With so much of our racing provenance having fallen by the wayside over the years, it’s comforting to still see one of our turf greats commemorated by having a race named after him. Better yet, at the grand age of 26, the great Tommy Hotspur is still alive and well and retired to a farm outside Johannesburg.
He has only had one owner since leaving the race track and with this year’s renewal of the race coming up, I thought it a good time to catch up with Ashleigh Hughes to recount his story.
Where it all began
The flashy chestnut colt, by Harry Hotspur out of the Brer Rabbit mare, Tabitha Twitchet, was born on 1 November 1991. “Pure speed on speed,” comments Ashleigh. Unfortunately Tommy didn’t have good front legs, and was rejected by the National Yearling and National 2yo Sale selection committee and relegated to the farm. The following year, Gary Alexander went to view yearlings at Mr Beck’s farms and noticed the skinny 2yo in a paddock. He was immediately drawn to the colt, but Mr Beck tried to talk him out of the little chestnut, due to those poorly conformed legs. However, Gary was determined and eventually a deal was struck and Tommy headed up to Turffontein to race in the interests of Len Salzman, Greg Sadie and Brian Melnick.
It was one of those rare partnerships that simply worked. Despite requiring skilful management, Tommy had 12 starts for Gary, winning his first 8 races in a row. He followed up with 2 close seconds and then posted another 2 wins, including the 1997 Gr1 Computaform Stakes, which saw him break the track record, covering the Gosforth Park 1000 metres in 56,37 seconds.
Tommy transferred to David Ferraris for his next 4 starts, but never matched his earlier form and was retired in March 1998 with 10 wins and 4 places from his total of 16 lifetime starts.
Tommy came back to Gary Alexander and met Ashleigh when she joined the yard in 1998. “Obviously Tommy was the much-loved stable star,” she remembers. “He stayed in the first box right outside Gary’s office. I got to know him well, and became quite literally besotted with the unassuming and gentle milky-tea coloured chestnut.”
In February 1999, the owners of Golden Loom challenged Tommy Hotspur to a R500k match race. It was too tempting to turn down and Gary put Tommy back into light work. Being a bit of a handful at the track, Tommy was only ridden by either the late Boyi Mbele or Albert Ngwenya, both Indunas in the yard. “Boyi worked at Alexander yard from 1997 until he passed away on 26 December last year and always referred to Tommy as ‘the fastest horse in my life’” recalls Ashleigh fondly.
A few months before the match race, Gary arranged a timed 800m gallop on Turffontein’s front straight of the ‘course proper’. Ashleigh explains that the inside course was not even in existence yet and this was the first time home stretch gallops had been allowed in many years, but “this was Tommy Hotspur – permission was granted!” Dean was stationed at the 800m, stopwatch in hand while Gary and Ashleigh watched from the grandstand. “Boyi was in the irons and Tommy took off like a rocket, with Boyi battling to hold him. But then Gary took a sharp breath. At the 300m mark Boyi seemed to pull Tommy up, mid gallop. Any racing person with tell you of the cold dread when you see that. Gary and I jumped the rails and ran down to Boyi who had already taken the saddle off and was walking towards us. Boyi shouted that Tommy was ok but, “he doesn’t want to run any more’. It turned out that Tommy geared himself down during the gallop. He was not unsound, just tired of racing. He was retired immediately.”
A few weeks after the incident, the Alexander yard received a top Zimbabwean horse named Blue Collar. Unfortunately, the horse had sustained a tendon injury on the journey down and would have to be retired without even setting foot on the track. Ashleigh told Gary that she wanted Blue Collar as a riding horse. “Gary quizzed me on where I would be stabling the horse, which farrier I would use, which vet – it was almost an interrogation!” she laughs. “In May 1999, Gary and Dean called while I was in Durban, with two horses raiding at Clairwood Park. They told me to check out a smallholding in De Deur which they described as ‘a plot with ducks, chicken and sheep’, to see if it would be a suitable rehoming prospect. “I was not very impressed,” says Ashleigh, “when I asked which horse it was for, they said Tommy Hotspur. I burst into tears and said that I would rather have Tommy than Blue Collar, if I’d known there was an option. They spent two days teasing me, but in the end I found out that Blue Collar was never coming to me, and that Tommy was going to be mine from the start – it was just Gary’s way of checking how much I really wanted Tommy!”
The Alexanders were way too fond of Tommy to part with him straightaway, so he stayed at the yard for several more months and Ashleigh actually went to her first few dressage shows straight out of the racing yard. “I used to school him and have dressage lessons on the staff soccer field, much to the chagrin of the grooms!”
After spending 18 months of his second career from the racing yard, it was finally decided to find Tommy new accommodation and he moved to Dr Greg and Mrs Nicky Shear’s Shearwood Farm, across the road from James Maree’s training centre. “Greg is a vet, and Nicky is a now-retired, but very accomplished dressage rider,” explains Ashleigh.
Most of the other liveries were keen Eventers and Ashleigh and Tommy tried their hands at the discipline. “Tommy was over his soundness issues, but being extremely over at the knee he feared jumping downhill or doing drop fences, as his knees sometimes buckled on landing. We also used to get regular time penalties for going too fast in the country!” she laughs. “It was just too much for us in the end, and I decided it wasn’t that much fun anymore. We did some lower grade jumping, but our favourite past time was long solo outrides. Tommy hated company and was a very intrepid horse – fearing nothing and never, ever spooking. There is a special 300m uphill track for the eventers to get their horses fit – to this day Tommy still “reefs” for a gallop up that track and he goes flat out. The thrill is indescribable!”
When he’s not reliving his racing memories up the galloping track, Tommy spends his time with his best friend Gus (short for Asparagus), a rescued Welsh Section A pony. “They spend endless hours grazing together, in a 27 horse herd, in a 30 acre paddock. I ride Tommy every now and again for a short outride, but otherwise he is fully retired.”
Parade of honour
In February 2007 Tommy was invited to parade before the Tommy Hotspur Sprint. “My intention was just to walk around the parade ring, which was still behind the grandstand back then,” says Ashleigh. “I had two grooms holding him while I rode, but he was going crazy. It was the day Graham Hawkins did his last commentary in Joburg and he asked me via the vet’s radio if I could please parade in front of the grandstand. I reluctantly said yes, but Tommy was completely unsettled. He was a dripping mess and fly jumping metres into the air. I will never forget his groom Andries looking up at me and saying, ‘you must get off him now, because he will kill you!’ I jumped off, and was taunted by the punters at the rail, but that’s the only time Tommy has ever been that upset – he clearly did not want to be on the track ever again and he never has,” she says firmly.
Looking after the legend
Tommy’s conformation difficulties which caused a variety of problems during his racing life, settled for the most part once he’d retired and funnily enough, those front legs are still 100% sound. It is a credit to Ashleigh’s dedicated and loving care that Tommy celebrated his 26th birthday last year. However, a grand age like that does not come without challenges. In October 2016, Tommy was diagnosed with Cushings Syndrome, but with a radical diet change and the correct veterinary support, he is fat and flourishing once again. Ashleigh adds, “I would just like to take this opportunity to thank Gary and Dean Alexander for sponsoring Tommy’s concentrates (he eats a 14% racing ration) – they have kept tabs on his wellbeing and progress throughout his retirement from racing. Tommy is in superb health and instead of riding him much anymore, our weekly bonding session is a personal grooming from me. He has been my best friend and mentor for 19 years now, and he will be with me until the end.”
The Tommy Hotspur Sprint
Asked what it’s like to own a champion, Ashleigh says, “I cannot explain adequately what an honour it is to own a horse of Tommy’s calibre. To have a Gr3 race named in his honour is the ultimate tip of the hat to his supreme talent, especially now that it has been moved to his home track, Turffontein. To this day he receives “fan mail via his Facebook page, and people love the odd update on him. For his 25th birthday I uploaded all his wins to his page and Jeff Lloyd commented on his Computaform win that he had shown his family the footage of the race. He wrote, ‘Thanks Ashleigh, that opened my boys’ eyes. What speed he had.’”
The late, great Jimmy Lithgow once described Tommy as “The nearest thing to a Ferrari on the racetrack’ adding “No horse in my memory has come close to his blistering early speed and over 1000 metres he has no equal in the country.”
Saturday’s field will be following in very large footprints indeed.