Where Lies Our Future?

Young And In Love With Racing. How many people could anyone of us in all sincerity, off the top of our heads, place under that banner today? When sixteen year old apprentice jockey Bryan Claassen rode his first winner at ScottsvilIe on Sunday it had me pondering a sport where the only youngsters with any vested interests are well-paid professional riders. And what about the Black guys?

The fresh-faced and naturally full of beans Claassen only turns seventeen in December. Hell, that is really young, and beyond his colleagues at the SA Jockey Academy, horseracing must be a pretty lonely world for him. After all, teenagers these days have so many other cooler sporting and social options to choose from rather than a game that revolves around gambling gains and losses and nasty people hurling abuse at each other. As an individual that has followed it emotionally and intimately for forty years, I can call that an accurate summation of the present day status. Or isn’t it?

I am not suggesting that the keen as mustard Claassen becomes the poster boy for a new generation of young racing fans, but we stand a far better chance with him than we do with the muddied waters that currently dirty our shop window. An athlete, swimmer and polo-crosse enthusiast, he rode his first horse at the age of six, and obviously comes from a good solid family. He was also brought up in the sleepy backwater, that we strangely call the capital city of KwaZulu-Natal today. He can only be good for the game.

I have been following a series entitled ‘Young And In Love With Racing’  in the UK Racing Post in which journalist Tom Kerr speaks to young racing fans and finds out their likes or dislikes about the sport. One of his subjects was the sixteen year old William Kedjanyi, who makes a few interesting comments. He says that he loves so many things about racing. The fact that it is ‘the only decent sport that goes on all year around, and that they(in the UK) get two different codes of racing to enjoy.’ He labels the worst thing about racing,’ the space given to covering unscrupulous activities, which in turn means that our public image becomes tremendously hard to defend.’

The responsibility for the vitally important ‘soft’ issues like upholding traditions and values and the promotion of the sport and cultivation of new interest groups has been outsourced and tasked to organisations outside of the racing operators. The largest of these two is the Racing Association and the Western Province Owners’ and Trainers Association.

The RA has identified three core focus groups in their target market viz Young Achievers, Women and Black African owners. According to a communication from the RA’s Merle Parker, the Young Achievers day was developed in 2009 to introduce people aged 18 to 25 to racehorse ownership. Six hundred young achievers were entered into a draw to own a 5% share in a horse. The nineteen winners(the RA retains one share) were made up of 6 Black Africans, 2 Indians and 11 White people. All costs were covered by the RA. This year the concept has been modified somewhat with racing now being promoted as a sport as opposed to the initial focus on ownership and betting. It certainly makes logical sense and the RA felt that it was more prudent that the youth first experience the excitement of the sport and cultivate a passion for the horse before committing to ownership.

The RA claims that it has introduced 40 new Black African owners to horseracing over the past four years. Black African prospects were entertained at designated racedays with the emphasis on transferring knowledge and enthusiasm for the sport. The focus on introducing these guys was on the social and business networking aspect and also the entertainment side of things.    They have also entertained 300 Black African women from the ANC Women’s League, Rhema Church and SAFA to annual themed racedays at Turffontein. This is designed to promote horseracing as a transformation tool and also to acknowledge the contribution of, particularly the previously disadvanted, women to our society.

Rodney Dunn’s WPOTA have been the backbone of horseracing in the Western Cape for decades now and it is frankly solely thanks to Dunn’s passion and commitment that tradition abounds within the walls of one of the world’s most beautiful racecourses. I don’t need to  throw syrupy empty compliments around (like I admittedly used to), but Dunn is a legend and one of the most passionate and genuine racing men around. Even his detractors will admit to that.

Besides playing an active role in looking after existing owner interests on matters of policy concerning stakes, programming, facilities, promotions and key cost items like Jockeys’remuneration, WPOTA are also the driving force behind big race sponsorships –  like the Diadem Stakes and the Terrance Millard Olympic Duel Stakes. They manage major fundraising projects  – viz the famed pre Met ‘Cocktails and Racing’ evenings, Western Cape Racing Awards  and The 100 Club. Their list of projects for the year include the sponsorship of trophies and promotional wear for the Western Province Horse Showing Society and other show-jumping events in the Western Cape. As Rodney Dunn puts it, ‘the object naturally is to encourage the younger generation who are involved with equine disciplines as a sport, to eventually participate in horseracing as racehorse owners or even work in the industry as Assistant Trainers or Workriders.’

WPOTA run a live video on their website, designed to encourage the younger generation to watch racing on the internet. For the past 6 years their promotion of Kenilworth Racecourse and the Western Cape as an international racing playground has produced great results. Tradition has also not been neglected with the on course promotion of recent racing legends Pocket Power and Horse Chestnut as well as the Grade 1 galleries of the Cape’s major races.  The ‘Honour the Greats’ programme also continues to recognize and acknowledge individuals for their lifetime contribution to racing.

The introduction of Black owners in the Cape was initially driven by the local chapter of Gold Circle, who introduced a BEE syndicate under the management of David Carswell. They raced in the blue and gold corporate colours of the operator, and called themselves Formula One. The idea started off with much excitement and anticipation. What has happened to it? Gold Circle’s Local Executive Mike Greeff had this to say on the current status of the Formula One Syndicate:

“Both fillies were retired from racing and in fact were taken over by an individual from the syndicate and are now at stud in that individual’s name. The Formula Two Syndicate’s one filly died in training and the other proved too highly strung and fractious to be a “fun” opportunity for the syndicate. The breeder did however replace her with another filly and after limited success the syndicate asked if she could be moved to Port Elizabeth. She is now in training in Port Elizabeth in the syndicate name, although not all the initial members remain involved.”

Words and fragmented good intention aplenty. But has the sport succeeded or failed in its mission to sustain itself and ensure survival in the medium-term? In twenty years from now, the horseracing landscape will look very different to the way it looks today. Twitter will be jaded then just as Facebook has already become a pain in the bum today. And today’s heroes, the men who made the game less great than it was yesterday, will long be forgotten.

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