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Adriaan van Vuuren

A Lot Of Heart

Adriaan and Rika van Vuuren (photo: JC Photographics)

Adriaan and Rika van Vuuren (photo: JC Photographics)

As there is as much chance of picking a champion with science and pedigree analysis as of solving an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum, you may as well do whatever blows your hair back. Owners who are doing just that and having a startling amount of success, are the newly crowned Triple Crown Champion owners, Adriaan and Rika van Vuuren.

Van Vuuren exploded onto the racing scene at the 2012 Emperor’s Palace Ready To Run Sale, when he bought both the top priced filly and colt. Three years down the line he owns some of South Africa’s most famous racing silks, a Dubai World Cup carnival runner, a Supreme Cup winner and South Africa’s third Triple Crown champion. He is supported by one of racing’s most colourful trainers in Michael Azzie and has some of the most enigmatic purchasing strategies in recent memory. But perhaps most unusual of all is his reason behind it all – he’s having fun.

At first meeting, Van Vuuren is fairly reserved and admits it takes him a while to trust new people, but chat to him about Abashiri and you’ll go far to find a more engaging racing enthusiast. Throw in his wonderful story-telling ability, in the unique way Afrikaans lends itself to so well and an encounter with one of SA’s most enigmatic owners is a rare treat.

Triple Crown

Triple Crown

Abashiri wins the 2016 Triple Crown

A week after his nail-biting Triple Crown win, Adriaan is still on cloud nine. “It’s unreal. It’s something you don’t think can ever happen to you.” Asked the rather obvious question of what it feels like to own a Triple Crown winner, he says “There are few things in life that give you that kind of joy. When you realise how hard it is, you start to appreciate just what an achievement it really is. Sixteen weeks and three races against the toughest competition ….” He tails off, in awe of what his horse has accomplished.

But let’s rewind a bit.

Why racing?

“It’s a funny story. My wife and I both grew up with horses, but the only thing we knew about racing was getting horses off the track and going to the July, which we attend every year. We were there when Pocket Power dead-heated with Dancer’s Daughter and I think the fascination started there.”

A look at the 2012 Ready To Run catalogue piqued his interest. “We owned Misty Meadows at the time and we live in Flaming Rock Street and I noticed a filly called Mystical Star with Flaming Rock in her pedigree. I work nearby, so decided to go and have a look. I didn’t know how it all worked, but someone showed me to reception and they helped me with a catalogue and buyer’s card. Out in the sales yard, I saw a grey filly named Dover Beach. She was lot 24 and I tested the water and bought her for R80k. Lot 46 was in the stable next to Dover Beach and as the two seemed quite attached, I bought that one too. Then came Mystical Star. Mike de Kock was also interested and I had to go to more for her. At that point, the TBA folks came rushing over and I could see they were a bit nervous. They wanted to know where I came from, whether I really had the money and how I was going to pay, so we went to the boardroom and I did the transaction then and there to put their fears to rest.”

“Someone asked who my trainer was. At that stage I hadn’t considered all that, but explained that winning the July was on my bucket list and that I wanted someone who loves horses and would give them the best. They said they knew exactly who I needed and introduced me to Michael Azzie. Despite not knowing anything about me and whether I had R5 or R50 million, the way he handled the situation convinced me this was someone I could work with. We’ve had our setbacks, but we’ve persevered and things have just got bigger and better. So that’s where it all started and how we got involved and the rest is history.”

Aba-orange

Politician - former winner of the Cape Guineas

Politician wore them first

“Misty Meadows’ orange and black are our favourite colours and Michael noticed a street in our neighbourhood called Politician Street. At that stage we didn’t know who that was – one finds these things out later – but Michael linked the two, asked about the colours and in a few hours we had them registered. It was one of those lucky things – the partners that held the colours each thought the other had renewed them and in the mix-up, we managed to get them. It worked out well as they are absolutely perfect for us.”

Aba-army

Happy Day for the big team

The ‘Van Vuuren Army’

“Because horses take up so much of your time, we decided to make it something we did as a family. We also try to involve friends, family and employees because we enjoy the fun of sharing our horses with as many people as possible. I’ve heard people describe some of our lead in parties as the ‘Van Vuuren army’, but they’re all people that have been involved with the horse or helped in some way. It’s just how we do things.”

Buying horses

Jenna Lyons said, “Amazing things happen when you’re having fun and doing something you love”.

It is a model that works well for Van Vuuren and leads to the occasional unorthodox purchase. He explains, “I would love to have a July winner and the conviction that it will be a grey comes from me. Some people feel greys are weaker horses, but I thought Dancer’s Daughter was one of the best. There have only been a handful of grey July winners, but I would very much like to own the next one.”

“Dover Beach, that first horse I bought, has developed such a bond with our youngest daughter, Danielle, it’s enough to make grown men cry. She hugs Danielle under her chin and makes these noises I can’t describe – it’s like a mother and child.

It makes you realise there’s a magic that few people can understand rationally – it’s something they have to see and feel with their hearts.

I think racing is all about those little things in life and the right feeling at the right time. For example, we bought Deputy Jud because my daughter Kyla saw the words War Horse on his stable. Many people say it’s a stupid way to go about things, but we do it for fun and after a crazy week, besides church there’s nothing better than dressing up neatly and going racing. And every so often, with some help from above, we find a horse like Abashiri.”

The Abashiri story

Abashiri as a yearling

Abashiri as a yearling

“I bought Abashiri unseen. I’d just arrived at the sale and Michael said there’s a really good horse in the ring. The bidding stood at R380k and I gave him the nod. He made one bid for R400k and it was ‘once, twice, sold!’ He was a beautiful animal and I said I hope he can run as good as he looks. We didn’t put any pressure on him and he just blossomed on his own.”

D Day

“We put in a lot of work to organise all the Aba hats and flags and make it an orange and black field day. Initially the race seemed far away and unreal, but once we were there the day just flew. It makes you a little scared when you realise how much can go wrong. I think the worst was when everyone started cheering ‘Go Abba Go’. Abashiri stopped, looked around and then put his head down and went. I think that’s when reality hit that this was it.”

Reaction

“The crowd was amazing. I don’t think there was a single person who wasn’t cheering for him. Everyone joined together to support this horse and will him home. That togetherness, somehow the crowds knew and Abashiri knew. It was so emotional. I’m glad I wasn’t on the horse at that stage – it was far easier watching from the box!”

“The minutes after the race were agonising. Did he win, did he lose? It looked 50/50, so we had to wait for confirmation and try to stay calm. Then the replay and waiting for the commentator to make the announcement – it was a few seconds of not breathing. And then came the announcement and from there on it was just celebrations. People still haven’t stopped.”

“When Louis The King won it in 2014, I said to myself what are the chances of finding a horse like that? One just hopes and we have been so lucky to have reached heights with this horse and others that have taken us to places we’d never have been otherwise.”

Unforgettable

Abashiri (photo: JC Photographics)

Emotional win (photo: JC Photographics)

“Those are moments I’ll never forget. It’s not just the win, it’s how it has impacted other people’s lives. People who don’t even have horses were there just to see the dream come true. It makes your hair stand on end. We were touched how many people came to thank us for the memorabilia – it was so unexpected in this day and age. Some said nothing and just hugged us.”

“A lot of people who put money on Abashiri didn’t cash their tickets. It’s a little part of him and of the day they want to hang on to. I don’t think one can fully understand how many people’s lives he’s touched.”

“That feeling is an absolute privilege to experience. When my first child came into the world, that single event made me forget everything else. That’s what it felt like on Saturday – every negative disappeared. This horse makes everyone forget their problems. He doesn’t know all that of course – he just knows he’s won – but you could see he knew it wasn’t a normal race.

Those are moments money can’t buy. And one day when it’s someone else’s turn, we will always remember what it felt like to stand there on Saturday.”

Triple Crown aftermath

Adriaan and Rika van Vuuren (photo: JC Photographics)

Adriaan van Vuuren (photo: JC Photographics)

Abashiri has since shipped to KZN and Adriaan confirms, “We’re looking forward to the July. There’s less pressure now that things are spaced out more, so he’ll spend time going to the beach and relaxing a bit. All our preparation is on track, but we’ll take it one step at a time. People say he’s not a stayer and I believe perhaps he isn’t, but I do believe that he is a champion and it takes a champion to win races like this – he has got the heart!”

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