The Cape Guineas is one of the best and most revered Classics on our racing calendar. Since its inception, it has produced a long line of champions and with successful graduates (and even also-rans) often going on to stud book immortality, winners are spoken about with hushed awe. In short, it is more than just an excuse to go racing.
I was lucky enough to experience (survive?!) the Guineas during the heyday of the Richelieu and Topsport sponsorships when it was run at Milnerton, around the near bend and often into the stamina sapping fangs of a black South Easter. Perhaps the view through my rose tinted spectacles gets fuzzier as the years go by, but the Cape Turf Club made sure that when you went to the course for the Cape Guineas, you damn well knew you were there for an event and it ALWAYS lived up to its billing. There is no other race quite like it and us Capetonians are (I think) rightfully toffee-nosed about it.
Why the Guineas was great
Back then you couldn’t get a run in the Guineas unless you were a 3-time winner – in other words, at the age of 3 and a half which was no small feat – but it all but guaranteed the fields of yesteryear were clashes of the highest order. Not just good horses, but greats. Future titans of the turf.
It was Milnerton’s flagship race and every year the Club went all out to ensure a dazzling field. With visiting trainers coming down early to qualify runners, field sizes in Guineas trials swelled. There was intense media interest and discussion, with speculation whether horses that had won over sprint distances would stay a mile.
By the time race day arrived, anticipation was at fever pitch. If you didn’t have a runner, it was not for lack of trying and on course there was standing room only to see the chosen few. One of the standouts was 1992, when Willie Pieters swept into town with Unaware, who came with a formidable reputation in more ways than one. The exquisite chestnut son of Northern Guest already had a staggering 4 wins under his belt and arrived in the Cape a hotly anticipated Guineas contender. Willie wanted to give him a few prep runs down here, but plans went awry when Unaware misbehaved at the start and chief stipe Mike Tillett withdrew his starting stall certificate. In those days, the field had to load in 2 minutes to accommodate betting elsewhere in the country. Any horse who violated the 2 minute rule was penalised heavily. It wasn’t a simple matter of re-schooling and getting a new pass – horses had to serve a set suspension and Unaware looked set to miss the Guineas. It was pandemonium with the connections and the club alike pleading with the Stipes to make an exception. Such was the pressure that a compromise was reached and special provision made for Unaware to prove his eligibility. Everyone pitched in to help him get ready and when the day came, he loaded and jumped on terms. As things turned out, he finished 3rd behind Empress Club and The Decorator and the photo finish hung in the Kenilworth boardroom for years.
Having a horse good enough to run in the Guineas is one of the greatest achievements in our sport and as such, it’s always an ‘occasion’ race day for me, because these are the horses of the future. With no disrespect to our wonderful WFA contests such as the Queen’s Plate, by the time a horse gets to that point, they have been measured and you know who and what they are. The Guineas field are horses with a date with destiny.
Buying a lifestyle
This year’s Guineas day promised much. We had a Listed race, two Gr3’s, a Gr2 and the Gr1. There were horses from all over the country, In fact, the card was so good that the likes of Bela-Bela came out in a conditions plate, if you please!
With the Snaiths packing some serious artillery – and en masse – I invited myself down to Muizenberg beach to see their string stretch their legs in the ocean on Wednesday morning. As it had been an early start and we needed coffee, Jono recommended Knead in Muizenberg. Sipping coffee at a coffee shop mid-week when ‘normal’ people are at work is a little stolen pleasure and it didn’t take much convincing. Muizenberg has been substantially jazzed up since the last time I visited and was buzzing with activity. We secured a table overlooking the sea and savoured our cappuccinos. Watching the sun dancing on the waves, for the first time I had an inkling into the ‘lifestyle’ element of owning race horses (or at least the positive element!). This was definitely the life and set the mood nicely for a big day on Saturday.
The Guineas Day Experience
In case I haven’t said it before, I do love the new signboards outside Durbanville and Kenilworth (and I am eternally grateful to whoever finally filled in the potholes on the Wetton Road entrance – thank you, thank you, thank you). The car park seemed pleasantly full, but we managed to secure a spot and after assembling all the necessary kit, made for the track. I’ve mentioned the lack of signage from the car park to the course before, but on Saturday someone had nailed lopsided ‘entrance’ and ‘exit’ signs to either sides of a Bluegum tree, so thank you for that.
At first glance there was a bit of activity – umbrellas were placed along the grass and a market set up under the blue gums. At the Pick n Pay end of the grandstand a kiddies’ entertainment area had been set up with a merry go round and assorted things to occupy the young. But that’s rather where it stopped.
According to Hassen Adams, Grand Parade were begged to continue their sponsorship for this year, but somehow despite the Grand Parade flash boards around the parade ring, it didn’t feel very cohesive – at least, not down on the ground, but perhaps it was different up in ‘the gods’. There had been little pre-Guineas hype either via the general press or even on Tellytrack, there was no dress code or theme, no parade ring centrepiece, no Neil Andrews to jolly us along through the afternoon and all in all I was rather underwhelmed.
I was alarmed when Justin Snaith mentioned that the yard had not been interviewed in the run up to the weekend’s meeting. I was so shocked I went and double checked and he reconfirmed that I’d been the only one to contact them last week. I canvassed a few other yards and they concurred. A punter watching from home reported that he wasn’t aware it was Guineas day until the field cantered down to the start. What the…. ?
Following the horses means I get around the track a fair bit during the day and save for Anton from Marketing walking up and down, I did not see a single exec pounding the beat, checking on anyone or anything, although they were all there in force upstairs. Even the parade ring was largely empty. If we aren’t caretaking our flagship days, who will? One of racing’s saving graces is our history and provenance. If we do not care-take that, we’re in danger of losing sight of the very thing that gives us meaning. If this is how we treat one of our most important race days, it rather makes one fearful for the direction we are going.
Trying to be positive
However, tis the season and all that, so on the up side, the Classic days do still bring out some of my favourite people and it’s a last chance to chat to breeders and wish everyone well for the festive season in the brief hiatus between breeding season and Yearling Sale madness. Being Christmas, it’s also a good time to see out of town visitors such as Tony Millard home for the holidays.
There was an attempt at something different with Fee and her roving mic mounted on a horse to conduct post race jockey interviews ‘on the hoof’. While a good idea in theory, the execution was a little hit and miss. Perhaps this will improve with practice (but does beg the question why we are ‘practicing’ on the big days when we should already have it right?) Oh dear, I promised to be positive. The gorgeous grey was a hit with spectators and the kids stretched over the rail to give him a pet and a stroke which was nice to see.
Thank goodness for the racing
Luckily the horses produced the goods and it was a roller-coaster from top to bottom. What a treat to see Bela-Bela back to best and catch another glimpse of the fabulous Silver Mountain. We had big racehorses, riders and trainers aplenty and how divine to have all of you condensed in one place for the afternoon. The running of the Jet Master Stakes nearly caused several heart attacks before the horses crossed the line, but well done to Anthony Andrews for a gutsy and well-deserved win, particularly after his nasty spill a few weeks ago. The Premier Trophy was another fabulous line-up and saw a very near miss for my beach buddy, Krambambuli, going down a short head to the gorgeous Icy Trail. I bumped into Lammerskraal’s Sally Jourdan at the podium who related that despite being out of an Equus Champion, they’d found Icy Trail a hard sell as he was by the underrated Go Deputy. Fortunately Brian Finch knows a good horse when he sees one and happily snapped him up and was deservedly all smiles on Saturday afternoon. Sally smiled as broadly when Go Deputy scored another feature win in the Cape Summer Stayers, to an emphatic victory salute from Corne Orffer. It is a shame that a sire with a strike rate like that receives such little support, but such are the imponderables of fashion.
It was lovely to see some of our smaller yards punch above their weight with wins for Mike Robinson in the Victress Stakes, another Group win for the up and coming Adam Marcus and I was particularly pleased for the Burger-Van Reenen partnership who produced a Guineas 4th from their very small base in Philippi.
I don’t have sufficient superlatives to describe the Guineas field. For those who did not make it to Kenilworth on Saturday, shame on you. It was an incredible field and each and every runner looked glorious. With the result already in the record books, I have to compliment Vaughan Marshall in particular – his horses ALWAYS look a picture on parade, but it gave one rather a lump in the throat to see William Longsword so beautifully turned out and looking the spit of his sire thundering down the straight. It’s a super feel-good story for Vaughan to have trained the father and now the son so huge congratulations to Vaughan, the team and all the connections and to MJ in particular who puts in so much work behind the scenes.
All this fabulous racing made it even harder to reconcile the lack of peripheral fuss. As one trainer shrugged sadly, “It’s just not the Guineas.” Perhaps it’s the time of year, perhaps it’s a sign of the times. But perhaps it’s a timeous reminder to look after our big races a little better.