The Gr1 S A Classic, which will be run this Saturday, has a rich and storied past. Now a R2 million race, the Classic has long been one of South Africa’s most prestigious three year old races.
First run back in 1913, the race was originally known as the Benoni Guineas, when the race was run over one mile at Gosforth Park. The race has enjoyed a wide range of names and sponsors during its history, and has been known as the Benoni Guineas, Sigma Classic, Gosforth Park Classic, Southern Sun Classic, Administrator’s Classic, and, simply, The Classic.
The inaugural winner of the Benoni Guineas was a horse named Hailstorm. He beat Medusa into second position, with third place going to the well performed Martian.
In the early part of the 20th century, the Benoni Guineas formed one leg of the South African Triple Crown. In those days, the other two legs were the SA Derby and Benoni St Leger.
(It is sad to note that staying races have become so unfashionable that South Africa no longer runs any St Leger of any description, but that is a another story).
The first 3yo to sweep the South African Triple Crown was the unsound Colesberg (Wilfrid-Lily Maid). Colesberg was also a high-class two year old and scored his Triple Crown clean sweep back in 1920.
Remarkably, the South African Triple Crown was won for four consecutive years in the early 1920’s. Colesberg’s victory preceded those of Dignitary (1921), Antonio (1922), and Red Ronald (1923). This is a staggering occurrence, and one which has happened but rarely throughout the world.
The most recent horse to claim the South African Triple Crown was the great Horse Chestnut, although the races that make up today’s three race series has changed since the 1920’s.
The victor of the Benoni Guineas in 1924 was Narrow Gauge (Brown Ronald – Railette). He has claims to being one of the more unlucky top horses in the South African turf history. Twice second in the July Handicap, Narrow Gauge was seen by many on hand as having received a poor judicial verdict when declared a short head loser of the 1926 July. He was also second in 1924 J&B Met.
One of the most impressive victories ever scored in the Benoni Guineas came about in 1921. The great Dignitary (Greatorex – Dignity), remembered primarily as the first locally bred horse ever to head the general sires list, swept to a 14 length romp in the 1600 metre contest.
One of the race’s greatest ever winners, and a true South African legend, was Lenin, who was victorious back in 1940. Lenin (Sunstone – Drohsky) outclassed his rivals in the Guineas, winning by ten lengths. An established champion prior to the race, Lenin went on to win the S A Derby by six lengths, and was awarded the Summer Handicap on disqualification of the original winner, Spanish Armada.
Lenin, who won 18 races during his career, was a famous weight carrier. The champion, won from 1000-3200 metres during his career, winning with as much as 76 kgs!
Another superstar to win the Classic was the mighty Horse Chestnut (Fort Wood – London Wall). The winner of nine of his ten starts, Horse Chestnut not only won the SA Triple Crown, but also became the first 3yo to win the J&B Met, thrashing a high-class field in the process. Horse Chestnut went on to win his sole start in North America, before injury forced his retirement.
The first filly ever to win the Benoni Guineas was Joan (Wavy – Kedgeree), who took top honours back in 1932. She caused a 16-1 upset, and defeated subsequent SA Derby runner up Tints of Dawn in the process.
The Classic has been won by some truly great females through the years. Roland’s Song, South Africa’s first female equine millionaire, won the Classic back in 1989. The tough daughter of Roland Gardens pulverised her male opponents to win the race by nearly five lengths! She would later be named South Africa’s Horse of the Year.
An even greater filly to win the Classic was Empress Club. Famously known as the “Galloping Goldmine”, Empress Club was one of the greatest females ever to set foot on a South African racetrack. She smashed subsequent SA Triple Crown winner, Fine Regent, to win the G1 Administrator’s Classic by over five lengths! Prior to being exported, Empress Club would go on to land both the G1 Queen’s Plate and G1 J&B Met, and stamp herself a legend of the turf.
Between 1923 and 1979, the Benoni Guineas winner would go on to win the SA Derby on seven occasions.
Since 1913, the race has been run every year, with the exception of 1917, when it was cancelled, and 1987 when equine flu put a stop to local racing.
A number of top sires have left their mark on what is arguably Gauteng’s premier event for 3yos. The great Persian Wonder sired two winners (Archangel, Rock Star), while other stallions to have left their mark indelibly on the great race were Fort Wood and High Veldt.
Fort Wood himself was responsible for a memorable 1-2 in The Classic in 1998, when his greatest son, Horse Chestnut, beat his paternal half-brother, Fort Defiance, to pull off a remarkable 1-2 for winning owners, Mr and Mrs Oppenheimer, and trainer, Mike de Kock.
Remarkably, Fort Wood pulled off the 1-2 in the Classic again in 2005 when Hunting Tower conquered champion Elusive Fort. All in all, Fort Wood has sired three individual winners (Horse Chestnut, Hunting Tower, Forest Path) of the race at the time of writing.
In 1965, the first two finishers in the Benoni Guineas were Marquis and Prize Bell. Both were sons of the champion sire, High Veldt. Yet another son of the stallion, Elevation, sired the 1984 Classic winner, Yamani.
While Dignitary is the only champion sire, so far, to have come out of the race, arguably the most important horse ever to win the then Benoni Guineas was the great Hawaii. Not only was Hawaii a champion here and in the USA, he has left a real stamp on the breed mainly through his daughters.
Hawaii may be best known as the sire of Henbit, Hawaiian Sound and Hunza Dancer, horses who won and were second and third, respectively, in the Epsom Derby, but his mark on the breed comes mainly through the influence of his daughters. Not only is Hawaii the broodmare sire of the leading sire Hennessy, his name is also found in such top class international performers as Afleet Alex (Preakness Stakes, Belmont Stakes), Ghostzapper (US Horse of the Year), Lil E Tee (Kentucky Derby) and City Zip (G1 winner and a successful US sire).
It remains to be seen what this year’s Classic will produce – but, regardless of what the future holds, this year’s Classic promises to be a thrilling spectacle.