FORMER top trainer Peter Kannemeyer passed away at his Milnerton home on Monday, aged 85. Turf Talk editor Charl Pretorius remembers him as “perhaps the most interesting horseman I have ever interviewed” and in tribute to “PK” we publish today Part 1 of a Peter Kannemeyer Interview contained in Legends Of The Turf Part 2 (Createspace: 2014), with Part 2 tomorrow.
Like all master horsemen from the ‘old school’, Peter Kannemeyer has strong opinions and many stories to tell. He is 77 now (2010) and handed over his championship stable at the Milnerton training centre in Cape Town to his son Dean 15 years ago, but his life and career are vivid in his memories. `PK’ as he is affectionately known, loves to share his recollections.
Peter’s life among thoroughbreds started in 1949, aged 16, when he visited the yard of trainer Stanley Gorton with an apprenticed friend, Reggie Harrison. It was, in his own words, ‘love at first sight’ and he decided to become a jockey too.
He started with Spike Lerena’s grandfather Bob Lerena, and over a period of 20 years rode successfully also for Stanley Gorton, Terrance Millard and Theo de Klerk. Peter was a good rider, winning among other big races the 1960 Cape Guineas on Mocking Bird and the 1962 Queen’s Plate on Inverthorn.
He had an ongoing battle with his weight, however, and remembers spending hours in the sweatbox with other heavyweights like Johnny Cawcutt and George Patmore.
“I had one good meal a week and that was on a Sunday at lunchtime. But a few hours after lunch I would drink four bottles of soda water fast and bring it all up. I had no choice. It became a lifestyle.”
Peter said that training racehorses never as much as crossed his mind in all his years of riding, but one day (a Sunday after lunch) in 1969 his mentor Stanley Gorton took him aside and said: “Son, I am going to retire soon and you need a new lifestyle. You can’t go on bringing up your food. I want you to take over my stable. I will give you 80 years of experience, 40 years from my father and 40 years from me.”
And so, in an instant, a new training career was born. Gorton introduced Peter to his patrons, among whom the prominent De Wet family from Zandvliet Estates. He asked them for their continued support, which was forthcoming and put Peter in a strong position to start with.
“I was on my way with 20 horses and Mr. Gorton, as promised, taught me everything he knew. Then he withdrew and left it to me.”
Peter’s first runner was a winner and his first smart horse, Prairie Prince, followed not long after that. He was a 1400m specialist and won 9 races including the Cape Flying Championship, the Diadem Stakes twice and the Clairwood Merchants.
He trained so many good horses and won so many major races he cannot near remember them all, but Peter points proudly to various prize trophies that adorn his living room. “Look how smart they are, big, heavy silver trophies. I gave many to Dean and my daughter Lize. They don’t make them that way anymore. Today’s trophies are made of plastic!”
In 1977 along came Over The Air, a colt by New South Wales from Enchiper, whose main attribute was his soundness. He’d won the Green Point Stakes and the Clairwood Champion Stakes and Peter had his eye on the Durban July, but Over The Air had shown his best form up to 1600m.
“I wasn’t really confident when we entered him for the July in 1979, this would be his first time over 2200m, but I guess things were meant to be. It was a normal day, exciting as July Handicaps always are. We didn’t expect to win, but we did and it was wonderful. Garth Puller brought Over The Air with a strong run in the home straight and when they hit the front the race was all but over. They won by just under two lengths from Sun Tonic.”
He fondly remembers his three J&B Met winners. While Pocket Power is the proverbial racing certainty to some in the 2010 renewal of the great race, he cautions that hot favourites are always beatable, especially in the Met.
Peter won the Cape’s showpiece with Sunshine Man (1980), Divine Master (1992) and Pas De Quoi (1994), all at long odds, all beating strongly fancied runners.
Peter says he was lucky to get Sunshine Man at the National Sale in 1975 because he didn’t initially have an owner to buy the colt for him.
He recalls: “Sunshine Man was an athletic, racy young horse by Persian Wonder and I liked him from the moment I saw him. I had only one owner, Ben Braam, at the sale with me. Ben was a butcher by profession and as it happened he liked big, strong, bulky horses so I couldn’t get him to like this one.
“But the wheel that squeaks gets the oil. I nagged him for days to buy Sunshine Man and he wouldn’t give in, but I persisted and just before the horse came into the sales ring he said, ‘ok, buy the bloody horse then, I’ll give it to my wife!’ “
Peter bought Sunshine Man for R18,000 and, as Mr. Braam requested, the colt was given to his wife Heather. He let loose as a two-year-old, winning the JG Hollis Memorial and at three got within close range of the star of the year, Bold Tropic, in the Richelieu Guineas.
At four years of age, Sunshine Man (8-1) was the lesser fancied of two Kannemeyer runners in the 1980 J&B Met. The mare Festive Season was all the rage at 3-1 and Sunshine Man’s stablemate Over The Air started at 5-1. After a ding-dong battle with Over The Air (Garth Puller), jockey Felix Coetzee got Sunshine Man up to win by a neck.
Peter had to wait 12 years for his next Met winner, Divine Master.
He tells: “Divine Master was a good handicapper, a solid top division horse but no true star. But he was sound and of all the races I ever planned this one worked out the best. We never had a day’s problems with Divine Master. Any trainer will tell you there are always niggles, always problems when you least expect it, but not with this one.
“He’d run a big race to Olympic Duel in the old Mainstay Challenge in Durban and I fancied him to do well in Cape Town. I thought to myself that Jeff Lloyd would be the right jockey as Divine Master would come in with a light weight. Even before nominations I phoned Jeff and left a message on his answering service. To my surprise he phoned back and said he would consider my offer.
“Several weeks went by and the nominations were done and I didn’t hear a word from Jeff, but one day he was riding at Milnerton and walked past me in the parade ring. He was a few metres away when he stopped in his tracks, walked back and said: ‘Mr Kannemeyer, that horse you wanted me to ride in the Met, it’s okay, I will ride him.’
“So the plan came together bit by bit and Divine Master had an excellent preparation. I grew more confident by the day. One morning Garth Puller would ride him and report how much he’d improved from the previous week. A few days later Karl Neisius would get on and say the same. My patrons backed the horse from 20-1 through 14-1 and 10-1, into 8-1. The race unfolded like we expected and he won, beating 5-2 favourite Flaming Rock. Divine Master had two other July winners Spanish Galliard and Illustrador behind him. He wasn’ near as talented, I was simply a case of the right race at precisely the right time.”
Peter’s 1994 winner was Pas De Quoi, who came to him from another stable.
“I got him as an older horse. I think the owners were friendly with Dean, my assistant trainer at the time. I didn’t plan his career, he came as an unexpected bonus. He worked very well but when he ran in the Queen’s Plate for us he was disappointing. Dean watched the race closely with me and he suggested afterwards that we put blinkers on Pas De Quoi because his Queen’s Plate run wasn’t near a reproduction of his gallops at home.
“I listened to Dean and we fitted the horse with a pair of blinkers for the Met. Garth Puller had the ride and they were drawn wide and started at 20-1, but those blinkers did the trick. Pas De Quoi came with a flying late run to beat Waitara on the line. The favourite Take A Walk (5-2) finished third.’’
Oddly, Peter’s biggest thrill as a trainer was not winning the Durban July or three J&B Mets. He once saddled six winners on a day, all ridden by Puller, and says: “That was a true highlight for me. One often goes to the races confident of winning two, maybe three races and you come back with a single winner or none at all. To have six winners in one day was a rare and very satisfying experience.”
T0MORROW: Part 2, Peter Kannemeyer speaks about life’s lessons.