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What I Planned vs What Happened

The Vaal Tale Of Woe

What I Planned vs What Happened

A diagram of life

There is a FANTASTIC internet meme for ‘what I planned vs what happened’. It’s EXACTLY what came to mind after last week’s debacle – for there really can be no other word for it – at the Vaal.

I have something of a reputation for being critical, so I’m just going to relay the facts (as best I understand them) and see whether I am being awkward or whether they do in fact appear as silly as I think.

Having been closed for maintenance for track improvements since last November, Tuesday, 14 March 2017 was meant to be the first meeting back on the Vaal Classic course. The first two races were run over 1000m and were, according to a Phumelela press release, conducted ‘flawlessly’. The trouble came in race 3, run over 1700m, after which it was reported that there were ‘inconsistencies’ in certain areas of the track.


After the running of race 4 resulted in more safety concerns being voiced, there was a bit more head scratching and everyone scrambled around for ways to salvage the rest of the card, including altering the distance of races, before it was discovered that in fact none of the ideas were workable and the meeting was abandoned after the running of race 4.

Hmm, nope, I’m afraid that is still making my eye-rolly muscles twitch.

They do say experience is something you get about 5 minutes after you need it, but if the track had had major refurbishment works done to it, how did it not occur to anyone to test it before deciding to race on it?

Hope for the best, plan for the worst

Riot police

Hope for the best, but plan for the worst

My little meme is pretty indicative of how life usually works out. While there are some things that cannot be prepared for, there are definitely some that fall well within the realms of the doable.

As I said last week, most of my life lessons come from horses. When you look at a horse or imagine one, you generally imagine cantering glamorously off into the sunset with the wind in your hair, right? Well here’s the truth. To get there, you need hours (months, years) of practice to achieve some sort of security in the saddle, then you need to have a half decent horse. That means teaching it and training it correctly so that it is at least a semi-pleasant ride. This takes hours, days, years of early mornings, late nights, cleaning tack, mucking out stables, nursing lamenesses (the horse’s and yours), carrying heavy things, falling off, getting back on again etc. There is a veritable MOUNTAIN of things you need to do before you get to the ‘canter off into the sunset’ stage. Such as checking your girth. Always check your girth. Yet somehow we always just want to get on our horse and go.

What this means

Five horses did not earn a first place cheque. Another 20 did not earn stake money. A lot of horses did not get to run at all. A lot of jockeys did not earn riding fees. Trainers did not earn commission, owners were disappointed, Operator revenue was lost, but perhaps worst of all, customers – who had put their money down in good faith – were let down.

Who’s to blame (and who will tell them so?)

Rian du Plessis – NHA has no jurisdiction

If a jock salutes before the line he’s fined, if a trainer forgets to pack his colours for the day, he is fined. If an owner isn’t appropriately dressed they may be denied access to the parade ring. And that’s all well and good. There should be rules and people should follow them. In fact, the NHA has stepped in and opened an inquiry into the matter, but as Rian du Plessis famously stated that the NHA has no jurisdiction over Phumelela, that makes things a little awkward.

But let’s not be nitpicky. It’s great that the NHA is taking an interest in the matter. However, it would be interesting to know exactly what they think their authority is over the running surface and the people who manage it. I had a quick look through the NHA Rules and came up empty, but that’s probably why I occupy my spot in the cheap seats.

Either way, it raises some interesting questions. Will the NHRA discipline those responsible? And if so, how and on what basis?

Also, if they do not, what then? Doesn’t that set a dangerous precedent?


Touched by heaven (Michelangelo)

Act of God ?

I don’t wish to sound like a ‘when we’, but my father was a Turf Club administrator back in the day and I more or less grew up on the race track. As such, I can vouch for the fact that it took nothing short of an act of God for a race meeting to be abandoned. And I’m reasonably sure last Tuesday was not an act of God.

Apart from the revenue lost, the real and dangerous truth is that lives were put at risk.

I was once chastised for fretting about the safety of my (admittedly modest) horse ahead of a maiden outing. “It’s not the bloody Grand National, you know,” exasperated my trainer. No, it wasn’t. But it doesn’t have to be. Accidents are not predictable and can happen any time and anywhere – it’s why they’re called accidents. Horses are by nature infuriatingly accident-prone and would likely find a way to compromise themselves in a padded cell. But more or less everything we do with horses is unnatural – their feed, the way we house them, the way we transport them, how and where we train them and also how we compete them. It’s something we take for granted – and in many ways I think we have to – if we did acknowledge and worry about every single eventuality, we’d likely drive ourselves firmly round the bend (as long as it’s not the Vaal Classic bend – ha!). Sorry. My point being that practically everything is a risk to their safety and health.

To then let them loose on an unsafe track, carrying live human cargo, well, that just doesn’t seem right.

Whose decision was it?

In my day, by and large the folks in charge were horse people. This meant that they were super careful about the basic safety aspects because they usually had first hand experience of what happens when things go wrong. Nowadays, the majority of folks in positions of authority in racing are no longer horse people. That is not a major problem if you are manning a tote, serving lunch or calling the field home. However, it is a problem if you are in charge of making decisions that affect the horses. Because those decisions also affect the riders, the trainers, the owners, the grooms, the punters and an entire little circle of people that most ‘admin’ folk aren’t even aware of. And that is sad, because they should be. Because those people are important. They do their best to prepare their horses at home and come to the track ready to put their necks on the line and deliver their best so that money can be wagered on the back of their efforts.

The hardest word

Sorry - the hardest word

Why is that so hard to say?

The papers (ok OUR paper) and social media platforms get into all sorts of trouble for ‘complaining’ and ‘being negative’ about things. I appreciate that this is only a tiny column and only a tiny opinion, but I do try and make it a useful one (I know, but really, I do). It seems that the powers that be are of the opinion that we somehow ENJOY complaining and being critical. Which is quite ridiculous. Complaining and criticising isn’t FUN. And when events like this happen and basically hand the fodder to you on a nice warm silver platter, it makes it that much worse. Why? Because at the end of the day, we really really want racing to succeed. Why? For the simple fact that we like racing and would like to be able to keep doing it. Which is why we get so cross when basics like this are missed.

Not to put too fine a point on it (but as it always seems to be missed, I’ll say it anyway), if things go wrong, that’s not the punter, viewer or even racing scribe’s fault – we’re not in charge – we are merely on the sidelines. The responsibility lies with the folks in the driving seat. I know you seem to have a problem with that being said, particularly in print, but it’s true and I fail to see how pointing this out always causes such a ginormous headache.

We go racing (or follow it from our couch, or computer or phone) because WE ARE HOPING TO HAVE A GOOD TIME. Racing is a leisure pursuit, a hobby. We are the customer. We are also the barometer for how things are going. If we are complaining, it’s for the very good reason that things are not going as they should and that poses a problem.

We are told reports show that betting turnover has dropped alarmingly in recent months, indicating a clear crisis of consumer confidence. Yet so far we do not have so much as an apology – nevermind an explanation or, far more importantly, a solution.

So now what?

Ok, so things didn’t work out the way they were meant to. Where to from here? Will action be taken? Will lessons be learnt and will things change? Phumelela has promised a review of the track by the track management team and that “any shortcomings in the surface will be remedied as quickly as possible”. Given that this is the same team that presented the faulty track in the first place, the second half of the statement does not fill me with confidence.

So I don’t know. But criticising is not helpful without at least offering a solution. In this case, the solution would seem to be to go back to basics. Getting the right people to do the right jobs (or to do the jobs right) seems a good start.

William Gladstone,jockey,horse

If you just get on your horse and go, what usually happens is this

Secondly, a very wise man once suggested that racing needs an ombudsman for exactly this sort of situation. I tried to raise it with the NHA’s Rob de Kock at the time and he laughed out loud at the suggestion saying there was no need for such a thing and that the NHA fulfilled the role adequately. I disagreed with him then and I disagree with him now. We have the Operator on one end and industry stakeholders on the other and very little means of communication connecting the two.

So getting back to cantering off glamorously into the sunset. Somehow we seem to just want to get on our horse and go. Sometimes one gets away with that, but mostly you don’t. And if we insist on being so cavalier, is it any wonder if the horse bolts and we go flying?

Have Your Say

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13 comments on “What I Planned vs What Happened

  1. Blue Peter says:

    If something can go wrong, it will

  2. Warren Laird says:

    Well done Robyn

    Nothing but truth in here . However I have to chuckle with the new SP –

    Comments Policy
    The Sporting Post encourages all comers to feel free to have their say in the spirit of enlightening the topic, the participants and the originator of the thread. However, if it is deemed to be either offensive, insulting, personal, false or possibly unsubstantiated, the Sporting Post shall, on it’s own assessment, alter or remove comments.

    Something tells me that Phum. has got to the Small Papers as well .

    So I would not hold your breath for any constructive debate or Pro Professionalism (Not Criticism ) or comment.

    Also not to worry Phum will arrange another meeting slip it into the programme and everything will be fine.

    Tote will catch up Jockeys will ride and Punters will punt, and everyone will be sorted out . Except the Trainer and the Owner who spent months Preparing for that 1700m race on that day , as the rest have no idea about the preparation of a race horse and Vets Bills.

    1. karel says:

      You say ‘something tells me Phum has got to the small papers as well’ – this is exactly what we mean by insulting, personal, false or possibly unsubstantiated comment.
      Go on chuckling.

      1. Warren Laird says:

        I knew this was going to come up. Last week a poster Gavs. – Posted something that I thought had nothing wrong in its context yet you chose to trash it. A week later the man asked where his post went , now suddenly we have a Comments Policy.

        I have a good sense of humor , so will take it on the chin , as the something tells me meant a hunch a feeling , it does not mean it is true. The fact that you are responding tells me guilt might be setting in. You run a great Newspaper to which I respect , I have read every edition since inception and I am probably your biggest supporter with the form guide. Lets agree to disagree rather .

        1. karel says:

          Last week’s poster Gavs wrote: “Graeme Hawkins should focus on the business of Gold Circle instead of his side business of auctioning horses. Priorities.”
          Is Gavs the expert who is going to show Hawkins the way?
          Not like this, not in my pages.

          1. Warren Laird says:

            Fair enough I understand . In the end it is your news paper .

            However just a question as to how you are going to sensor each comment .

            Example –

            Daj says:
            March 17, 2017 at 10:07 pm
            Mr Irwin, seemingly the most knowledgable person on the topic and you miss such a glaring point? Perhaps, and only perhaps it is the rose colored glasses.

            If that is not insulting to a man respected world wide , a man that often posts and supports SA horse Racing, Oh and lets also remember that Mr. Irwin won the World Cup with Animal Kingdom . So what if he wears rose tinted glasses.

            I just hope what is good for the goose is good for the gander. As I say I am your biggest supporter , what you have forgotten many must still learn.

            The answer to this may to close the Comments section and lets go back to reading articles and keeping comments to ourselves or Using the Mailbag system as in the past. That seemed to work well.

          2. Jurgs says:

            Hi Karel. My comment about the circus that went on at the Vaal also got thrashed. You then have Robyn Louw going into far more detail in this article than I did and this is ok? Perhaps it was my ha ha ha that upset you?

  3. Gavs says:

    Too many of my comments have been pulled by this newspaper. The might of money and influence has won. The alternate route of using this newspaper as an ombudsman of horse racing helping us to make our views public is no longer. It is the start of the goodbyes and drop in readership.

    1. Editor says:

      Hi Gavs

      Your views are always welcome – however we will maintain our standards.

      The Sporting Post encourages allcomers to feel free to have their say in the spirit of enlightening the topic, the participants and the originator of the thread.

      However, if it is deemed to be either offensive, insulting, personal, false or possibly unsubstantiated, the Sporting Post shall, on it’s own assessment, alter or remove comments.

  4. James George says:

    Is there not a Board,Union or even an Association whose vision and mission is to ensure that the stabling and training facilities as well as racing surfaces are maintained to the highest possible levels?
    If yes. Why do we not hear them when these things happen?

  5. Gavs says:

    Thank you Karel for answering my question albeit through your response to another poster.
    You have missed the point. I was not telling off Graeme Hawkins, I was making the point to the operators who are the biggest complainers in horse racing that they must focus on their core business. Hawkins is an example of a senior manager at Gold Circle who is the face of this organisation and who has a full time job with Gold Circle earning a commensurate salary. He should not be moonlighting as an auctioneer whether he has or does not have board approval. Gold Circle needs to get its prorities right.

  6. Everything mentioned in this main article encompasses my feelings about the Operators, but not only Phumelela, over the pass 25 years or so.

    That’s why, I now find it difficult to recommend, to new-comers, to spend a day at the races.

    My interest is now concentrated on Jump and Flat racing in the UK and global breeding stats.

    Many of my racing chums, who have faithfully followed me quietly with regards information, advise and the gambling side of things, constantly ask me why I don’t get more involved with the SA racing products.

    I tell them, the operators don’t understand what the public want & expect and.. they are hugely Under-capitalised.The business model doesn’t work.

    Wait until the Grooms issue reaches boiling!… then the foundation will crumble.

    Trainers & owners won’t say it, but they don’t want to know about the main issue – The BETTING PUBLIC is number one. Protect your own interests and enjoyment derived from racing, don’t put back anything and stuff the rest.

    To many owners and trainers don’t want to recognize the bigger picture, the racing & betting public.


    William Milkovitch

  7. Barry Irwin says:

    Karel and Robyn: keep up the good work. I like it that Sporting Post has standards.

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