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Glen Puller

Million Dollar Trainer

Glen Puller (pic: hamishNIVENPhotography)

Glen Puller (pic: hamishNIVENPhotography)

Driving past the Glen Puller yard in Milnerton, one’s gaze is immediately arrested by the bright and cheery red brick exterior, the neat window box brimming with flowers and the collection of cars parked outside the front door.

Popping in for a morning (or even afternoon) visit, usually finds Glen either attending to his string or behind his desk catching up on paperwork while glancing across his horses every so often to make sure everything’s as it should be. Constantly checking.

The only respite he allows himself is the occasional Camel Black. If form follows function, then there can be no greater vindication of his years of dedication than Illuminator winning South Africa’s first Million Dollar Race in January 2016. However, the big win hasn’t changed a great deal. Glen smiles a little more readily and one or two of the creases in his face have eased slightly, but other than that, it’s still business as usual.

The office area is neatly divided in half, with Glen’s office on the right and the kitchen and entertainment area on the left. Everything is neat, tidy and there’s a feeling of everything being in its rightful place. The walls are covered in framed racing photos from significant moments in his career. “It’s my hall of death” he says with a mischievous grin, referring to the row of photos lining the passageway. “Most of them are gone now and people say I should put new ones up, but I’m not taking them down – too much trouble. Plus those are people who were with me at the very beginning. Every day I see them and say thanks – maybe that’s why we’re doing well now.”

When one comments on how welcoming the yard is (evidenced by a steady stream of owners and visitors), he smiles again and says, “I’m here now, so I might as well enjoy it. Mark Watters was here first and then me.”

About Glen

Brothers Puller. Garth(left) and Glen Puller are a powerful team.

Garth and Glen Puller

Glen was born in Natal and is the youngest of the family’s four children. His mother was from the Western Cape and his father, who was from KZN, passed away when he was just 2 months old. “My mother moved to Cape Town with 4 children. A gentleman who lived nearby had horses and took Garth with him to the farm and it all started there. Garth decided he wanted to be a jockey. My mother was not very happy, but my grandfather encouraged it. I was 10 years younger, but wanted to follow what Garth was doing. I used to go and watch him ride. I remember standing at the fence in the car park because I was too young to get into the course. Cape Hunt was the only one I could go to.”

Glen joined the Academy in 1976 alongside contemporaries like Rhys van Wyk, Mark Mason, Gavin Howes, Jannie Gouws and Michael Pethers. Cyril Buckham was the KZN Academy master followed by Vince Curtis and the Cape Town academy was run by Tony and Eileen Pereira from Rhodesia. Glen, who rode as G.R. (Glen Ross) Puller, had his first ride on a dark bay filly for Clive Hyde in Pietermaritzburg. “It was 1200m down the straight. Afterwards I was exhausted and just glad it was over!” His first winner came aboard Lunar Mission for Brian Cunningham.

Did he enjoy riding and were there any special highlights? “I enjoyed the winning, yes! And there were quite a few highlights actually. My first winner – you never forget your first. And you never forget the big race winners. Maybe winning the Cape Derby was the best. I’d ridden a couple of winners that day. I got back after riding a winner for Chris Snaith and Syd Laird came up to me in the jockey room and said ‘good luck for that win.’ I made some comment like ‘I’m just getting started,’ and then I won the Derby for him on Secret Service. That was something to remember.”

He was apprenticed to Lionel Witkowski and also rode a lot of winners for Chris Snaith and Peter Kannemeyer. “They taught me and helped me a lot.” Glen relates proudly that John Freeman had once mentioned to him that PK had cited Glen as a good horseman. “When he came to congratulate me after the million dollar, I said ‘Perhaps PK was right after all?’ And there’s that mischievous grin again. Were there big celebrations after the race? “No, we had to get home to check on the horses.”

Million dollar day (photo: hamishNIVENPhotography)

Million dollar day (photo: hamishNIVENPhotography)

Unfortunately Illuminator suffered a fracture to his off hind in early March, putting paid to a potential Durban campaign, but Glen is philosophical. “There probably weren’t too many races for him there anyway. We caught it early, so he’s been operated on and had pins put in. Luckily they could operate standing up. With injuries like that, they often do themselves more damage coming round from the anaesthetic. He’s back in the yard now on box rest. We’ll focus on getting him well as best we can and see where we are.”

Hanging up his boots

“I stopped riding in 1987.  I’d had a couple of falls, but I didn’t break anything, believe it or not, but I had a lot of wear and tear on my hips and back.” Does he miss riding? “When you’re young, you always think you can get on and do it again. I cannot say I think that anymore – the nuts and bolts stopped bending the way they should. I’m pretty competitive and feel if you can’t do something properly, then what’s the point?”

“But things were different back then. My brother was very tough and competitive. There were no excuses. No such thing as can’t. You found a way and you made it happen. For the guys who did well there was no ‘ok’. They were all determined to make it happen and didn’t stop until it did. Perhaps the best example was Felix Coetzee. I was told a story once about how he’d ridden several winners one day, but the next horse didn’t win. He was so upset you couldn’t talk to him, you couldn’t even look at him. That was how strong his will and competitive drive were. It didn’t matter that the others had won, this horse shouldn’t have got beat. He won the next race, but he wasn’t happy. That’s why he was so successful. Everything counted. One also didn’t have a party after every win – winning was the job. You were supposed to win. Perhaps that’s the difference between then and now,” he says thoughtfully. “Mind you, someone once told me that Stan Amos only rode 2 winners as an apprentice.”

Racing family

Chris Puller (photo: hamishNIVENPhotography)

Chris Puller (photo: hamishNIVENPhotography)

Glen’s son Chris is carving a niche for himself as a riding talent. “In the beginning I was against it. There are enough of us in the family! If you become a jockey and have some success, things move very fast and there’s all this money before you’re really ready for it. He’s bright and did very well at school and there are lots of other things he could do. The first year he said he wanted to apply, I said he should try something more stable. But the following year he was even more adamant. His weight was still good and he was even more determined, so I said fair enough. Once it’s in your blood, you don’t get it out.”

Joining the training ranks

“I took out my trainer’s license in October 1989. I saddled my first winner in December 1989 – it was called Golden Field and it was ridden by my brother (the photograph still hangs in the office). Chris’ first ride for me was also a winner- Creole Queen.

Glen has a string of about 40 horses, but rotates them regularly between the Milnerton yard and his farm out in the Rondeberg area, where stable assistant Roderick Fredericks does a lot of the early handling and breaking in and was also largely responsible for bringing on Illuminator.

Horse rotation

“In training they spend 22 hours a day in a box – they’re athletes – they should be out more than in. The rotation is an idea I’ve always wanted to try. My horses race on a Saturday and come back to the yard on Saturday afternoon and then on Sunday or Monday they go back to the farm for a week. If a horse does run, it doesn’t do much for those few days after a race anyway, and at least they can get over the run in a different place. They get a chance to go out into a paddock and be a horse again. The paddocks aren’t too big – if they’re too big, they tend to hurt themselves – but they get the sun on their backs and get to do their own thing. It loosens them up, works out the lactic acid and rejuvenates the mind so that they look forward to coming back to training again. I try and do it as often as I can. It’s not a rest – they tell you when they need a proper rest – but it does wonders for their mind and they don’t get burnt out so easily.” He also takes his horses on regular trips to the beach for the same reason – “as they say, a change is as good as a holiday.”

Future plans

With a big win and the impressively heavy CTS trophy on the shelf, is Glen harbouring any thoughts of retirement? “I keep saying I’m in my retirement year,” he jokes. But the eyes constantly flicking through the window tell another story. “They’re all different, you know? Some eat, some don’t eat. There are no books.”

Glen has an astute eye for a horse and a keen eye for finding value for his clients, but he’s quick to acknowledge that it doesn’t matter how good you are, if you don’t have the stock. He has firm ideas on how to train and how to run horses and isn’t afraid to speak his mind. “Of course you’ve got to have faith in yourself and believe in your convictions, otherwise why are you doing it? Mind you, we all think we know how it works, but what do we really know?”

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