No J&B Met winner in many decades had to withstand an avalanche of superlatives as overwhelming as that which proclaimed Empress Club (Arg) completely dominating the Met, from before nominations till after she had passed the post: no mean achievement, for the Met excelled itself as a spectacle of gaiety and colour, besides being a record one on the tote and at the gate.
The adulation accorded Empress Club (Arg) was not merely because she had won 14 of her 16 races and earned R2 865 725 in stake money, nor even because she had consistently beaten the country’s best; rather it was because of the way she had done it. Local racegoers first saw the super something that raises her above the best in the Gr1 Topsport Bloodline Million a year previously.
They saw it again in the Gr1 Queen’s Plate at the beginning of January, and yet again in the J&B Met where she asserted her right to reign supreme. On the last two occasions Empress Club (Arg) left the impression that she was racing on a more elevated plane than her rivals that enabled her to brush aside their challenges almost with an air of nonchalance.
It is not as if the best of her rivals were “squibs”. Far from it. Cape idol Flaming Rock (Ire) was a Rothmans July winner and had 15 wins to his credit; likewise Spanish Galliard unplaced only four times in 30 starts. And yet Empress Club (Arg) was able to make them look ordinary.
Her performance was almost a repeat of her performance in the 1600m Queen’s Plate; but this time she not only had the extra distance to contend with but the outside draw in a field of 20. She took the added challenge in her stride.
Anton Marcus shot her out of the starting stalls and, making use of her remarkable acceleration, slowly worked her into a better position. She was lying in the pack coming through the cross-over, about 8 lengths off front-runner I’m Lavania, and she still had some lengths to find turning for home. An opening appeared as she approached the 400-marker. The moment Marcus made his move the magic was there as before; she strode effortlessly up to the leaders and away over the final 300m.
At no stage did Marcus have to draw his whip; he simply continued to ride hands and heels as her impressive reach carried her on to a 1 ¾ length win in a time only fractionally over a second outside the record. There is no question that she finished with a good bit in reserve, and had she been ridden out would have improved both distance and time.
As before, Flaming Rock (Ire) ran a courageous race to finish second, giving of his best in spite of setbacks in the race; but the fact remains that Empress Club (Arg) was just too good and he could make no impression on her inside the 200-marker. Karl Neisius accidentally dropped his whip in the closing stages, but this made no difference to the result.
Spanish Galliard came from well back to challenge Flaming Rock (Ire) just inside the 200m, looking as if he would make the Met result a repeat of the Queen’s Plate; but his effort petered out close to home and he was edged out of third place by Secret Rites. Many older racegoers were as impressed with Empress Club (Arg) as they had been with the legendary Sea Cottage nearly 30 years before – Sea Cottage retired from the turf winning 20 of his 24 races over distances from 1000 to 2400m, also having beaten the best of his time.
Thus Empress Club (Arg) is one of those horses who, with luck, appear once in a decade or more. Certainly, she was one of the best horses ever to race for her owners, Laurie and Jean Jaffee, and a most deserving reward for the interest, time and money they devoted to racing.
Incidentally, Empress Club (Arg) was the first Gauteng based horse to win the Met since Prince Bertrand way back in 1953, and it is ironic that she should have been trained by a former Kaapenaar, Tony Millard. Apart from flying the flag for Gauteng, Empress Club (Arg)’s Met triumph registered several firsts.
She was the first imported filly to win the Met; she was the first filly to carry as much as 55,5kg to victory; she was the first horse in memory to win from a No. 20 draw; and at 6/10, she was the shortest-priced winner since the Met became a conditions race in 1973. Though Met Day showed a record on the tote, Empress Club (Arg) did not boost turnover on the Met itself. It was nearly 10% lower than last year, the drop doubtless being caused by an unwillingness to back against her or to accept constricted odds.
This was also reflected on trifecta betting (last year the most popular bet on the Met) because of the almost blanket one-two-three selection being Empress Club (Arg) – Flaming Rock (Ire) – Spanish Galliard. But neither this nor the overcast sky and occasional drizzle dampened the day. From early morning it went with a swing that must have delighted the sponsors and had even the most parochial visitors admitting that the Met had an atmosphere that no other big race in the country had.
Long after the evening had darkened the marquees and picnic sites about the course racegoers continued with the merrymaking and so prolonged a day that has become as much a part of the Cape summer as the southeaster. But more important than this, Empress Club (Arg) and the day’s frivolities gave racing the shot it so badly needs. Horses with real charisma are few and far between and when they appear racing gains a much wider audience; and when there is a horse with charisma and a good time as well, then the message gets through: “Horse racing really is fun!”
Bred in the Argentine by Farnesio out of the El Gran Capitan mare Elysee, Empress Club (Arg) struck another blow for imported horses – as did the Irish-bred Flaming Rock in second place, this doubtless causing further unhappiness in TBA circles at the time!