Stan Elley professed his biggest ambition to be winning the Cape’s flagship race, the J&B Met. The recent announcement that he plans to retire at the end of the season means that it is an ambition that will remain unrealised. However, as with everything he does, Stan has given this its due time and consideration and seems remarkably peaceful about his decision.
For me the biggest story of the 2014 J&B Met was that of Punta Arenas, who defied the weights, the odds and the draw to finish a heart-stopping 3rd, less than 2 lengths behind Hill Fifty Four. Having dispatched the formalities for the J&B Met presentation, he was mid-flight to the parade ring to check his horse and jockey when I intercepted him for an emotional bear hug and my heartfelt congratulations. His characteristic composure had slipped a little – there were tears in his eyes and he returned my hug a little shakily – there was no mistaking how much the moment meant to him and it is a moment I will always treasure.
When I’d chatted to Stan on gallops day and quizzed him on his charge he’d replied philosophically “Look, we’re weighted to run 2nd last, but anything can happen in racing.” And so it proved. “I suppose it was that much more enjoyable because it was so unexpected,” he said afterwards. “They turned for home and he was beautifully placed. Grant was moving up and I was watching the other horses and saw they weren’t catching him. He had a very, very difficult task at the weights, but he’d had a wonderful prep and was the best I’d ever had him. Hell, it was a terrific performance.”
Racing can be a capricious mistress and seldom repays her servants proportionately for their devotion, but for those who keep score, it was a well-deserved reward for years of unwavering service.
For over four decades Stan has been a constant and loyal racing presence, but to trace his deep-seated industry roots to their origins one has to point your nose north up Route 62. Stan Elley was born and bred in Oudtshoorn, on the West Bank Stud to be precise. Originally founded in 1922 by Captain Stanley Elley, grandfather to ‘our’ Stan, the farm remained in the Elley family for several generations.
Stan remembers some of the later stallions such as Eastern Emperor (Hyperion) and Neapolis II (Nearco). The stud produced many good winners, including Paardeberg (WP Nursery), Floater (WP Merchants) and Dazzle (Clairwood Nursery and Champion Stakes) as well as 1959 Gold Cup winner Cumanus and Numeral, who won the Summer Handicap, Rothmans July and Champion Stakes.
“When I was growing up, Dad had been there a long time already and he bred pretty successfully,” says Stan reflectively. “Oudtshoorn is where I grew up. I went to primary school there and then came to boarding school in Cape Town. I never went back really. My brother Eric is 10 years older than me and he eventually took over the farm. He sold it nearly 20 years ago now.”
Stan completed his schooling at the Diocesan College and then spent a year in the army in the armoured cars unit in Bloemfontein. “Not one of the favourite periods of my life – the best time in the army was the two months we spent on the border – at least then you felt like you were doing something.” Back in Cape Town he enrolled at UCT to study mechanical engineering. “God knows why!” he laughs. “We had 6 subjects in my first year, I passed five. The one I missed out was pure maths. I knew I could sup, but realised I wasn’t going to survive the rest of the course – it was complete Greek to me!”
“I’ve been mad about sport all my life and during my first year at university, I started going racing. When I started missing lectures to be at the course on Wednesday, I realised that’s what I wanted to do. I joined Theo de Klerk for about a year. He was one of those old English gentleman types and he was a very successful trainer at the time. That was the era when they had horses like Force Ten and Warrior Gay and then the Fleggs came along with all the Persian Wonders. Trevor Botten was his assistant at the time. Theo managed the clients and Trevor did most of the horses – he was a wonderful horseman.”
“I went overseas and pottered around Newmarket for about six months, working for a guy called John Oxley. They wouldn’t let me ride as I was too big, so I just mucked out, etc. I learned a lot. When I came back, I took out my license in 1974.”
“My first two clients were Billy Steele and ‘Butch’ Watson-Smith, who I knew from Sunday rugby at the Olympic Sports Club. We sadly lost Billy recently and I’m afraid Butch is not that well these days.”
“My first winner was Turn Right. He had actually been retired for a while when I started, but I needed an older horse to lead the six leased babies that I started with and my brother agreed to let me have him. He got touched off first time back and won for us on the third attempt.”
“Hymie Maisel was very good to me in the early days and sent me many good fillies. Tacos, a daughter of Cornado, was just touched off in the WP Fillies Nursery. Another Cornado daughter, Gleaner won her first 4 starts. Display Model was touched off in the Fillies Guineas, won the Majorca Stakes and was beaten a whisker in the Natal Oaks. Another big supporter was Loretta Krein and she had many really smart fillies with me like Honeyeater, Momento and French Flower. I would also have to mention Victor Cook – the first or second horse he had with me was Escari that won 10 races. For a while she held the 1400m straight record at Milnerton. There was Incarnation and many, many others. Victor was a very loyal patron and we became firm friends. He was a great guy and was with me for a long time.”
“I bought a filly called Swannery in the year we had the flu first time. I’d got her on spec and then of course the flu struck and you couldn’t give a horse away, never mind sell it. I thought bugger it and decided to keep her for myself. I was in so much trouble at that point that it wasn’t going to make much difference anyway! Luckily she turned out good – she won first time out and ran second in the Fillies Guineas, beaten in the last stride by Guy Rixon’s Kiss Of Peace. Swannery hit the front with 100m to go and looked an all-out winner and then Muis Roberts came from off the pace and got her right on the line.”
“Jimmy Gravenhorst was another. He had True Warrior and won the Guineas in the Flu year, beating a horse called Mark Anthony! It was interesting – they didn’t recognise it as a Guineas and it run for a reduced stake, but in every other respect it was a Guineas. He was a lucky guy as well, Jimmy. I bought him quite a cheap horse called Practical Joker that we took to PE and won the 1991 PE Derby!”
It was at the end of that sort of era that James Drew and Mike Fullard came to me via a client called Frank Boyle – he always had small share in a horse with me from the start. Frank phoned me one day and said ‘give these guys a ring, they’re keen to get involved’. The first horse they bought was Peaceful Paradise in 1987 and we got him on the Durban sale for R23k. He won a lot of races and even finished 2nd to Flaming Rock in the Green Point Stakes. He was a smart horse. Had a wind problem and but for that would have won even more. Of course, having tasted success first time out, they were hooked! The rest, as they say, is history.
Punta Arenas was a R525k purchase at the 2010 National Yearling Sale. “Boffin and I really loved him at the sale and had to have him. Fortunately James Drew was up there and we managed to talk him into buying him. He went for a little more than we would have liked to spend, but James put his hand up. From day one he’s been an absolute pleasure and a very easy horse to train. He does all the basics, is a clean winded horse, doesn’t take a lot of work and is pretty sound. In fact, the older he’s got, the sounder he’s got. He’s been very unlucky with draws, and might perhaps have won one more. He’s got a reputation for being a bit quirky which is not really fully deserved. He’s not a bad horse at all, but if you give him a chance, he’ll take you on. He’s as honest as the day is long and he absolutely thrives in Durban, plus he seems to love Greyville.
Dynastic Power was purchased for R500 000 on the Cape Premier Yearling Sale Book 1. “Dynastic Power is a half-brother to Red Badge, who twice ran third in the July and won a lot of nice features for us. After Red Badge I looked at all Crimson Lily’s foals, but never took to any of them until this fellow came along. I first saw him in the paddock at Highlands and was sitting with Butch Watson-Smith when he was led through the ring. I said we’ve got to buy him and we did. It was a bit of a struggle to put him together. Fortunately for me, John Kinsley took quite a large percentage and saved my bacon. I ended up keeping 20% which I never really do but it was only because no-one else wanted it. Of course, now I’m quite happy, thank you very much !”
“He’s been a bit of a quirky horse. We gelded him after the Guineas in his 3yo career and maybe we should have done it a bit sooner, but at the time he was misbehaving I felt he wasn’t strong enough to handle it. Since then he’s been an absolute honey in the stables. On race days he can get a little hot, but if you saddle him in the back and keep him quiet, he’s no problem. He’s had an interrupted prep and twice he’s had an abscess in his hind hoof –before his first run in Durban and again between his first and second run – the same hoof both times, would you believe? After the Cup Trial he came back with a sore stifle, but since then he’s recovered and is going well again. He will have a good hard gallop at the public gallops on Thursday. We’re keeping the same riders – Greg Cheyne will ride Dynastic Power and Ian Sturgeon’s riding Punta.”
“The simplest answer is “it’s time”. I can’t explain it any better than that really. The game has evolved in such a strange way – the big guys are getting massive and the small guys going out – it’s no longer viable for a small guy. That’s one of the reasons that make up the whole, but is certainly not all of it. It’s just ironic that I’ve got four or five nice horses at the moment. At any rate, I’m enjoying what’s left of the current season and then I’m looking forward to having my first lie in!”
Saying goodbye is never easy, but at least in this case it’s so long and not farewell as Stan will continue with his Tellytrack duties and has hinted that he might consider other, part-time racing work if the opportunity presented itself.
I know there are a good few weeks to run till the end of the season, but with one thing and another, life has a habit of running away with you and I wanted to take the opportunity to doff my hat at one of the gentlemen of the game and wish him a long, happy and healthy semi-retirement!
Wouldn’t it be fun if Lady Luck chose to be kind on 4 July?