Australia nicknamed Bart Cummings the ‘Cups King’ for training twelve Melbourne Cup winners. With eight wins in our Gold Cup, South Africa has our own ‘Cups King’ in champion jockey, Felix Coetzee.
Charlie Barends set the bar with seven Gold Cup victories in 1964. Barends’ first victory came aboard What Next in 1941, followed by His Lordship in 1947. He scored back to back victories on Chez Monty in 1949 and 1950, rode another double on Eros in 1953 and Coquimbo in 1954, finishing off with New Chief in 1964.
Felix equalled the record on Bella Bianca in 1998 and then went one better on In Writing in 2012.
Devon Air (Terrance Millard)
Felix kicked off his Gold Cup record with three on the trot, starting with Devon Air in 1984 who Felix remembers as a big, bold, robust mare that would just gallop horses into the ground. The Scott Bros’ English import arrived in 1983 exhibiting joint trouble, which maestro Terrance Millard managed to get right. After finding her ‘sea legs’ in the Cape, she joined Millard’s Durban string for a triumphant KZN season in 1984, winning the Republic Day Handicap, the Rothmans July and the Jockey Brand Gold Cup. Felix partnered her throughout. He comments, “She had no real acceleration, but could maintain one strong pace and you could be really bold on her. In both the July and the Gold Cup I was just very confident. She was a tough, strong, aggressive kind of a filly. In the Gold Cup, I think I took over at Drill Hall and that was it.”
Voodoo Charm (Terrance Millard)
The following year, came Voodoo Charm. “He was by Del Sarto and was a very nice, easy horse to ride. He accelerated when you wanted and you could place him wherever you liked. He had a nice prep for the race (finishing second in the SA 2000 and winning the 2400m Lonsdale Stirrup Cup). It was a pretty straightforward kind of ride – I just sat handy and quickened up the straight.”
Occult (Terrance Millard)
In 1986, Millard again made a clean sweep of the Republic Day Handicap, the Rothmans July and the Gold Cup with Occult, although Graeme Crealock rode him in the Republic Day, Bartie Leisher partnered him in the July and Felix got the ride in the Gold Cup. It is a race he remembers clearly. “He was also a pretty easy horse to ride, but it was a race I’ll never forget. I sat him up in a handy position going through the 1600m and as we came to drop down after the Drill Hall, he just picked up the bit on me and started travelling. It was the first time it ever happened to me and I remember thinking ‘My God this is amazing!’ He quickened up off the false rail and was too good for them.”
Castle Walk (Terrance Millard)
Coetzee and Millard were back in 1988 with Castle Walk. Having been denied a run in that year’s Rothmans July, Millard was out to prove a point with the son of Dancing Champ. “The thing with Castle Walk – and for most of Mr Millard’s horses – was that the prep was so good. You always knew they were fit and feeling well going into a race and you always felt very, very confident. Castle Walk was a beautiful, big horse. When they were announcing the field, I knew he would get a light weight. I was riding 52kgs at the time and when he got 49.5kg, it was just too much of a temptation. I turned to Mr Millard and said I’d ride him. I went on a very strict diet which was interesting. They had a Madame et Monsieur Clinic where they put you on a high protein diet and you had to go in three times a week for them to put you on these massage machines. The weight started to come off, but I had to sweat a little on the Saturday, but by race time I was feeling good. He gave me a really nice, easy ride.” Mr Millard also saddled the second placed La Fastidiosa and Felix had a bumper day at the office, with a total of 6 wins on the day’s card.
Illustrador (Terrance Millard)
Illustrador is another horse to give Felix and Mr Millard the Rothmans July – Gold Cup double in 1990. The Argentinian-bred was a good looking dark bay with a blaze who usually raced in blinkers. Felix remembers, “He was funny to work in the mornings. He used to stick up and didn’t show anything in his work.” During the 1990 Durban season, Illustrador won the 1200m Rupert Ellis Brown Plate and downed Face North in the 1600m SA Guineas, before winning the 2200m Rothmans July. On 28 July he finished just over a length third to Face North in the 1800m Mainstay International and then lined up for the Gold Cup. “He was the obvious horse to go for and the thing is that if you put your hands down on him, he would just canter. Having won over 1200m, he was never going to be pulling in the Gold Cup, so it was just an easy ride. We sat midfield and just swept past them in the straight.”
Festive Forever (Tony Millard)
Mr Millard retired at the end of the 1991 season, but there were still two more Coetzee-Millard victories to come, albeit with Terrance’s son, Tony and in 1996 the pair produced Festive Forever. The Highlands homebred had finished 4 lengths off London News in the July and carried just 53kgs in the IGN Gold Cup to deny Milleverof a Gold Cup double by a neck. “With Festive Forever, I thought the trip was a little bit of a question mark, just personally, but it was a nice race and she won well. She was not necessarily the best horse in the race, but she was very well prepared, I’ll say that for Tony. She’d had the proper Mr Millard prep.”
Bella Bianca (Tony Millard)
In 1998 the race was run as the Natal Wholesale Jewellers Gold Cup and Felix won it on another filly for Tony Millard, the Argentinian-bred Bella Bianca. “I think this was the most exciting win for me because she was possibly not the very best horse in the race, but we gave her that same prep (Bella Bianca finished just over 3 lengths off Classic Flag in that year’s July) and we needed a strong pace in the race. Mr Millard started the whole thing with pace makers and Luke Bailes and Sean McCarthy had another horse in the race called Chaplin. We were sure Bella Bianca would stay the trip and we used Chaplin to pull it out of the rest of the field. Bernard Fayd’herbe was still an apprentice and was riding work for us at Clairwood and Tony decided to put him up on Chaplin. I rode work with him every morning showing him what we wanted. I needed him to keep up a strong pace till the 700m and then I would take up the pace from there. I think he lasted to the 600m for me and then he rolled off the rail. I just hung on. It was a nice close finish, but that was really a race that was nicely planned and when it all came together it was really exciting.”
The win put Felix on 7 winners, equalling Charlie Barends, but he had to wait until 2012 for his 8th victory. As it turns out, he might have bettered it earlier. “After Bella Bianca, Douglas Whyte and I went to Monty Roberts one year over Gold Cup time. I’d turned down a ride for Mike de Kock and it won. I was sitting with Douglas at breakfast the next morning and I had the mutters. He said, ‘What’s your problem?’ and I said I’d had a ride in the Gold Cup and missed it,” he chuckles at the memory. “That could have been my record, but Charlie Barends was a great jock and I thought if I tie with him, it would be a big thrill to share it. Seven is still quite a lot to catch for anybody.”
In Writing (Dean Kannemeyer)
In Writing wrote Felix into the record books with an eighth trophy in the Ladbrokes Gold Cup in 2012. “Rob Champion was doing my rides at the time and In Writing was the right horse for the race. He was well handicapped and it was pretty easy. They don’t tie you down to instructions at Kannemeyers, so I went to lead for a while, then Marthinus Mienie came round me and I thought ‘I’m happy with my pace, you go on.’ He gave me a bit of acceleration up the straight and just went on.” There is a beautiful photo of Felix after his historic win with a huge grin on his face and he admits, “That was a really big thrill for me.”
What does it take to win a Gold Cup?
“I always wanted to have a decent position by the time we crossed over the road because by there the race has started taking shape. You could lose it if you weren’t in a decent position by then, so I was always very positive and down the back stretch it was just a case of biding my time. The most important part was securing a position and being aggressive nearing the winning post. It gets pretty tight around that stage and you want to be in a competitive spot.”
How does the Gold Cup compare to other flagship days? “The July’s got that something about it, but the Gold Cup is still a day that gets you really focussed, because there are a couple of other features and really good racing. If you are competitive on the day, it’s an enormous meeting. I’ve had a few Gold Cup days with 5 or 6 winners on a card so for me it’s always been a big day.”
With a number of titles and big race wins, how special is holding the Gold Cup record? “This is probably my main one,” admits Felix. “Look, you have to expect records are always going to be broken, but the nice part is that when I got it, Charlie Barends had passed already, so he could say that in his lifetime, his record was never broken,” he says kindly. Does he think anyone will challenge his record? “It would be nice to see it broken,” he says thoughtfully. “If someone can win 9 it would be an achievement. It would be great to see somebody do 9.”