True to its amateur roots, Durbanville is the true enthusiast’s racecourse. Its casual, user-friendly layout, with everything within easy reach, paints a picture postcard tableau. Trainers chat amicably on the Prudie Dix bench while jockeys sit on the steps between races, shooting the breeze and soaking up the afternoon sun.
A few years ago, it was the setting for my first meeting with the wonderful George Bernet, the long-time editor of the Daily Racing Form. He loved it and said it reminded him of his hometown track, Monmouth Park, where he says, “Everything is white and green paint and it looks like summer.”
We had a wonderful day and still reminisce about meeting Justin Snaith, being shown around the tower by Teresa Esplin and generally doing what horse people do best, which is talking shop. One of my favourite Facebook haunts is a page called Muddy Mayhem, run by Karla Parsons. She frequently writes Muddy Mayhem guides to the various personalities one encounters in the horsey world. If she ever did one on racing, I suspect it would read, “This is the racing community. They might seem quite complicated, but really they are simple to understand. They are eternal optimists and they love their horses.”
Love the horse
Love of horses is a universal currency so strong that it easily leapfrogs all kinds of hurdles that even the most skilled diplomat would baulk at. Regardless of whether you ride Western, in a dressage saddle, a jumping saddle or a jockey patch, once you strip away the (usually unnecessary) labels, we are really all just horse people underneath.
And it was exactly this that prompted Philippi training duo Mike and Luella Robinson to ‘make the circle bigger’ and invite the Pony Club to come racing at Durbanville on Saturday, 20 October 2018. As a lesson in fishing where the fish are, it was a little bit of sheer brilliance. And I’m pleased to report that it was a success from start to finish.
Make the circle bigger
Mike and Luella’s daughter Caitlin is a member of the Franschhoek Pony Club and having invited them, DC and Pony Club mom Natalie Turner opened the invitation to all the Pony Clubs in the Western Cape and were pleased to see that Paarl, Table View and Helderberg clubs joined their outing to the races. The result was that in excess of 60 children signed up for the outing. As a lot of them brought parents along as well, it was quite a festive group. Although the majority were girls, there were a few boys in the group too. The children’s ages ranged from about 6 to 20 and included everything from enthusiastic pony riders, to a young lady just starting out her career as a riding coach.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should say I am not the world’s biggest fan of young people and when it comes to great, big groups of them, well, let’s just say there’s a reason I work behind a computer. However, to a child, every single one of our visitors came neatly dressed in their various Pony Club liveries, they were ALL charming, sweet and polite and all in all, a thorough credit to their Pony Clubs.
Teamwork makes the dream work
The group assembled on the Durbanville lawns around 1pm and perhaps the key to the success of the day was that quite literally everyone pitched in unreservedly to make it work. Kenilworth Racing and Ralph Panebianco kindly laid on boerewors rolls and cold drinks, a host of gems from across the Cape racing family spectrum practically insisted on volunteering their time and expertise to assist and were richly rewarded by open minds, plenty of enthusiasm and questions from the children.
The group were treated to behind-the-scenes tours by Thoroughpedia’s Donna Bernhardi, who showed them through the weighing room, parade ring and track. Lawrence Whitmore and Mike Louw teamed up to show off the transport floats and explain the logistics behind getting our horses to the track – and back – on time. The kids got to watch a float arrive and unload its precious cargo and the big engines and heavy machinery were a huge hit with our more engineering-minded guests!
Justin Snaith kindly made time to lead a tour around the stable area and let them get up close and personal with some of his runners – always a sure-fire winner. We all took refuge under the shade of the big club house blue gum tree while Mike and Luella explained the workings of a training yard, from selecting a yearling to producing your charge to the track, feeding, exercise, etc. One of the surprise hits of the day was the role of the NHA, with most people surprised and very impressed to learn how many checks and balances racing has in place. Hopefully food for thought.
MJ Byleveld did his bit to represent the jockey ranks and explained what it takes to be a professional race rider. He brought some of the tools of the trade for display, allowing his racing saddle to be passed around as well as giving the children an opportunity to test a racing whip.
Fortuitously, retired big race rider, Mark Sutherland, was on course for the day and good-naturedly allowed us to drag him from his party to regale the children with stories of some of his riding highs. He was such a hit that at the end he was mobbed by a small army of autograph seekers and kindly made sure that whether he was proffered a cap, shirt or even a shoe, from one enterprising young soul, nobody left empty handed.
Even our handling team got a chance to shine, with Martin Yeates giving the kids some insights into the rigours of getting horses safely into – and out of – the pens and we were all treated to a live demonstration of the start team in action ahead of race 7, which started at the 2000m mark. And whether they knew it or not, even the jockeys on track helped out, simply by being themselves, with little touches like Donovan Dillon giving Paddington a lovely pat after crossing the finish line not going unnoticed.
Putting your money where your mouth is
Lastly, we got the group to test their new-found knowledge by assessing the fields on parade and trying their hand at picking the winners with a lucky dip prize draw for those who predicted correctly. There was scrutinising of stride and conformation to make a bloodstock agent weep, followed by vocal encouragement from the rail to get their horses over the line. In short, a thoroughly festive afternoon was had by all.
Sarah Pethick was the lucky winner of a copy of the Pocket Power book and was not only whisked off to have it autographed by Bernard Fayd’herbe and Candice Bass Robinson, she even got interviewed on Tellytrack by Stan Elley and Fiona Ramsden and did a sterling job!
And while it was an absolute pleasure and a privilege to host such a thoroughly nice group, it was even more fun to watch our racing family in action. It is rare that one has a chance to step back and really appreciate those around you do what they do best, but seeing colleagues and friends basking in a well-deserved 5 minutes in the sun and blossom in its warmth was both humbling and awe-inspiring. It was also a timely reminder of how lucky we are to share our little community with such fantastic folk and seeing, despite all the current difficulties, how much they love their jobs. Perhaps best of all, it was lovely showing that off to a keen, blank canvas and finding that they liked us too.
I immediately fired off an email to George telling him about our lovely day out. He approved thoroughly, mailing back to say, “I can’t think of any other sport that does a better job of inviting people in to see our world. I think racing people are the best at this sort of PR because they love their animals so much and, like pet owners, can’t wait to show them off. I love racetrack people the world over because they are all the same — generous and kind and caring. The ones who aren’t get weeded out over time. It’s why I’m an optimist about racing’s future. Cheers and well-done to all my Cape Town friends.”
They say whatever energy a person puts out into the world, will be returned three fold. Thanks to everyone for creating so much positivity on Saturday.