The SA Champions Season reaches a glorious climax on Super Saturday, 28 July.
The man holding the reins is Graeme Hawkins, the senior statesman of South African horseracing administrators.
He unashamedly labels it the most important four months of our racing year, and an important Equus Champion yardstick.
The Highveld has got the cash but lacks the national competition and the depth of class. The Cape Summer Season has the weather and the winelands and the magnificent mountain. But a glance at the latest programming suggests it’s also shrinking.
The SA Champions Season, on the other hand, is where the stars clash. It’s the real McCoy – the national championship of SA horseracing – and the timing at season’s end gives it a good few lengths start when it comes to saluting the champions.
“The fascination of Champions Season in KZN is that it brings together the best available horses from throughout the country, the very best jockeys – and of course the very best trainers! There is also no question that our very staunch base of racing fans in KZN appreciate this and there’s a great buzz around at this time of the year. Coming as it does over the last four months of the racing season, SA Champions Season continues to retain its status as being the most important four months of the country’s racing year and many an Equus Champion is decided during this time,” says the proud Grandfather of two, who celebrates his 63rd birthday on 14 August – Equus Awards evening.
But Graeme Hawkins, for all his enthusiasm and bubbling energy, is saddened when he reflects on the yesterdays and good old golden days of racing.
“Those days when arriving on course to commentate at an ordinary meeting, thousands of people were arriving with you. The days when infighting appeared to be at a minimum and the bookmakers and totes operated harmoniously alongside each other; the days when those very same bookmakers would take any bet without limitation or fear and when they added great character and atmosphere to the race course without ever attempting to ‘rape’ the tote or the industry! The days when Colesberg and the Karoo was a major breeding industry and more than 800 yearlings were catalogued for the National Sale; the days when the KZN Breeding industry was sparkling and not fading; the days when we had great sprinting sires in numbers and when juvenile races started with full fields in September and the Nurseries were run in January. The days when Owners and Trainers were proud to wear their badges and dressed accordingly and the jockeys had respect for the authorities and rode in the rain. I could go on and on – but it seems all such a distant memory – it’s very sad!”
After a half century in the game, and one would imagine probably looking at taking things easier one of these days, Graeme is adamant that retirement is not on the horizon right now.
“I have entered into a contractual arrangement with Gold Circle and will continue to play a role, with a specific mandate to deliver on the marketing and eventing budget and the sourcing of sponsorship. The new arrangement though does ‘free-me-up’ to consider other projects. But to be honest, I have not thought about my retirement much. I certainly can’t see myself sitting around doing nothing. So, for as long as I am healthy, I would like to continue working!” says the family man who has another two Grandchildren on the way. “Isn’t that great news? They definitely add a whole new dimension to life!”he adds with sincerity.
Graeme proudly says it has been a sensational season so far and the Vodacom Durban July was again a highlight.
While on the issue of the July, we asked him whether there were plans to better define the final field qualification criteria.
“The panel, which comprises myself, Raf Sheik, Matthew Lips and Roger Smith try and ensure the process is as transparent as possible by issuing logs on an ongoing basis. Our debates are overseen by Neil Butcher, Chairman of Gold Circle’s Racing Committee, who acts as an independent observer.”
Graeme says this time there was ‘less debate than usual’- but adds with a wry smile, that ‘debate there will always be!’
He also notes that this year was a little unusual when compared to prior years in that, of the 10 guaranteed spots, only one was taken up – by Coral Fever.
“I personally do not believe a points system as you suggest can work- but that’s just my opinion. Clearly current form in Graded Races is an important criteria, particularly during the four months leading into the Vodacom Durban July. But there are a number of other factors which are properly considered and debated before any decisions. All logs reflect the opinion of the Panel as if the final field for the big race was being decided at that time. Therefore, whether in agreement or not, I cannot understand that we stand accused of not being transparent!”
We asked him if sponsors were harder to find these days and whether racing really offers them enough incentive.
“Sponsors want proper bang for their buck. It is common cause that most marketing and sponsorship budgets have been slashed, even by the major corporations. Expectations of returns on investment are extremely high and all agreements and proposals very closely scrutinised. The days of indiscriminate sponsorship – just for entertainment purposes – are clearly behind us. Even worthy charities are battling to raise much needed funds as companies tighten their belts. In general, horseracing does not offer enough to bring sponsors on board for the bread-and-butter racing but there are opportunities around the bigger Racedays and these events are well supported by sponsors. Television and Social Media exposure has become absolutely critical for sponsors,” he says.
We put it to him that the Rising Sun Gold Challenge day is a standout for many observers.
“Rising Sun are more of a media partner than a sponsor. Their community newspapers are very popular, having a massive readership base throughout the province. Their focus is on giveaways and entertainment, with a particular emphasis on giving back to the elder generation. They are fun to work with and the event also affords Gold Circle a valuable opportunity of giving back to the Indian racing fans – this raceday is really promoted in their honour!”
The quick fix question for SA horseracing question is a standard curved ball for our profile subjects.
“Horseracing in South Africa is facing enormous challenges. The costs associated with owning horses are rising at a rapid rate, but not so prize money. I honestly believe that the starting point is finding common ground with the fixed-odds operators and trying all that we can to normalise our relationship with them. The ongoing spat has been very costly for the industry – but sadly the damage may already be beyond repair unless there is a genuine interest from both sides to save the sport of horseracing. The breeding industry is contracting and, given current trends, we could be facing a shortage of supply in the not too distant future on that front. Strong and decisive action needs to be taken to restore confidence in the future of the Sport.”
How does racing continue without owners? Is Graeme worried?
“Of course it’s a worry that Owners are leaving! Just as worrying, is the fact that many breeders have closed up shop. Our industry is shrinking on all sides and we are in danger of becoming completely irrelevant. I do not have all the answers but this I know, united we have a chance; divided we will fail!”
And Gold Circle – what does the future hold?
“We will continue to focus on the welfare and sustainability of the Sport of Horseracing as best it can. We need to improve the on-course experience for Owners and Racing Fans and this subject is always at the top of the agenda. We need to make racing more accessible and affordable for everyone. But we cannot divorce ourselves entirely from what happens nationally, thus a collective effort is required to resolve the many challenges Racing faces the challenges together, as equals. We will not get any help from our regulators, this is something we have to do ourselves.”
Next Saturday heralds Super Saturday – back to just one day after last year’s two day festival experiment.
“To be frank, the two-day idea – which was largely mine – was a total failure. The 2018 eLan Gold Cup Racing Festival provides for a spectacular 12-race programme and we won’t mess with that again! As has become Gold Circle’s custom at this race meeting our National Champions will also be honoured,” he added in a reference to the likes of young star Lyle Hewitson and history making recordbreaker Anton Marcus.
He is a punter, owner, race-caller, racing journalist, television presenter, auctioneer, track expert, race programme planner, pedigree researcher, marketer, salesman, administrator – it’s no wonder that, for many of us, Graeme Hawkins is Mr Racing.
If he doesn’t have the answers, who does?