Today we bid a sad farewell to one of South Africa’s favourite courses – Clairwood.
Fittingly, Gold Circle have named the days’ races after some of the great racehorses of the past, who enjoyed some of their greatest victories at the Garden Course, including Bush Telegraph (1987 Rupert Ellis Brown), Main Man (1987 Mainstay), Model Man (1986 Mainstay, 1987 Schweppes Natal Administrators) and of course the mighty Sea Cottage (1966 & 1967 Winter Handicap), who put in a public appearance ahead of the Model Man’s 1986 Mainstay.
As the curtains come down at Clairwood, the SP takes a walk down memory lane, with a little help from an old copy of Winner’s Circle.
Widely known as the “Garden Course”, Clairwood Park racecourse is every inch an oasis, for horses as well as humans. Easy access, a well laid-out track, superb facilities, and immaculately kept gardens give Clairwood Park a “feel” few other tracks in South Africa can match. Yet unlike a track with the easy natural beauty and gentle climate such as Kenilworth in the Cape, Clairwood’s Garden of Eden is entirely man-made. Clairwood, after all, is situated in the heart of Durban’s industrial area, which originally was swamp land.
Clairwood is one of South Africa’s youngest race courses, dating back “only” to 1921. The brainchild of the late Jack Hollis, Clairwood was established as a proprietary raceclub, that is to say a public company with shareholders who had invested in the club with the expectation of a return on their money. That almost became the cause of Clairwood’s downfall. On four occasions during the Sixties, Clairwood was threatened with closure and matters finally came to a head in 1975. The year before Clairwood had made a net profit of over R600,000, of which just under R400 000 was paid in shareholder dividends. As the paid up capital of the share holders was R150,000, and a Jockey Club Rule stated that not more than 10% of this amount could be paid in dividends per annum, Clairwood was in breach of Jockey Club Rules. The Jockey Club thus had every right to withhold Clairwood Park a license to race the following season. Furthermore, in racing circles it was felt that the profits generated should at least be used to improve facilities and stakes, and that the share holders should agree to Clairwood being changed into a non-proprietary raceclub. A most controversial period followed, but in the end Clairwood shareholders were bought out by the Racecourse Development Fund, and the track’s future assured.
Clairwood’s first racemeeting took place on 25 May, 1921, attended by a crowd of almost ten thousand people. Later during that decade, grass track motor cycle racing became highly popular, and in the early thirties a one mile grass motor cycling track was built inside the horse race track. All the greats of the time competed there, but as cartoonist Jock Leyden recalls “one of the greatest characters was Alan Herschell, an ex-jockey who’d won the 1928 Durban July on Glen Albyn. Herschell crashed so often that whenever the spectators saw a cloud of dust rising during a race, the cry went up: Hershcell’s off again!” Horse racing, however, kept developing and the equine machines eventually had the track to themselves again.
After the change in ownership in the mid-Seventies, Clairwood developed out of all recognition. A new stand was built in 1982 at a cost of 8 million. Two years later the novel concept of having a winner’s enclosure in front of the grandstand was added. This rather American idea added further to Clairwood’s drive to involve racegoers as much as possible in the goings on at a racetrack.
Another major step, but in a different sphere, was taken in 1986 when Bridget Oppenheimer and Doreen Rowles became the first full non-male members of the Clairwood Turf Club. The two women had been on the waiting list for a year and a half, after club members had voted in favour of full female members in 1984. And that had been after a four-year struggle to change the club’s constitution!
From an equine point of view Clairwood Park is an ideal course. The 1200m straight course provides three different sprints: a fast 1000m, a nice 1100m (comparable to 1200m at many other tracks), and a stiff 1200m, which requires more stamina to complete than most other 1200m’s in the country.
The round course, which measures 2500m, has a long sweeping bend and a run-in of 600m. That run-in gives every horse enough opportunity to find its feet in the straight. The one peculiarity Clairwood has is the 1400m race. Here horses without previous experience around the Clairwood bend often need a run to get to know it.
Because of the swampish ground on which the track was built, an often sodden track and resulting cancelled meetings dogged the Clairwood Turf Club for decades. But the addition of an outstanding drainage system made cancellations or postponements of race meetings a thing of the past. On the odd occasion that a real downpour caused wet patches near the entrance to the straight, Clairwood GM Basil Thomas showed that with a little imagination, one can fix anything. One year a helicopter was used on the morning of a racemeeting to hover above the wet patch, causing enough turbulence to make the water disappear!
Clairwood played host to most of the visiting Cape trainers during the long Natal season and boasted an outstanding and well planned programme of feature events. The Schweppes Challenge in June and the Mainstay 1800 in July, both Grade One races, attracted outstanding fields each year. The Schweppes, run at Weight for Age over a mile, was commonly regarded as the final test of the season for South Africa’s best milers.
The Mainstay normally saw a re-match between the July runners, again on handicap terms but with the July winner penalised in weight and asked to show how good he or she really is and provided some memorable races over the years.
Other major features were the Gr2 Clairwood Futurity (an 1800m race for juveniles where the best are tested for their stamina), the Gr1 Natal Mercury Sprint over 1200m (the last major sprint of the Natal season), the Gr1 Post Natal Golden Slipper (over 1400m, for fillies just after they’ve turned three), and the Gr2 Clairwood Gold Vase.
In 1991 Clairwood hosted the third leg of South Africa’s new Triple Crown, when the Gr1 Natal Derby was run over 2400m in June. There was a R500,000 stake, with another R500,000 added as part of the Bloodline Series concept.
At a Special General Meeting held in May 2012, Gold Circle members voted overwhelmingly in favour of the sale of the racecourse to the Capital Property Fund.
Join us as Clairwood writes its last chapter and closes the book on 93 years of racing.
The first race is off at 11:20 and the last group of horses ever to gallop down the Clairwood track, will face the starter at 16:55.