Just Keep Swimming


Hlamba – the tiny filly with a big heart

2013 has been a bit of an annus (had to be careful to use 2 ‘n’s there!) horribilis for a lot of folk and I have friends lamenting that the “13” really has been a bad omen for many.

In life’s funny way, the bad times add shading and depth to the good ones and serve as a reminder to celebrate when life hands us a good turn. Our horses bind us through the good and the bad and it is amazing how often the story of an injury or a loss is balanced by a triumph or a particularly good win against the odds.

So after what has been a trying few months for friends and loved ones, it has been a particularly special counterfoil to follow the story of a little race mare called Hlamba. She first crossed my radar a few months ago when John Finlayson posted a snippet of her story on Facebook. After she won in October he wrote:

“This little filly, her Mom died at birth, they left her alone in the stable overnight as they didn’t think she would make it, they came back in the morning and she was still alive, here she is winning again…tiny with the heart of a lion…Hlamba”

It stuck in my mind and then popped up again when she was in the winner’s enclosure again 3 weeks later. Yesterday she posted her third win on the trot so I rang to find out more.

What’s in a name?

“Hlamba” means “swim”, which I think is particularly appropriate. I love the children’s film Finding Nemo where Dory, a forgetful blue tang’s answer to any problem is “just keep swimming!”

Hlamba has had to do more than her fair share of swimming upstream, but it seems the tide is finally turning. This is her story. The little bay filly was bred by Summerhill and is by Hobb Alwahtan out of a Waterville Lake mare called Aquatic Thrill. Unfortunately it was a difficult birth and aging Aquatic Thrill made the ultimate sacrifice to give her filly life. It wasn’t quite as tough as John had thought though, traumatic as the loss of her mum must’ve been.

Summerhill’s Annet Becker (broodmare manager and Ondestepoort vet nurse graduate) revealed the story to John after Hlamba’s first win. “We delivered the foal and as she was also anesthetized still gave her oxygen and stimulated her to breath properly. She perked up quickly and was looking to nurse not long after she woke up.

“She was a feisty little filly and was determined to live, regardless of her situation. We tubed her with colostrum from our bank and bottle fed her the rest of the night. We have a couple of ‘nurse mares’ on the farm – crossbreeds used to foster Thoroughbred babies in situations like this.

“So the next day we fetched Hariette, a half Percheron, half Thoroughbred mare to adopt little Aquatic Thrill. She accepted her immediately and raised her as if she was her own baby.”

The tiny filly with the big heart



Hlamba duly grew up with the rest of the group. Well, a little anyway ! She remained very small and was never considered impressive enough to make it onto a sale. Enter John Finlayson.

John had purchased a Summerhill horse that ended up with knee chips. He took the matter up with Mick, who duly offered to take the filly back and replace her with another. A small, plain, dark bay. Hlamba duly made her way into training with Louis Goosen up at the Vaal and Louis picks up the story of her early career.

“When she got to me, she was a small filly, but just all heart and she responded incredibly well to kindness. She was a filly that you had to be kind to. She had limited ability, but ran purely on heart. She was actually incredibly consistent as a maiden.

“In her first 12 starts, she clocked up 10 places and then broke her maiden on Jockey International night 2 years ago for Jamie Spencer. She won us a good race under the lights and it was just fantastic for us. She was very very game. But then the season started and it was getting tougher for her up here, so John decided to send her to PE.”

She’d also started having problems at the starting stalls, either refusing to jump, or otherwise not jumping on terms and putting in lack lustre performances. Hlamba duly transferred to Gavin Smith and the starting trend continued, so John decided to try Kimberley. Hlamba boarded a float bound for Steph Miller, but it seems her adventures weren’t quite over yet.

Mistaken identity

Steph received the filly and rang Dorrie to say “Hlamba isn’t much of a horse”. Dorrie wasn’t too worried and advised “Give her a chance to freshen up and then we’ll start working.”

A month later Steph took Hlamba to the pens and when the Stipes checked the passport, they found that they’d got the wrong horse! A number of hasty phone calls later, Hlamba was tracked down to Harare!!

“John was absolutely amazing about it. He just said “Fix it”. Eventually she came back and I must say, I can’t take any credit. Steph’s been working with her through the stalls and has just been amazing with her. Look, she’s not going to Hollywood, but any horse anywhere that can win three in a row is not bad, especially when you see her size. Have a look at her last race – as the field take the turn around the top bend, you see a horse to her inside in yellow silks – it absolutely towers above her. She’s tiny! But it’s just fantastic for John. He’s been incredibly patient so it’s been very rewarding for us.”

I can hear the broad smile on Steph’s face when I ring. “I was over the moon with her. We battled a lot with her in the beginning. One day she stood in the pens and didn’t even jump.

“I’ve spent a lot of time with her at the gates and gradually she’s just found her feet and she’s just grown so much in confidence. I can’t believe how her attitude to her work has changed. In her win in October, you can see that she didn’t jump on terms and lost 4 lengths at the start, but she still won! It took a lot of patience and time at the gates, but we’ve got no problems with her jumping any more. She’s just amazing!

“I’ve got such an attachment to that filly, you go into her stable and she’s all over you. You know, some days things aren’t all that easy and you can go into her stable and she’ll just put her head on your shoulder. She just knows when you need comfort.”

Relationship is key


You can buy a pedigree and looks, but you cannot buy the heart of Hlamba

John feels that it’s the relationship with Steph that’s been the real turning point. “When she went to Gavin Smith, she always finished miles down the field. Normally with that type of horse I’d let it go, but I knew her story and I stuck with her. Even Louis and Dorrie said she’s got a heart bigger than her body – perhaps because of her start in life – she had to fight so hard just to live.

I’ll be honest, I never expected her to win again and I’m pretty surprised, particularly given the way she’s winning. I don’t think it has anything to do with maturity or that the racing penny has suddenly dropped. The way she won with Jamie Spencer was very easy, so she definitely knows how to win.

She’s small, she’s about half the size of a normal horse – if you watch a race you’ll see how low the jockey sits compares to the other ones. But the relationship between her and Steph is very good and I think it’s down to that.

I called Steph last week to thank her and she says that whenever she feels a bit down after all that has happened to her this year she goes to Hlamba’s box and Hlamba’s love makes her feel much better…She doesn’t have the breeding to win races like this, she doesn’t have the size, she doesn’t have the stride, but she wins anyway!

And she’s winning easier and easier every time. It’s not different feed, or a different track, or whatever, it’s Steph. This horse just won’t race for anyone else. Louis and Gavin both told me that she worked like a bomb at home, but when it came to race day she’d either not jump, or if she did, she wouldn’t run. I think it’s important that owners know stories like this. It’s important to find someone who connects with your horse.

I used to have horses with Buddy Maroun. He rode work and would have a connection with all his horses. You can have a great horse, but if it doesn’t connect with its trainer, you’ll never get the best out of it. But if you find the right combination, you can get amazing results.

What’s next?

Plans for Hlamba are to have one more run before the end of the season and then Steph intends to give her a little break, before starting her 2014 campaign and then John plans to send her to stud.

“She’s not fashionably bred, but what the hell. You can buy a pedigree and you can buy looks, but you cannot buy the heart and the will to win that she has and I want to breed her. I don’t care if she never wins again, but frankly I wouldn’t be surprised if she does!”

They say it’s better to be lucky than smart and that may be so, but Hlamba and her connections have certainly proved that if you just keep swimming, you may just be surprised where you end up. I hope we’ll be seeing a lot more of those green and yellow colours.

– Robyn Louw

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