The top former Cape Hunt amateur jockey has ridden what must be close to a record of over 40 000 horses in work at Milnerton in his forty years in the saddle.
A deep thinker, racing aficionado, and political commentator of many years standing, Kenilworth Racing and NHA Life Member Peter Wrensch knows most people in the game and plenty about horseracing – but says he still doesn’t have many of the answers to the issues facing the industry today.
“So much has changed – plenty for the good but sadly lots for the worse too. Like, for example, I reckon that 70% of our jockeys riding today would not have made the grade in the Cape Hunt and Polo Club amateur ranks of 30 years ago. Our safety record spoke for itself and everybody that was licenced to ride had come up through the no-nonsense hard school of stable culture and hands on horse education.”
Peter rode 20 Hunt Club winners, including four on the trot on Dark Lord for Dave Coleman. He earned the tag of Lester (after the legend Piggott) and remembers being motivated by a comment from fanatic Peter Dembitzer as he cantered to post – ‘you’ll never ride a winner,Lester’, was all the juice he needed!
“Many top trainers, including the likes of Geoff Woodruff, Justin Snaith and Dean Kannemeyer came through those ranks. We had top-class horsemen and women – the likes of Jeff Steadman, Zayed Anthony, Gillian Ross and many, many more. It was a nursery that spawned the greats of the future – something that is sadly lacking today.”
Peter went on to recall how the Easter School Holiday amateur meetings would attract a crowd of 3000 plus.
“We only raced during the four school holidays. I remember the late Mr Mike Tillett calling the jockeys in one very wet day. He said we shouldn’t race but knew how keen we were. So he instructed us to just give the other guys space and no heroics. We got through the meeting without incident! I doubt that many professional meetings these days would have gone ahead in similar conditions,” he added.
Besides the vulnerable profile of 21st century jockeys, Peter suggests the horses of today are lesser physical specimens on average, too.
“Those days we would prep a horse and we could give the owners confidence to have a bet. Today we can’t tip a wheelbarrow. I haven’t done any scientific research but have been on horseback almost every day for four decades. And ask the veteran Grooms what they think. The horses are not as hardy today and much less robust than thirty years ago. Possibly because they are kept in cotton wool and prepped to impress for the sales.”
On the possible answers to revitalise the aspect of on-course attendance, Peter reflected on the early 80’s. He says that Racing It’s A Rush and its well intended goals have probably come thirty years too late. He said that his experience at the 1993 Breeders Cup where Michael Roberts had ridden Barathea and Trevor Denman had called the meetings, had left an indelible mark on him.
“We cant have an iconic experience every day. But Santa Anita showed me a passion and culture and love of the game that sent shivers up my spine.”
He added that the atmosphere on course in the years that It cost R2 to get into Charlie Parkers and a beer set one back a rand, was magnetic and ‘everybody knew everybody’.
“David Price, Robert Bloomberg, David Bywater, Neil Andrews and myself were a hard-core group of young guys who were at every race- meeting and didn’t know when to leave afterwards either. We were sick for the game and have the hard-luck stories, the t-shirts and the scars to show for what was, in hindsight, the best days of our lives.”
He recalled the day that the top-class Horatius took on Tucson at Milnerton. He was tied up in a cricket match in Gordon’s Bay. Dolfie Maeder had suggested that Mini Wave would run third to the top two and that Peter should try get there to watch the race and have a bet.
“We won the toss and put them in to bat. We bowled them out for 60. I went in to bat, all the while watching the clock and knowing I had to be at Milnerton by 16h30. I hit seven quick 4’s and was out. I left the guys, asking them not to bugger things up. I Jumped in my Valiant and was at Milnerton within 25 minutes. The same trip today in snazzier cars takes double the time! And, by the way, the race turned out spot on and we won the cricket! Dolfie was one of the legends!”
Peter says he is sad to see the way stakeholders are treated in the modern game.
“Horseracing is a bit like politics. The arrogant dominance of the power players. The lies to the community. A lack of empathy for the people who actually make it happen. Self-indulgence and poor communication. Broken promises,” suggests the past-member of the DA Federal Council and Chairman of the Milnerton branch of the party.
A popular member of the broader community, Peter talks emotionally about the part he played in lobbying for the establishment of the settlements of Joe Slovo and Du Noon. Joe Slovo Park, a housing development in the white middle-class suburb of Milnerton was designed to replace the shack settlement of Marconi Beam with an orderly working-class suburb.
“The Milnerton Grooms make up a major part of the local employment market and why should they not have access to housing near to their place of work? The old way of migrant labour is long gone. The debate over whether the urbanisation model has worked is a chat for another day though,” he laughs.
The Observatory born Bishops High pupil spent his formative years in the then rural surrounds of Durbanville.
“School was great. I got regular good work prizes and sound academically but nowhere near the level of genius which was common at the schoo!”
His first playground was Durbanville Racecourse where his best mate was the son of the track manager, Bill de Klerk. The seeds were sown!
Peter’s father Aubrey was a Western Province goalkeeper, who also represented Pens and Callies, and sport played a big part in he and his, now late, sister’s upbringing. His Mom Norma is a sprightly 90 and going strong – a sports fanatic of note!
“I started riding at the age of 5 with Ivy Marsciano in Table View. It is where Heron Waters is at the top of Blaauwberg Road now. In later years, I boarded at Bishop’s in Rondebosch and spent Sunday morning at Bobby Salkinder’s Ridealong Ranch in Philippi.”
His parents never set foot on a racecourse until Gary Cawcutt took them to watch his dad’s Lovely Rhythm in July 1977.
“As the saying goes : only dead men don’t go back!”
The Wrensch family had 6 horses courtesy of the great Colin Cohen of Odessa Stud.
“I remember those wonderful Sundays riding, swimming and a braai before returning to the Bishops boarding house.”
He got into racing through Gary Cawcutt. A chance meeting with ex-jockey Alan Merrit and a subsequent friendship with apprentices Peter Sieg, Gavin Howes and Lawrence O’Donoghue saw Peter introduced to riding work at Milnerton in 1979.
“I rode work at the outset for Mike Bass – that’s where I met Mark Watters, a man who opened many doors in racing for me.Colin Cohen gave me a retired Prince Tor 5 time winner called Berutti. We went hunting on Sundays and Roy Rixon suggested I run him in the Cape Hunt.Thinking it was like a gymkhana I had seen at Durbanville, we went in totally clueless in December 1977.”
“Alan Merritt borrowed our horsebox and in return offered to shoe our hacks. He brought Patrick Wynne, Laurence O’Donoghue and Peter Sieg. That was our in to the closed inner racing circle. Gavin Howes was apprenticed to Mike Bass in 1979 and invited me to ride work. I met Mike and Carol and Mark Watters became a friend that could not be surpassed.”
He got a few more rides at the Cape Hunt for two fourth places until Dave Coleman gave him an opportunity on a maiden for novice riders. He duly won on Idle Hope in April 1984 and rode another 6 winners at the next 4 meetings.
It was during his ‘distinguished’ service in the SA Navy as a Radar Operator on the SAS President Steyn that Peter found a gap where he was able to dedicate more time to his work-riding.
In his last year he met Lenny Taylor through former jockey Colin Randall. Taylor taught the willing student horsemanship and riding on a long rein with soft hands.
“The Naval administration wasn’t world-class. I was transferred from the President Steyn to another ship. When I returned from leave, that ship had been decommissioned. I sort of disappeared off the radar as it were! I left the Navy with a good record despite doing more work-riding than sailing in the final stages of my conscription!”
It was in this time that the legend Terrance Millard put him on and from 1980-85 he rode some of the best horses ever.
“Mr Millard admired genuine affection for horses and has never been short on generous advice and time.I never knew it until he was on the charts but I rode Fools Holme every day for a year as he developed. Mr Millard rewarded my loyalty by gifting me rides on nearly every champion when they were on light work.
A fitness fanatic from a young age, Peter used to arrive at 04h30 at Bert Abercombie’s yard and then dash up the road to Leslie and Johnny Cawcutt, Colin Palm and Freddie Heyman.
“I couldn’t get enough of it! After work I would run round the Milnerton track – about 4 km – to keep my weight at 62kgs. I live in Rondebosch these days but park my car at my Mom’s flat near Woodbridge Island and then run to and from Milnerton to ride work. I run everywhere, just about!”
Peter has eight SA Masters Gold Medals for the 400m, 800m, 1500m and 5000m.
“I love it. I have done the Comrades. I have my permanent numbers too for the Two Oceans 56km and half-marathon. Fitness is the key to a good and happy existence,” he adds.
Peter recently wrote his assistant trainer’s exam. He achieved 90% and it took him five hours.
“I was impressed. The test is pretty comprehensive. But they are a bit rigid in my view as regards the qualification periods for stable employees and assistants. I mean imagine telling Karl Neisius that he must do x amount of time as a stable employee? Karl was born in the saddle and has already forgotten what many of us are yet to learn!”
Peter is assisting at the Sheehan yard these days.
“The Firestone Amateur race over 1300m was an annual event at Arlington. I went three times and this was the start of a great enduring friendship with Ronnie and Jackie Sheehan.”
The Zimbabwe born Ronnie Sheehan operates with a small string out of Barn 10 at Milnerton. He turns 82 in September and has suffered from ill health recently.
“Ronnie and I have always enjoyed a good relationship. He is a legend of the training ranks and it is an honour to work with him. I am hoping to bring a few owners in to bolster the ranks. But that is not easy. Thirty years ago, four salaried guys could still afford a horse amongst them and pay the rent and the school fees. It is not affordable any more. But we need to find solutions. Racing needs to survive for the next generation. They don’t know what they are missing. But we need to get our house in order!”
Peter ended the chat by pointing out that horseracing produces colourful characters like no other sport, but he says the zest is gone and so are the good horses.
“Rushing to the racecourse or skipping work to get to watch a champion are long past memories.The handicappers kill any promising youngster with ludicrous Merit Ratings. Last year a centre like PE saw 90 plus 3 year olds in abundance.If PE got 90’s then Cape Town and Gauteng got 100 plusses.Insanity!”
He says again that horses are not as good nowadays as thirty years ago.
“And it’s being compounded by severely compromising the moderate ability with unreasonable weight. The Conglomerate, Hill Fifty Four, Power King and Martial Eagle have won our two majors over the last few years.None would have got a run in the 1970s and 80s. B division and possibly ordinary bottom weights in the Tops. We won a Gr3 Nursery with Captain Chaos. He doesn’t get near the best 200 I have ridden!”
He goes on to say that if we had horsemen and not administrators then there would be an appreciation that horses, like adolescents, mature at different rates. This would alleviate this ‘one handicap system’ fits all.
“The serious consequence is owners forking out heaps of keep and playing patience as they wait for their money to mature physically into some arbitrary, and very often flawed, assessment.”
“Sadly, this is no longer the case. Three years ago, at the height of the Jooste illusion, I regularly asked people to identify any distinguishing feature he had. Compared to the era that incorporated Graham Beck, Selwyn Simpson, Solly Goldberg, Etienne van der Westhuizen, Martin Futeran and their ilk, racing today is drab.”