The racing industry has much in common with Hollywood’s film circuit, where the narrative unfolds in twists and turns.
It is notorious, too, for producing individuals who straddle the thin line between acclaim and scepticism, garnering admiration from some factions and a chorus of criticism from others.
Last month, renowned race caller come industry all-rounder, Clyde Basel, celebrated 35 years in horseracing with his polished and eloquent delivery of the 2023 Betway Summer Cup.
He has circled the racing block a few times, and the intricacies of his journey mirror the unpredictable nature of the sport and those who command attention within its orbit.
In the realm of South African racing with its electrifying highs and dismal depths, Clyde’s prowess as a race caller was recognised as early as his 18th birthday when he relayed, with remarkable skill and enthusiasm, Honey Chunk’s success in the 1990 OK Gold Bowl to 30,000 racegoers at Turffontein and a few million fans watching the race on SABC’s Topsport.
He was the youngest professional ever to call a G1 race. Hired at the tender age of 16 in 1988, he was dismissed a year later for having too much of an exuberant swagger, which was unwanted among some of his peers; then re-hired under the tutelage and mentorship of Graeme Hawkins.
Thirty-three years later, Clyde has been called upon again to steady the commentating ship after clawing his way from the doldrums back to prominence in recent years. It hasn’t been easy. Beneath the gleam of his accolades lies an association with enigmatic and controversial figures. Is this perhaps why Clyde, a man whose description literally defines words like ‘affable’, ‘amiable’ or ‘personable’, is still disliked by a proportion of the industry?
“I think that must be it,” reflected the now 51-year-old from 4Racing’s Kyalami studios this week. “I guess, for some, I am the last man standing from the unpleasant last years of Phumelela. My face is associated with one of the darkest periods in the history of racing. There are people who switch on to 4Racing and see me presenting Weighted To Win and say, ‘Look at him, the piece of shit. He was a Phumelela lackey on the gravy train, Rian du Plessis’s 2IC. He shouldn’t be involved now. He should have been put out to pasture!’
“I’ve heard those words said to me, and I have been told of several instances where similar sentiments were expressed. I guess I understand where the bitterness comes from, but it’s been hurtful to my family and I. I devoted my life to racing and contributed over more than three decades as a commentator and executive manager. I am honoured and privileged to be involved still. Like many other prominent players in this game, I made some mistakes in my working career. I am human. But to have been singled out so hatefully by certain individuals is unfair. They simply don’t know the facts. I serve the industry with passion and commitment, now more than ever.”
There are a few who believe Clyde played a role in the selling of Gosforth Park and Newmarket in the early 2000s.
He commented: “I wasn’t even employed on Phumelela’s executive team when that happened. I became CEO of the Racing Association in August 2007 when Robin Bruss invited me to apply for the job. There were 50 applicants, I went for interviews and I got the job. I wasn’t placed there with the purpose of being someone’s yes-man. My sole brief was to improve the racing experience for owners. We started by renovating the Elevation room and other areas on the grandstand. We planned the construction of Turffontein’s Deck facility which is popular to this day. We built a parade ring in front of the racecourse. There was constant communication from the RA Board with the public. In that time all the available function rooms and dining areas were fully booked and we had multiple functions after races on the renovated second floor. The Elevation room was hosting 21st birthday parties, wedding anniversaries and other theme-type events during race meetings. One had to wait at least a month to get a table.”
In July 2009 Clyde left the RA to join Phumelela as Executive in charge of events and hospitality.
“Phumelela’s CEO, Rian du Plessis, phoned and offered me the job. There were some positive vibes around and he said that they were impressed with what I had done at the RA. The new position came with an increase, of course. I was a young man still, with a lucrative career option including exciting challenges right in front of me. I followed a progressive career trajectory, something most can only hope for. I was in a position to grow, I had proven myself capable and jumped at the opportunity. I am still criticised for it today and I can only wonder why.”
“I threw myself at the events and promotions side of the job, as required. There was a year in which our team secured R50-million worth of sponsorships for racing. I especially loved the events, we grew each and every event to at least double the on-course attendance, and we doubled on-course tote turnover.’’
When Phumelela’s Racing Executive, Patrick Davis, left for the UK in 2015, the position was vacant and, again, as a result of the impressive work he had done, Clyde was asked to take over. Another step up.
He recalled: “The new position became available and, again, it was something that any upwardly mobile career individual would have taken. It was held against me by perplexingly scathing critics who made it personal. In hindsight, yes, it was a poor decision, but I was thrust into a near impossible job. Nobody is ever happy with the way races are programmed, the manner in which race days are handled, and so on. There are a number of opposing parties to please, and without solid support structures around you it is simply not possible.”
“During this time, with Phumelela having taken over the management of Kenilworth Racing, I had to take care of the Cape programming of Cape races and deal with the powerful trainers and owners in the region. Things went well for most of the time, we had a good relationship. But financial pressures were mounting. The Cape industry pushed back, they wanted better. With that came disagreements and infighting at the highest levels and as a consequence my work came under fire.”
“Back then, people thought I sat around a boardroom table alongside top management, plotting the demise of Kenilworth racing and working to undermine all opposing opinions. That is simply not true. After Rian resigned in September 2018, John Stuart took over as CEO of Phumelela in October 2018. I was relieved of my duties and told that I was not part of the new management’s vision going forward. A new exco team was appointed. They managed affairs from the latter part of 2018 to April 2020.”
In 2020 Phumelela went into business rescue amidst widespread and pervasive rumours.
Clyde said: “When Phumelela went into business rescue I was under the impression that Betfred, with a massive amount of investor’s cash on the table in their two-cornered contest against MOD, would be taking over and that the old Phumelela management team would take precedence. I took the severance package because I didn’t want to work for the team that forced me out to begin with, and found myself in the wilderness until Darryl Maree, Daryn Burroughs and I found a winning formula for viewers in Weighted To Win, the form and betting advice show for punters. We made an impression suitable enough to be considered and given a chance by 4Racing. I dare say our show is popular today, well watched. I know it is.”
In this paradoxical blend of achievement and suspicion, Clyde has returned to entertain and advise the racing nation with his relaxed demeanour in front of the camera and the golden voice that thrilled a few generations of racing fanatics from the commentary box with phrases including, ‘there goes the galloping goldmine’ (In reference to star filly Empress Club); ‘I wonder if we’ll ever see another like him in our lifetime’ (Horse Chestnut) and ‘What an enormous engine, she’s now ready to go globe-trotting!’ (Igugu).
He dealt with three other issues raised against him over the years:
-On abusing his position at the RA with a deal involving Randjesfontein: “As the sole director of Randjesfontein I was required to sign off a document for the rezoning of Randjesfontein as an official racecourse, which I did. At the time there was a demand for a boutique type racecourse in the North. That was not an illegal business strategy and the decision was made in interest of racing. A multitude of logistical issues prevented plans from coming to fruition.”
-On turning the corridors of Phumelela into ‘Little Lebanon’ with unqualified friends and family members being appointed: “A preposterous and arguably racist allegation. Phumelela employed hundreds of workers, who were sourced and contracted with the correct legal and company procedures and ethics in place.
-On giving and receiving financial ‘kickbacks’ in his position as event and sponsorship executive: “My late mother and father would be turning in their graves reading such outrageous accusations. I have no doubt such remarks come from insanely jealous people, whom I’ve had to encounter and overcome throughout my commentating career.’’
Now, then, it’s head down and eye on the ball for Clyde in positions that he commands most respect – essentially an expert in his field, and an entertainer. He has a lot going for him on a personal level, too. Earlier this year, he underwent bariatric surgery, a medical procedure performed to assist with weight loss. “I got so heavy that my organs were starting to suffer, and my knees and my back couldn’t handle the weight. My doctor warned that I was courting serious illness, or a heart attack. I’ve lost near 50kg in the last six months, I want to get down another 15kg to 90kg. My energy levels are high, I have a new lease on life and I am grateful.”
Perhaps it’s time for his hate club to bury the past. The new-look Clyde Basel is a survivor and, plainly, good for the game.
- 4Racing – Off The Record