Etienne van der Westhuizen is yesteryear’s pin up from the Kid Colt / Kid Die Swerwer photo story series. He was also a big racing owner and punter. Although he took a back seat from owning for a while, he is back in the fold – and in the winner’s enclosure – with Dean Kannemeyer-trained Mr O’Neill. We catch up with this charismatic racing personality.
“I was born and bred in the Free State and matriculated at Grey College. I was an avid sportsman, I played rugby and did athletics at school and have always been active. When I came to Durban, I was going to continue with my rugby career, but then met friends on a fishing boat, fell in love with the sport and started fishing.” “One day the weather was bad, so we were all sitting on beach watching the waves. A guy came up to us and asked whether we wouldn’t like to come and play a part in a photo story and mentioned that it was a Western. Fortunately for me, I could ride horses and do stunt work, and the next week they asked whether I’d like to come back and do it on an on-going basis and I said yes.”
“I often used to visit an uncle of mine’s farm. He had these big sunflower and corn fields and our job was to chase the finches. So all day long we had to ride up and down chasing the finches out so that they couldn’t do too much damage to the crops.”
“Then a bit later, a friend of mine had a farm just outside Bethel. I was visiting one day and got the opportunity to break in and ride a young horse. We took it into a ploughed field so we couldn’t fall and get hurt – and that’s how I started my riding career.”
“In the photo stories I had to ride and fall off virtually every time. Everything was done in Natal at a place near the Mariannhill Toll Plaza. There’s an old monastery up there which was just the perfect backdrop for a Western. The other place we used was the bushes around the Umgababa area which had sand dunes of 70-100m. The only problem was that we couldn’t get the horses there, so we had to plan our shoots and scenes carefully.”
“We worked from a script and certain sequences had to be shot in the ‘desert’ and others at Mariannhill, so we’d work out our route. In the end we perfected the process and could shoot a whole book in a day.” And the horses? “They came from a riding school up behind the Mariannhill Monastery.”
“There were actually two publications – ‘Kid Colt’ and ‘Kid Die Swerwer’ – one in English and one in Afrikaans – and there were two different authors who wrote the stories. The series went on for many years and eventually they offered me full time employment and I became what we called an ‘organiser’. That meant taking charge of a photo story like Tessa, Mark Condor and Dr Conrad Brandt and I would organise the wardrobe and changes of clothing – you can’t walk into a place with a suit on and then come out on the other end in a different outfit.”
“I was involved with them for many years, then in August 1983 I joined Sanlam insurance company and worked for them for 23 years. I was the second recipient of a Gold Eagle as an agent in Natal.”
“Friends from yesteryear still call me Kid – but back then it was very much a ‘name’. At one stage, right at the beginning of the book, it was very hard to sit in a restaurant and not have kids point at you and have people ask whether you were ‘that guy from the book’. At the end of the day, I thought of myself more as a stunt rider than anything else, but I got to meet lovely people from all walks of life. Whenever we needed extras, we’d go down to the beach and chat to folks – usually backpackers from Australia or New Zealand and so on – and offer them bit parts. It was great fun.”
“I’ve been fortunate and blessed in racing. I think every horse I’ve ever owned has won. The first horse I ever bought came about while I was on a conference overseas. Patrick Lunn contacted me and said he was going to buy a horse called Camp Leader and would I be interested? I said yes, I’d love to and he ended up winning 10 races for me.”
“The next horse I bought was called Kid Colt. Obviously no-one else wanted the horse, so I bought it and he won 4 races for me. From there I started getting more involved and had shares in Eldoriza, who won 11 races including a match race against High Profile which he won, as well as running in the 1996 July handicap. Other good horses included House Of Song and Main Dreamer. Actually, that was quite an extraordinary story – we knew we had a very good horse in Main Dreamer. The day he debuted, Patrick came to us in the box and said he was a bit worried because the horse hadn’t eaten up. We watched him go down to the start and he looked exceptional and ended up winning by 7.5 lengths. One of the horses that finished behind him that day was Ganser Macher, who went on to run in the Guineas. Anyway, Main Dreamer was incubating some strange virus and his hoof fell off. We tried everything, but a week later he was dead. So there are some sad stories among the good ones,” he says thoughtfully.
“I ended up getting pretty involved. At one stage I was probably feeding 5-6 horses at the same time, which is quite a costly exercise. I was very fortunate that they were earning for me and paying for themselves. About 10 years ago I decided not to participate in buying and owning because it was becoming – and still is today – a very costly exercise.”
“Even though I wasn’t involved on the owning side for the last few years, I’ve always loved my racing. I don’t like betting on the horses the way I used to in the old days though. I was a fearless punter, but wisdom eventually took over and I realised it was a dangerous game to play. I still do my PA’s for every meeting and every now and then I go to an afternoon or evening meeting for lunch or dinner, but it’s more of a social thing now than a business.”
Asked for some of his boldest punts, he reveals, “In 1986 I put down R100k on Model Man. I can assure you that will never happen again! No look, I used to play. It was amazing – I never used to miss a meeting then. When I went to the bookmaker, there would be a line of people behind me and if I backed a horse, they would all climb in. One day after I’d backed a particular horse, one of the guys asked me, “Do you like him?” I said ‘No, I’m only practicing!” he chuckles at the memory.
“Last year, a group of us were out celebrating my birthday – Dean Kannemeyer, myself, Ali Wybrow, Warren Eisele who is an ex-judge, his wife and her son. Dean mentioned this horse, Mr O’Neil, and I said come on, let’s all get involved. It won’t cost a great deal and fortunately since we got the horse he’s run 3 places and had a win in his 5 outings. Unfortunately last week he had the unkindest cut of all. He is a bit naughty and Anthony Delpech said after his last race that this horse will win more races, but has to be cut, because he’s naughty and fights the rider and uses himself up too much during the race. But it’s been great fun being an owner again and we’re all enjoying it.” Do Cowboys Retire? “I’m retired now, but I go to gym every day – keeping fit is a bit of a religion with me and I enjoy it. I’ve got one or two little business interests with friends and so on, but I’m not involved full time, so am basically a sleeping partner. I have a little nest egg, so I can relax now.”
Etienne is divorced, but still close to his two children. “My son is 25 and is visiting from Italy at the moment. He works on yachts in the Mediterranean, so will be leaving again soon for the Red Sea and then off to the Caribbean. My daughter is 29 and is a model. She’s done quite a lot of work, including a few covers for Sports Illustrated and so on. Fortunately both kids are very well travelled. They’re both very adventurous – I guess they take after me in that respect!”