THE other day, senior trainers Scott Kenny and Stanley Ferreira were discussing their racing experiences from the 1970s and 1980s. In the course of their conversation they remembered erstwhile top owner Fred Kinnear and his trainer-brother Harold Kinnear, most successful as a team at the time with fillies like Larne and Royal Glitter, but there was one Kinnear filly our two trainers couldn’t remember.
Kenny phoned Turf Talk and said: “Help, please. She was a very good sprinter trained by Harold Kinnear. She was imported, from the UK I think, and the late Christie Blom rode her. What was her name, we’ve asked everyone we know, nobody remembers!”
We went as far as tracking down the Kinnears to Fred’s business in Nelspruit, but they weren’t available to take a call. Then we remembered an encyclopdia of racing info named Darren de Wet, one of the few 1980s “purists” of racing left in the game, and, of course, Darren had the answer readily at hand: Rizla Blue (GB). That was the filly!
“She was the best sprinting filly from the time, trained by Ernie van Biljon, but the Kinnears had a whole handful, I will have to look in my library,” he said.
Knowledge like that comes from a deep love for the sport of racing. It sprouts from the days when racetracks around the country drew full houses, midweek and weekends, a time when racing so was massive and so in-the-news that its participants were household names. Racegoers queued outside the turnstalls and paid to get in. Happily. They collected entrance badges to the different enclosures, attached the old ones to their binoculars to show off to friends: “Look, I’ve been to every Turffontein race meeting this year!”
Darren recalls: “The younger racing fans of today simply don’t believe me when I tell them that I attended many, many race meetings in Gauteng and KZN that looked like the ones we see today at Royal Ascot or Flemington Park in Australia, packed to the rafters.
“In those days the parade ring at Turffontein was situated at the back of the grandstand with pavilions all around it. They were always packed, with people even climbing onto the scaffolding of advertising boards to get a view of horses in the ring. Spectators also stood three-four deep alongside the jockeys’ pathway from their dressing room to the ring.
“From there, the mass of people rushed to the grandstand, many took an early position next to running rail to see the horses canter down. There were gatekeepers everywhere, if you didn’t pay for the right enclosure they waved you away. They were rigorous, it didn’t matter if you were a trainer or an official. No badge, no entry!
“The masses of people did allow for us to sneak into the better enclosures and the owners and trainers’ facilities sometimes. This is where the big guys hung out and the aim was always to get as close to them as possible. Sometimes you brushed shoulders and could hear something from a trainer, other times we tried to read their lips.
“We studied their body language. They were our heroes and we followed the trainer/jockey combinations especially. There were Roy Howe and Rhys van Wyk, a strike force of note, Ormond Ferraris and Tobie van Booma, Stan Ferreira and Blom, Dave Bullock and Michael Cave, Brian Amery and Derek Martin, Bartie Leisher and anybody, later Gary Alexander and Doug Whyte.”
It seems, in talking to people like Darren, that racing’s best experiences are invariably connected to the great racecourses of the time, and the great atmospheres that prevailed there. Each one holds a plethora of wonderful memories. “Gosforth Park was small and intimate and many great sprinters raced there like Phantom Earl, Zatopek and Golden Loom.
“Newmarket was the best ever, first as a midweek day track and later as a night racing venue. They had Rafael selling his famous shawarma’s close to the entrance, the track was safely accessible from all areas. There were bars and food outlets on every level, along with bookmakers on course, the lively betting ring where everything seemed to happen and you could get the “graft” if you had your eyes and ears open.”
Darren saw things go backward from the 1990s onwards and we know the various reasons, spearheaded by fierce competition from other gambling activities and the casinos. “The last straw, I think, was when they closed Newmarket, which still drew its fair share of evening crowd well into the 2000s. Then, suddenly, it was over.”
Will we ever see the big crowds again?
“No, we won’t,” reckons Darren. “If they close Tellytrack and people are forced to go racing I do believe we’ll see good turnouts at the track, but of course that will never happen. Tellytrack is a great product and it’s the base of the game today. It allows us to see great horses and racing from overseas, like Frankel and Winx.”
Darren is involved in racing in his capacity as an accounts administrator at the Equine Group. He hasn’t taken a bet in seven years, because, for him, the fun around betting is gone – the racetrack experience.
“My joy today is watching the progeny of great sires race, I watch them with interest. There are sires who stamp their runners with such awesome talent. And this is where Tellytrack is so handy and unmissable, so it’s a catch 22 really. The good days are over, forever.”
Indeed, racing’s “Golden Days” are long gone, and the purists who remember them are thin on the ground. There are rich threads of golden memories, however, and some of us will hang lovingly on to those until the day we die.
-Headline photo: Darren with his own winner, Almighty Dollar, way back when!