A former South African Champion jockey and three time Met winner, sends out his first runner in the big race as a trainer on Saturday. Garth Puller says that the Met is the race every owner, trainer and jockey wants to win.
The greying but still dapper and fit as a fiddle 62 year old Puller is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to horseracing. Listening to him describe a race from forty years ago is like watching the movie of the actual event.
Long Time Ago
He had his first Met ride in 1970 while still an apprentice on a horse called Sun Tracker for Jackie Bell. The pair finished over seven lengths back and out of the money, but Garth recalls the thrill and excitement. He said it was won by a horse called Snow Fun, ridden by Duncan Alexander, who beat Peter Beware with Bert Abercrombie up.
Interestingly Garth was to stand Snow Fun as a stallion at the first farm he owned next to the world famous Broadlands Stud at the foot of Sir Lowry’s Pass: “ I have always enjoyed the breeding side and dabbled with a few mares. Snow Fun was by Joy 11 and quite well bred.”
Puller did not have to wait long to register a first Met win. The year was 1976 and he rode the galloping machine Gatecrasher for Herman Brown. “He was a freak of a horse and brilliant. He was unbeaten on a left hand track.”
Puller had a long and successful association with Peter Kannemeyer, and it was perhaps appropriate that he rode his next Met winner for the man known affectionately as Peekay.
It was 1994 and he got up wide out in his trademark style on the 14 to 1 outsider Pas de Quoi to nab Waitara, ridden by a young man called Anton Marcus, who was to give him his first winner as a trainer, eighteen years later.
On Peter Kannemeyer, Puller says that he was one of the best trainers to ride for: “ I never saw Peekay get cross with a jock at the races. If we got beaten, he always used to say ‘we can do nothing about it now son, the cheque is written and made out to them.’ The next day at work he’d discuss it and plan ahead. He was the most loyal man I have met. A unique character. It obviously helped that he had been a top jockey himself, and understood the challenges of race riding.”
Puller also waxes lyrical about the abilities of Marcus: ” Anton is the consummate pro. If he accepts a ride at any level and doesn’t know the horse, he makes sure gets there to do the final sprint up in the week before the race. I have seen him dash from Clairwood to Summerveld to work a maiden, and then all the way back. We don’t give him instructions on how to ride a particular horse as he has studied the race and done the homework before he gets into the parade ring. He is a great example to many of his colleagues,” he said.
Puller rode his third Met winner for Sean Tarry on the Al Mufti gelding Alastor in 2005. “I had run fourth on him in the Queen’s Plate at his previous start. That was a top run to finish under three lengths to Joey Ramsden’s top horse Winter Solstice. Alastor had his problems,and I assisted Sean in working him in the build-up. He had the ability and heart and it goes to show the importance of having a ticket! I got him up to beat the filly Icy Air by about a half length, while Winter Solstice proved again that he was more brilliant at a mile when running a great third.”
Of his worst Met memory, he was unequivocal when stating Stella Maris for Dolfie Maeder: ” Stella Maris was a top horse. I had won the 1983 Cape Derby on him and I rated him to win the Met in 1984. We turned for home with a full tank and then he clipped a horse’s heels and came within inches of a bad fall. I gathered him up and he recovered to run sixth and only 6,75 lengths behind the big grey horse (he means Wolf Power!). Stella Maris had such courage. I have never been a believer in hard luck stories, but I think we would have won it,” he says with a distant stare.
Of Ice Machine’s chances for the Meaker family in the Met on Saturday, Puller said that he was a horse who had shown brilliant ability as a youngster. “He has a lovely action and loads of ability. A lung problem that was not detected by the scopes set him back some time ago and he has never quite been himself again. He also has a problem on one of his hind joints, which is less fluid than the forelegs and much more difficult to treat. This is the reason his prep was interrupted. Anton took him down to the start for the Jet Master Stakes and suggested that the Vet pull him out as he wasn’t happy. He has such a soft spot for this horse, and I was happy they did what was best for the horse,” he said.
Garth was then left with just the Peninsula Handicap as a final Met prep after Ice Machine’s outing in the Green Point Stakes on 24 November. “That’s obviously not ideal, but we have given him the work and he will be ready for it on Saturday.”
Had he offered the ride on Ice Machine to his nephew Chris Puller? “I was happy for Christopher to ride Ice Machine. He has been doing the hard work in the early mornings at Phillipi and he is an up and coming young rider with a cool head and plenty of natural ability. But the owners made the final decision to engage Karl Neisius. While the Meakers won the Met with Bahadur previously, and have raced some great horse, owners generally don’t get a lot of cracks at the Met. And I wouldn’t argue with the decision to go with Karl. Let’s face it, he has more experience than any guy riding in the Met and he is a thinking man’s jockey. I also know how keen he is to get a Met win on his cv after forty years in the saddle!” he laughed
Ticket To Ride
Puller said that he was under no false illusions as to Ice Machine’s prospects and said that it was already mission accomplished in getting him into the final field: “The Meakers are top owners in this country and it is a privilege to train horses for them. We will go out fighting and do our best. If you haven’t got a ticket, you can’t win it!” he said with a broad smile.
Of Saturday’s race, Puller felt that anyone of half the field could win it: “The Kenilworth 2000m is not the toughest 2000m in the country, particularly if the wind doesn’t blow. It is a Gr1, so there should be a pace on, but good milers can often get away with it. Particularly if the Cape crawl kicks in and they sprint for home.”