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Picture : A beaming Wendy Whitehead receives the KZN Racing Personality Of The Year trophy (Candiese Lenferna Photography).

Wendy Whitehead was deservedly named KZN Racing Personality Of The Year at the KZN Racing Awards on Friday evening.

Somebody recently said to Wendy, who is coming off her best ever season, “Your horses run for you because you love them. Have you noticed how they look at you?”

Since then Wendy has noticed how the horses come back after their workouts and stop and look at her and she said, “I then give them a pat or give them some grass or something, but it is almost like they want to please you.”

Such is Wendy’s love of animals her yard is like a mini farmyard. Two cats and three dogs accompany her to work everyday and the yard chickens gather around the couch in the barn for their lunch.

The bug bit when as a seven-year-old in Amamzimtoti she managed to persuade her father to send her for riding lessons for her birthday. She had her first pony within three months and a year later moved to the Hillcrest area where she was taught by Gail Page out of Sybil Plummer’s riding school. She had a few ponies but her big breakthrough came when she acquired a polo pony, whose name ironically was Wendy. Wendy and Wendy won may prizes and championships together. Wendy then moved on to horses, including thoroughbreds, and competed in the top grades in “juniors”.

She had her mind set on a career with horses and opted for racing because she knew she would be able to make a living in that environment.

Her first job was at Craig Ramsay’s Golden Acres farm where she learnt pre-training, breaking-in and breeding. She worked there for two years and then moved to Summerveld, which she found a much more exciting environment. She started working with Alan “Snowy” Reid and also rode in some ladies amateur races.

She learnt a lot from “Snowy”, for whom she worked for two years, and she called him “a fine trainer”.

Wendy used to admire the top Tony Furness yard and although “petrified of him because he was a hard taskman” she plucked up the courage one day to ask him for a job.

His reply was, “I don’t want a woman working for me.”
However, he approached her the following week and put her on one month’s probation. She passed and stayed there for eleven years.
Tony trained for the Oppenheimers and a range of the most elite owners in racing, including Robin Hamiltion, Tony Stiebel, The McElligots, The Grindrods, Dr Nick Labuschagne etc. He traveled a lot and Wendy would often be running the yard at Summerveld while he had, for example, a string in Cape Town. Tony trained many top horses but one day out of the blue announced he would be retiring in a month’s time.
He felt it was a “man’s world” but agreed it would be fine for Wendy to at least try and go on her own.
Owners Robin Hamilton, The McElligots and Dr Labuschagne agreed to give her a chance.
She started with 17 horses in 2001.
Her first winner came at Scottsville with a horse called Big Bay, fittingly owned by Tony and Margot Furness.
Her partner Duncan McKenzie joined her a year-and-a-half after she started and they ran a successful satellite yard up in Johannesburg for six years on top of the Summerveld operation.
Their first top horse was Chant De Nuit (Caesour), who won the Listed Sycamore Sprint and followed up by winning the Gr 2 Camellia Stakes before finishing a close fourth in the Gr 1 SA Fillies Sprint.
They bought her for a mere R22,000 and raced her in partnership with Charlie Koster and Ian Longmore.
She earned over R550,000 and they then sold her for R500,000.
“She built my house and in our bar we have her saddle cloth hanging!” said Wendy.
“I’ve been lucky to have lovely clients to train for and I still train for some of my first owners, Sanjeev Ramsewak and Dr Labuschagne. Lord Wylie has won six races for Dr Labuschagne. We have also been supported by Sandy Arundel, Geoff Perkins, Ian Howard and many others.”
Wendy does not buy expensively and takes great pride in nurturing them along.
She said, “I have been very lucky to get the best out of the horses even if they don’t have the most perfect legs. I have always done a lot of TLC and managed to get them to finish their racing careers. I love to see a horse who has come from nothing to be great like Chant De Nuit.”
Her probable best horse at present is Beechamwood Boy whose part-owner Ian Gibson is, like Dr Labuschagne, a nonagenarian.
Wendy scored 51 wins last season, 19 better than her previous best, and did it with just 29 horses to race.
So she has a number of good earning horses and has started this season well. She is targeting 60 wins this season.
Wendy puts her success down to the teamwork between herself and 23 staff members.
She made special mention of the head groom since Tony Furness’s day, Mandla Nkosi “Vuma” Mtsheli, her assistant trainer and right hand man Isaac Mzila, and her other head groom Gilbert Mvuyelwa Ndzla.
Wendy’s yard works on mutual respect and she puts it down to her having stamped her authority from day one.
She recalled her early days, “When I first arrived at Summerveld a lot of the grooms would tease you and call you names (because there were not many women in the sport) and I will never forget the one guy walked up to me and said ‘Hey squeeza.’ I replied, ‘I’m not your squeeza, who do you think you are?’ From that day on they have called me ‘Umama KaDamoni’ (mother of Damon) or they just call me ‘Mam” or “Mother!”
Wendy is known for her friendly demeanour and approachability and her owners are able to enjoy their racing from many angles.
A thoroughly deserving winner of the Personality Award, whose announcement on Friday night did take her completely by surprise.