The Durban July – 21st Century Magic

The jewel of South African racing

As the clock ticks toward this year’s renewal of South Africa’s most iconic of races, the Hollywoodbets Durban July, it is only fitting that we return to the start of the new millennium and recall all the drama and splendour of what is still considered to be the jewel of South African racing.

Piere Strydom weaves his magic in 2021 on Trademark

Piere Strydom weaves his magic in 2001 on Trademark (Pic – Supplied)

The 2000 renewal of the July proved an auspicious occasion, for we witnessed one of the most sensational finishes involving the defending champion El Picha and challenger Young Rake. The pair crossed the line as one and it took the judges several minutes to finally declare El Picha the winner by the proverbial whisker. There were many who felt it was too close a call and a deadheat would have been a fairer result.

Nevertheless, the Argentinian-bred entered the history books as the first back-to-back winner and remarkably, he was also the first winner since 1956 to defy the impost of 58 kg.

Twelve months later, victory went to the Mike Bass-trained Trademark, who gave jockey Pierre Strydom a second July success, the “blonde bomber” having partnered London News to victory in the centennial July of 1996. Confidently ridden, Trademark came from off the pace and ran down Celtic Grove to win the race in course record time.

The 2002 July could have been scripted right out of a fairy tale. The race proved a triumph for Zimbabwean breeding and racing and was won by a little filly called Ipi Tombe.

2002 Durban July princess Ipi Tombe and Kevin Shea

2002 Durban July princess Ipi Tombe and Kevin Shea (Pic – Supplied)

Bought as a yearling in Zimbabwe for no more than $1250, she only started her career at age three and arrived at Mike de Kock’s yard a winner of four of her five Zimbabwean starts. Runner-up on debut when second in the Gr1 Triple Tiara 1600, she never again tasted defeat on South African soil.

After landing the Gr2 SA Fillies Classic, she reeled off three Gr1 victories in the SA Fillies Guineas, Woolavington 2000 and the ultimate prize, the Vodacom Durban July, where she overcame a wide draw to defeat subsequent Met winner Angus, whilst becoming the first female winner in 18 years.

Named the Champion 3yo Filly in both South Africa and Zimbabwe, she was sold to Barry Irwin’s Team Valor International and became Mike de Kock’s trailblazer in Dubai, going undefeated in three starts, culminating in a smashing victory in the Gr1 Dubai Duty Free, run in a new track record time. Sent to the States, she won the Gr3 Locust Grove Handicap at Churchill Downs and to this day, is the only Zimbabwean-bred horse ever to have won on American soil.

Pierre Strydom came close to recording a third July success aboard the Fort Wood three-year-old Yard-Arm, who attempted to make every post a winning one in the 2003 July. Still running on strongly in the straight, victory beckoned, but Robbie Fradd on Dynasty spoiled the party. The Kannemeyer-trained three-year-old, who had drawn widest of all, came from the clouds with a blistering finish and ran down Yard-Arm to win going away by almost a length.

The son of Fort Wood thus capped a tremendous four-win streak which had started in the Gr1 Cape Derby and was followed by the Gr1 SA Guineas and Daily News 2000, so it came as no surprise that he was named both the Equus Horse of the Year and Champion 3YO Classic Male. Dynasty became a hugely successful stallion and had the distinction of siring two July winners in Legislate (2014) and Belgarion (2020).

The Oppenheimer family’s link to the July is a tangible one, stretching back to its first winner Tiger Fish in 1959, followed by King Willow in 1965, while Principal Boy, who finished second in 1975, was promoted to first on the disqualification of the winner Gatecrasher.

It would take all of 30 years before the familiar black and yellow silks again graced the number one box in the shape of the lightly-raced American-bred colt Greys Inn, who came from off the pace with a sustained run to land the 2004 July by an increasing 2.5 lengths.

Trained by Mike de Kock, he encapsulates the truly cosmopolitan nature of thoroughbred breeding: he was sired by the top New Zealand stallion Zabeel, out of an Australian mare, and foaled in the United States before arriving in South Africa as a yearling!

As a stallion, Greys Inn went on to make his mark as the sire of dual Horse of the Year and multiple champion Legal Eagle.

The tragic death of Fieldspring Racing’s three-year-old Rabiya in the 2005 Durban July cast a heavy pall over the day’s racing, however, the wheel came full turn twelve months later when their Eyeofthetiger scored a stylish victory, thus joining Dynasty as John and Karen Newsome’s second July winner in four years.

Eyeofthetiger defied the statistics which showed that no three-year-old could win with 54kg on its back, however, the colt proved the exception that broke the rule and he rose to the occasion to record the second fastest time since 1970.

2007 Gr1 Vodacom Durban July winner Hunting Tower

Two years after leading in Greys Inn, Mrs Bridget Oppenheimer again found herself in the winner’s enclosure after homebred Hunting Tower’s last gasp victory in the 2007 July.

The gelded son of Fort Wood trailed his field in the early stages of a slow-run race, but capitalizing on his devastating turn of foot, swooped up late to snatch victory on the line.  It was a first July win for trainer Charles Laird but fourth for jockey Anton Marcus, a feat previously achieved only by the great Tiger Wright.

Seventh behind Eyeofthetiger twelve months previously, Hunting Tower boasted just one subsequent win, but maturity brought out the best in the chestnut and in the end, his class carried him to victory.

Arguably the most popular July finish of the decade came in 2008, when, for the first time in 41 years, the judges were unable to separate the first two past the post.

Not since the legendary Sea Cottage-Jollify deadheat of 1967 had a Greyville crowd been held spellbound in anticipation of the judges’ calling and when the announcement was made that the top weight and favourite Pocket Power and second favourite Dancer’s Daughter could not be separated, the stands erupted in cheers of sheer delight.

The Cape-trained duo had joined issue at the furlong mark and when Pocket Power, with his characteristic low head posture, appeared to marginally inch ahead, the filly came again to force a magnificent deadheat on the line.

Joint-fourth in a blanket finish to the previous year’s July, Pocket Power silenced his critics in emphatic style with this first victory on a right-handed track outside of home base Cape Town, while conceding a hefty 5 kg to the filly, who incidentally, became the first of five July winners trained by Justin Snaith.

Sophomores dominated the finish to a slow-run 2009 July, with victory going to triple classic hero Big City Life, who became the fifth three-year-old winner since the start of the millennium.

He also completed the Cape Derby/ KZN Guineas/Daily News 2000/Vodacom Durban July quartet, a feat previously achieved by 2003 July winner Dynasty.

Under a perfect ride, the big colt flashed an impressive burst of acceleration in the straight and kicked again to cross the line almost a length to the good of the filly Zirconeum, thus giving both trainer Glen Kotzen and jockey Greg Cheyne their first wins in the big race.

In 2010, the July proved a triumph for trainer Mike de Kock when he saddled both the winner Bold Silvano and second-placed Irish Flame.

Bold Silvano moved into contention at the top of the straight and swept into the lead 300m from home. Running on resolutely, he always appeared to have the measure of Irish Flame, who chased hard, but still had a length to find at the finish post.

Incidentally Bold Silvano turned the tables on his stable mate, who had defeated him by a neck in the Gr1 Daily News 2000.

Previously successful with Ipe Tombe and Greys Inn, it was a third July win for the maestro trainer. Ditto for jockey Anthony Delpech, who had piloted both Classic Flag (1998) and Greys Inn to victory.

Bold Silvano had started his racing career in the very capable hands of Port Elizabeth trainer Gavin Smith and following two creditable efforts in the Gr1 Cape Guineas and Derby, owner Gill Thomson sold a half-share to Sheikh Mohammed Bin Khalifa Al Maktoum, in whose colours Bold Silvano garnered the July.

Those famous yellow and blue silks would again grace the winners enclose, but more of that in next week’s article!

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