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Picture: A December 1931 picture of the Turffontein grandstand (equilife.co.za)

Mike Moon unearths some fascinating facts about the Summer Cup

Jamieson Raid put on hold for a week as it clashed with the big race meeting

Mike Moon (The Citizen)

The first major social event ever staged in Johannesburg was a horse race meeting.

To modern generations obsessed with celebs and awards ceremonies, that might sound far-fetched; an old git’s tall tale from the racing pages. But it’s true.

George Harrison tripped over a rock on the farm Langlaagte, held it up and said, “Here Comes the Sun!”.

OK, that bit’s not all true. But, in early 1886, Aussie minerals prospector George did stumble on the richest seam of gold the world has ever seen.

It opened the floodgates to fortune seekers from around the world, the first ones arriving weeks later and setting up a digger settlement known as Ferreira’s Camp. By December, the competitive nature of these desperadoes and their gambling instincts saw to it that a racetrack was marked out in the veld and transport horses were racing against each other.

First running of Summer Cup

The whole camp turned out in their posh gear.

A year later, what we now know as the Summer Cup, was first run. In 1887, and for years thereafter, the big race was known as the Johannesburg Handicap – and the annual summer meeting has always been the premier race day on the Highveld.

The first winner was an outsider, Haco, whose victory produced “deafening” shouting from ecstatic bookmakers, or “pencillers”, according to the Eastern Star newspaper.

That meeting, on a course ploughed in what is now known as City & Suburban – and which contains Arts on Main and the Kwai Mai Mai Traditional Market – attracted more than 3,000 spectators.

“The whole town kept high holiday for the occasion … and was free from the drunkenness and rowdyism witnessed at some meetings,” ran a report.

Turffontein
The newly established Johannesburg Turf Club acquired nearby farm Turffontein in 1889 and started to build the course we know today.

In the early years, the greatest champion was an English import called Malgo, who won the Summer Handicap over a mile and a half, the Merchants sprint (still on the Summer Cup card) and another, third race on consecutive days in 1897.

The popularity of summer racing in Johannesburg is evident from a telegram sent by mining tycoon Cecil Rhodes to his friend Leander Starr Jameson, who was preparing for his abortive raid on the city: “…the polo tournament [code name for the raid] is postponed for one week as it would clash with Race Week.”

The race’s two greatest champions were Java, who won three times in the 1950s, and Elevation, who notched a hat-trick in the 1970s.

But many famous horses have made it into the winner’s box – Pamphlet, Lenin, Hengist, Numeral, Home Guard, El Picha, Master Sabina and Summer Pudding.

Restoring the old magic
The arrival of corporate sponsorship saw the Summer Handicap renamed several times and even moved to a date in autumn.

Eventually it lost a lot of its glamour and prestige. In recent decades, though, a major effort has gone into restoring the old magic – with a return to the old date and the liberal application of gold dust.

Current sponsor Betway is on board for a second year and has upped the prize money to R5-million. The 2023 action takes place on Saturday 25 November at Turffontein.

Incidentally, George Harrison sold his claim at Langlaagte for £10 and was never heard of again.

Nonetheless, a giant statue of him at Eastgate reminds us of why we all scrabble away in the mining camp. A public park bearing his name, at his old diggings just south of the Mayfair shunting yards, long ago became a zama zama holdout.