The leading lights of SA horse racing in 2021
Dave Mollett selects those who have excelled over the past 12 months
It is the time of year when Business Day racing writer David Mollett, who reaches the milestone of 50 years as a racing scribe in May, names his selection of those who have excelled over the past 12 months.
In the trainers, jockeys and breeder categories, those who finished in the top five last season are ineligible.
HORSE OF THE YEAR: LINEBACKER
When it comes to a horse who was a friend to the punting public throughout the year, it is hard to get away from the Vaughan Marshall inmate, Linebacker. His performances in 2021 included wins in the Cape Derby, KZN Guineas and Daily News 2000 and a second in the Durban July.
Obviously, War Of Athena (favourite to win the Horse of the Year award in a Sporting Post poll) also enjoyed a magnificent year but mainly against her own sex.
The many fans of the R275,000 son of Captain Of All — bred at Klawervlei Stud — know they will get a good run for their money in the Queen’s Plate and Met.
TRAINER: ASHLEY FORTUNE
With statistics to the end of December showing 31 winners from 237 runners, the female Vaal trainer is going to comfortably surpass her 2020/2021 season total of 48. Recent winner Bard Of Avon is on course for a successful season.
Fortune has said top Aussie trainer Gai Waterhouse is her role model. “There are a lot of parallels that I can identify with Ms Waterhouse. And lady trainers have a great record in this country. I have read of the likes of Anne Upton, Eileen Bestel and Jean Heming and then we have at least 15 current fairer sex conditioners making a living in what is largely a man’s world.”
However, husband Andrew is her rock. “He doesn’t believe in cheesy emails, he speaks to people. It is something he does very well.”
Rather like Candice Bass-Robinson, Ashley tells it like she sees it in interviews and one wonders if this rankles with hubby if he’s lining up someone for a punt.
JOCKEY: LOUIS MXOTHWA
After an OK 2019/2020 season with 46 winners and 18th place in the national log, Louis’s star is suddenly in the ascendancy with the cherry on top being appointed stable jockey to the powerful yard of Brett Crawford. He recently won the Southern Cross Stakes on the stable’s choicely bred filly, Kitty Cat Chat.
In the 2020/2021 season, Louis fell just three short of his century with 97 winners. This term with seven months still remaining he is over the 40-winner mark and so he will fancy his chances of three figures.
Louis’s career took off in the Eastern Cape — 61 of his 97 winners last season were at Fairview. He has stated he will still be a regular visitor to that part of the country. “Trainers there have been good to me. Sharon Kotzen, Juan Nel and Duncan McKenzie all gave me good rides.”
OWNER OF THE YEAR: LAURENCE WERNARS
Many in the mix here including Ashley Reynolds, Suzette Viljoen and Hyperpaint Syndicate, but Laurence Wernars has made visits to the No 1 box in 2021 as regularly as Manchester City have scored goals.
His best horses include Copper Mountain, Second Base (co-owned with Devachander) and True To Life. If the December 18 meeting at Turffontein is any guide, the party is set to continue in 2022 as Laurence had two more winners, Prince Of Fire (now four wins from five starts) and Secretariat Stakes winner, Bon Vivant.
Wernars’s Studio 88 Group has done sterling work in helping grooms during these turbulent times.
BREEDER: MOUTONSHOEK STUD
Tough call this between Moutonshoek and Oldlands but to have bred a filly as good as Captain’s Ransom — boasting eight wins from 10 starts — is a feather in the cap for Dr Bennie van der Merwe’s Piketberg operation. The stud’s previous biggest earner was Undercover Agent.
Mountonshoek was founded by Van der Merwe and the late Chris Gerber in 2003. The latter’s death in October 2018 stunned the racing industry. In a tribute, Turftalk quotes a saying from a French poet: “A great man is one who leaves others at a loss when he’s gone.” Might Gerber — the first owner of Rainbow Bridge — have owned Captain’s Ransom? We’ll never know but he would be happy that she races in the colours of the enthusiastic Suzette Viljoen.
NEWSMAKER OF THE YEAR: ROBERT BLOOMBERG
One thing we all know about the legal guru and consultant is that he does not sit on the fence when it comes to important racing issues. His tirade against the National Horseracing Authority (NHA) to change representation on its board seems to have been going on as long as the TV show Law & Order but has been easy to follow in the Sporting Post.
This writer interviewed NHA chair Susan Rowett on the dispute and what became abundantly clear that here was a lady prepared to stand her corner.
During the year, Robert also threw his weight behind jockey JP van der Merwe who was slapped with a year’s ban in Singapore. This was reduced on appeal to six months and Bloomberg’s legal expertise may have proved vital.
PRESENTER OF THE YEAR: LYALL COOPER
From golf professional to on-course presenter who — in the past six months — has handled the highveld role almost single-handedly and without a hitch.
Lyall has quickly learnt that if you stray into controversial territory (especially with a debater such as Sean Tarry) one can soon end up in choppy waters. So, sensibly, Lyall doesn’t stray far from the usual script.
What Tellytrack has failed to promote is Lyall’s excellent tipping record. He’s landed a number of decent Pick Six and jackpot dividends but the control room in Rivonia hardly gave it a mention.
ACHIEVER OF THE YEAR: ALISTAIR COHEN
Not since Trevor Denman was lured to the US five decades ago has a SA race caller caught the attention of other racing countries as much as 30-year-old Cohen. It was just a question of who would get his signature first — Hong Kong, Singapore or Dubai. The latter won that battle.
His commentating workload here, with fellow caller Brandon Bailey, was huge after Nico Kritsiotis (happily back on track) was sidelined for 16 months, a decision that beggars belief.
Now earning real money, Alistair will be able to buy his girlfriend, Candice Dawson, a better horse than his moderate gelding, Banha Bridge.
LIFETIME ACHIEVER AWARD: CHRIS VAN NIEKERK
For 20 years, businessman and racehorse owner Chris van Niekerk has played the same role in SA as much respected John Magnier in Ireland. His familiar blue and red colours could be seen at practically every race meeting and his back-to-back Durban July double (2012 and 2013) can be viewed as just reward for his immense contribution to the sport.
So when in late September Business Day revealed he was leaving racing, it was a bombshell no-one was expecting. Posts on social media indicated the fondness many people felt for the man who teamed up with Sean Tarry in 1998.
“A true legend among those involved in this wonderful sport.”
“His presence added a touch of class to race meetings.”
“It was a pleasure listening to his post-race interviews, he always had something to chuckle about.”
Yes, Chris had the knack of adapting to a certain situation, a serious speech in Cape Town when Steinhoff was in the headlines as well as several at Equus awards. But that lighter side was never far away and — after his second July win — he famously quipped to the media “I could get used to this”.
Tarry described the relationship as “a fantastic journey through thick and thin”. Many will be sad that the journey has come to an end.
PERSONALITY OF THE YEAR: OWEN HEFFER
With Owen Heffer at the helm, the Hollywoodbets ship began life anchored in Durban harbour but has now reached ports in Europe. Wow, Hollywoodbets has certainly spread its wings substantially over the past 12 months and that is down to Heffer’s business acumen.
Hollywoodbets is now sponsors of two UK jockeys, Daniel Muscutt and Jamie Moore, three racecourses (Dundalk, Greyville and Scottsville and one Premier League club (Brentford). It has also just secured a deal with Kings Park Stadium. This is in addition to sponsoring a number of jockeys and trainers in SA.
With Vodacom pulling out of their sponsorship of the Durban July — no big surprise as they appear more interested in backing rugby and soccer — it is probable Heffer may set his eye on SA’s most famous race. This could get interesting with World Sports Betting now a major sponsor in the sport.
The conclusion is that — despite these tough economic and virus times — Hollywoodbets has built up a large client base. A success story right now is unusual so they are clearly the exception.
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