Article : Nick Godfrey - Racing Post
The Racing Post at the J&B Met
SOUTH AFRICA is still beset by an unfortunate reputation, so let’s get a few things out of the way right at the outset, writes NICK GODFREY, Racing Post’s international editor. During a brief visit to Cape Town for the prestigious J&B Met card, your correspondent was neither mugged nor carjacked; contrary to Spitting Image evidence, I meet a lot of nice South Africans (admittedly times may have changed since the mid-1980s); and there are as many black faces as white in a 45,000 crowd at Kenilworth racecourse. On the other hand, what is 100 per cent accurate is Cape Town’s status as one of the most spectacular cities on the planet, blessed with a stunning coastal location beneath the imposing shadow of Table Mountain, an iconic landmark that offers a magnificent backdrop to the Western Cape’s foremost raceway, second only to the Durban July in national terms.
Although admission is usually free at each of South Africa’s ten tracks, the J&B Met carries a R180 (£14.60) admission charge: this is a major event on both the sporting and social calendars. “Today Kenilworth is the centre of the world for horseracing and beautiful people,” offers the PA, just before the first of a massively competitive ten-race card. The J&B whisky company is backing the main event for the 35th year in the latest edition of South Africa’s longest-running sports sponsorship. their yellow and red colours and logo are everywhere in plain sight: from the myriad parasols in front of the stand, to the brash yellow two-piece suit worn by a TV presenter spouting forth all day long from huge throne-like chairs in the centre of the paddock. Ever-smiling former champion jockey-turned-trainer Michael Roberts - nickname ‘Muis’ (‘Mouse’) offers a clue to his stature - is almost lost as he plunges into the silver sedan before sharing his thoughts. This year’s theme is the fashion slogan ‘Made Different’ and no second bidding is needed. “It’s always a fashion contest,” says Tellytrack presenter Dave Mollett, a displaced Yorkshireman. “Most of it wouldn’t be allowed at Ascot, with or without the orange sticker. Prepare yourself for some sights.” He’s not wrong. Among the pretty frocks are a plethora of slightly more outré creations: dresses fashioned from newspaper, J&B labels or gaudy feathers; replica racing colours in three-time champ Pocket Power’s shocking pink, white and blue. For all that Cape Town is the most European of cities on the continent, this is Africa and they do things differently here.
Despite an undeniably eclectic crowd, one section of society is notable only for its absence: there are virtually no kids. Although children are allowed in private suites, under-18s are barred from general admission owing to the proximity of ground-level alcohol vendors. With no shortage of booze options, few take obvious heed of advice to ‘Drink Responsibly’ carried on the banner at the entrance to the J&B Cocktail Village. By the time of the final race at 6.35pm, there will be casualties.
Prime party spot is in front of the stands among the food-and-drink concessions, where Namaqualand Biltong and Boerewoers Rolls rub shoulders with Shawarma Express and Mr Calamari; cigarette sellers from Dunhill zip around on mechanised two-wheelers. Here is also where you’ll find the small coterie of on-course bookmakers, all four of them – Dobbie, Dean, Sedley and Betsport, shielded from the blistering heat in a small hut.
The blossoming two-day Cape Yearling Sale offers a prelude to ‘The Met’, and several familiar faces show up during the afternoon under the trees in the centre of the paddock alongside the cream of the local racing community, among them William Haggas, Francesca Cumani, leading bloodstock agent Tom Goff and Jack Ramsden, whose son Joey is one of South Africa’s leading trainers.
Two days beforehand, a visit to the Ramsden yard at Milnerton, a training centre at a defunct racecourse, offers an extraordinary early-morning scene as the Bunteresque figure of the trainer – polo shirt, green cap and red shorts – surveys his string as they exercise behind a stable yard also housing three sheep, a couple of dogs and a few stray ducks “It gives the horses something to look at,” says the ebullient Ramsden. More than 40 horses in close proximity stretch their legs in a small walking ring under their grooms, all of whom are male and black, the majority living in nearby townships. Those from a tribal background are said to have a great affinity with horses, and stable groom is considered a plum job.
Health-and-safety regulations are possibly not quite as strict in South Africa as a startling array of headwear is on show, helmets exception rather than rule, including full-length balaclavas and a pointy felt effort that looks as if it has been purloined from the Munich Oktoberfest. At least they all have private medical insurance.
Ramsden has to settle for second in both the feature events, the Investec Cape Derby and the Met itself, on a day that amply demonstrates the quality of South African bloodstock. the card is full of good-looking types, the three Grade One’s each producing impressive looking winners.
Ebony Flyer carries the Kentucky Derby-winning colours of the Team Valor syndicate to success in the Grade 1 Majorca Stakes (pronounced hard ‘J’ in Afrikaans-style) for fillies and mares, while the powerful Jackson holds of Ramsden’s Variety Club in a driving Derby finish.
Both of them are likely to be seen abroad later on, as is Mike de Kock’s formidable four-year-old filly Igugu, who lands the Met in a truly remarkable display under jockey Anthony Delpech. An outstanding horse, an outstanding trainer and an outstanding place to go racing.
Believe the hype: a visit to Cape Town can only be heartily recommended