Life is short, buy the horse

A tribute to Illuminator

Million dollar day (photo: hamishNIVENPhotography)

Million dollar fairytale (photo: hamishNIVENPhotography)

Life is short, buy the horse. If you are a racing person, that little internet meme encapsulates everything you need to know about life, the universe and pretty much everything else.

Horses and racing in particular, are a crazy, condensed, super high speed roller coaster of experiences and emotions – soaring highs, crashing lows and everything in between. It’s a mixed bag and you never quite know what’s coming next, but if you pays your money, you don’t only get a horse, but a free ticket to adventure.

One such adventure is the story of Illuminator, SA’s first Million Dollar horse, who captured the hearts and imagination of the racing public over his brief racing career, which sadly ended last Tuesday, due to complications from colic.

A son of Trippi, out of the five-time winning Al Mufti mare Pacific Lights, Illuminator was bred by Klawervlei Stud and led through the ring at the 2014 Cape Premier Yearling Sale. Purchased by Glen Puller Racing for R180 000, Illuminator campaigned for the partnership of Francis Carruthers and Ian Robinson.

Glen brought his charge along slowly, only exposing him for the first time as a 3yo, but when he did, the colt justified the team’s faith in him. Under apprentice Heavelon van der Hoven, Illuminator won comfortably on debut, underlining his potential with a second win over 1200m two months later, again with ‘Heavy’ in the saddle. Following his second victory, the connections received a handsome offer for their colt and despite the accepted superstition that turning down a big offer brings bad luck, they courageously said no.

Stepping Up

2016 CTS Million Dollar (photo: hamishNIVENPhotography)

Illuminator gallops into the history books (photo: hamishNIVENPhotography)

Andrew Fortune got the ride in the 1600m Selangor Cup on 21 November 2015, when they were touched off less than a length for 4th and with Andrew in the saddle again, Illuminator made up ground hand over fist in the Colts Guineas to finish a little less than 4 lengths 8th behind Noah From Goa on 19 December.

On 2 January 2016, Illuminator stepped out in the 1200m Listed Sophomore Sprint at Kenilworth and, with Robert Khathi on board, was shaded less than a length by Ernie into second. When the Puller charge was one of the only small yard runners to be accepted to run in CTS’s biggest value sales race, Weichong Marwing was drafted in for the inaugural running of the CTS Million Dollar and Heavelon was again left kicking his heels.

The story has been told and retold, but with Marwing indisposed at the very last minute due to a back injury, Heavy grabbed the opportunity to ask for the ride and the pair went on to score one of the most sensational racing victories in recent memory.

In registering Illuminator’s 3rd career win, Heavy maintained his 100% strike rate on the colt, whose victory pushed his earnings up to an unbelievable R8 526 875 for three wins and two places from six starts. For the connections, all of whom have suffered personal tragedies, the joy went far beyond the rands and cents of Illuminator’s successes. But the story of the cheap horse, from the small yard with the apprentice jockey, is the sort of racing fairytale on which our hopes, dreams and very sport are built.

Injury set-back

Heavelon van der Hoven (photo: hamishNIVENPhotography)

Heavy worked tirelessly on Illuminator’s rehabilitation (photo: hamishNIVENPhotography)

Unfortunately, after a routine workout on 1 March 2016, Illuminator was found to have sustained a supra condylar fracture of his right hind. Baker McVeigh performed immediate surgery to insert two pins into the leg and Illuminator was sent home to recover.

Eight weeks of box rest, plus a long, slow rehabilitation process followed, but the team were meticulous in their care. Illuminator started light walking and trotting work in September and stepped up to canter work in October. Owners Francis Carruthers and Ian Robinson gave strict instructions that no-one but Million Dollar jockey Heavelon van der Hoven was allowed on his back and ‘Heavy’ faithfully arrived to work ‘his’ colt often as his schedule would permit.


Things were making steady progress until Tuesday, 15 November 2016.  Head groom James Paco, who is an integral part of Glen Puller’s staff, lives on the premises and is Illuminator’s groom, heard thrashing in his horse’s box. The vets were immediately summoned and diagnosed a twisted gut.

Again, Illuminator made the short journey to the Baker & McVeigh clinic, where the surgeons performed an emergency colic op at 11am. Examination revealed that the twist had damaged a large portion of his intestine and it was deemed too risky to remove the damaged portion, but the team did what they could to treat and stimulate the gut from the inside out.

Illuminator seemed to recover well from the procedure initially and every effort was made to try and stimulate his gut function. His condition remained stable for the next few days, but sadly he took a turn for the worse on Tuesday, 22 November. With all his friends and human family surrounding him, Illuminator sadly succumbed later that afternoon.

As always, our horses serve as a reminder that life is perilously short and the laughs and good times need to be grabbed with both hands because you never know what might be coming around the next corner.

Life is short. Buy the horse.

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