By Robyn Louw
Starting with Bartie Leisher, Hong Kong has had a long and fruitful association with South African jockeys, trainers and horses. Bartie Leisher was champion jockey in 97/98, Basil Marcus topped the log 7 times between the 1991/92 – 1998/99 seasons, Robbie Fradd won the title in 1999/2000 and then came the 13 year domination of Douglas Whyte. And that’s not even counting the contributions of Felix Coetzee, Anthony Delpech, Weichong Marwing, Kevin Shea, Piere Strydom, Jeff Lloyd, Greg Cheyne, Anton Marcus, Richard Fourie, Bernard Fayd’herbe, the SA-trained Karis Teetan, Gavin Lerena, Chad Schofield and now Callan Murray. SA trainers to have left an impression on your record books include Alec Laird, David Ferraris, Tony Millard, Mike de Kock and Lucky Houdalakis. Our equine visitors may have been a little more sparse, but the few that have made to your shores have done us proud and include London News, Irridescence, J J The Jet Plane and Variety Club.
As such, it was interesting to find out that South Africa’s Vodacom Durban July, dubbed ‘Africa’s Greatest Horseracing Event’ does not generate a lot of coverage in Hong Kong. Hans Ebert asked me to try and explain what makes the race so special.
So, how to describe the Vodacom Durban July? It’s like the worst day and the best day of your life all rolled into one. On the one hand, it’s a 12 race card. On the other, it’s a 12 race card. With the first race off at 11:25 and the last run under the African stars at 19:55, it’s 8 and a half hours of racing. On the other hand, it’s 8 and a half hours racing. See what I mean?
Why the Durban July?
In her wonderful book, the Durban July Handicap, Molly Reinhardt wrote “The Durban July is the one race in the South African racing calendar that above all others, every owner, trainer, breeder and jockey wants to win. Months of sweat, frustration, fears and hopes are geared to 3 o’clock on the first Saturday afternoon in July. A few minutes later the dream is shattered, or a rainbow is blazing across a cerulean sky.”
We all know racing isn’t for the faint-hearted and the July in particular has a long, rich and colourful history and every year seems to add yet another exciting plot twist to the race’s legacy. If it’s not the selection process, it’s torrential rain, or the track, a strong field, a weak field, a reduced or increased field, a dramatic result, a boardroom controversy or a racing tragedy and no year seems to be free of some sort of high drama. For the purist at heart, the final insult is that the race is a handicap, but with a R4,25 million carrot dangling across the finishing post, it is the richest race on the local calendar and there are no holds barred trying to win it, so it gets rough out there.
Every year I do my ‘bah humbug’ impression and swear that this year July fever won’t get me. It’s a handicap, the track is impossible, it’s a rough and ready rugby scrum for the post and almost ever year there is some kind of disaster, high drama or upset result. And yet, and yet. More than any other, it is ‘our’ race and despite every reason I can think of for disliking it, the Durban July captures the imagination like no other and remains the most coveted trophy in all the land. So, suspend belief for a few hours and immerse yourself in the boundless, glorious and addictive unreliability of the horse. And of course the fun in trying to guess the ones with the invisible wings.
A little background
Most official records state that the race started life in 1897 when it was won by Campanajo. However, those with access to some of our earliest Jockey Club Calendars – and possessed of sufficient time to go trawling through them – will be able to trace the race back to 1894, when it was run over the distance of 1 mile as the Durban Handicap and won by Mr Peter’s grey horse, Leo Grey under jockey Shipley.
It was briefly run over 1800m in 1913 and 1914 before being adjusted to 2000m in 1915. It was extended to 2100m in 1941, the year it was won by Sadri II and finally settled at its current distance, 2200m, in 1970, when it was won by Court Day.
The Durban July was the scene of one of South African racing’s greatest turf dramas in 1966 when the heavy favourite 3yo colt, Sea Cottage, was shot in the hindquarter on 10 June, 3 weeks before the race. The bullet could not be retrieved and the horse made a remarkable recovery to take his place in that year’s race, finishing an unlucky fourth after being severely checked at the two furlong mark. The following year, Sea Cottage returned to avenge his defeat and recorded the first deadheat in the history of the race when he crossed the line as one with Jollify under a welterweight 127lbs.
It is the stuff of movie scripts and the sort of madness and high adventure that is the unique preserve of the racing fan. So if it’s a quiet life and a dead cert you’re after, I suggest you give Greyville a wide berth on the first Saturday in July. But if you’re part of the tribe that throws caution to the wind and laughs in the face of danger, read on.
This year handed us a real peach in Candice Bass-Robinson, the first lady trainer to saddle a July winner. Of course, that’s not the whole story. This is the July after all ! Candice’s father, Mike Bass, has been part of the South African racing firmament for over 40 years. Perenially at or near the top of the trainers log, he is both popular and successful. His list of achievements is as long as it is illustrious, but he cemented his position in the hearts and minds of South African fans with his handling of the mighty Pocket Power. ‘Pocket’ as he is affectionately known, was owned in partnership by Mr & Mrs Arthur Webber and Marsh Shirtliff and raced in Marsh’s famous pink, white and blue silks. Pocket was the first horse to win our Cape Winter Series in 2006, a feat which took 11 years to emulate and was only repeated again in 2017. With Bernard in the saddle, and his brother Robert on the ground as assistant trainer, Pocket Power had one of the most staggeringly successful careers in recent memory. In a campaign which few would have had the temerity to even attempt, nevermind dream of succeeding, Pocket went on to win three Gr1 J&B Mets, four Gr1 Queen’s Plates and produced the second dead heat in the history of the Vodacom Durban July back in 2008.
Pocket was by no means perfect and he did occasionally get beat, but he never went down without a fight. We loved him for it and by extension, we loved the whole of the Pocket Power family.
Mr Bass fell dangerously ill in August 2015, losing a leg and damn near losing his life. While he was convalescing, his daughter and 2IC, Candice and the rest of the family, kept the yard going, but the decision was made for Mr Bass to retire at the end of the 2015/16 season and officially hand over the reins to Candice. Fittingly, it was during this season that there appeared a little horse called Marinaresco, who looked to be a champion in the making and a fitting swansong to a glorious career for Mike. Adding a tiny bit of provenance, Mike also owned a small share. A tiny little horse, standing just short of 15’2 hands, he had the same never say die attitude we’d come to love in Pocket Power. Co-owned by Marsh Shirtliff, he ran in the same pink, white and blue silks and the story had all the hallmarks of a bona fide racing fairytale stamped all over it.
Following in the large hoofprints of his illustrious predecessor, Marinaresco won 2 legs of the 2016 Cape Winter Series, before Mike took the unorthodox step of sending his precocious 3yo to Durban to tilt at the July. Shouldering 55,5kg he damn nearly got there too, flying from the clouds to finish ¼ length 2nd. He also handed Mike a final Gr1 hurrah to finish his career with a flourish, winning the Gr1 Mike & Carol Bass Champions Cup (named in their honour) on the last day of the 2015/16 season. On 1 August 2016, Candice officially took over the reins.
While it is one thing to inherit a top flight stable, it is quite another to keep it going, but Candice has not taken a single wrong step, delivering the first Gr1 winner in her own right in January. Marinaresco on the other hand, appeared to lose a little of his sparkle, or at least a little of his winning record as a series of tough races saw him finishing just off them during the Cape summer of champions.
After a brief break, Marinaresco was shipped to Durban with the rest of the Bass Champions Season string and the final piece of the story puzzle fell into place with the appointment of Bernard Fayd’herbe as his rider. While it looked a little incongruous to have our tallest rider on our smallest horse, some things just work. Marinaresco again showed that he flourishes in the Zulu kingdom, winning a sprint prep in the Drill Hall Stakes, only to hit a flat spot in the Rising Sun Gold Challenge.
The Vodacom Durban July 2017
The R4.25 million Vodacom Durban July was run on 1 July 2017 and despite it being her first year in the ‘big job’, Candice saddled three runners. With his top weight of 60kgs and a draw of 8, Marinaresco went to post at odds of 17/1.
Keeping Marinaresco sitting well off the pace, as is his habit, Bernard rode a patient race, waiting for the field to come off the spur for home before looking for daylight. He found an opening on the inside, darted through it and sent Marinaresco on his way. While the little horse dug deep, plastering his ears back to show he was flat to the boards, a wall of horses stampeded late and there was a cavalry charge for the line, including Nightingale and Horizon. Obscured by the wall of horses on his outside, hardly anyone noticed the little blinkered face roaring down the rail to get his nose down across the line first.
Sean Tarry’s Al Sahem finished second, Brett Crawford’s Cape Derby winner Edict of Nantes was third and deadheating for fourth was Candice’s filly Nightingale and Snaith Racing’s Krambambuli. Richard Fourie brought Horizon flying up for 6th place although with a little over half a length spanning the first 6 horses home, there was little in it.
Chatting to him before the race, Bernard had expressed his wish to win the July outright and last Saturday Marinaresco delivered. Candice got a July winner on her first attempt, becoming the first woman to achieve the feat and also having the pleasure of training the winner for her dad. With 60kgs on his back, Marinaresco won carrying the highest weight in the history of the race. Watching the connections – including Mike Bass in his wheelchair – on the podium for the presentations, one could be forgiven for a lump in your throat and a speck of sawdust in the eye.
In the post race celebrations, I noticed that Bernard had the words ‘Pocket Power’ sewn into the collar of his silks and a quiet certainty settled over me. It was a few days before I could catch up with Bernard to ask about it, and when he confirmed that he had ridden the race in a set of Pocket Power’s colours, that damn sawdust got me all over again.
As Mrs Reinhardt wrote so beautifully, “The greatest ecstasy and the bitterest agony are hidden behind the bright silks and the emerald turf. Trainers, owners, jockeys, big time gamblers and small punters are revealed in their true colours when the chips are down. Many can take the triumphs, but not all can face the defeats. If you can’t take it, you shouldn’t be in it – much better to go into a nice quiet profession like undertaking – the only job in the world where you can rely on dead certs.”
They say a racehorse is the only horse in the world capable of taking several thousand people for a ride at the same time. That may be so, but oh, how we enjoy the ride.