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Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?

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Cowboys (the old fashioned kind)

Paula Cole (yes, my music taste really is that bad) sang, “Where is my John Wayne, Where is my prairie song, Where is my happy ending, Where have all the cowboys gone?”  I am starting to wonder the same thing.

It’s probably not the best way to start a column, but I confess to being jolly cross.  Capital Letters cross.  And yes, it is about race 1 at Greyville on Sunday, 23 April 2017.

Greyville start debacle (photo: Bob Brogan)

When the FOURTEEN HORSE FIELD (I am emphasizing the number deliberately), were ringing down at the START of race one, jockey Anthony Delpech noticed that thanks to the position of the false rail in relation to the position of the stalls, there was not enough room for all 14 horses that were patiently waiting to be loaded.  Well, not if everyone wanted to share the same track, anyway.  It subsequently transpired that two horses – Green Street Bloodstock’s Oligarch (trained by Dean Kannemeyer) and Ms V J Borg and Klawervlei Stud’s Freddie Flint (trained by Paul Lafferty) had to be scratched in order to make the field fit the well, field.  Racing was delayed and two horses did not get a run at all, thanks to an issue that should never have been allowed to happen.

While the chat forums have already been buzzing with descriptions of ‘Gold Circus’ and the like, overall the sentiment seems to be one of disbelief and deep disappointment.  It’s pretty hard not to disagree.  BUT THIS IS NOT FUNNY.  This is our KZN Champions Season.

I feel a bit silly saying all this as it feels like I have said it all a hundred times before.  However, the fact that we are having this conversation again, proves that at a fairly serious level we still don’t get it.  Somehow we manage to focus all our time and energy on all sorts of peripheral issues.  In fact, almost anything other than where it counts – our horses.

Who is responsible?

Your country needs you

Who is responsible?

It is my understanding that the local racing executive is in charge of overseeing the general track and course set-up on a race day and the official stipes report lists Arvin Maharaj as the Gold Circle Duty Officer for Sunday.  The track managers would have had some input with regard to the configuration of the false rail and we know that the Greyville track managers are Ralph Smout and Kurt Grunewald.  But before we start stockpiling our rotten tomatoes, it’s also worth bearing in mind that the NHA also has a role to play and is also tasked with being a ‘back-up’ and checking that things are as they should be before racing can commence.   The Stipendiary Stewards on duty were Mr Sean Parker as Chief Stipe, Mr D M Anderson as Senior Stipe and Mr R Jeewanlall. 

So we have somehow managed to sneak a potential disaster past a number of supposed checks and one has to wonder quite how it was possible.

I’m not sure how to do this in writing, but I want to take someone – in a position of authority – and shake them by the shoulders until their teeth rattle.  How on earth does someone not do some basic maths to allow enough space for the carded runners as well as the false rail?  And how does no-one notice this omission until the field is practically ready to load?  What if a jockey had not noticed the problem until after the lever had been pulled – what might have happened then?

The bigger picture

Before Gold Circle think I am picking only on them, this is a far broader problem.  As with so much else in racing, we appear to be missing the point.  Which is that we are not care-taking our core business – our horses (apologies for the repetition, but that point does not seem to have hit home, so I may repeat it a few times).

I am sorry to be boring about this, but we have had ‘shocking’ starting stalls, stall gates that don’t open, stall gates that partially open, complaints about the running surface, complaints about the pull up, mystery devices that appear and disappear in saddle cloths, rules that get made (and ignored) depending on expediency, rather than the rather obvious reason that they are rules and probably implemented for a reason and therefore need to be obeyed.  By everyone.  And now we have an issue with the false rail.  Given the recent similar incident up at the Vaal, it seems these things are catchy.

Made, not born

The first question that pops to mind is how anyone with an ounce of horse sense could have allowed this to happen.  That question leads to the rather depressing answer that we have reached a point where most of our staff are not horse people anymore.  This will not be a popular thing to say, but it is easy to fall in love with horses and buy yourself a racehorse.  That does not make you a horseman.  Only time and a lot of blood, sweat and tears creates horsemen.  Not to get too ‘Velveteen Rabbit’ on you, being a horseman isn’t how you are made, it is something that you evolve into, gradually and over a long period of time.  It’s not something you pick up in an afternoon.

These days racing is run, by and large, by business people.  This is fine, as long as they stick to the business side of things.  It’s when they start compromising the grass roots functions that things begin to unravel.  We have administrators and track managers and bean counters, rather than ex jockeys, ex trainers and folks who know the feel of leather in their hands and whose bodies carry reminders of what happens when the basics are not adhered to.  We need to know these things.  And if we can’t, then we need to hire the right people to tell us – and we need to listen to them.

We change rules at the drop of a hat (sectional timing – yay!), we move dates of races at the drop of a hat (‘it’s good for racing!’), we adjust the distances of races, we throw our stakes out of whack, we organise huge parties and loud bands and all manner of celebrities, impressive installations and side shows on our big days.  Why?  To suit us.  Anyone spot the small flaw in the logic here?  The elephant in the room is the 500kg animal that we all depend on.  You know, the one that we cannot even get correct in our marketing photos for our campaigns and ads.  And if we don’t even know our own product, then is it any wonder that things go wrong?

People, and by people I mean customers, are not stupid.  They can smell insincerity and incompetence a mile away.  If we give them a sub standard product and substandard service, they are not going to come back.  At this stage we are not even servicing our industry stake holders at the most basic level, let alone the lofty aspiration of serving customers or (shock horror) shooting for the stars and trying to attract new ones.

Deja Vu

I covered much of the same material when discussing the Vaal incident, which makes it all the more puzzling that a mere few weeks later we are seeing a very similar set of problems.  We seem to be in danger of getting to the point of having to write a race day check list.  No 1:  a serviceable track (all the way round), functional starting stalls, the false rail correctly placed, other rails correctly placed…

Folks.  These are not ‘nice to have’ items.  These are things we need to have in order to conduct a race meeting safely, along with other boring items such as vets, first aid staff, ambulances, handlers at the start, etc.

I understand that we are all human and that mistakes do get made, but you cannot overlook basics like these when there are lives and large volumes of betting revenue at stake.

The NHA launched an investigation into the Vaal incident.  I’m not sure we’ve heard any result (never mind an apology from the Operator), so it’s difficult to predict what might happen here.  But the question needs to be asked, how were either of the race meetings allowed to start?  Better yet, what safeguards will be put in place to make sure incidents like these will not be repeated?

The state we’re in

Nuno Oliveira

Nuno Oliveira

The great dressage master Nuno Oliveira famously said, “The horse is the best judge of a good rider, not the spectator.  If the horse has a high opinion of the rider, he will let himself be guided, if not, he will resist.”  Well, it seems not only is the horse resisting, we seem in imminent danger of losing our grip on it altogether.

As we have unfortunately seen just last week, our training tracks are not great in terms of security.  We still don’t have a full-time Stipe in Kimberley.  Former jockeys, who retired on a a disability payout, are being allowed to ride again, jeopardising the existing and future cover for other riders.  As no one else wants to tackle that one head on, I’ll do it.  Sorry guys, I’m sure you are both lovely blokes, but it’s making things rather difficult for everyone else.  We still don’t have a proper system in place to manage and work with our grooms – and somehow see fit to punish trainers who do their best to follow the letter of the law in dealing with their staff.  The every day, bare necessities of getting the job done so that we can put on the show are slowly coming apart at the seams.

Racing execs can fly all over the country and the world at the drop of a hat, we have time and energy for ill-conceived marketing campaigns, whopping executive salaries, random stakes hikes, eye-popping amounts spent on websites and now there is news of big development plans for Kenilworth.  But there is not enough money to secure our training facilities, establish a decent Thoroughbred aftercare programme, or adequately staff the NHA.

With the horses stolen in Philippi, it took the NHA three days to take action and while an enquiry is all good and well and will hopefully produce something worthwhile, not to put too fine a point on it, it didn’t help the horse which had been dead and buried for two days by then.

The fact that I know the industry is under pressure makes me feel wretched for saying this, but folks, it’s just not good enough.  It’s not good enough for our horses (the thing this whole system hinges on) and it’s not good for the rest of us, either.

I will no doubt be accused of being negative, but as we have heard clearly from both our Operators lately, our turnover and revenue are in decline.  We have just seen the latest set of results from Phumelela who seem to be flying (and good for them), while bemoaning the fact that racing revenue continues to slide.

We need customer trust and confidence more than ever.  That means getting the basics right.  And getting the basics right requires getting the right people in to do the job (and letting them get on with it).  Perhaps if we kept our eye on the ball and made the horse our priority – as it should be – then there would not be the need to waste valuable time and energy spinning stories.  Perhaps once we have exhausted all the other options, we will do the right thing.

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13 comments on “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?

  1. Andrew Linder says:

    The operators of racing haven’t given a damn about the horse since Phumelela and Gold Circle were formed.

    And as for us “horse” people – well, we’re beneath all their execs. Didn’t you get the memo?

    1. Tony Proudlock says:

      Not only haven’t they given a damn about the horse but Phumelela and Gold Circle have cared very little about the actual sport of racing. What used to be the “sport of kings” has now sunk into a morass of mediocrity. In the halcyon days when the game was run by clubs directed by Stewards, there was very tangible competition amongst them all. The clarion call was to put on a better raceday show than all the rest. And it worked in terms of attendance, turnover, fields and the whole experience. Racing was a real pleasure! Isn’t it time that our present operators put some serious effort into ” working” the product like it was in the old days.

  2. Will says:

    Great Article!

  3. Leon Smuts says:

    We all know how much energy (horsepower) it takes to get a big ship moving, but once it moves it glides along with very little effort and it then becomes quite difficult to bring to a standstill.

    Marketing is much the same with a huge effort needed initially to gain momentum, with early gains normally relatively slow, but once momentum is obtained things move along with relatively little effort and the whole process becomes perpetual gains as long as the machine is kept well oiled.

    Local racing needs a new generation of players that can propel the sport back into the black and this requires clear objectives and measured numerical targets around customer growth and active clients.

    Racing must be made a fun activity again with the emphasis on an affordable value for money experience with player entertainment ahead of all else. Enjoyment is at the heart of repeat involvement and long term participation in every leisure activity that people pursue, so why not make this a specific goal.

    Give the target market products with tangible benefits and advantages that both prospective customers and the sales force can believe in and watch it blossom into something meaningful.

    Do things right operationally, make service and the development and expansion of the sport top priorities and show a real commitment to reviving racing.

    Do this and everybody wins and will continue to win whilst the important bottom line will once again show the type of gains that took racing to the very top of what now seems a long time ago.

  4. Where do I begin? Don’t bother……….for one who is beyond paasionate about the aforementioned horse (and racing by the way) I have probably watched TT twice this year !! English, French, H Kong, UAE., Singaporean, Australian, NZ, Ireland and every racecourse in the USA and the UK ( where they use their whips like windmills and make you feel ill) anything but RSA! If you wish to enjoy the pride of the connections and the ACTUAL horses you need to imbibe Red Bull, or sleep all afternoon, because those of us who earn an honest living cannot stay up until midnight, night after night to remain current. Please do not reply that there is an app I can buy/ subscribe to – because I know – but ” it didnt use to be like this ” to quote someone!! Larry Wainstein is always thanking the public for their attendance and support – well there was a big following out there who hung on every word uttered by Neil Andrews and now Andrew Bon and his marvellous filmed interviews. Not everyone can get to the course, but do when we can. Lookout for us – we are the bemused looking ones loving being there, but who do not know a single horse, rider or what is going on. By the way Robyn Louw – great article – this is my response to where have all the horses gone ……long time fading!!

  5. Sharon Patterson says:

    A lot of the Senior (knowledgeable) people have been pensioned off by the Powers that be! And a lot have been enticed Overseas. Maybe the pensioned off ‘horsey’ people who are left in South Africa should be brought as Consultants to teach those now running the show how it should be done? The is so much knowledge being wasted in this country! ie ex Racing Club Managers, Stipendiary Stewards, Trainers, Jockeys, etc.

    1. glynis says:

      You are so right Sharon. Gone are the ‘horsemen’ who know how to ride horses and ‘think’ ahead and have horse sense. That nobody noticed that the rails were in the direct path of the two horses drawn on the inside when the stalls were put in place makes me realise that nobody has a clue what to ‘look for’ and nor do they have an understanding of what their job entails.

  6. Extravagantlyhorseracing says:

    When we find the cowboys please ask them if they have the stopwatches perhaps

  7. Ernest says:

    Great article! The fact that a senior jockey, Anthony Delpech was the only jockey
    to notice the rail was incorrect, justifies your comment that long standing horsemen are people who can be relied on to help manage racing, because of
    their knowledge of the game, and are enthusiastic and dedicated to the sport of racing. The time has come for proper implementation of the rules, when it comes
    to disciplinary hearings, warnings, final warnings and dismissals.

    No more slap on the back and”Dont let it happen again”.my mate!

    Jockeys and trainers are hammered all the time with fines, suspensions etc.by the
    stipes. Time to put the boot on the other foot.

    This was a serious error on the part of those concerned!!!

    One of those horses or jockeys could have been seriously injured or killed, if the
    starter had pushed the button

    1. James George says:

      The Starter is mentioned.What is his job?Just to push the button?Did he not notice what was going on?He was the final official that should have checked to make sure all was well.

  8. Jess K says:

    Great article, Robyn. This sad state of affairs in horseracing has been in decline for years now. The problem is that Phumelela cares less for the horse and the industry as it strives for maximum profit. Thus expenses are curtailed, funding dried up and the NHA and others deprived of doing their job as the competent people are retrenched, retired and their numbers cut. So its maximum income v minimum expense. Sell race tracks, tamper with the stakes agreement, have puppets in place in the RA, NHA, Racing Trust to do their bidding, consciously or subconciously and to turn that blind eye. Hell, their CEO even states that they don’t fall under the jurisdiction of the NHA.
    Now they bemoan the fact local racing is not making enough money for them, It is because of local racing that they even have a betting license ! The only way that things can improve for the industry/sport is for stakeholders who represent horseracing to form a Group and take it to Government, DTI and Gambling Board. Phumelela were given a monopoly in 1999 for 10 years, that is now 8 years overdue and In the meantime they have plundered horseracing and its assets, downgraded its appeal and credibility, enriched itself and expanded its license. They must be held accountable or lose their betting license in totality.
    Will anything ever be done to improve the situation ? Doubtful ! Many have left, given up, been discredited or just regard this as a hobby not worth stressing about.
    In the meantime a few shining beacons of hope like Robyn Louw, Brett Maselle and a few others do their utmost to raise awareness and point out the flagrant disregard for the rules and the disdain and disrespect shown to the horse and its minders and offer advice and solutions, despite being publically stated by one of the senior puppets in the past as them “not being good for horseracing and should be kicked out”.

  9. Brett Maselle says:

    As I interpret the song which is referred to by Ms Louw, it deals with a woman hankering over a life she thought she would have had and the man who would have given her that happy ending (i.e make it happen for her).

    It is a fitting song for those who lament over the current state of horse racing. We got involved in horse racing believing in good things. We believed, among others, that there is integrity in the sport, those in positions of power would do their jobs and do so without any influence from others and that we would grow with the sport of horse racing. We were wrong.

  10. Judith says:

    28.04.2017 – Fairview: SAMISH BAY falls, Lyle Hewitson walks away (which is fantastic and he wins the next race) but what happened to Samish Bay? It looked an awful fall, but utter silence on this lovely creature’s fate. Did she survive? Is there an unwritten rule that prevents announcers from filling us in on her fate?

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