I’m still a relative new-comer on the local racing scene and despite the mug shot above, a lot of people don’t recognize me. On making the acquaintance of one of our more bluntly spoken trainers a few months ago, I was amused at his advice to change my profile shot as it made me look old. I actually really like that pic, so I prefer to think that the comment was less a criticism of the photograph and more a compliment that I look better in real life. I’m a glass half full kind of girl.
And I think that’s quite important. Racing is a tough game. As my dad recently pointed out, in any given field there can be only one winner. Which is obviously wonderful and the reason we are all there in the first place, but the flip side of that coin is that the entire rest of the field, their connections and everyone who had money on them are going to have to go home disappointed. On balance, a pretty tough concept to sell then!
Why do we do it ?
The stats will tell you that racing is seldom a money maker and judging by the facts and figures, they don’t promise you a barrel of laughs either. So one has to examine why we do this.
I own a fairly average little horse and feel that makes me fairly representative of the owner ranks out there. So why do I do it? Well, I love Thoroughbreds, I like racing and I like the fact that the mere privilege of owning a horse and a set of colours gives me the excuse to hang around the training yards, watch morning gallops and pop in at the race track on any given day and feel at home there. Yes, it’s nice and exciting when my horse puts in a good run, but mostly I’m just relieved when they survive unscathed and we get the opportunity to come back and fight another day.
There’s a whole team of people whose sole job it is to ensure that the day to day admin happens so that race day procedures run smoothly. From the trainer who preps the horse, the groom who feeds, grooms and mucks out in the morning, the transport guys who take my horse to the track, the race day vets and officials who check that everything is as it should be. And once all these people have done their jobs, it all culminates in the parade ring where the baton is finally passed to the person whose job it will be to pilot our horse around the course.
With ultimate power comes ultimate responsibility and when we put people in positions of trust or authority, we need to vest them with our trust and confidence and should really allow them to get on with their job. But boy it’s hard to do that, isn’t it?
Riding In The Stands
I think most owners are really frustrated trainers as we all have our own thoughts and ideas on how we think our horses should be worked. However, no matter how opinionated we are on our training theories, what all owners, trainers and punters really want to be is a jockey!
Stephen Leacock once said ‘It takes a good deal of physical courage to ride a horse. This, however, I have. I get it at about forty cents a flask, and take it as required.’ From what I’ve seen, I wouldn’t blame the jockeys for needing Dutch Courage to survive owners, trainers and punters too!
We spend ages discussing stallions, mares, bloodlines and analyzing form, but often forget the cannon fodder sitting on the top, trying to steer this much discussed half ton mass of muscle, bone and sinew around a course. If they ride a brilliant race, the jockey is clapped on the back and congratulated (although we’re all secretly thinking that they were sitting on a good thing anyway). And if it all goes wrong, well, it must be the jockey’s fault, mustn’t it? And then everyone has an opinion on how the horse could and should have been ridden, even though most of us probably couldn’t even fit into a jockey saddle.
As a recent example, Andrew Fortune has been put under the microscope for his ride on Winter Dynasty at Durbanville last Saturday.
My name is Robyn and I am not a gambler
I freely admit that I do not bet much. I feel I spend quite enough on the beasts without throwing away more money on the Tote!! So it would be fair to say that I don’t really understand the punter. I’m there to watch the horses and if you choose to part with your money, well, no-one’s holding a gun to your head. My philosophy is that they call it gambling for a reason – if you don’t have the money to lose, then you probably shouldn’t be betting. Simple.
However, we don’t live in an ideal world and we know that that’s not how things work in real life. Plus I’m not a total meanie. I have torn up my share of losing tickets and I admit, it hurts!
My best inkling into the punting side of things was a few years back when my dad was still a Cape Hunt jockey. In those days, amateur racing enjoyed a lot of support and although the pools were not as substantial as in the professional ranks, there was still a reasonable amount of money to be won. On this occasion, my dad was riding a horse called Underrated. Back then, the rules allowed you to run a horse more than once as long as there was a sufficient gap between your chosen races. Underrated had contested a 1200m earlier on the day and run second and was carded again over 1600m in the last race.
Because of the fact that she’d already had a run earlier in the day, there was not a lot of money for our horse the second time round, but not being too clued up on the intricacies of betting, we were blissfully ignorant of our lack of support. As the bell sounded and my dad was boosted into the saddle, a stranger rushed out of the crowd into the parade ring. Grabbing onto his leg, the man pleaded desperately with my dad to ‘please please please win this race’. Somewhat irritated by the uninvited advance (why did the man think he was riding if he wasn’t there to win?), my dad and Underrated shook the man off and made their way to the start.
As things turned out, they won the race and as they made their way back to the parade ring, the same gentleman flew out of the crowd, practically dragging my dad off the horse in his enthusiasm to hug him and shower him with joy and gratitude. On his own winning high (we were not blessed with many wins!!), my dad was a little puzzled by the enthusiastic response, but accepted the congratulations good-naturedly and went to weigh out and complete the necessary post race formalities. It was only the following day that we learned that going into the last race there had been one remaining live Jackpot ticket riding on Underrated’s nose. And it was held by our mystery friend in the crowd.
The exact payout figure has been lost in the sands of time, but suffice to say it was significant enough for that gentleman to risk life, limb and dignity. Images like that tend to stick in the memory and make you realize that no matter how long your odds, or how poor your draw, someone out there has money riding on your horse’s nose. It may be a little or it may be a lot, but it can mean a lot more than you realize.
The most wonderful analogy I’ve ever read was by Jane Smiley in her book A Year At The Races where she wrote – ‘Gamblers everywhere will always feel that Heaven reached down and touched them personally if they win’.
But what if they don’t?
Unfortunately the opposite holds true when things don’t work out, as has been seen by some of the acrimonious comments posted on one of the chat forums.
Was the horse ridden out or wasn’t it? Opinions seem to be divided right down the middle. I spoke to Andrew last night and he says is satisfied that he did the best job he could. He rides work on Winter Dynasty several times a week and feels he knows the horse pretty well. He says that the horse felt tired in the closing stages and as it had not responded to earlier attempts with the whip, it seemed futile to punish it.
On discussion with Mr Ernie Rodrigues this morning, he advised that the Stipes called Andrew in after the race, they have taken evidence and advised Andrew that they will be reviewing the matter (they are currently waiting on the footage to be transferred from Durbanville).
Plattner Racing’s Yogas Govender, who I have come to know as a no-nonsense, straight-talking character, stated that this was a ‘typical Andrew Fortune ride’ and is adamant that there is nothing sinister in it.
What’s Your Mission ?
Out of interest, I’ve listed the mission statements from our operators and governing body before which read as follows:-
Phumelela: “Vision – To be acknowledged as the worldwide leader in the informed betting market. Mission – To create exciting opportunities that enable informed betting on live events. Purpose – To grow the SA horseracing industry on a sustainable basis and make it globally respected and desirable.”
“Gold Circle (Pty) Ltd has as its primary focus the promotion and advancement of thoroughbred horse racing in KwaZulu-Natal and Western Province.”
The NHA website states: “The core function of the NHA Racing Division is to ensure that thoroughbred racing is provided with a competent and efficient racehorse and jockey control & monitoring service.”
These are all well and good, but they all seem focused on the business of racing and betting. Sure we want a fair run and we want to make sure our horse has been made to try all the way to the line. But who is looking out for the horse in all this and making sure that the horse is being made to try within its capabilities and without pushing it beyond the breaking point?
Well, when it comes to crunch time, it looks as though my jockey is the one holding the reins.
It’s an uncomfortable comparison, but one I feel compelled to mention. Andrew Fortune had the ride on Big City Life in this year’s July. No-one questioned his commitment in riding to the line that Saturday.
My apologies to the punters out there, but my horse means more to me than your tickets. And while he is on my horse, my jockey rides for me and should have my horse’s best interest at heart.
So back to my question
Why do we do it ? It’s expensive, the risks are high, and the system is open to corruption and abuse. I think my friend Jane Smiley has the answer again. She says “in addition to money, there are horses; in addition to greed, there is beauty and talent and effort and joy and heartbreak.
I’d like to rearrange those a little. I think it reads better like this:-
In addition to greed and heartbreak, there is beauty and talent and effort and joy. In addition to money, there are horses.
But then, I’m a glass half full kind of girl.