Big Race Bert – A Tribute

Big Race Bertie Hayden - by those who knew him best

Bertie Hayden

Bertie Hayden

To build a skeleton of someone’s life is a simple thing. It is a matter of dates and locations and recounting of events. Finding the stories, the words and the expressions that flesh the skeleton out into a living breathing person is rather harder, particularly when you’ve never had the privilege of meeting them in person. Bertie Hayden, one of the brightest stars in a particularly stellar era of South African horses and racing passed away on Sunday, 4 May 2014. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to his friends and family who have so generously given of their time to help me put together a picture of the man so many remember as “Big Race Bert”.

Where it all started

Bertie Lesley Hayden was born in Johannesburg on 17 February 1946. His father was keen on racing and reportedly ran away from home to try and become a jockey. Unfortunately weight got the better of him and he never had a riding career, but he did pass the bug on to his son. Bert said he was always interested in horses and famously related a story of falling off his first racehorse at the age of four. Racehorse strings used to be worked on the beach opposite Natal Command and his dad took him there one Sunday morning and put him on one of the horses that was being led around. The horse bucked and he was thrown off into the sand. “I got up, my face was covered in sand and my nose was bleeding, but my dad took me and threw me straight back on the horse again and told me to ride some more,” he once told a reporter drily.

Despite those inauspicious beginnings, in 1960, at the age of 14, Bert was apprenticed to Robert Jackson. It was around the time the Jockey Academy was being build and Bert was famously one of the last apprentices to go through the ‘old’ system. He rode his first winner for the Jackson stable aboard Mesdames C and I Jackson’s Copper Rule. Bert remembered “The horse was No.13, drawn 13 and carried six stone thirteen. Thirteen is one of my lucky numbers.”

1971 Rothmans July

1971 Rothmans July – Mazarin

After 5 years with Jackson, he transferred to Harold “Tiger” Wright and later moved to Cape Town, where he rode for the powerful Theo de Klerk stable. He caught the eye of Syd Laird, and became Syd’s stable jockey, second to Robbie Sivewright, in 1971. He transferred to the Durban string, winning his first July that same year aboard Mazarin. Bertie ended up staying for 12 years, forging one of the most powerful partnerships of the era. He would go on to win 3 Julys in total (Mazarin in 1971, Yataghan in 1973 and the great Politician in 1978). He won the Met 5 times (Force Ten in 1972, Yataghan in 1974 and then three on the trot with Bahadur in 1977 and Politician in 1978 and 1979). The 1979 Met is widely regarded as the greatest race ever seen in South Africa when Bert brought Politician from an impossible position to beat Festive Season by a neck. Bert reportedly gave all the credit to the great chestnut, saying “I didn’t do anything. He won it all on his own. That’s just how good he is.” He won the Queen’s Plate 4 times (Chichester in 1970, Yataghan in 1973 and then Politician in 1978 and 1979), the Gold Cup on Furious in 1980 and practically every big race on our racing calendar.

The man behind the career

Dennis Drier was the stable assistant at the time and remembers him as a ‘real character’, but above all as a phenomenal jockey. “His big race temperament was just unbelievable, I mean unbelievable. He was never ever worried or nervous going into a feature race and I think that was his biggest asset. He was a great jockey. His two favourites were Mazarin and Politician. They were just such superstars and man, he had a hell of an affinity with them. Him and his wife Barbara used to breed Chihuahua’s. We bought two from Bert.”

1973 Rothmans July

1973 Rothmans July – Yataghan

When he worked, he worked hard, but when he played, he played hard too and Dennis still has a newspaper cutting reading “Top jockey in surf drama”. Bert was at a fishing competition on the Umkomaas river one day. They ran into trouble and the boat capsized. Bert had had to swim to shore and then get help to rescue the boat. It was a massive story and made the front page of the local papers the next day. Syd wanted an explanation as Bert had rung in sick !

Outside of racing, Bertie was a very keen fisherman and through his brother-in-law Tom Bradfield, he met and forged a long-lasting friendship with the Mulroy brothers, Richard and David. Richard relates “He started ski-boating with us. Him and I built a boat together in his back yard. He called it Jaws. That was typical Bert. He was a lot of fun. The fame and the career never went to his head, he was very humble. All I can really say about Bert is that he was one of the most genuine, sincere people you’ll ever meet. When he retired, him and his son both stood up and thanked the public and racing for everything it had given and meant to him. It was very moving.”

1979 Rothmans July - Politician

1979 Rothmans July – Politician

Dave Mulroy tells that Bert set a record for a 33.5kg King Mackerel (barracouta) which he caught on an 8kg breaking strain line class on the Aliwal Shoal on 28 December 1974. Dave was with him on the boat that day and I’m told the record still stands. Bert’s other great catch was a 38,5kg Black Musselcracker caught off the Umkomaas in 1975. “That was a big fish for him because he didn’t weigh much more than that himself! He was a natural lightweight, which stood him in good stead and he could ride 48kgs without too much trouble.”

“He was obviously very popular back then. If he walked into a restaurant, everyone knew who he was, but it never went to his head. He was always the same. He was extremely generous to everyone – he’d help anybody. And he was very loyal to Syd Laird. He obviously rode some very good horses back then, but he didn’t discuss business with other people, he was very honourable in that way.”

“He was a great guy and a fun person. He was very dedicated to his riding and when he became a trainer, we got some horses with him and had a lot of success. He was very shrewd. He played his cards quite close to his chest, but whatever he set out to do, he seemed to accomplish. He was a very meticulous person. Before going riding or going out, his clothes had to be pressed, his boots polished and his kit had to be right. He was a good father, always close to his kids. He was a great friend and a lovely human being.”

Training career

Bert officially hung up his racing boots in 1991 due to a recurring back injury. He took out his trainers’ license, initially setting up shop in Gauteng and later starting a training centre in Ashburton.

Andy Hammond was a client and the two became good friends. “He started off as my trainer, but we ended up good friends. He was the sort of guy who likes to keep to himself. He preferred his own company, so it was difficult to get know him, but once you did, he was your friend for life. He was very quiet and reticent, with a lovely sense of humour. And he never used to get flustered. I think that’s what stood him in good stead as a jockey. He wasn’t a big, flashy person – perhaps things were different when he was younger – but mostly he preferred to stay home & watch TV and be with his animals. He really loved his animals and had a real rapport with them. He had the kindest heart and there was absolutely nothing he would not do for his animals. He had a Jack Russell called Gypsy who followed him around wherever he went and a cockatiel that he used to feed chilies like it was going out of fashion. He loved chilies! And he had a pony for his grandson Matthew. He loved spending time with his grandkids. That was Bertie.

2003 Vodacom Durban July

Sherman Brown, Mary Hammond, Andy Hammond, Bert Hayden – July Day 2003

As a trainer, he was very straight down the line with owners and we had some great times together. He had a great eye and he bought me some super horses including A Ten, Sacred Rites, Key Power and Far Under Par. Name The Key won us several Group races and ran in the July. Bertie always did what was best for the horses, and put himself second. He personally nursed our horse Ze Daniel back to health when he got horse sickness. Bert rigged up a bed from conveyor belt webbing and sawdust and called it Sealy Posturepedic. He spent 3 nights in the horse’s box nursing him. Any other trainer would probably have put it down. Ze Daniel repaid him by winning 5 races. Racing was his life. He ate, slept and drank horses. We’ll miss him terribly. He was a great character and a lovely friend.”

In November 2003, Hayden suffered a severe stroke. His assistant trainer took over from him for a while, but Bertie decided to close down his training centre in April 2004. Bert spent most of his later years as a resident at the Bill Buchanan retirement home. He befriended Grant McArthur who visited Bertie every week for the past two years. Grant says “Words are not enough to describe Bertie, but the memories he left will live on in racing people’s minds. Nothing can touch the emotions that come with this sport – the highs and lows are worlds apart and Bertie remembers them all like it was yesterday. He speaks as though Syd Laird is standing right next to you and describes his races so vividly it’s as if you are riding with him. The way he talks you through the last 400 hundred metres feels as though you are in a 3D theatre. We know those races so well from the replays, but he could recount it all in slow motion as he re-lived every stride in his head – hearing the commentator in the 1979 Met screaming “I don’t believe it! He is crazy! He got through when nobody gave him a chance!” Bert struggled with his health a great deal, but Grant says that Bert found great peace in religion.

Family man

Ralph Rixon, Syd Laird, Bert Hayden

Ralph Rixon, Syd Laird, Bert Hayden

Bert was a huge family man and his son Dean describes an enormously supportive and devoted father. Dean was very keen on sport as a kid, and played soccer on Sundays. “My dad HATED rugby, but all my mates were playing, so I snuck off to rugby practice and made the 1st side, but didn’t tell my dad. I went to the regional trials and lo and behold I made that side, so I had to tell him I was playing rugby because we were going on tour. He said “I know, I’ve been watching you.” And it turned out Bert had been watching his son from the sidelines all along. Incredibly for a jockey’s son, Dean ended up playing rugby for a living. He’s modest about his achievements, but played for the Transvaal, Eastern Province and the Natal sides. He says a rugby mate rang up once to tell him to get a copy of the daily paper as Bert and Dean had both made the sports section – each in their respective sports – which must be a pretty unique achievement. Mind you, a jockey having a rugby playing son is fairly unusual too. Dean says “The old man always followed me, he was very good about both me and my brother’s sporting achievements and he loved being involved. Even when he was in a wheelchair I used to take him to ‘Toti every Friday for a day out with my golfing buddies. Bert would come and ride in the golf cart and serve drinks with the ‘Friday Boys’.

Bert adored his boss Syd Laird and regarded him as a father figure. “They made history together.” Bert was injured in the early 80’s and took a break from riding from 1985-1988. He made a comeback in ’88, going back to Cape Town and riding for James Lightheart. He also did a stint in Mauritius before relocating to Joburg and riding for the late Michael Roberts. The formed a long friendship and that’s where Bert finished his riding days. He took up training, starting in Joburg and then moved to Ashburton in 1994, where he was based until he had a stroke in late 2003. “He tried after the stroke, but it was impossible. It was not good for him and not good for the stable, so we decided to close it all down. It was the end of an era and Gold Circle hosted a race day entirely dedicated to my dad. The races were named after some of the great horses he’d ridden and the feature was named after him.

Big Race Bert Hayden

Big Race Bert

My dad was a bit emotional, so I did the speaking on his behalf. It was just about how wonderful the journey had been for my dad and he wanted to thank everyone – the friends, and the industry – for all the memories. He loved racing, he loved horses and he loved the people – the owners, everything. It was just a public thank you to the people who had supported him. Racing was very high profile back then and a lot of people knew and supported him. People followed jockeys as much as they followed horses in those days. My dad had friends across race barriers, cultural barriers. Look, he took no nonsense, he was a fiery character, make no mistake, but he was very generous and well liked, well respected and loved by many of his colleagues and contemporaries.”

Bertie Hayden passed away peacefully on the afternoon of Sunday, 4 May. He is survived by his ex wife Barbara, two sons Dean and Des, three grandchildren Matthew, Daniel & Taylor, and his long-time partner, Farieda. There will be a memorial service at Greyville this Thursday, 8 May at the Saddlers Arms starting at 1pm. Dean says it is open to everyone who would like to remember the old times and celebrate his dad’s life. Bert’s ashes will be scattered at the scene of his greatest triumphs, the finish line at Greyville. I have a feeling he would have liked that.

Bert will be remembered by all in the racing community as an enormous character, a fine rider and an amazing judge of pace. He will be sorely missed by all who knew and loved him.

“Big Race” Bert Hayden. 1946 – 2014


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