Picture: JEFF GRIFFITH/UNSPLASH
Picture: JEFF GRIFFITH/UNSPLASH

In these dark days of the pandemic, some folk believe that putting on a brave face is the only way forward, but the truth is we need a reality check. Especially when it comes to the Cape Met, one of three “majors” on the SA racing calendar.   

Saturday’s race at Kenilworth will be like no other in the past. Even Rudy Giuliani, personal attorney to now former president Trump, would have a job making a case that — even taking place behind closed doors — it’s a sporting event that must be watched from your armchair.

So let’s do that reality check:

ATTENDANCE: No crowds because of the predicament most countries find themselves in due to the coronavirus. But spare a thought for the owners of the 11 (yes, only 11, but more on that later) who would have moved heaven and earth to be in the Kenilworth parade ring to support their horses.

Then you have the fashion contests and the aim of many to get on the front page of the country’s leading Sunday newspapers which only bother about two races — the Met and the Durban July. These will be missed by fashion gurus.

THE HORSES: The field for the Met invariably has 16 runners, thus giving punters a chance to back their fancy each-way with payouts for fourth place. As mentioned, just 11 face the starter this year and three could not win if they started on Friday night.

The Roll-of-Honour is proof of the famous horseflesh which has captured the 2,000m race — household names such as Wolf Power, Igugu and three-time winner Pocket Power.

This year there are two six-year-olds — Rainbow Bridge and Do It Again — hoping to prove they are not past their sell-by date. It looks likely they may have to play second fiddle to younger rivals.

However, there is a real chance that one of two members of the female sex, Queen Supreme or Princess Calla, will be wearing the winner’s sash after the race.

Queen Supreme, an Irish-bred mare trained by Mike de Kock, is a daughter of Exceed and Excel, who has been the stalwart of the Darley stallion roster since retiring as Aussie champion sprinter in 2004. In June 2020, he sired his 500th two-year-old winner.

A son of Danehill, he is one of only 17 stallions to have sired 150 individual stakes winners.

After Queen Supreme won the grade 1 Cartier Paddock Stakes at Kenilworth on January 9, De Kock shocked reporters by saying the five-year-old was immediately going back to Johannesburg and would return for the Met at the end of the month.

The former champion trainer explained she had lost her form when kept in Cape Town 12 months ago — she is happier back home in Joburg.

It means she will have travelled 5,600km by road during January by the time the starter raises his flag on Saturday. That’s about eight trips between London and Edinburgh, yet just one  would be enough for most humans.

However, De Kock told this column on Tuesday: “Obviously the long trip is a concern, but European trainers, especially Irish, do it week in, week out. I’ve just found that staying down and running three weeks after a very good run that they have flattened out. So, rather than gamble on that, I’ve gambled on bringing her home and the road trip two weeks later.

“Who knows — so many unknowns in this game — but I’ve seen many, not only mine, flatten out in that period.”

The other female is Calla Princess, the only three-year-old in the race. When interviewed about her prospects, 33-year-old trainer Adam Marcus said: “The reality is that the likes of really top horses like Do It Again, Rainbow Bridge, Golden Ducat and Belgarion, they invariably produce the goods every time. But they are not improving and that’s what makes Princess Calla an exciting wildcard option.”

THE JOCKEYS: In 2020 we had the world’s best jockey, Ryan Moore (this scribe’s opinion), flying in to partner Rainbow Bridge for former Mala Mala Game Reserve owner Mike Rattray. In football terms, it was like Lionel Messi  turning out for Kaizer Chiefs in a cup final.

Moore’s infrequent visits to SA is proof he doesn’t feel the same way about the country as Frankie Dettori, but whatever fee Rattray dolled out, it was money well spent. Moore gave it his all but lost narrowly to long-shot One World.

This year there’s not only no overseas star, but the interprovincial travel restrictions on jockeys means Muzi Yeni misses out on partnering Running Brave, and champion Warren Kennedy has been confined to the Cape for the whole month. One could think of worse fates!

SPONSORS: They have fled to the hills in much the same way as Investec has pulled the plug on the English Derby. The Met is now the Cape Town Met and a number of feature races,  including the Cape Flying Championship, are “presented by Cape Racing”. Perhaps next June we will see the “English Derby brought to you by Epsom Racecourse”.

However, Cape Racing must be applauded for finding the prize money — R1m for the Met, R750,000 for the Cape Flying Championship and R500,000 for the Majorca Stakes.

Old hacks like myself fondly remember the days when J & were the race sponsors. They went out of their way to make it a day to remember: cheap entrance fee and booze at affordable prices (particularly their whisky).

Astonishingly, of this year’s feature races just one event, the New Turf Carriers Stayers over 2,800m, has a sponsor. The Majorca Stakes was always backed by one of the country’s top stud farms, but not this year. Once again it’s a race brought to you by Cape Racing.

PUNTING: Those personnel on the racing channel Tellytrack who have not been retrenched are doing their best to promote Saturday’s race, particularly the Pick 6 which is estimated to reach R15m.

But will the man in the street feel happy about placing a win wager on the Met with the tote after the fiasco of the Queen’s Plate? The 12-1 winner, Jet Dark, who hardly got a mention from pundits, returned just R4.90 for a tote win, resulting in a mountain of complaints on social media. A real case of shooting yourself in the foot.

CONCLUSION: For those of us lucky enough to have stocked up with beer and wine in their households before the alcohol ban, we can only hope we raise our glass after a competitive race where the winner will have his or her name added to previous superstars of the turf.

But for the majority it will be a case of the 2021 Met being a sporting event that will be easily forgotten. Officials will try to conjure up as much hype as possible, but the empty stands will send a chill similar to watching an episode of “Dead Men Walking”.

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