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Bill Prestage

Indian Summer

Bill Prestage (photo: hamishNIVENPhotography)

Bill Prestage (photo: hamishNIVENPhotography)

On Saturday, 16 December 2017, the 6yo Milton and the 32 year old Gavin Lerena, carrying Billy Prestage’s orange and yellow silks, caused equal parts upset and delight, when they downed Dean Kannemeyer’s unbeaten Last Winter, not to mention a swathe of Met hopefuls, in the 1800m Premier Trophy at Kenilworth.

Bill Prestage has been part of the Western Cape racing firmament for as long as anyone can remember. Sadly, memories are short these days because not only do we rush about at warp speed, but there are few who stick around long enough to remember much of what went before. Mr Prestage turns 83 next February and as such, he has seen a lot come and go. He prefers to watch, absorb a lot and say very little. When he does speak, it’s usually worth listening.

About Billy

“My father was a trainer until he died in 1978 and then I took over. In those days an owner-trainer license still existed, so that’s what I took out at the time. In about 1994 I stopped for seven years because of commitments to my business and then I started again in 2001.”

Mr Prestage dates back to the heyday of the Durbanville Gymkhana Club. “I rode at Durbanville when it was an amateur club. That was very different to the Cape Hunt, although I rode at Cape hunt as well. Durbanville was a semi-professional club and several people earned a living from riding there. Riders never served an apprenticeship. In those days there wasn’t an Academy, so appies lived with trainers and all the blokes that were slightly too big to make professional jockeys would ride at Durbanville.

Mr Prestage was one of three boys, all of whom rode. His brother Bobby rode for Heine Schultz. “At one time, he was one of the biggest stables. I rode mainly for Georgie Brown and CB de Meillon. He was a professional trainer, but had quite a few horses at Durbanville.”

He cut his race riding teeth alongside the likes of Terrance Millard and Ralph Rixon. “Before us, there was Willie Kleb. Colin Tyler was a top rider – he became the manager of Highlands. Arthur Gray also rode for Heine Schultz. I think the other guys are all gone, virtually,” he muses. “In 1955 Durbanville became a professional club and that was the end of us at Durbanville.”

Schedule

Mr Prestage is one of the few trainers who trains only for his own account. “I’ve got an open license, so I’m entitled to train for whoever I like, but by choice I’ve always just trained for myself. When my father died, I took over his string, but I was very occupied with my business and didn’t want to train for other people at that time. It grew on me. I suppose it would be nice to train for other people if you could pick up some of the best clients, but that’s not so easy.”

Although he’s past official retirement age, he still gets up early to work his string, then usually goes into the office for a few hours, before heading back to the stables to check on his horses.

“I don’t work very hard any more, my son runs the business now. I go there most days, but quite frankly, I don’t do a lot.” So why choose such a punishing schedule? “It’s something to do. I find it very difficult to sit around and do nothing. The horses finish early and I wouldn’t be able to sit around.”

Milton

Milton (photo: hamishNIVENPhotography)

Milton (photo: hamishNIVENPhotography)

However, Mr Prestage prefers talking about his horses to talking about himself. Milton was a R160 000 purchase from the CTS Book 2 sale in 2013. Buying any horse is a leap of faith, but it requires an extra bit of resolve when you are the one signing the cheque. However, Mr Prestage is not afraid to put his money where his mouth is and has been backing his judgement with his chequebook all is life. “We looked at him at the sales and we were all quite struck with him and thought he was a nice looking horse. He was by a new sire, so for that reason a lot of guys gave him a miss, but it never really bothered me. I thought the female line was fairly good and there were all sorts of nice things about him, so that’s why we bought him.”

“His first couple of starts were very good. I sent him to Ormond Ferraris in Johannesburg for a R2,5 million race he was eligible for because of that sale. He didn’t do very well in Joburg at all. He had four starts there and really didn’t shape, so I brought him back. When he came back, I gave him quite a long break and when he started off, he immediately started doing well. He won two on the trot, before finishing just under half a length second to Light The Lights in the 2016 Peninsula Handicap. It was a very good comeback,” he notes with satisfaction.

“After that, I always thought he would be a decent sort of a horse. He’s probably just a little off the very top class, but he’s right up there. Looking at his racing record, there’s always a bit of a gap at the beginning of every season. Why is that? “He’s a horse that doesn’t winter very well,” explains Mr Prestage. “He gets a very heavy winter coat and doesn’t look too nice in winter time. I thought of clipping him last season, but then thought I’m not going to race him, so I decided to leave it. But this year has been a bit difficult. We’ve not had much of a summer and where his coat would normally come out in September, by October it was still a bit rough.”

Milton finished within 5 lengths of Our Mate Art in the Matchem, was within a length of Copper Force in a Pinnacle Stakes three weeks later and then put up a great run to finish 2 lengths behind Mambo Mime in an 1800m handicap, carrying top weight.

“The best thing about him is that he’s a very genuine horse. Everything about him is pretty straightforward, although he likes to be looked after,” he notes. “He stands in the middle stable and if I take the horses either side of him out, he frets a bit, so I never leave him without a horse next to him, or he’s not very happy, makes a noise, box walks. But otherwise, he’s quiet as a lamb.”

Riding Engagement

2017 Gr2 Premier Trophy, Milton, Bill Prestage, Gavin Lerena (photo: hamishNIVENPhotography)

Good job! (photo: hamishNIVENPhotography)

Gavin Lerena was an eye-catching engagement for Saturday’s race. How did that come about? “Quite honestly, I looked for Bernard Fayd’herbe who’s done very well on him, but he was riding for the Snaiths. My next choice was Donovan Dillon who has ridden and won on him, but he was riding Nebula because he’s on that in the Met, so he was committed. So I was looking around. There weren’t many others available, but somehow I found Gavin Lerena and was very happy with that. He’s a top jockey and would have been one of my top choices, except for the fact I didn’t think he’d seen the horse. But it turns out Gavin had ridden him in Joburg and actually rode quite a bit of work for him with Ormond.”

To the letter

2017 Gr2 Premier Trophy, Milton, Bill Prestage, Gavin Lerena (photo: hamishNIVENPhotography)

Milton scores by a short head in the Premier Trophy (photo: hamishNIVENPhotography)

Milton was drawn mid-field, jumped smartly and lead the vanguard, leading a strong gallop from the get go. Opera Royal gave chase, racing on his inside and sensibly not allowing Gavin to get too much of a head start. Rounding the bend into the home straight, Milton had the field strung out, with Opera Royal trying gamely to keep him in his sights. The pair drew clear of the field, but with 300m left to go, Opera Royal threw in the towel as the chasers started closing. The unbeaten Last Winter, who had been sitting well off the pace, about 10 lengths off the leaders, mounted a spectacular late burst, but it was Milton’s day as he hung on to score by a short head.

Praising Gavin’s ride, Mr Prestage notes, ““I talked about the horse and told Gavin what I wanted and it all worked out the way I’d hoped. He never went for his stick at all. He was lucky enough to hold on by that short head, but I’ll take it!” he grins. From 35 starts, his R160k 2013 March Yearling sale purchase now has 8 wins and 19 places to his credit for earnings of R968,900.”

Has he given any thoughts to his summer campaign? “The obvious races are the Queen’s Plate and the Peninsula Handicap. “He’s earned the right to have a shot at the Queen’s Plate, but it’s just for me to make up my mind whether to take on the very best, or try something that’s a little weaker, but neither will be easy. In the Peninsula he’ll give away a lot of weight to a horse like Mambo Mime who beat him last time out and in the other race, he’s taking on very strong company. I would have to supplement him into both. But I’ve got until Friday to make up my mind.”

Long career

Why has he stuck at training for so long? “I like the horses very much,” he answers simply. Fortunately I’ve got a nice team of grooms. They’ve been with me a long time and as a result, they know what I want and know I can be difficult, so most of the problems that other people have, don’t happen for me. I’ve got two grooms who ride most of my work. I do have the apprentices that ride a bit of work for me, but I’ve got two very good work riders and the groom who looks after Milton rides 95% of the work on him. Because he looks after the horse and the horse has done well for him, he’s in love with that horse, quite frankly.”

Although at every sale Mr Prestage protests that he’s not buying any more horses, there’s invariably something that catches his eye. However, he has scaled back a little and currently has a string of 8. “I’ve got three 2yo’s and five older horses. A couple of the older horses will have to move along shortly. Whether or how I replace them, I’m not quite sure, but that’s the joy of training for yourself. I don’t have to do anything.

Asked to name a career highlight, he is characteristically diplomatic. “I’ve enjoyed it all. I wouldn’t say there’s been any highlight in particular. I did have a very good leased horse called Foreign Agent many years ago that ran second in the Queen’s Plate twice (Foreign Agent finished second to the imported Sledgehammer, beating home the likes of Yataghan, Sentinel and Sword Dancer and Lancaster). “That was nice to have,” he reflects, “But I’ve enjoyed it all.”

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1 comment on “Bill Prestage

  1. James Goodman says:

    Bill is to my mind the epitome of the horseman, long may he continue to enjoy training

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