Love The Horse

The 2015 Vodacom Durban July

Power King

Power King wins the 2015 Vodacom Durban July

The difficult bit about writing an opinionated column is that it’s supposed to be about one’s opinion. While that seems like a pretty easy thing to do on the surface, it actually requires quite a lot of effort – firstly one has to observe something as impartially as you can, then (if you’re a bit of a slow thinker like me), you have to go away and digest it for a while, then you have to decide what you thought of it all and lastly, you need to deliver an honest appraisal. This is not always an easy thing to do, mainly because honesty isn’t always the virtue it’s made out to be – at least not if you’re on the receiving end. Also, with so much happening in the racing industry on so many levels on a more or less constant basis, it’s easy to get caught up in all the bluster and bull and forget that the reason we ended up here in the first place, being cross or quarrelsome over some irrelevance, is that one day we fell in love with a horse and have never been the same since.

It’s the horse, stupid

There is no explaining the divine madness that compels us to throw our hats and hearts into the racing ring. There is no escaping that racing is about money and power and snobbery, but fortunately the whole ridiculous business is not based on such things. It starts in the horse: in the boundless, glorious and addictive unreliability of the horse. And of course the fun we have in trying to guess the ones with the invisible wings.

It is ridiculous how easily we forget how wonderful our horses are. A timely loan of a rather lovely book reminded of that (and also of why I should read a lot more than I do). I think if my past self could send my current or even future self a message, it would be to just stop from time to time and forget all the rubbish. To go back to the stable. Breathe deeply. Run my palm slowly across a vast expanse of warm coat. Remember where all this started. Remember what I love and why and celebrate it. Love the horse.

And if you love the horse, then there are few better places to be than Greyville on the first weekend in July. As I wrote last week, it still baffles me that our premier race is a handicap (albeit with conditions), but they say one should not come looking for sanity where dreams and horses meet. Handicap or not, the truth is that beyond all logic and sense, of all the big races on the calendar, it is the one that everyone wants to win. Despite it not being a classic and despite it not making a lot of sense, like a lot of things in racing, the July plays by its own rules and this is the one that matters. Which means that just about every horse that matters, across the entire South African racing spectrum, is there, all assembled in one neat and tidy card.

The presence of the Vodacom Durban July moniker on the racecard cover adds an extra little gloss and a palpable undercurrent of tension and excitement among the crowds, because from the minute you arrive on course you know that somewhere on the grounds, almost close enough to touch, is this year’s winner. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

Best laid plans

Having made peace with not attending the July this year, I’d watched the gallops and picked my big race favourite, but not looked at the card too much beyond that and as such, didn’t have a real vested interest one way or another. Then, a last minute change of plan turned everything on its head (what are plans for if not to be upset?) and Saturday morning found me winging my way to Durban with a ticket to Greyville in my grubby paws – well, waiting for me to collect at the main gate, but artistic license and all that.

Suddenly my pulse rate was a little higher, my spirits a little brighter and I was suddenly invested in the whole process again. I had been absolutely delighted to see so much pre-race tv coverage on Friday evening – huge kudos to whichever clever person managed to secure that. I was also terribly pleased that I would be there for Stan Elley’s big hurrah. Win, lose or draw (I had no idea how prophetic those words would turn out to be), it was one of those things that I just wanted to be able to say ‘I was there’.

The weatherman had predicted a fine day in Durban, but unconvinced, I came dressed like an Eskimo. Of course, this year’s July day was balmy and warm, with signature blue skies and fluffy white clouds maintaining a respectful distance. Things were going to get sticky. Fortunately, Greyville was only a short drive away and then I could dive into my luggage and grab my glad rags. We had factored without the big day traffic. It seems the promoters had done their job exceptionally well and everyone who was anyone was trying to get into Greyville on Saturday afternoon.

I managed to hop out close to the course and head in, while my poor lift went off to find parking. While lots of lovely lithe young folk floated through the gates in their nautical gear, I made the most of the brief reprieve from my party dress and clomped around in jeans and boots and generally had a thoroughly good (and comfortable!) time. While tickets were sold out, the layout seemed a lot more spread out this year and while the course was full, it was still possible to get from the parade ring to the track for the same race.

Big race build up

Seul Amour had the first half of his double in race 1 when Billy Jacobson piloted Just Ask Me to a comfortable victory over Mumsy’s Jet. In race 2, Cathy Specific who had been such a fun story at the Met, unfortunately crashed and burned, but I was so pleased for James and Joy Armitage, mostly recovered from their horrid accident earlier this year, to see the Ashaawes filly Resolution hang on in nailbiter under S’manga Khumalo. S’manga made it a quick double by steering the very smart Ultimate Dollar home for an easy win in the 3rd and it was also the first opportunity to see visiting jockey Chad Schofield in action aboard the runner up, St Tropez. Despite all the press hype, I thought Chad rode exceptionally well and he is a thoroughly nice young man to boot, so thanks again to the Mayfair team for bringing him out and I hope we’ll see him again soon. Seul Amour scored again in the Gold Vase with a courageous performance by Heart Of A Lion under Muzi Yeni and I shouted him home from the rail alongside a fun group of mums and kids out for a day at the races. Mr Drier is a canny one on July day and always has a few big race aces up his sleeve and this year was no exception. The lovely Horse Chestnut filly, Chestnuts And Pearls scored a decisive victory in the Golden Slipper and Seventh Plain delivered in the Golden Horseshoe. I’d chatted to Gill Drier about the big son of Seventh Rock at Scottsville and knew they had July day hopes and I have to say that he looks very exciting indeed.

And all of a sudden the main race was upon us. If a horse doesn’t have what it takes, the best will in the world cannot put it there and one of the joys of this year’s race was that it looked a pretty evenly-matched and open affair. And as everyone knows, just about anything can, and does, happen in the July. The devilment of the narrow track, the draw bias and the ever present question mark over the going all posed their own conundrums, but there had been remarkably few grumbles about the final field this year – no 1-time winners or doubtful credentials in sight. Every runner had fairly and squarely earned their chance to have a crack at our richest race and in such an evenly matched field, it was clear that jockeyship and the whims of Lady Luck were going to have a big say.


In years gone by, handicappers have been awarded a gold watch for achieving a dead heat and I think we’ll have to dream up a new award for contentious finishes. This year’s finish produced agony and ecstasy in equal measure and that’s just for the first two past the post – there were a bucket load of stories further back. However, the tyranny of results is that there can only be one winner and the race replay showed that the result could only go one way.

There is a wonderful quote by Anthony Powell which reads “His face bore that look of sadness with which you associate people accustomed throughout their lives to the boundless unreliability of horses” and it is the look Stan wore after receiving the Stipes decision. Racing is a wild and volatile business and rightly so – horses are wild and volatile beasts – but as a slightly overwhelmed Mr Elley said after the race “If you’d offered me a second place this morning, I would have grabbed it with both hands.” If the racing gods did not deign to give him a fairy tale, they did at least give him a starring role in one of the most memorable July results – surely not a bad way to bow out.

The Power King connections

The Power King connections

It would be remiss of me not to wish Power King and all his connections huge congratulations. If it is true that a jockey’s contribution is less about the inspiration he puts in and more about the mistakes he does not make, then Stuart Randolph got it spot on and was a very deserving and popular winner. Lady Laidlaw throws heart and soul into her horses and her racing and it was wonderful to see her passion so richly rewarded. A visibly delighted Dean Kannemeyer commented “When I was asked about my chances earlier, I said I didn’t have any big guns in the race and there you are. You’ve got to have luck in racing.” It was a tough and courageous win. Racing highs are all too rare and the opportunity to wear a July sash rarer still, so I hope the high lasts a good long time.

Unprecedented achievement


Super sire – Silvano

Lastly, all credit to Silvano, Dr Andreas Jacobs, the Maine Chance team and particularly their manager supremo John Slade for breeding the first three past the post. It is a particularly fitting final paragraph to John’s long career as he is retiring at the end of the year. Being John, he jokes that he’s getting a sun tan from all the limelight, but it is most thoroughly deserved and deserves as much fuss in the history books as the feats of Terrance Millard saddling three past the post. It is worth a mention that Terrance did it twice, so perhaps Maine Chance will try and persuade John to stay for another year?

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