With their ‘have horse will travel’ approach to life and business, the Spies family have conquered all corners of South Africa, and even North of the Limpopo, from their Vaal base for the past 35 years.
Now the time has come to spread their wings beyond Africa.
The richly endowed Saudi Cup meeting at King Abdulaziz Racetrack in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, is next on the radar.
Having turned 50 earlier this month, and with a sparkling silverware collection of Gr1 trophies, and even a Zimbabwe Champion Trainer trophy on the mantelpiece at his Vaal home, Hollywoodbets trainer Corne Spies is ready for new challenges – and maybe even to conquer the world.
His recent Gr1 winning son of Oratorio, Van Halen, and the stable’s rising star and Gr2 Golden Horseshoe winner Nourbese – Drakenstein stallion Futura’s first stakes winner – have already transferred into quarantine in Johannesburg, in preparation for an incredible journey via Mauritius and Europe into Saudi Arabia.
It is ironic that the time-tested Spies approach of sourcing the genuine value is being showcased to the world by the pair, who cost less than $14 000 between them!
A dual Gr1 winner, Van Halen, was bought for a mere R100 000 at the 2017 Cape Premier Yearling Sale, while the exciting 3yo Nourbese was a R140 000 buy from the 2019 Emperors Palace National 2YO Sale.
While we are looking five months ahead, Van Halen could be a likely candidate for the $1,5 million Saudia Sprint, won earlier this year in a thriller by New York Central who pipped Matera Sky.
The Saudi authorities are keen to promote their sport and with the headline Saudi Cup feature boasting a stakes breakdown awarding $10 million to the winning horse, $3,5 million to the second and then generous bites all the way down to $200 000 for tenth finisher, it’s a raceday worth pursuing with even a half decent horse.
“It’s a time consuming and costly exercise but they are both top horses and we’d like to take our chances. I have been an international trainer for some years, you know,” laughs Corne in an obvious reference to his Zim championship crown.
But he frowns, and on a serious note the Equine Sciences graduate talks about the current climate here, where he says he is extremely worried about the stakes situation.
“The stakes model versus the cost reality is out of sync. It’s been on the decline for over a decade and now the bottom has fallen out of it. Stakes is a priority that needs to be remedied as soon as possible. Billionaires may be happy to race for rosettes. But the core middle-class owner base at the bottom of the pyramid is diminishing fast. While nobody enters the sport with his eyes open, and genuinely expecting to get rich, when one sells racehorse ownership, the fun aspect has to be balanced with the bonus of a break-even, or a possible return on investment, however nominal.”
He continues that right now, there is little to no light.
“I hope that the powers-that-be can do something soon. I don’t have the answers, but our in-house marketing has never really worked for racing. We have left it to sponsors to do the work. We need to find professionals to do a professional job of marketing the sport. Once stakes are in order and remotely realistic again, I feel things can resume to something reasonable,” he adds.
On his season plans, Corne says that he won’t be heading to Cape Town for the summer season.
“We tried it over the last two years. We succeeded at the bottom end but our top horses didn’t deliver. It’s expensive to go and sets one back a bit. I also feel that the national 3yo programme needs to be looked at. The Gauteng Guineas is the start of the SA Triple Crown in early February. The Cape Derby is run three weeks later. With the overlap, there is little opportunity either way for the Cape guys to go for the Highveld features and vice versa.”
For now, he steps the very smart 2019 Golden Slipper winner Cockney Pride out in the Gr2 Joburg Spring Challenge at Turffontein on Saturday.
She hasn’t run for nine months, since finishing downfield in the Cape Fillies Guineas last year.
“She is a really lovely filly and we are starting her on Saturday. She will need the run,” he said.
He points out that we can also look out for his very smart sprinter Singforafa, as well as his Summer Cup entry Imperial Ruby.
“Imperial Ruby won the Gold Bowl as a 3yo. As a Silvano, he will only improve with age and will be better this term. He has drawn poorly in the Summer Cup but it’s nice to have a big race runner, so we will monitor how the field evolves and make a decision later on about him.”
Corne says that they have been fortunate to have bought very well at this sale – but he is not sure yet to what his buying power will extend to come November.
He says that he never worries about looking at the catalogue too far in advance, as there is ‘always quality’.
“Looking at the catalogue only really tells one which horses will go for money. With limited budgets, we prefer to go and do physical inspections without the pedigree page at the sale and pick from there. That way we can often buy reasonably priced horses with less fashionable pedigrees.”
While he has rationalised his string to 100 horses, he notes that while many have suffered economically during 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, he also knew of people on the other side of the coin whose businesses had prospered.
“That’s the nature of life. And there are always folk willing to take a chance in bad times. But we really absolutely need to sort the stakes situation out sooner rather than later. That will incentivise buyers again and put money back in breeders pockets – thus arresting the decline.”
Corne points out that many people in racing know only racing. He doesn’t have small children – Carmen is 18 and in matric, while 23 year old Xander is doing articles as a trainee attorney – but says that it is clear that many families depend on the sport.
“We need to make it work. MOD has the right values. We now need to get the right guys into the right positions and start taking much less out of the game than has been the case in recent years. Looking after all our customers and making the right calls for racing will get the engines firing again.”