Sharon Kotzen, assistant-trainer to veteran Ormond Ferraris for 14 years, has taken out a trainer’s licence and has had her first runners in Port Elizabeth, reports Tabnews.co.za.
Last Friday novice Vanda finished fifth to Hurricane Shelly over 1300m on the Fairview Polytrack and then on Monday Bar None ran unplaced behind Steel Magnolia over 1600m on that track.
“I’m quite excited about Vanda because she’s acclimatised nicely. It was her first run on the Polytrack and she hit a bit of trouble coming into the straight before running on quite well,” said Kotzen, who has nine horses in her care including four two-year-olds “who will only see the track at the beginning of next year”.
Both Vanda and Bar None were formerly trained by Ferraris, who also sent Kotzen to Port Elizabeth with two-time winner Arkansas.
Six-year-old Arkansas was due to be her first runner on 19 August, but hit his head in the float going to the races and had to be withdrawn. “He’s over it now,” she confirmed.
Her other older horses, another two-time winner Megamind (“who I hear was quite promising in Cape Town”) and maiden winner Entre Nous, were formerly trained by her husband Gregory’s cousin Glen Kotzen.
While Kotzen is hoping eventually to put together a boutique string of around 25 to 30 horses – “a nice manageable size with quality rather than quantity” – she is starting small with 12 boxes leased from Grant Paddock.
“There’s nothing available at Fairview, so I’m taking baby steps,” she said. “Grant has been a great friend and a big help. Without him it would have been much more difficult. He helped me settle in and showed me the ropes – and he’s allowing me to use his facilities. I’m very grateful to him.”
Kotzen could not have had a better grounding in horseracing.
Born in Bulawayo on 19 January 1967 and brought up in Mpumalanga from the age of five, her mentors were Hans Steyn, former champion jockey and respected trainer James Maree and Ormond Ferraris, who also trained his son David, a former champion trainer in SA, and world-renowned Mike de Kock.
Her association with Steyn started aged 15 when she and her brothers, Derek and Roy, started riding work around the mealie fields during school holidays to prepare his horses to run on the bush-racing circuit in Ogies.
When she left school, Kotzen worked for Eskom for a year but “wanted something more”, so she started looking for work in a racing stable. She landed the job as a stable employee to James Maree in the early 1990s. “I did my assistant-trainer’s examination with him and worked with him right up until I became assistant to Mr Ferraris in about 2003.”
While with Maree, she rode in two ladies’ races, winning the first on Lucky Ring and finishing second in the other on Turbo Star, who was destined to become one of the stars of his era.
Was the transition from bush racing to racing under rules an easy transition?
“I had no problem because, just like with Hans Steyn, Mr Maree trains at a private facility in Eikenhof, so it wasn’t only the horses we looked after, we had tracks and other facilities to maintain as well.”
Maree, of course, opened the work riders’ school during her tenure and she helped out on an unofficial basis until she moved to Turffontein-based Ferraris.
“I learnt a lot from my three mentors,” Kotzen said. “There is no better horseman than Mr Maree, especially with difficult horses. His handling and riding are brilliant.
“As for Mr Ferraris, most trainers still have to learn what he’s forgotten. It was a real privilege working for him. He’s a master in understanding a horse and getting it to peak at the right time. That’s what he specialises in. He gets his horses to blossom. He’s fantastic – he knows when to ease back and when to stress them a little bit. It was amazing to be part of it.
“He can spot a fault when a horse walks past him – and know exactly what should have been done or what needs to be done. And his stable management is spot on.”
Several of his former assistants have respectfully claimed that Ferraris is “a hard taskmaster”.
Kotzen disagrees. “I had no problem getting on with him. He strives for perfection. He’s got very high standards and if you work with him you have to meet those standards. But he’ll never expect his staff to do things he’s not prepared to do himself. He’s a hard worker and expects his staff to work just as hard.”
She admitted to being a “workaholic” and said the standards and work ethic that had been ingrained in her would not change.
She, too, expects the same dedication from her four grooms.
Looking to the future, she has already started grooming the most promising, Malabongwe Sobetwa, to become her second-in-command and has already sent him on a first-aid course.
“At the moment my operation is so small that it doesn’t warrant bringing someone else in, but he’s reliable, honest and determined and, depending on how he does with the first-aid, we’ll see about training him up to become a stable employee and then assistant,” she said.
How different is Port Elizabeth racing compared to a major centre like Johannesburg?
“Racing is always competitive, no matter where you find yourself. But Port Elizabeth is less stressful than Johannesburg where everything seems to be rushed.
“Of course here most of the horses are nearing the ends of their careers, so you have different challenges, like dealing with wear and tear rather than bringing a horse on. But my grounding has prepared me for that, how to avoid problems and, if they do occur, how to fix them.”