The Gr2 Emerald Cup has done more to raise the profile and desirability of the often maligned pursuit of sand racing, than anything or anybody else that we can think of. The race itself has come a long way since Mike De Kock raised the trophy for Mrs Bridget Oppenheimer and the gallant Fort Wood gelding Hilti, just over eight years ago.
Sand racing at the Vaal may only boast a relatively short history in terms of serious tradition, but the venue itself has been around some time. The Vaal Raceourse was built by Dorfman Turf Holdings with the intention of holding night racing. The Vereeniging Turf Club held the first night meeting in March 1947, and it proved a damp squib.
A large storm made no idle threats that evening and torrential rain soon washed out the proceedings along with the hopes of the few enthusiasts who had gathered for the floodlight meeting. Shortly afterwards the Jockey Club put paid to the activity by threatening to warn off all those involved with night racing!
Geographically the Vaal was at a disadvantage and the future of the course, which was then hosting pony and Galloway meetings, looked dismal. At that time racing at Newmarket and Germiston was improving all the time and eventually the Owners and Trainers Association bought the Vaal.
By 1952, 12 meetings a year were being held at the Vaal by the Newmarket-based Owners and Trainers Association, which allowed the Vereeniging Turf Club (now managed by the Germiston Racing Clubs) to make use of the course as well. Over the years the sharing of the Vaal by these two bodies had proved a mutually beneficial exercise.
Fast forward to Sunday 25 September 2005, and the birth of Africa’s sand spectacular. The five-year-old gelding Hilti, ridden by Willy Figueroa, won the inaugural running of the Emerald Cup at the Vaal. Figueroa retired on medical advice in 2011. The ungraded race was run over 1 400m for a stake of R200 000 and the field included Grade 1 winner National Spirit, course specialist Wild Cherry and the later exported Drift Ice, who would go on to race succcesfully in Dubai.
Hilti, a big and powerful galloper by Fort Wood from Rawl Plug, made his fitness count and proved to be in a class of his own on the day, winning under top weight of 59.5kg. He ran on stronger than his rivals and beat National Spirit by 1.25 lengths, followed by Tigray in third. National Spirit was to win it the next year.
As a young horse, Hilti was always considered a serious prospect and he won his first three races on grass without much fuss. Due to his size his was caught flatfooted in the three-year-old classics of his year, but still managed a fourth place in the Dingaans behind subsequent international winner Surveyor.
Hilti matured well when gelded as a four-year-year-old. He showed a liking for the sand, winning five starts contested at the track and defeated narrowly on another occasion by multiple stakes winner The Badger.
Classy and versatile, his turf runs included a fourth place in the November Handicap over 1800m to Duchess Daba, a close second to July winner Hunting Tower in a 1400m handicap and, in what would be his last start on 18 Novenber 2005, a 1600m win over Polo Classic, a former J&B Met winner.
In a sad blow, Hilti fell seriously ill after a medical procedure shortly after this win and after a courageous fightback had to be euthanized at a time when he was approaching the peak of his career. In total Hilti raced 31 times for 9 wins and 11 places, earning R613 000 in stakes for owner Bridget Oppenheimer, who won the race again in 2010,with another son of Fort Wood in Iron Curtain, who hung on long enough to deny Alimony a place in history, as the first horse to win the Emerald Cup twice.
Iron Curtain was trained by Robbie Sage and was out of Plugged Nickle’s daughter, West Wall, a half sister to Horse Chestnut. That made Iron Curtain a three-parts brother to South Africa’s best horse of the modern era. The Mike Azzie coupling of Pylon and Magic Smoke carries the Fort Wood hopes on Saturday.
A very knowledgeable racing man once wrote: ‘Watching races on the Vaal sand can at times be akin to witnessing the growing of grass or the drying of paint, and there are occasions when the jockeys’ lot resembles something of the order of labouring to push an elephant up a hill as they try and eke one more effort out of a slow and tired horse in the almost endless slog to the finish line.’ Saturday’s race is guaranteed to shatter that educated opinion and further enhance the growing reputation of sand racing.