On Saturday, 26 September 2015, Mike Azzie won the 11th and final renewal of Africa’s richest sand race by saddling stable star Deputy Jud for patron Adriaan van Vuuren. We chat to him about life, horses and the power of dreams.
Having a chat with Mike Azzie is like taking a walk through the annals of South African horse racing history. If one had to put a peg in the ground, the story probably starts with grandfather George Azzie, who was born in East London in 1903. George was known as a colourful and larger than life character and perhaps these qualities helped him persuade the Jockey Club to grant him his trainer’s license at the tender age of 19. He didn’t disappoint, ensuring his first runner – a pony named Jack Spratt, purchased from a local trainer for the princely sum of £25 – came home victorious at a meeting of the Pretoria Pony and Galloway Club on 20 September 1922. It marked the first victory in a career that would span over half a century and more than 2000 career victories, as well as spawning a South African training dynasty.
An early incident set the tone for the Azzie M.O. George purchased two horses from the estate of the late Henry Nourse for, in those days, unheard-of sums. One, a horse named Distant Call which cost £3,000 became his first big winner. From then on the best horses and the top races were his aim – and his list of big race successes began to lengthen.
Originally based at Turffontein, the purchase of Fred Rickaby’s Wood Ditton Lodge in Newmarket proved a game changer. With a string of high profile clients including the likes of Denis and Peggy Mosenthal, and the first of his three July Handicap winners in Preto’s Crown in 1955 the fortunes of the Azzie yard were on the ascent. However, things hit the stratosphere with the arrival of Charles W. Engelhard.
With horses such as Preto’s Crown, Numeral, Riboville, White Foam, Caradoc, Pedlar, Hifrac, Radlington, Highland Chief, Kraken and Restore, the Azzie name is firmly inked into the honour rolls of almost every single feature race on the South African calendar, but is perhaps best associated with Hawaii and the late, great Elevation, who won three consecutive runnings of the Holiday Inns.
George’s son, Herb Azzie, was the yard’s stalwart assistant. Mike relates, “He was offered many opportunities to go out on his own, but loyalty kept him working for his father. Eventually pressure from our patrons grew to such an extent that Granddad agreed to step down. He asked Dad to see out Elevation’s third attempt at the Holiday Inns and then handed over the reins.”
Herb also enjoyed success, most notably with Cape Guineas and Queen’s Plate winner, Quarrytown. Mike remembers, “Things were going well. Dad was at the top of the log and we were getting calls every day – we even started talking about a satellite yard in Durban.” Sadly it was short-lived. Herb died of a sudden heart attack on the gallops on the morning of 27 October 1981. “He died in my arms,” says Mike quietly. “My grandfather had passed in August, so in a matter of 6 weeks we lost them both.” A long silence speaks eloquently at to what a heavy blow it was.
Showing the resolve that has kept the family at the top of their profession for so long, Mike took out his trainer’s license in October 1981 and, following George’s example, ensured that his first runner was a winner – Driftwood stormed home by 3.5 lengths at Benoni Turf Club, on 31 October 1981. However, it wasn’t plain sailing.
“It was a struggle early on,” he recalls. “My step-mom and I didn’t get on and when Dad died she kicked me out, so I was more or less a Traveling Wilbury for the next few years.” Nevertheless, despite moving yards several times, Mike kept things ticking over and finally settled at Randjesfontein in October 1990. “And we’ve been here ever since,” he says, the relief still palpable after all these years.
Mike has maintained the high standards set by his father and his grandfather. He has an eye for a high quality horse and is not afraid to put his money where his mouth is. On race days, his horses are always turned out to perfection and it is clear he takes enormous pride in his work. The meticulous attention to detail has paid off and over the years there has been a fair share of big race success, with horses such as National Currency, Harry’s Charm, Imperial Dispatch, Brainteaser, and Secret Pact to name just a few.
However, the best horse in his yard remains his wife Sharon. “We met when she was still primary school and I was in high school. She was the most beautiful girl. When she came to high school we used to do athletics together. I said to my father one day, “See that girl over there? I’m going to marry her.” Sharon is an integral part of the Azzie stable, doing the books and managing client affairs. The couple have five children Alexis (who gets married this Saturday), Gabrielle, who has studied photography and is currently pursuing a teaching qualification, Adam, who is already working as an assistant and his twin brother Dexter (who works in commercial property) and the youngest, Ryan has also joined the yard.
If family has been the backbone of the operation for generations, so has strong client relationships and Adriaan van Vuuren has been no exception. Mr van Vuuren, whose orange and black colours first appeared on our tracks in 2013 has enjoyed much success, including a 2015 Dubai World Cup Carnival runner in Pylon.
With so much invested in the game, it is gratifying to see one of our most active owners enjoying big race success. “I think Adriaan is in for good time – and deservedly so. He spends a lot of money and has a lot of horses. When the last sales came up, I looked at my wife and said ‘I’m not phoning Adriaan. And then a few days later the phone rang and it was him, saying ‘Why haven’t I had a call?’ I said ‘You’ve got enough horses!’ He just said ‘I’ll tell you when I’ve got enough!’ He’s a soldier and has been a Godsend to my stable.”
Deputy Jud was a R450 000 purchase at the 2013 National Yearling Sales. Mike explains, “I do the work and make a short list, then Adriaan and I usually walk around together. He quite liked this one and he was quite high up on the list after I showed it to him. He came into ring and we bought him together. We took him back to the stables and gave him time. He wasn’t a horse that came early. He started to come to hand nicely, but when we sent him out first time at Turffontein in September last year, I actually said to my son ‘I’ve made a mistake here. I’ve underdone him, he’s still too soft’, but he ran a cracker and finished 4th. He came back sore, and I was a bit annoyed with myself, so we put him away and gave him some time off.”
“When he came back, we gave him a run on the sand and he won by 4.25 lengths. I decided then and there not to run this horse on dirt again. I wanted to wait for the Emerald Cup and knew if we kept him on the sand, he’d win by big margins and the handicapper would hammer him. We continued with his campaign and then he sustained an injury a few months before the Classic. I wanted to put him away for six months and skip everything and let him heal on his own, but he’s Adriaan’s only Group 1 horse and he wanted us to push through. I was a little annoyed – it’s not the way I like to work with horses – but we had 3 different vets and all sorts of treatments. He’s a brave, strong horse and it’s been a long mission, but we got there and he’s a happy horse again.”
“During his time off, he got cresty and coltish, but Adriaan didn’t want to know anything about gelding. He won another race and ran places in the Classic and the Derby, but when we got to Natal, he became a monster. He wouldn’t go onto the track, the groom had to lead him all the way down to the opening – jeez it was a mission.”
“Gavin Lerena rode him in the Daily News and said he was just starting to kick and go for the opening, when ML Jet took him out. I’m still a bit aggrieved about that. Gavin couldn’t do the July weight, so we had to have Corne Orffer. All I can say about that is, I love Corne, he’s a good rider, but I think he forgot to bring his brain with him that day.” He sighs about the imponderables of jockeys, racing luck and what might have been.
I told Adriaan that the July run was all wrong and that I wanted to run the horse in the Champions Cup to satisfy myself and see how close he could get. He performed on course when we saddled him so I said to Adriaan it was time to decide whether he wanted a stallion or a racehorse. He wasn’t happy, but finally agreed. When we gelded him, one testicle had a massive haematoma, so it was obviously worrying him.”
Supreme Cup prep
“For the Supreme Cup, I decided to pull right back and freshened him up. He worked on the beach track at home and all he did was canter half pace. Everyone said I’d underdone him, but it’s what I did with Pylon and look what he did with 64.5kg!”
“Neither Gavin Lerena or Donovan Dillon could do the weight, so I got hold of JP who was only too glad for the opportunity. The rest is history,” he says with satisfaction.
“It was a bittersweet day for Adriaan and Rika. One of their aunties passed away that Friday and Rika’s brother got married on Saturday, so they missed their big win. But as the horses passed the post, Adriaan rang me and he was in tears. He just said ‘sjoe sjoe sjoe, I didn’t believe it was going to happen, but you’ve done it!’ It was a great feeling. I’m just happy to have him back and showing his full potential. To see him show he’s really as good as I thought is very rewarding. And I think they’re in for some fun. They’ve got some really nice horses to come and now that they’ve had a big win, I think they’ll keep coming.”
Where to next?
“I saw someone ask what we’re going to do with Deputy Jud now that the sand is closing. Surely 3rd in the Classic and 2nd in the Derby is proof that that the horse handles turf?” he laughs. “We’ve enjoyed the win, but one has to get up and get on the horse again quickly and we’ve got a couple of ideas. He’s nominated for the Summer Cup and we’ll give that one some thought. The Queen’s Plate and Met are very high on my priority list, but we’ll just let him do the talking and let us know the best way to go.”
“The Met is the only race my family haven’t won yet, and it’s a big thing for me. I’ve got some nice horses in the string and am tinkering with a few ideas. With horses you’ve got to dream, haven’t you?” he says thoughtfully. “If you stop dreaming, you’ll never realise much. You’ve got to keep dreaming – and work hard.”