THERE will be readers of Turf Talk who are not familiar with veteran trainer Johan Van Eck, whose runner Jenny McGee (photo) won Race 9 over 1600m at the Vaal On Thursday.
We’ll give you a brief. Van Eck was a National log-leading contender in the 1980s when he had over 100 horses in training at the old Newmarket with horses like Treble Chord, Wisconsin, Great Gusto, Classical Charm, Jabber and Flower Judge winning multiple handicaps.
Van Eck’s stable jockey was Paul Whitmore, who now resides in Australia. Together they landed betting coup after betting coup in the days when big money traded hands. When the cash was down on a Van Eck runner, it arrived. Period. Many were “lined up”, backed from the 30s and 20s into favourites. They truly ruled the roost.
Van Eck counted all the big-name owners of the time in his yard, starting with “TP” Smith, also including the notoriously difficult JP “Zwei” Herholdt, Andre MacDonald and Henry Devine.
One day, in the early 90s, Van Eck cried enough. He phoned his owners and told them to fetch their horses. He kept a dozen for himself, a tally that dwindled to 8 and 6 and even a low of 4. He never grew his yard again and today, aged 69, he has 10 stabled at the Vaal and he’s happy as Larry.
Friends, owners and punters have pleaded with the horseman to accept more owners and horses back in the yard to recall his golden days, but he’s refused. He’s Johan van Eck, that’s the way he is, and always will be.
Van Eck’s become a recluse, he’s camera-shy and doesn’t even lead in his occasional winners, but he’s the same brash, straight-talking ‘Dutchman’ of days gone by. If one gets him to talk, that is. And he remains revered and loved by his colleagues for his horsemanship and dry humour.
Van Eck spoke to Turf Talk on Friday and said: “There was a day when I’d had enough of nagging, complaining, self-important owners. They drove me mad, I couldn’t take it any longer. I told them to collect their horses and within days near 80 horses left my yard. I was relieved and happy, I wanted to play more golf and drink more brandy. I am happy still doing that!”
Van Eck is a big, burly man (when last we saw him anyway!), but in his heyday he played provincial rugby for Griquas in the position of flyhalf and he recalls: “In my first provincial match I weighed 160 pounds (about 70kg), but look at me today, this is what brandy does to you!”
Several years ago he suffered a terrible health scare, ended up in hospital and had to rely on Louis Goosen’s skills to round up trainers and friends for donations to keep him out of intensive care. “Yup, that was brandy,” Van Eck jokes. “Brandy can scare you sometimes.”
He’s healthy now, however, undoubtedly still has a friendly twinkle in his eye and is enjoying his small string and a small group of owners. “I’ll take in another horse or two, but only from experienced owners who leave me to do my job. The last thing I need is a nagging bloody owner that talks ‘kak’ and upsets you. No thanks!”
Van Eck’s friend Louis van Wyk owns Jenny McGee, who overcame the widest of draws to win and he says: “The field was weak, Jenny McGee has been a slow developer. She found the right field.”
Van Eck says he has a few decent ones yet to race, but sees no reason in going into names, pedigrees and the like. He says: “You know, I always tell the young trainers, don’t talk about your horses before they’ve raced. When their careers are done, when they’ve won many races and they achieved good results on the track you can speak about them. Let them do that first!”
We just love Johan van Eck, he’s one of the game’s legendary characters and we hope he gets a really good one passing through his yard again. He’d be happy if it does, happy if it doesn’t, but we’re hoping anyway!