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Picture: Warne Rippon

Off The Record with Charl Pretorius

PART 1

In the world of towering achievements, Warne Rippon stands at 6 feet 5 inches, a man whose imposing stature is matched only by an ongoing array of larger-than-life experiences. Warne’s story is a colourful mosaic of business acumen and a passion for thoroughbreds. Beyond this, his recent philanthropic endeavours are the pillars of his character, and his remarkable journey is a testament to resilience and determination.

An all-round sportsman and backyard steel merchant in his youth, Warne has always lived for the thrill of challenges and the rush of adrenaline – overseeing his now massive steel business, investing in racehorses and developing Buffalo Kloof, his already renowned, bustling game farm.

Widely celebrated in racing for his part-ownership of the erstwhile international superstar Sun Classique, a host of other top performers including Umgiyu, Heavenly Blue, Big Burn, Grazinginthegrass, Shoemaker, Tail Of The Comet and others; and more recently as a sponsor of the ASSM Charity Mile with his part-owned company Allied Steelrode, Warne’s multi-faceted journey is as compelling as it is inspiring.

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Warne Rippon’s story is marked by the dizzying highs of success but not without the humbling lows of defeat. It stretches over 57 years and is not dissimilar to the hardships and adversities most others have to suffer on rocky roads of their own. But Warne raised the bar higher with each fall, reaching for the stars instead of rising weakly and with trembling knees. This took him to unimaginable places.

Born in Grahamstown in 1966, Warne was one of five children, perhaps the naughtiest of the five. He discovered the clandestine pleasure of cigarette smoking in the mid 1970s working in his father’s convenience store in town and, later, also went through a spell of serious drinking with his mates following their exploits on sports fields. The racing bug bit when he worked in the back room of his grandfather’s totalisator agency as a boy.

Warne wasn’t particularly good at school – suffering from ADDHD, difficult and stubborn on top of that – but, with his presence and height, made up for it on the rugby field and especially as a cricketer. He excelled at off-spinning and batting and represented Kingswood College in Grahamstown at the prestigious Nuffield Cricket tournament, in the same period as later Springbok legend Alan Donald. He scored five successive 100s at the time, set his sights on a career in cricket and left for the UK, where he scored over 1000 runs in the then amateur Warwickshire league.

A knee injury sustained on the rugby field, and just 20 pounds sterling per week to live on, curtailed Warne’s progress in England. Down on his luck and demotivated, he returned to Grahamstown. “My dad, a wily entrepreneur, employed me to sell bags and utility packets to liquor stores. I travelled in an old Volkswagen Combi and sold them across the Eastern Cape,” he recalls. “We started doing well and the hawking business grew. Dad once came home with a load of potatoes he’d bought cheaply from a farmer, packaged them into smaller bags and sold them to fruit and vegetable merchants for a tidy profit. He was a good teacher, and I was a fast learner.”

Cricket was still his priority, however, and Warne made the useful Border First XI that once came within a run of beating Transvaal’s famous ‘Mean Machine’, consisting of greats like Jimmy Cook, Henry Fotheringham, Graeme Pollock, Clive Rice and Neal Radford, in a Nissan Shield encounter. He recalls that day: “I was in good form, batting well at three against their fierce attack and heading for 50 when they brought on the fearsome Clive Rice, who’d just returned from the World Series. Clive bowled a bouncer, I’d never seen anything go that fast, then hit me in the chest and the ribs with his next two balls. He ran down the pitch and growled, “Boy, this is a game for men, you shouldn’t be here!” I whacked him for a six, but he got me with the next ball, caught on the boundary and just short of 50 runs. I was black and blue for a few weeks!”

Warne moved to Johannesburg to play for Pirates Club, where he caught the eye of Transvaal selectors with a few 100s and some good bowling, but made the provincial side mainly for his skills with the bat, playing alongside the likes of Jimmy Cook and Neil Fairbrother. Warne tells: “We faced a strong Orange Free State side in the bull ring at the Wanderers in my first game for the side. They had guys like Donald and Hansie Cronjé in their team and there were more than 15,000 people in the stands. I went in to bat at number three with pressure on me after we’d lost an early wicket, so I had a chance to prove myself by stabilising our innings. But Nico Pretorius, the Free State’s ‘steam machine’, bowled his first flyer on my foot and got me for a duck. A naught after one ball in my first, short session at the crease. I was in a hole, not feeling good.

“In the Free State’s innings, I was put out to field at long-off and it wasn’t long before Kosie Venter hit one at me off Clive Eksteen’s bowling. I was always going to catch it, but I didn’t. I palmed it over the boundary ropes instead. Six runs for Kosie. Ten minutes later I was near the boundary again, at cow corner, when Hansie let rip with a shot so high it went up and through the lights. It felt like that ball went hundreds of metres up before it headed down at me, with the whole crowd at my back. I barely got a hand to it, missed again.

“With a duck and two for naught on the catching field, I spotted a brilliant Nando’s Chicken advertising board, up there, somewhere. It read, ‘Why Go Out For A Duck When You Can Go Out For a Nando’s!’ and you can guess what happened. The crowd started heckling ‘Nando’s, Nando’s!’ and I had no place to hide. I was red-faced and annoyed and I asked my captain, Mark Rushmere, if I they could bring me closer to the batsmen, away from the boundary. He put me on backward point, behind the wickets, while Hansie and Kosie were hitting us all over the park and cruising to victory. I was the major contributor to their momentum.

“Something was bound to happen again and it did when Kosie hit one towards third man, in my direction but not within plausible reach. I don’t know what happened, but I grew wings. I flew in the air, reached out and made a miraculous catch. To cheers and applause, the announcer at the Wanderers, more of an entertainer actually, switched on his mic and exclaimed in what sounded like full-blast stereo around the bull ring, “Ladies and Gentleman, Warne Rippon has held one!’ I think the pressure brought on by that game was a pivotal point for me. I played several more games, but in my heart decided that I had to look for something better.”

Warne with legendary cricketers Barry Richards (left), Mike Proctor and Graeme Pollock

The lack of a decent income just before the big professional cricket era forced Warne to consider another return home. “When they heard I wanted to leave, one of the guys at Pirates club arranged a job interview for me at Baldwins Steel. He was Jimmy Breaky, owner of Debrell Steel, a small steel business in Johannesburg. I went to the Baldwins factory, it was massive, an awe-inspiring place. It fascinated me. I was interviewed by Vaughan Richey (who’d later work for us), and expecting to land the job, but I didn’t. It was only months later, when my bags were packed and I was ready to leave, when Jimmy phoned and called me in. They employed me as a learner worker. During this time, I went racing with them a few times, Jimmy was involved with some good horses including Villandry and Affirmation and, having worked in a betting shop, it didn’t take long for me to get hooked on the live racing experience. I added gambling on the ponies to my list of vices, sick for the racing game.”

It was back to square one when Debrell Steel closed in 1994 and left Warne stranded and without a job, at 28 years of age. This was the year of South Africa’s first democratic elections and Warne’s marriage to Wendy Ford. “We had a proper wedding in a marquee tent, Wendy’s dad paid for it. To make an impression I offered to settle the drinks bill, which came to a hefty R5,000. I wrote out a cheque for 5k knowing I had only R3,900 in the bank and quietly hoping my father-in-law would hang on to it for a while so that I could find the cash to make up the balance.

“But he folded the cheque in half and put it in the top pocket of my suit jacket. He said: ‘You’re going to need that to start your own business.’ With Debrell gone, I had no alternatives. I had to carry on in the steel business. Luckily there is always a Group 1 filly behind this restless colt. I bought R3,900 worth of steel and put it on the back of Wendy’ Isuzu bakkie, her perk from a small company job that kept us going. I sold the steel for almost double the price and my business was off the mark.”

Soon, Warne owned a few bakkies of his own and he remembers: “We were up against the steel giant Macsteel and others. We were competing with them out in the field and they named us, ‘The Bakkie Brigade’. I loathed the mocking. I saw it as a challenge. We worked harder, expanded, employed staff and established Allied Steelrode, which grew into a giant of its own through perseverance and hard work. Arun Chadha joined me as my partner in 2010. I wanted to get into Africa. Arun was based in Zambia and wanted to get into South Africa, so it was the perfect fit. He is like me, stubborn with a mind of his own, except a very smart man. He has taken us giant leaps forward. Today, Allied Steelrode is one of the biggest steel companies in Sub-Saharan Africa. We employ over 700 people.”

Wayne and Arun

Warne has taken a back seat at the steelworks, allowing Arun to run the company. “You can’t have two bulls in the same ring,” he quips. “Arun is very good at what he does. With my growing involvement in conservation work at my game farm, my other farm projects and plenty of travelling, I handed over to him. We see each other at the racecourse most of the time.”

Warne’s had more personal setbacks recently with the loss of both his in-laws and his mother, but, on the positive side, he is presently in the United States where he’ll be attending the Safari Club International World Conservation Awards in Nashville, Tennessee. He is one of six nominees.

Next week: Warne and the unbelievable story of champion mare and USD multi-millionaire Sun Classique, who turned his life around by funding his game farm, took him to the top of the mountain but also to the brink of suicide. We also discuss his incredible philanthropic journey, and the vital importance of this year’s general elections for the future of the African continent, including horseracing and conservation.