I was an avid pony clubber in my childhood under the tutelage of wonderful people like Janet Burns and Bridget Wahl. One of our annual excursions was a trip to Varsfontein Stud and I remember visiting the great Mexico II when he was in his prime, recalls Robyn Louw.
It was thus quite a trip down memory lane to attend Varsfontein’s stallion viewing and official launch of Gimmethegreenlight last weekend.
It was one of those rare, clear wintery days – the perfect day to showcase the pride of Varsfontein. The beautiful wrought iron gates opened onto the shady lane of trees and up to the wonderful old Cape Dutch main buildings. Welcome drinks were served on the lawn as everyone mingled and chatted. It was a lovely touch that instead of hiring in catering help for the day, the Varsfontein farm staff insisted on volunteering for duty and were obviously proud to show off their handiwork. It was small touches like that that turned the day into a uniquely warm and special team effort.
We adjourned to the viewing area where Judpot, Caesour and finally, Gimmethegreenlight were paraded. Stan Elley did a sterling job on the microphone filling us in on the horses’ pedigrees, notable relations and progeny, but in the end, he let the horses do the talking.
Judpot looked wonderful. He is a strong, attractive, well-made horse and with the pedigree to back up his class, it is easy to see why the breeders are queuing for him. Caesour threw off his 22 years and could easily pass for a 12 year old. He is in really beautiful condition and is a real credit to Carl and the team. He still covers a small book of mares which is great news considering what an impact he’s making as a broodmare sire.
And then to Gimmethegreenlight. To say he has let down well is rather like saying the Amazon is a big river. He looks magnificent. He has filled out and his coat is polished to a high gloss and in contrast to Caesour who looks youthful, Gimmethegreenlight looks far more mature than his 3 years. He is ready, he is able and as his name suggests, he is raring to go.
John Freeman tells me that they syndicated him overnight and had to turn down quite a few desperate enquiries to boot. The book filled up as quickly and the names on the list read like the Debretts Who’s Who of Racing – the team have turned themselves inside out to accommodate as many people as possible and they still have a waiting list! You cannot really wish for a better start for a new stallion.
After a marquee lunch that can only be described as sumptuous and thoroughly decadent we all disseminated into the little groups that these soirees always end up in.
I ended up at a small table congratulating Hassen Adams on the tremendous achievement of not only investing in this highly precocious colt, but having fortune smiling on him enough to produce him to historically unseen heights and be able to retire him to stud to such incredible demand.
Hassen smiles in his demure way and says ‘fortune is kind’. We shoot the breeze for a bit and then I query him on a rumour that is doing the rounds that he is moving a large portion of his string out of the province. Hassen regards me thoughtfully and then counters with, “You’re right. I’ll tell you the truth. The board should be shot”. I am kidding of course. Given the propensity that abounds for frivolous legal action no-one in their right mind would say something like that – I just wanted to see who would choke on their cornflakes.
What he actually said was “You’re right. I’ll tell you the truth. I AM concerned about the future of racing in the Western Cape. Seriously concerned. And regarding the rumour about moving my horses, yes I am.”
Which, to be honest, is probably nearly as bad. Hassen is, numerically speaking, one of the biggest owners in the Western Cape with over 80 horses in training. And with smaller owners being muscled ever more effectively out of the game, the loss of his horses would be a body blow to our local industry.
While our operators may swear blind that we have no fewer race meetings now than we have had in the past, Hassen (warming to his subject) relates that despite the number in his string remaining relatively static, his racing stats reflect that he is down approximately 30% on the number of runners he has this year compared to the same period for last year. Anyone can see that that is not good for business. Or pleasure.
He says that this has been a concern for some time and that he has addressed it with both the Chairman of our WC board as well as our caretaker boss, Riaan du Plessis, but that nothing seems to have been done to remedy the situation. And if he cannot run his horses here, then he says that common sense dictates that he should take them elsewhere.
“Weekend racing has declined to nearly nothing – it’s a travesty!”. Gallop.co.za tells me that the period from 1 May to end of August offers exactly 9 Saturday meets (1 in May, 3 in June, 2 in July – one of which was rained out – and 3 scheduled for August). “It must be some sort of record!” he jokes. He tells me he has heard sensational rumours that a board member advised a senior jockey, carded to ride on our cancelled raceday, to cancel his trip because we would not be racing, well in advance of the start of the meeting (and should that be true, I expect a certain anti-Scot to have a field day). Hassen says that while he does not pay attention to that sort of damaging allegation, he understands the value of marketing and public perception and the reality is that if that is the way racing is perceived to conduct itself, then frankly he is concerned for the viability of owners and trainers in the Western Cape.
He continues “The mere fact that this sort of thing is doing the rounds proves the perception that there is no accountability. And no wonder! If you question one person, they say it’s someone else’s fault. It’s always someone else’s fault! Where does this pass the buck mentality come from? And more importantly, where is it getting us? There is zero visibility of senior staff members on race days. I’d like to see a show of hands of who has seen our course manager on duty recently, nevermind anyone else – they’re all hiding in their private boxes. It’s ridiculous. No one else is prepared to take a stand and say something. Well I am!”
(I love these sorts of conversations – do people not realise that the Equus awards are coming up? Kidding.)
He refers me to the contradictions in the recent letters published by Gold Circle KZN and Gold Circle WC boards. “We have the Western Cape chairman rubbishing the KZN chairman and then we see him and another director enjoying the hospitality of the KZN chapter at the July and Gold Cup. You cannot rubbish a person today and then break bread with him tomorrow – what sort of message does that send ?”
“Racing is a hard won legacy that has been handed down by many people, of all ages and walks of life, to our generation for safe-keeping. Senior statesmen of racing invested their lives and their livelihoods in the game. Who are these people that are manning our board? I’d like each of them to list the horses they have in racing and add all those up and see what that comes to. You cannot have people running racing that do not have a vested interest in it. It does not make sense. Only people with a real, vested interest will fight and stand together to keep it alive. Otherwise it just becomes a gravy train for people to serve their own ends.”
Hassen says that he has been invited to re-join the board, but has been warned that the racing community may interpret it as a hollow gesture engineered to buy his complicity. “It’s incredible!” he says. So rather than be drawn either way, he prefers to remain on the sidelines and turn up the volume instead. He insists “I want to be more outspoken”.
When I question him about the proposed divorce and merger with Phumelela (which he was in favour of not so long ago), he says that he has his reservations. “I would call for a re-shuffle of the board and I would also call for a re-examination of the terms of the proposed agreement. If it is going to reduce Western Cape racing to a glorified PE equivalent, then I do not think it is a satisfactory arrangement. We also need to look at the bigger picture in terms of the viability of racing as a sustainable product in our changing political and cultural landscape. KZN have at least acknowledged the new government prescribed issue of black empowerment – what is the Western Cape going to do about it? This issue is going to come back and haunt us.”
And what about betting and that all important revenue? Is the Cape not failing miserably as per all the negativity we keep hearing? Is it true that there really is just no appetite for gambling in the Western Cape as people suggest? “What rubbish! My casino revenues are the healthiest they’ve ever been! And where is our business coming from? The race tracks! Don’t tell me there is no gambling in the Western Cape. There is! And racing’s current structure is chasing them straight into my casinos. I should be grateful, but as a passionate racing supporter, this disappoints me.”
“There is a strong case for a change in leadership. I know this will be an unpopular opinion among the fat cats, but as no-one else is prepared to say it, I will. You cannot expect change if you leave the same people in charge.”
He refers me to a recent piece written by Alan Hosking for the website Leader.co.za:-
“Arrogance and corruption thrive where there are no clear policies, guidelines and procedures, and no accountability. Where people are allowed to account only to themselves, before long, they become arrogant, thinking that they are the centre of the universe and that everyone else and everything else exists for their benefit only. That’s when the corruption starts and, left unchecked, it knows no end.
“If good people tolerate this stench for long enough, they will become immune to the stench and after a while consider it to be normal. They will consequently not do much about it. That’s a tragedy because the arrogant and corrupt will continue looting and plundering to their heart’s content.”
They say it takes a village to raise a child. What will it take to resurrect racing?