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Michael Robinson

Family Affair

Mike Robinson (photo: hamishNIVENPhotography)

Mike Robinson (photo: hamishNIVENPhotography)

Trainer Michael Robinson came through the ranks from the ground up. Starting in the military, he cut his racing teeth with Mike Stewart, Chris Snaith and Dennis Drier and after a few years in charge of spelling and pre-training for Drakenstein Stud Farm as well as training a small string of horses off the farm for them, Mike took the plunge and went out on his own in 2013, basing himself at Philippi.

A genuine, hands-on horseman, Mike is also one of the modern gentlemen of the game. He counts among his charges the charismatic Blarney Bay and on Saturday saddles his first Fillies Guineas runner in his own name, Smokey Affair. We see how he’s feeling ahead of this weekend’s big race.

Striking out on one’s own is never easy, but some might argue that with the current economic climate and highly competitive environment, it’s harder than ever. “It has been very tough,” admits Mike. “It is still very tough in the sense that we’re a small yard and trying to compete with the big yards, while doing right by the horses and pleasing owners at the same time can be tricky. Big yards can pick and choose which horses to run in races and are always in the limelight. Having a small string means you’re always praying and hoping, so it’s challenging, but it’s rewarding. And three years down the line we’re still here! We are incredibly lucky to have a good group of owners who are unbelievably supportive and it’s thanks to them that we’re still in the game.”

Team

The Blarney Team after a recent win (Bay Media)

Team Robinson (Bay Media)

The Robinson team consists of Michael, wife Luella who does duty as chief work rider, he’s trained up two of his head grooms as stable employees and has a good team of grooms. “And that’s the crew!” he laughs. It’s a friendly, hands-on operation and daughter Caitlin is also a frequent feature at the yard as well as on race days. In terms of help from the saddle, they use who they can. “Luckily Richard Fourie has come on board. He’s freelancing, but really wants to help us and we’re doing well. He wants to help put us on the map and we’re having success together.”

Having started with 4 yards and having their numbers up to 50 horses at one stage, Mike relinquished their 4th yard for a while. “We have a policy of not hanging on to horses that aren’t performing and there’s no point paying rent on empty boxes,” he says pragmatically. “We’re always out there doing our best, but we’ve been very blessed, we’ve got a really nice string of horses, we’re having winners and it’s been our best season so far.” With their results picking up and a few good purchases at the sales, their numbers are swelling again. “We have just reapplied and will shortly have space for 46 in total,” he says proudly.

Blarney Bay

Mike Robinson as formed a stron bond with Blarney Bay (Bay Media)

Mike Robinson turned him around with ‘lots of carrots and TLC’ (Bay Media)

Blarney Bay has been a stable stalwart and Peter de Beyer and Gill Dempsey’s hard-knocking homebred has earned himself an air of notoriety among racing fans. Now an 8 year old and with 8 wins to his credit, Blarney Bay was billed to be retiring after his last outing at Kenilworth on 12 November, but he took the run so well, the connections have decided to give him one more try. Michael says, “I got the horse thanks to Malan du Toit. Blarney Bay was originally with Stephen Page and had been very difficult. When Stephen was packing up and getting ready to leave, he recommended that Peter and Gill consider moving Blarney Bay to a small yard where he would get lots of individual attention and that’s how Blarney found me.”

Having negotiated the short walk from Stephen Page’s yard, Blarney Bay arrived at Mike’s premises as a 1-time winner with a MR of 68. “We got him up to a MR100 and he’s now an 8-time winner,” Mike says with satisfaction. But precisely what were the problems and how did they turn him around? “Lots of TLC, hard work and dedication,” he laughs. “His main issue was the starting stalls. Peter and Gill weren’t in a hurry which was a huge help and allowed us the time to work him through it, but Malan worked with him a lot and we always gave him a refresher course before a race. He also wouldn’t work on some of the tracks, but with good riders and patience we got there in the end. Basically it was lots of carrots and TLC.”

In something of a fairytale ending, part owner-breeder Gill Dempsey has decided to keep Blarney Bay when he retires. “Gill loves this horse more than anything. She was a very good rider in her younger days and wants to start riding again, but she only wants him from March next year, so we’ll see. We decided to retire him after his last run,” explains Mike, “but then this handicap came up and as he’d taken his last run so well, we decided to nominate and see. Blarney has never run a good race on the new course down the long straight and this is our the last opportunity to run on the old course.”

Smokey Affair

Mike and Luella Robinson - the Blarney Bay team

Thank goodness for two cars (and a determined wife!)

Mike took out his license in 2008, while he was still working at Drakenstein Stud and it was under their umbrella that he sent out Tick Tock for the 2009 Cape Fillies Guineas, where she finished a very creditable 0.75 lengths second to Field Flower. However, this year is the first time Mike is sending out a bona fide ‘Robinson’ Fillies Guineas runner in Smokey Affair, having selected the filly and produced her through the ranks. Well, mostly. “Lu found her, actually. We were the underbidders at the 2015 CTS March Yearling Sale. She was bred by Corne Spies and consigned under Favour Stud. We bid to R80k, but Corne Spies bought her back at R90k. Luckily we’d gone to the sale in two cars and Lu insisted on staying and trying to buy her. She went back to the stables and negotiated and eventually got the filly for R150k. While that was great, it was a bit of a shock as we hadn’t planned on spending that much on a horse. But Lu picked up the phone and put her together,” (the filly runs in the interests of Team Valor and Mrs Vanashree and Mr Anant Singh). “She’s turned into a really nice filly and Richard rates her highly.”

Shrewd

Mike is a shrewd placer of horses and very proud of his strike rate. In short, when you see a Robinson runner carded, you know they are there for a reason. A daughter of Elusive Fort out of the 4-time winning Captain Al mare Luna Rossa, Smokey Affair debuted over 1200m as a late 2yo in May 2016. With Richard Fourie – who has partnered her for all her runs to date – she finished a good third against more experienced rivals.

She broke her maiden next time out, again over 1200m at Kenilworth, winning by 1.25 lengths and concluding her juvenile season. After a short break, Smokey Affair stepped out as a 3yo on 31 August 2016 and, lugging top weight, finished 2nd to Moonblanched to whom she was conceding considerable weight. Showing her versatility, Smokey Affair stepped up to 1400m at Durbanville’s country course in a MR84 F&M Handicap to win by 0.75 lengths. In her last run, the Gr2 Choice Carriers Championship, Smokey Affair was slow away, losing a length at the start, but put up a great run to finish 2 lengths 4th to the imported Mike de Kock trained Ektifaa and now she lines up for the Gr1 Cape Fillies Guineas. She has drawn gate 11 and will have regular jockey Richard Fourie in the irons.

In terms of their hopes for Saturday’s big race, Mike opines, “It’s one of the strongest Fillies Guineas fields I’ve seen for a long time. Her prep is spot on and she’s very fit and very well, so we couldn’t hope for better in that respect. It’s a pity about the draw, but we’re holding fingers and thumbs that Richard will be able to help her over that and then we’ll see what she’s made of.”

 

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