On 5 December 2015, Silver Mountain raced her way into the history books by winning the Cape Fillies Guineas. One doesn’t often write about the horse that finished second, but when that horse is called Our Destiny and runs in the red and yellow silks of Ralph and Val Rixon, one makes an exception.
Ralph and Val are one of racing, if not life’s, larger than life characters and it is a joy to not only have them back on course, but seeing them have a really nice filly – and a homebred one at that! Our Destiny comes with a lovely story, which Val tells with relish. “The grandam, Galactic Way, was a polo pony that we gave to a friend in Durban called Johnny Rey. She was quite well bred and when it looked as though the family was on the up, we got hold of her and sent her to Terry Silcock. We bred her to Sapieha and that really goes back – Terrance (Millard) had a share in that horse, so it’s quite a story. “
Ralph continues, “We got Plumosa, which we raced in partnership with Johnny. When she retired I offered to buy him out, but he said he’d stuck out all these years with us, and wanted to stay in. The first foal was a very nice horse that Woodruff had (Disa Leader). We had very high hopes and it won 3 or 4 like a champ, but something happened and it went cold on us. Geoff said he could get a price for him from Mauritius, so we sent him there and he won 7 races and was Mauritius Horse of the Year in 2010. Then he was sold to Dubai.”
Plumosa’s next foal was Split The Profit, who was a useful sort over sprint distances and raced with Glen Kotzen and Mitch Wiese. “It was with much gnashing of teeth on my part that we sent her to Var – he’s quite expensive – but this is the result!” says Val cheerfully. Our Destiny has had 4 starts for a win and 3 seconds, most recently to Silver Mountain in the Cape Fillies Guineas.
Val’s father was the wine maker at Constantia and she learned to ride as a child. Ralph was born in Claremont, “right near where all the professional trainers had all their stables. Doncaster Road in Kenilworth was like Milnerton is now – all the trainers, like Gorton and Syd Garett, were along there. My mother was from Holland and came to South Africa as an 18 year old. My father was an RAF aircraft mechanic. After the war they sent a lot of planes out here and were here for 5 or 6 years. Dad was in charge of the mechanical side of them. When they packed up, he said he liked it such a lot, he was staying. He met my mother, got married and that was that.”
Ralph was the second of the couple’s four children. His sister Joyce, his senior by two years, went on to marry Terrance Millard. “After school we used to toddle down to the stables and look at the horses. Eventually the grooms put us on and lead us around. The horses quietened down once we were on their backs and that’s how it started.” Ralph started riding work and eventually had a string of amateur racehorses. He was also an accomplished polo player. “The polo field was behind Kenilworth – everything was close.”
“In those days, Durbanville was an amateur track. The weights were higher and all of us that couldn’t be jockeys rode there – Terrance, Button, Alan Higgins – the whole lot of us. When they turned Durbanville into a professional course, most of us became professional trainers.”
“I was involved in a big way. As a youngster of 16 I had about 15 horses in training. My father said the racing game was not a good business to be in and said I must either take a trade or go my own way, so I became an apprentice carpenter. I did 5 years with my uncle, who was a big builder in Cape Town and once I finished, Val and I got married in 1953. A friend of Val’s parents said come to Northern Rhodesia, there’s work and good money and I said ‘that’s me!’ and we packed up and went for two years. That stretched into 14, but within 5 years I’d organised professional racing in Northern Rhodesia on the copper belt. It was very nice and one of the things I appreciated doing in my life. There were 4 mines up there approximately 30 km from each other. Each made their own racecourse. The kids had gymkhanas on a Saturday and we’d have an 8 race card of flat racing on Sundays. Val was my work rider and was Champion jockey in 1966,” he says proudly.
After 14 years, the Rixons returned to South Africa. Ralph continues. “Somebody found out that I was home and said there was a big contract in Observatory they wanted me to work on. I said I was going to start training. They said please do this and offered me a good bonus, so I built the place. In the meantime I’d bought ground in Philippi and started building stables there. I got a bulldozer and cleared all the bush and made a beautiful sand track. Nine months after I stopped work, I took out my license and started training.”
Ralph still rates Jamaican Music as the best horse he ever trained. “He was an absolute champ – he won the Nursery, the Guineas, the Derby and the July – you can’t ask for more.” A client by the name of Dr Crohin wanted a grey horse, so Ralph duly visited Granville Gorton and was taken with the son of Jamaico in the paddock. “We bought him off the farm. Dr Crohin came down from South West Africa with a big suitcase, opened it up in front of Granville and he couldn’t refuse! Crohin was one of the best owners I ever had. When I won the July, he said go and pick a car. I said I’d seen a nice, medium sized car, I’m not sure of the make and he said, ‘you’re not buying that rubbish, go and get a Mercedes!’ So I went and bought a beautiful Mercedes that I had for years and years. Every race the horse ran, he gave me something big. I’ve got a watch on today that he gave me when Jamaican Music won the Hawaii Stakes. I wore it for many years and one day something happened and I had to send it to Johannesburg to be looked at. They phoned and said it had to be insured, so I said insure it then. The man asked whether I knew what it was worth and it turned out to be R24k! It was a gold watch with a gold strap and one of the best makes in the world. He was very good to us.”
“Once I’d won all those big races, the clients started coming along and I had an average of 100 horses in training. I was always based in Philippi – it was really easy there, the ground was beautiful and we made the track through the bush so the south easter didn’t blow the sand away. I had my own truck and used to take my horses to Kenilworth to the grass track.”
Festive Season was his next big success. “Every year I used to buy myself a filly at the sales. Festive Season was bred by Colin Tyler and I’d paid R6k for her. One of my patrons was worried that they hadn’t got a horse yet. When I said it will come, he said what about Festive Season? So I said alright, you take her, I’ll buy another. I bought another filly for R21k on the same day – I was probably getting desperate at the end – she never won a race. That’s the racing game for you!”
Ralph got 1986 J&B Met winner, Wild West, from Paul de Wet. “I’d seen him on the farm and his front legs weren’t the best, but he was well bred and the Roland Gardens all stayed well. When he got to the sales, he’d improved on the legs, and I thought he’d go for a lot of money. In the end, I bought him for R40k which was a bargain. I left him alone for 6 months to mature, then I trotted and cantered him for 6 months to get him strong and teach him where to put his legs. He was a very good horse, but he always had those legs and eventually he broke a leg in front of the post at Clairwood and had to be put down.”
A disgruntled client brought him 1989 Gold Cup winner Tropicante from the Herman Brown yard. “He had shocking legs. He stood in ice every day for 2 years, but he was a very good stayer.”
Heir to Riches was a topclass homebred. “We bred him in our back paddock. He was bits and pieces all the way along. I got a mare that couldn’t gallop too well and said I’ll put her to stud. Terrance had the stallion (Kama) so I got a free service. We kept him in the back stable and he got the leavings from the rest of the horses – that’s how we managed to breed a few. One of my clients bought him off me and 18 months later wanted to change trainers. I said, only a pleasure, but tell you what, give me my horse back. In exchange I offered him an Argentinian horse that had won 2 races – a maiden a novice – and he said that’s very fair and took it. I got Heir To Riches and three months later he won the big race at Clairwood. The other never won another race. That’s racing!” he chuckles.
Ralph had three assistants during his career – Geoff Woodruff, his son Guy Rixon and Glen Kotzen. “All three were champion trainers, so I’ve got something to live for in the results. With My Destiny I can say I helped Glen train that horse, even if it was 30 years ago!” he jokes.
“Glen is very close to me. When Guy passed on, the two of us were great mates and it’s never stopped, which is very nice. He’s a very nice chap and he’s got a very nice wife. He’s a good horseman and he always does well, but if you haven’t got horses, you can’t win races. He hit a bit of a flat spot last year – he didn’t have a good sale, which tells when the horses start to run, but it’ll come. The racing game is very up and down – one year you have a champion and the next year nothing. It’s just a question of time.”
Ralph also mentored Karl Neisius. “He served his whole apprenticeship with me. He was a great rider and a very good horseman. He had very good hands. He rode for me for a long time after his apprenticeship too.”
Ralph retired in about 1994. They briefly settled Hout Bay, before moving to Cape Infanta and the two are currently based at Helderberg Village in Somerset West. “It’s absolutely fabulous – I don’t even have to change a lightbulb!”
Val and Ralph are having a lot of fun with their filly and don’t mind finishing second to Silver Mountain. “That’s a real cracker, probably one of the best I’ve seen, but we won’t run into her again,” he muses. “She’ll be going for the big stuff now. Our filly pulled up well after the Guineas. We’ve got no plans for now, but we’ll put our heads together and place her nicely. I don’t want to push her. She’s a good filly and what she doesn’t win this year, she’ll win next year.”