Candice Robinson has carried her fair share of the mantle at Mike Bass Racing for the last decade and a half, but was thrust into the front line in no uncertain terms when Mike fell ill late last year. While Mike is back at work and well on the road to recovery, the family announced that Mike will be handing over the reins to his daughter at the end of the season. Trainer, competitive rider, wife and mother is a lot to manage all at once, but there are no doubts Candice is up to the job.
It’s a blustery autumn morning at Milnerton training centre. There is a familiar knot of people under the palm tree at Bass HQ as the morning strings ring past the team. The only visible sign of anything out of the ordinary is that Mike Bass is seated in a wheel chair, but other than that, all eyes are on the horses and it’s business as usual. As the second string returns from work, the team make their way back to the office for a warming cup of coffee, to compare notes on the horses that were passed through the pens and to catch up on the cricket score.
Candice Robinson is the eldest child and only daughter of Mike and Carol Bass. Born on 9 August 1974 means she will be taking over the helm of one of the Cape’s premier stables at the somewhat tender age of 42. How does she feel about that? “It was obviously going to happen at some point, but my father’s illness brought the decision on a bit earlier. He’s back at work now and the plan is that everything will just continue as normal. Although I spent a few years in the corporate world, I’ve been here on a permanent basis for about 15 years now. My biggest role model in training horse is my father and in life in general both my parents. I try to base all my decisions, choices and values as they would, so nothing will really change. We’ll still operate under Bass Racing, but you can only have one active trainers’ license in a yard, so I’ll write my exam and things will change to my name at the end of the season. Other than that, we’ll carry on as we are.”
When asked whether it is intimidating being a woman in a male dominated industry, she is refreshingly frank. “There was probably a small concern to begin with, but I’ve grown up in the industry, so it’s not new to me. We’ve got a really loyal client base and everyone has been very supportive. I think it would be different if I was starting out from scratch, but that would be hard for anyone I think. The industry has changed a lot and starting out in today’s environment is probably not something I’d advise. Like Justin Snaith I’m very lucky to be part of an established racing family and to be honest, I think it’s hard for anyone trying to do it any other way these days.”
Her concerns are far more practical. “It’s a big operation and there’s a lot of work and stress that goes with that and I think the biggest challenge is learning to trust yourself. I know I’m more than capable, but there’s always that bit of doubt at the back of your mind. I’ve always been like that, I guess it’s part of my character. Whenever I have to do something new I wonder ‘How am I going to do this?’, but once you put me there, I get on and do it to the best of my ability and strangely enough I always seem to perform well under stress. Because my father was ill, this year was the first time I went to look at yearlings in Australia by myself. I was nervous to begin with, but after the first day, I started feeling a lot more comfortable. I learnt from the best and we have similar taste, so I think I came home with some nice ones.”
While her tone is light, it is clear she relished the challenge and there is a definite sense of someone with a strong sense of purpose and determination. Is she a competitive person? “I’m very competitive and I don’t like losing,” she states firmly. “I played a lot of sport at school including athletics for which I have my province colours for high jump. I still hold the high jump record at Milnerton primary,” she says proudly. “But I gave all that up for riding.”
It is a little known fact that Candice is a very accomplished competitive rider in the disciplines of showing and dressage, although she has focussed more on her dressage recently. “I used to do a lot of showing when I had Thoroughbreds.” Candice used to be a show judge, but has given that up – “I’d rather save my back for my own horses. It’s also a time thing. But now I’m hooked on dressage and own a gorgeous Dutch Warmblood.” It is interesting that someone who is at the top of their profession in the speed game of racing is also interested in its polar opposite – the game of collection.
How do the two compare? “For me dressage is far more challenging and technical. It’s something I am passionate about, so it’s something I make time for. I go and ride at lunchtime. It helps get rid of stress, otherwise I’d be constantly under pressure.” Her current ambition is to get to ride at Grand Prix level, but as with all things involving horses, it hasn’t been smooth sailing. “It’s been a bit of a higgledy piggeldy year. I had back issues last year and was out for six months. We just got going again and won the Musical Kur and WP EM Dressage Champs, then my father got sick while I was in Germany. My current horse is injured and I would love to have a second bow to my string to achieve my dream, but financially it’s rather a costly exercise,” she explains.
Does the showing and dressage side help with selecting racehorses? “You have to keep the two quite separate and be careful not to be swayed by horses that are too pretty, but it’s nice to have an eye for both. The two disciplines can complement each other. We’re very lucky to have Belinda Haytread as our work rider. She’s an extremely good horsewoman and often uses her schooling techniques to help our race horses. She’s a huge asset to the yard. Men tend to focus on getting a horse fit. I think having a female touch and a bit of subtlety and finesse can pay dividends.”
How does she pick horses?
Proving that the honest answers are often the best, she answers, “There are usually a few obvious horses on every sale that everyone is after, but basically we look at everything. That’s how you find the little cheapie pin hooks which may not have a flash pedigree, but are nice types. Ernie is a case in point – if we hadn’t pulled him out, we may have missed out on him. One always looks a the proven sires, but there are so many freshmen stallions these days, it’s hard to know where to look.”
Mike often makes one or two unconventional purchases at sales and Candice confirms, “There’s always something he likes and is going to buy. We’ll often try and get something to put together in the yard for clients – Line Break was one of those.” Is there any preference for fillies, colts, sprinters or stayers, etc? “We’ve had very good sprinters, milers and stayers and different horses takes different types of training. My father has always been good with fillies, which is a good trait.
Have there been any particular favourites over the years? “We’ve had some really good horses, but I’d have to say Pocket. All those Queen’s Plates and all those Mets. We got a bit spoilt with that.”
Candice handles a lot of the yard’s admin side, including the salaries and accounts, but is grateful that her brother Mark handles the marketing and PR side of things. “I don’t enjoy that side of it much. I’m a bit shy really.” It’s hard to imagine the gorgeous blonde who always looks a million bucks on big race days as shy, but it suddenly makes her very human. “I like dressing up, but it’s another thing to have to balance. Just getting your hair done takes hours, so you can’t do it every time, but it’s nice to make an effort for the big days.”
Candice is married to Connell and the couple have an 8 year old son named Nicholas, who she has to juggle dropping off and collecting from school every day. “It took 10 years to start a family and I always put it off because I was too busy. Thankfully we’ve got a great team at work as well as at home, otherwise it would be very difficult.”
“The last two years have been a bit light, but we’ve got a nice string at the moment and have bought some nice babies over the last two years, so we’ve got some up and coming juveniles to look forward to.” Asked about their record-breaking sales graduates from the 2015 CTS Premier Sale, Candice confirms that the Trippi half sister to Cold As Ice called Live Life ran second first time out and won comfortably at the second time of asking. “She’s a nice filly.” The R5 million colt will be kept back to race as a three year old.
“We’ve sent 12 to Durban for the season and have another 5 or 6 to go, so we’ll probably end up with 20. Robert Fayd’herbe is managing the Durban string for us at the moment. Inara will fly the flag and will be going to Joburg for the Empress Club Stakes. Then we’ll decide between the July and the Garden Province.”
“Helderberg Blue will go for staying races this year, so we’ll try that angle with him; Fly By Night will go for the sprints. Wake Up Maggie will try the Allan Robertson and Lanner Falcon the Fillies Sprint. It will be the last season for Lanner Falcon and Inara before they go to stud. Silver Mountain will be another of our big feature season hopes. She’s had a break and is back in work and doing well. We’ll probably stick to the fillies races for her, so she’ll aim for the KZN Guineas and then the Grade 1’s like the Woolavington and Garden Province.”
“Paterfamilias has done a tendon twice now, so that is a concern, but he’s holding up well and his main aim will be the Gold Challenge. We’ll run Marinaresco in the Cape Winter Guineas and take it from there.”
With the Bass CV it’s hard to imagine there are too many challenges left, but are there any ambitions Candice is still hoping to achieve? “We have to win the Colts Guineas before we give up. That’s one race that’s eluded us.”