time to transcribe some of the high points of his most interesting existence, including the breeding of the "buffalypso", which earned him countless honours and awards from around the world.

From being the son of Oliver Penlyn (OP) Bennett, a legendary trainer, jockey, owner and administrator who was fondly known as the "Grand Old Man of Racing", Steve Bennett originally came to fame as the "boy wonder" among seasoned jockeys, riding his first race at the age of ten years and two weeks.

His skill in the saddle took him to tracks throughout his native Trinidad and Tobago and the West Indies, including Barbados, Grenada and Guyana. After he was banned by the Trinidad Turf Club (TTC), which introduced a rule, "like a bolt from the blue", that no-one under the age of 13 would be given a jockey's licence, young Bennett travelled in 1933 to England, where he got experience in the stables of some of the best trainers in the business.

He also had the distinct pleasure of riding against the great English jockey, Gordon Richards, long before he was knighted, and Bennett's namesake, former champion Steve Donoghue, in a race at Warwick in 1934.

Although he obtained a professional jockey licence from the Jockey Club of England, he was still turned down by the TTC on his return to Trinidad and had to wait until his 13th birthday, on January 28, 1935, to resume his riding career, steadily increasing his tally of winners during his brief but successful stint in the saddle, the highlight being his victory aboard Danny Boy in the 1937 Trinidad Derby at the Queen's Park Savannah in Port of Spain.

Weight eventually caught up with the growing teenager and the "boy wonder" was forced to hang up his riding boots, but that just opened another chapter in his remarkable story, first while obtaining a diploma in agriculture with a major in animal husbandry from Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph, Canada, and then while studying to be a veterinarian at Colorado Agricultural and Mechanical College in Colorado, USA.

His experiences at those two institutions—which were a long way from the "capital of Heaven", which is how he referred to Trinidad—offer an insight into young Bennett, his perseverance and "self-suffiency", as he endeared himself to fellow students, teachers and whomever he came in contact with.

During his time at Guelph, Bennett signed up for boxing, winning all but one of his bouts, that single defeat being another story in itself.

"Boxing was a real pleasure to me. I loved the sport immensely and have always regretted not becoming a professional later in life...," he wrote, although he joked that continuing in the ring might have ruined his good looks.

That was what he told Kristel-Marie Ramnath, who faithfully visited "Doc" in his final years at his home in St Augustine, "Glamorgan", where he dictated his autobiography to her.

Ramnath and Bennett's "apprentice" and fellow veterinarian Don Franco, who wrote the foreword and epilogue to Singing Steve, along with Doc's five children—Robyn, Patricia Lee, Kerren-Sue, Charlene and Douglas—are responsible for bringing this publication to fruition, ensuring that those who never had the honour of meeting the man would get some idea of this unique character.

And for those of us who had the good fortune to cross his path, this book is an opportunity to relive his life's work, including toiling in dung-filled, mud-splattered pens at Caroni Ltd, where Bennett left his legacy in the shape of the buffalypso.

Through his tireless efforts in breeding the best of the sugar company's water buffalo herd, that beast of burden has become a valued source of meat and milk in countries throughout the Caribbean, Central and South America and all over the globe.

And Doc was no slouch when it came to dealing with small animals, as well as his cherished thoroughbreds, his innovativeness and foresight allowing him to successfully treat a wide variety of ailments long before modern technology was introduced to veterinary medicine.

As Bennett's youngest daughter, Charlene Costelloe, said at the book's launch last month at The Readers Bookshop in St James, "...Singing Steve leaves the reader wanting more. There is a sense of incompleteness to the memoirs and I know that Dad had a lot more to say. In the epilogue, Don Franco, his friend and colleague, wrote: 'He was a lot more than he told us. His modesty would never permit more than is necessary to be informative.'

"In conclusion," Costelloe continued, "Singing Steve is the last gift of Dr Stephen Penlyn Bennett to his beloved homeland, Trinidad and Tobago. It is a captivating account of some of his memorable life experiences, innovations, ideas and practices during the period 1922 to 2009."

So, as Dr Steve Bennett himself might have said, "We just have to be thankful for small mercies," and treasure this memento of the life of a renowned product of T&T.

Thanks for the memories, Doc!