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Passionate Johannesburg-based owner, breeder and punter Laurence Wernars was taken completely by surprise when being announced as the recipient of a Special Award at the Highveld Racing Awards on Saturday night  but everybody in the industry would agree he thoroughly deserved it.

He said, “What an unexpected honour and I must say, most humbling experience to have received this award. Simply, horse racing is my true passion and love, so to be awarded for something that consumes my every waking moment – is surreal!

I live to watch and participate in the game. An incomplete day is one without talking, watching and punting horses. It also gives me great pride that we, Studio 88, are able to support the Groom initiative. Their role is integral to the well-being of the magnificent animals that give horse racing enthusiasts so much pleasure.

I’m also cognisant of the fact that much of my accomplishment needs to be attributed to ALL of my trainers – especially Johan (Janse van Vuuren) and Paul (Peter) who have produced the most winners.

Then to our jockeys Keegan (de Melo), Warren (Kennedy) and Gavin (Lerena) who put in the time and effort for our stables that in turn help us to win the amount of races that we do.

I’d also like to acknowledge Justin (Vermaak) for streamlining my racing portfolio. His management of my inventory, buying expertise and running a more streamlined racing portfolio is very evident and the results have been a game changer.

As mentioned, this award has to be shared with the many people that have contributed to my achievement in horse racing.

I am truly humbled and thank the Racehorse Owners Association from bottom of my heart to this acknowledging of my passion.”

Laurence also thanked Harry Willson, who owns a lot of horses in partnership with him, and pointed out Harry was often ignored when the accolades were heaped on himself and the connections.   

Laurence owned his first horse in partnership with his father-in-law Joe van Streepen, the former chairman of Newmarket racecourse in the early 1990s. This Cliffie Otto-trained gelding Hard Ball (Noble Ambition) made his debut in 1994 and won three of four races for them before being sold on. He went on to be a nine-time winner, including winning the Listed Duke Of York Cup in Mauritius.

The bug had thus bitten.

He said he had owned too many good horses to name them all but mentioned New Predator, Brazuca and Negroamara and said there were a number of horses in the pipe line at present.

He was thrilled to have two horses on the Hollywoodbets Durban July log, Second Base and Puerto Manzano.

Wernars has had three Grade 1 winners in his career, the Gary Alexander-trained SA Derby winner Hero’s Honour, the Janse van Vuuren-trained Allan Robertson winner Mighty High (Pathfork) and the Glen Kotzen-trained Jonsson Workwear Garden Province Stakes winner Temple Grafin (Duke Of Marmalade), who was bought for him in training by Vermaak.

Laurence has always enjoyed studying pedigrees and looking at sales horses.

However, he said bringing Vermaak in had been a game changer because bloodstock was the latter’s full-time profession and apart from the astute purchases he had made he had also helped streamline his string by selling on those horses who were identified as having reached their limit. This had led to him enjoying the game more as it had kept any sourness at bay.

Although Laurence loves the racing industry he said there was currently a “lot of turmoil”  within it” and it was “not looking rosy.”

He said their needed to be a “brains trust” who would come together and sort out the current reality where different entities were pulling at different angles and in different directions.

In his opinion one unified body should run racing in South Africa.

He said owners and punters were currently funding the sport under unfavourable conditions and this could not continue either.

He said, “With no owners there is no racing and with no punters there is no racing.”

He said government intervention was needed to create more revenue so that more owners could buy more horses and thus create more employment.

He elaborated by saying stakes for races depended on the Tote take out and pointed out Tote turnover was currently dismal and there was no sign of it increasing.

He reckoned the reason for this was the increasing pools of the exotic bets being stood by bookmakers.

He said, “The exotic pools of bookmakers are three times more than the Tote but they are still required to return only 3% of winning bets to racing.” (although some bookmakers return more through sponsorship and naming rights etc – ed).

He said all of the major bookmakers were now standing exotic bets and not taking back the bets on the Tote.

He therefore believed there should be government intervention in creating a more balanced return of punters money back to racing.

With consequent higher stakes the cost of ownership would decrease and the knock on effect would benefit breeders, owners and everybody else in the industry.

With more horses being bred and raced there would be more employment as well as bigger fields which usually leads to bigger overall turnover.

He pointed to the thriving racing countries of Hong Kong, France and  Australia as proof that racing could not do without government intervention.

Picture Montage: JC Photos