A potentially serious situation was diffused at Turffontein on Saturday when racing officials persuaded a group of about 50 protestors assembled on the racetrack to leave the course so that racing could continue following its interruption after Race 2 on Champions Day.
While racing resumed after a delay of about an hour – the result of a grooms’ protest against working conditions – one sad and unfortunate consequence was the decision by veteran trainer Ormond Ferraris to hand in his licence.
The 87-year old Ferraris, upset and severely stressed by the grooms’ actions, had to be taken to hospital for a check-up and observation when his staff decided to desert the yard around 4am on Saturday morning. He was released on Saturday afternoon and told Turf Talk on Sunday: “I have made my decision, I am giving up training.”
Ferraris, who has served the horseracing industry with great distinction for 70 years, said that trainers at Turffontein were aware of the pending strike on Friday. “I arranged with my 20 grooms to come to work Saturday at 3am, an hour earlier, so they could attend their meeting which was scheduled for 5am.
“All I wanted them to do was the bedding, and to feed and water the horses. Just a few came along at three but soon disappeared leaving me and my Head Lad of 40 years, John Sibeko, to get by on our own. I was distressed, they had to take me to the Union Clinic but I am feeling better now. This is it, this is the third protest action of this nature we’ve had to endure recently and I am not prepared to put up with this any longer. I am out.”
Ferraris said that there were “troublemakers” in the grooms’ ranks who have stirred up the rest with a variety of demands, including higher wages and for an office to be allocated to one of their faction officials at Turffontein.
“I would love to pay the grooms what they want, big salaries, but it is simply not possible. The sport of racing cannot contain this. The costs of feeding and training horses today are astronomical and stakes haven’t increased in proportion to the high expenses. The few millionaires in racing can afford it, but I fear for the middle man, the smaller owner. This kind of pressure is going to hit them and the smaller stables the hardest. They are battling to feed themselves, let alone their horses. There is just no way they can survive!”
Ferraris said that he had fought for trainers’ rights and many other issues for as long as he can remember, serving in a leadership capacity on many boards, over many decades. In the 1950’s, for example, he and a few others stood their ground to prevent the (first anticipated) sale of Newmarket Racecourse, not afraid to speak up in industry matters ever since. More recently he had done sterling work on the Trainers Benevolent Fund.
He recalled: “In those days, training racehorses was a relatively cheap profession. We could buy 150 pounds of feed for just 10 shillings and our workers were paid well because everything was affordable. In the 60s and 70s the big trainers had 30 horses in their stables, the smaller ones had 10 or 12, but we all made a good living. We raced twice a week and the sport was simply great. But the good times are over now.
“Today, costs are out of hand and this has had various ramifications. Racing is in trouble with escalating expenses and all the demands from workers. Look at the outcome of this issue. I have 10 horses leaving tomorrow for Durban. They are owned by Hong Kong Syndicates who want to see their runners in barrier trials. My son David sent them a list of KZN trainers and they decided on Garth Puller. A further 20 horses will be sent to other trainers. Thereafter, my grooms will be paid off. They will be unemployed.”
Recently described as “a racing institution”, Ormond Ferraris first took out his licence in 1952 and training winners has been his business for a remarkable sixty-seven years. He holds a record of 10 SA Oaks and eight SA Derbies and has twice been SA champion trainer. He took second place in one of the most controversial Durban Julys with the disqualified Distinctly in 1975, third with an unlucky Rakeen in 1989 and won the 1994 Summer Cup with Sizzling Sun. Ferraris trained his first winner, Shenandoah, at Gosforth Park in 1952 and on 12 March 2016, celebrated a milestone 2,500th career success when Romany Prince won the Listed Drum Star Handicap.
Dozens of equine legends passed through his hands, including fillies Pretty Border, Tracey’s Element, Daddy’s Darling, St Just, Miss Averof and Cherry On The Top, the 2013 Triple Tiara winner, and colts like Wagga Wagga, Noon Flight, Vigliotto, Rakeen and Surveyor.
Reflecting on his career, Ferraris said: “I’ve had a marvellous time, I wouldn’t have it any other way. To come to the end of my career in this way is disappointing, to use a moderate word. But perhaps making the break, seeing things from the outside without involvement will be good for my health.”
Tributes came in on Sunday from another multiple champion Mike de Kock, who honed his skills under Ferraris in the early 1980s, and Weiho Marwing, a later understudy to the accomplished horseman.
De Kock noted: “Ormond Ferraris was the Sergeant Major of racehorse trainers. He taught us about stable management, feeding and attention to detail. He was regimental and had a huge influence on my career, also taught his son David, Weiho Marwing, Michael Clements and recently his grandson Luke has enjoyed the privilege of working with him as a jockey. I remember working with him and some of his best horses including Royal Line, Never Blue, Winter Lass and Northern March. It was such a privilege. He is one of the greatest trainers in SA history and his legacy will live on.”
Marwing said: “He laid my foundations, he taught me everything I know and being based at Turffontein we have remained friends, he has always been there for advice. He is a wonderful man.”
A distraught David Ferraris, speaking from his base in Hong Kong, commented: “Mike de Kock’s comments strike a nerve because he is dead right. We worked together in my father’s yard, he was a hard-assed taskmaster who often screamed at us, swearing, ‘You two are useless. You’re a pair of c***s!’
“If you think he is strict today, imagine what he was like 30, 40 years ago. We had a hard time, but he taught me everything I know about horses and training. I owe my own career entirely to him, I am grateful and sad. To see my father having to leave in this way is a disgrace. He loves horses, lives for them. He has been up at 3am for most of his life looking after them.
“Beneath his hard exterior he has a heart of gold, people don’t even know how he supports others and how the Trainers Benevolent Fund pays allowances every month to the wives of trainers who have long passed. He’s tried to help everyone, even the battling trainers and their families from years ago.”
Ferraris added: “I am horrified by what is going on. I spent R25-million between horse imports and the SA Sales the last two years and to see how people are trying to bring the industry to its knees is disturbing. I hope these matters are addressed fast.”
De Kock agreed, saying: “There are agitators among the grooms who do not realise the damage they are doing. Soon, 20 of their colleagues will be unemployed and then unemployable in current circumstances. They’ll be a burden to society.
“There are transformation issues to be addressed, but we’ve already dug deep and made significant progress. The agitators don’t realise that racehorse owners lose R600-million per year in racing. They race for pleasure, achievements and the dream of owning a champion horse. They accept their losses while the industry employs tens of thousands of people on the back of their investments.
“If this type of unrest continues, we are going to have serious problems in SA racing. Owners are going to stop and say, ‘We don’t need this, we want to race and watch our horses in peace and we want our investments protected.’ If the big owners call it a day, we’ll see a major collapse.”
De Kock feels that security is a “soft spot” for agitators and that the matter should be given urgent attention. “Whenever a situation like this arises, the security officers are the first to run away. They are not sighted. There is expensive horseflesh stabled at the training centres and courses and we need to take preventative measures before the horses are hurt. There were several intoxicated and unruly elements among the strikers on Saturday, there always are. They should be stopped before they can cause injury to others or hurt horses.”
Phumelela’s Racing Executive, Patrick Davis, said that Saturday’s strike had nothing to do with the racing operator. “We are not going to comment on the matter at this stage, it happened as a result of friction between grooms’ factions. We will, however, be issuing a statement in the course of next week.”
Vee Moodley, CEO of the National Horseracing Authority, said that he, too, preferred not comment at this point and referred us back to Davis.
Headline photo: Candiese Marnewick.