The uncertainty over the Vaal track in recent weeks has meant a spluttering start to the Highveld Spring Season festivities and been a less than welcoming baptism into office for new Phumelela CEO, John Stuart.
But opportunity can often lurk under the guise of adversity.
Just three days after he cleared Rian Du Plessis’ office drawers and hung his own pictures on the walls – his predecessor had been there for a decade – Mr Stuart was on the long road to the Vaal early last Friday morning.
A recent meeting at the Vereeniging track had been disrupted as a result of jockey concerns about the surface and some trainers had pulled horses out. That kind of, surely avoidable, trauma has serious reputational impact – something Phumelela are said to be keen to pack away – and also wounds the lifeblood of betting turnover and rattles customer confidence.
Racing cannot move forward if the public keep believing that nobody cares or actually knows – or ever thinks about – what they are doing.
Stuart’s inspections revealed that there was excessive wear and tear in several sections of the Vaal Classic course, particularly on the turn.
Half of the Vaal track was scarified over a month ago and that part of the track had responded well treatment. The second half of the track, the front straight, was partially scarified more recently on 5 September and this area was the current cause of concern.
Besides quietly praying for warmer weather – the rapid grass growth normally triggered by the arrival of spring has been stunted at the Vaal by cold snaps coupled with a severe frost – Stuart was keen to make an early impression and his Cyril Ramaphosa type walkabout, besides dirtying his shoes, made an immediate impression.
“I’m a bit of a cynic. But I like this man already and I have only just shaken his hand and met him for the first time. The fact that he has taken the time and trouble to come here and see what is going on first hand is bloody refreshing. And he speaks my language. There’s hope!” joked local trainer Ashley Fortune’s charismatic husband Andrew, who would no doubt have added his own very educated and unabridged opinion on the state of play to the fledgeling CEO’s notes.
Time will tell whether Stuart’s action was a new broom political play, or simply a genuine effort to take control, show some proactivity and send a friendlier message to stakeholders than has generally been the case in the past decade.
It looks to have already ignited more transparency in the ranks.
His operational lieutenants may well be waking up a half hour earlier in the morning.
They were certainly quick to action to contain the Vaal fallout and there was a show of planning and consultation, with gallops being held under senior jockeys and broadcast live on Tellytrack.
An assertive – popular for some and less so for others – decision was made to postpone the Grand Heritage and the Consolation feature to Saturday 13 October. That’s not ideal, as horses are prepped for a target date.
But it’s a more positive result than blindly holding the meeting this Saturday on ‘shaky’ ground and peeving stakeholders and punters, while wasting time and money and abandoning halfway.
The Grand Heritage slot was the traditional Emerald Cup day on the now defunct sand track and it may even be time to reconsider the programming to another date, to avoid our unpredictable Mother Nature wielding more havoc in the years ahead.
Word on the ground is that December may be under consideration as a better month to run the big race.
It makes plenty of sense. There won’t be a clash factor with the Cape Summer Season or the local feature programme, as it is a relatively well-endowed race intended to cater for a range of handicappers, who are generally not looking for Gr1 contests.
It’s good to see somebody is thinking. There’s hope yet – as Fortune suggests.
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