Bumping into former trainer and stud manager Reggie Knight inevitably leads to a walk down memory lane. Back to the good old days when the Cape only had two equine Vets – one of which did his rounds on a bicycle.
A conservative, quietly spoken and knowledgeable horseman, Reggie Knight, who turns 89 in October, comes across in the mould of an old -fashioned school headmaster – quite stern and of a serious demeanour – but he lightens up noticeably when reminiscing and recalling some of the colourful characters and horseracing’s very serious, almost stiff upper lip image of yesteryear.
We were doing some digging and research when somebody suggested we ask Reggie Knight – ‘his mind is a treasure trove and he doesn’t seem to age or bloody forget anything,’ said one veteran of that era.
Our conversation quickly routed to Reggie Knight’s switch from a successful small string racehorse trainer to manager of Noreen Stud.
He recalls the job interview with the straight-shooting Graham Beck.
“He knew me already and we spoke in Chris Smith’s office. I recall one line – ‘I will give you one ‘effing’ chance – don’t mess it up’. Mr Beck was the next best man to God and you can quote me. I was too scared to ask him for anything because he would never say no. He was the greatest loss to racing that I’ve ever known.”
Thankfully, the astute Reggie didn’t mess up.
“Like I did in my racing yard, I was hands on. I did everything myself. From driving the mares to be covered, to supervising our stallion coverings. My wife and I would drive from Robertson to the Cape Town city centre to deliver the stud’s financial income and expenses information to Mr Beck’s accountants. When we arrived back home, the staff would ask about the weather in the city. I wouldn’t be able to tell them. I hadn’t noticed! I was always on the go and it was work, work, work.”
On the matter of great men of the game, Reggie talks about the late Jack Mitchell.
“I was so sad to hear about the passing of Jack,” he muses as he talks about the old guard and how the game has changed.
Jack Mitchell passed away last month. In 1977 Jack bought his first horse, eventual Gr1 winner Young Captain, at the National Yearling Sale in the days when it was still held at Milner Park.
He served on the Cape division of the Jockey Club for 21 years, sitting alongside men like Abe Bloomberg, Arnold Galombik, Abe Swersky, Judge van Huyssteen and Judge Banks.
Jack’s grandfather, William Charles Winshaw, was an American medical doctor who came to South Africa during the Anglo Boer War. He founded Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery in 1924, and remained the MD until 1962, when he retired at the age of 92.
Jack’s Dad, Wally Mitchell, who also served as the MD at SFW, married William’s daughter Nancy.
“Wally, who had horses with Willie Kleb, got in touch with me in the early 70’s when I was up in Durban with Baby Killa’s horse Bolero. I went to meet him for a cup of tea up on the hill above the city. We chatted about Bolero and I said I felt he had a great winning chance in the Stewards Cup. We had to survive an objection by the Oppenheimer’s Uncle Ben but we got it. Wally still said afterwards he never doubted the result. It was the start of a wonderful association, with his wife Nancy sending me a few horses. When I handed in my licence to go and work for Mr Beck, I suggested the Mitchells join Peter Kannemeyer, who was a good and trusted friend of mine, and a man I rated a great trainer. They enjoyed plenty of success with Peekay.”
We urge Reggie forward a few decades to the 21st century and his thoughts on the game. He is obviously too gentlemanly and diplomatic to be too caustic, but says he is disappointed with the overall impression that racing creates.
“I don’t think the controls and authority are in place anymore. We wouldn’t be caught dead on course without a collar and tie on racedays. Look at these guys today. They could be on the beach. And the Stewards – as the Stipes were called in those days – were respected and feared. There wasn’t a crowd of people in the winner’s enclosure. The trainer unsaddled and the jockey was there – the owner led the horse in. Today, there is touching and hugging and photographers patting the winner. It’s all very casual.”
Reggie cited a horse called Top Sail, a son of Drum Beat, that he raced. He recalls this fellow was super-quick but not the easiest of customers.
“He was a real handful. So I had to help the jockey down the chute and he was the last horse to arrive at the start. They were about to load and it was a long way to walk off the track all the way around to the first floor. So I cut through the members enclosure to make sure I’d be able to watch my horse. Do you know that I was called in for that!”
He says that in those days, trainers were generally not members of the club. The likes of Theo de Klerk, Terrance Millard and Syd Laird were – but Reggie says that it was not easy to get accepted into that esteemed circle.
“They wanted a letter of reference from the Bank Manager, they wanted to know what you had in the bank. I was told to apply – I didn’t have what I imagined would be the qualifying criteria, money wise! Then I got the call. I was now a member. I always had an excellent relationship with the late Mr Abe Bloomberg. He would talk to us and ask about the horses. I would always be respectful and be truthful. I have a feeling that he was the reason I was accepted. He was a powerful man.”
Back to the present, he says that the economics of training have obviously changed dramatically.
“I doubt the sums work today, but I trained with 20 horses and maybe 3 or 4 owners. That was what I could professionally cope with – no assistants and support staff. I did most things myself, with the assistance of my Grooms. It worked well. Each horse got individual attention. Each owner got telephone calls and individual attention. And I was actually training their horses and they were paying for my skills and expertise.”
He trained from small premises on Milnerton racecourse and with a string of only 20 horses produced the likes of 1970 July winner Court Day and 1977 Queen’s Plate winner Bold Monarch among others.
It all started just before the second World War.
At The age of 8, Reggie moved to the suburb of Brooklyn and that he recalls is when HIS passion for horses FIRST saw the light of day.
Owner-trainer Alfie Abrahams had a small yard across the road from the Knight household and Reggie befriended a coloured groom by the name of Kiepie. He would collect Reggie with a tap on his window at 04h30 and take him out with the racing string, sneaking him back to the house just before his parents came to wake him up for school.
Reggie got a job with trainer AB Kruyer. He was paid 10 shillings a week.
“I’d give 7 to my mother and keep 3. There were three of us in the yard – myself, Philip Kruyer (Paddy’s father) and apprentice jockey Harry Feldman. We’d club together and lived on penny butter, penny bread and penny polony, or sometimes pilchards in tomato sauce.”
Reggie eventually left Kruyer in search of better prospects and went to work for Sydney Laird. However, when Russell Laird joined the yard a few years later, Reggie knew there was not enough room for two assistants and decided to strike out on his own.
He recalls that it was a struggle.
“I leased two horses from Stan Elley’s brother – Shamrock and Beylic – and got horses here and there. Considering that I never had more than 20 in my string, I had some good ones.” The ‘good ones’ included Bold Monarch (left in his care by Herman Brown for the 1977 Queen’s Plate), Mickey Livanos’ Court Day (Rothmans July), sprinters Top Sail and Hearing and he also claims Gatecrasher’s 1976 Met win as Herman Brown was at the sales in New Zealand and left the horse in Reggie’s charge. “I had the honour and pleasure of winning the last Republic Day Handicap with a filly called Adrift for Donald Wright and I bought a horse from Highlands called Main Brace for Ward Smith and won the Ward Smith Handicap that he sponsored.”
Reggie inherited two Graham Beck owned horses from the late Michael Roberts. “I corresponded with Mr Beck about the horses and I got them to win two races each, sent them back and that was that.”
A few years later, Beck purchased Noreen Stud and approached Reggie at the National Sales to run it for him. Life’s what you make of it!