Mark Anthony assesses the awards for the recently completed Highveld
feature race season, presented at a ceremony hosted by the Racing Association at
Rosebank`s Hyatt Regency Hotel on Saturday night.
Handicappers and selection panelists are probably the most maligned people in
racing as they have the impossible task of trying to please a diverse body of
people with often conflicting interests. The seven-man panel appointed for the
Racing Association Highveld feature season awards did well enough however and
while there may be the odd quibble about one or two decisions, few would dispute
that they generally got it right.
The big equine award of the night went to Kings Gambit (SAF) and rightly so,
as Lance Wiid`s charge is surely the most exciting horse in South Africa at the
moment. The critical thing to note when viewing his thrilling victories in the
SA Classic and Derby is that he is still a big baby with only six runs under his
belt and there should be plenty of improvement to come . Without wanting to jinx
the son of Silvano (GER), the sky is really the limit as long as he stays sound
and the final product should be a truly awesome thoroughbred.
Kings Gambit had earlier won two other awards. He was pretty much a shoo-in
for the champion 3-year-old male, a category that had an unnecessarily long
nomination list. J J The Jet Plane was a worthy contender while Eddington was a
reasonable call after his impressive Gomma Gomma win, but it should have stopped
there. Imbongi, Lion`s Blood and Seventh Rock - top racehorses though they
undoubtedly are - had failed to land a Gr 1, unlike the aforementioned trio.
Then there was Pointing North who may arguably be the best of his age group that
we have seen this season but in the context of these awards, he had not beaten
anything of note on the Highveld.
Then there was the Champion Stayer award, which Kings Gambit claimed pretty
much by default after his Derby win. It is a somewhat depressing state of
affairs as the authorities have put together a very decent programme for
stayers, comprising races such as the Gold Bowl, Caradoc Gold Cup, Racing
Association Handicap, Aquanaut Handicap and Java Handicap. Any horse that had
performed consistently well across these races would have been in pole position
to claim the award, but this failed to materialise as these races threw up
vastly differing results. The other nominees, Pacific Warrior and Santa were
good value for their respective wins in the Gold Bowl and Caradoc Gold Cup, but
did not have enough graded form beyond that to justify the award. The problem is
not whether the best horse won here, as Kings Gambit is in a different league to
the other two, but rather the fact that his Derby effort was a once-off stamina
test and he will almost certainly spend the rest of his career racing over
middle distances. It would be nice to see the award going to a proper,
consistent stayer rather than a top-class middle distance horse whose sheer
class carried him through in his sole long-distance race.
The juvenile awards were a walkover as Charles Laird`s star pair of
Merlene De Lago and Warm White Night were so superior to the rest that no other
nominations were even announced for their categories.
The 3-year-old filly category was a vastly different kettle of fish, with no
stand-out champion in the ranks. Out of five nominees, Glenrossal and Urabamba,
two wonderfully game and consistent fillies, shared the award and they had
certainly earned their votes after a string of good performances in feature race
company. The Glenrossal team may argue, however, that in head-to-head meetings
against Urabamba, they were 3-1 ahead and a case can be made for her to have
taken the prize outright.
Champion Older Female was an interesting category as there were only two
nominees and both race in the red and green of Team Valor. Stratos got the
verdict on the back of an excellent hat trick of graded wins, culminating in the
Gr 1 Empress Club Stakes, certainly the most competitive fillies event for the
period under review. She`s On Fire, by contrast, only had the one graded victory
to her name in the form of the Gerald Rosenberg, which would have counted
against her, but dissenters will point out that Stratos failed in her only
assignment against the males, while She`s On Fire was a gallant second in the
Gomma Gomma. Either way, it was a case of two wonderful racemares and whichever
way the decision went, one could only be genuinely happy for the recipient.
Champion Older Male attracted five nominees but Our Giant was always going to
be the one to beat after his fine battling victories in the November Handicap
(Gr 2) and Horse Chestnut Stakes (Gr 1), supplemented by a game third in the
Summer Cup. Lest we forget, he also won the listed Hyperion handicap
before losing it on an objection, so his overall consistency and versatility set
him apart from his rivals. It was nice to see sand king Narc get a nomination
here, but Biarritz -for all his undoubted talent - Bound By Honour and Strategic
News simply hadn`t done as much as Our Giant to have a serious chance of
Our Giant claimed a double with the Champion Middle Distance Horse, a
decision that must have surprised those in the Kings Gambit camp. Presumably,
the logic was that the latter had only managed one middle-distance win, the SA
Classic and his Derby victory should not count towards this category, whereas
Our Giant had been consistent in several feature races over the appropriate
range of distances. Eddington could just about pass muster as a nomination, but
Stratos, for all her brilliance against her own sex, was pushing it and
Strategic News was frankly a strange call as he had done nothing apart from his
Summer Cup win.
Champion Sprinter deservedly went to J J The Jet Plane after his brilliant
hat trick of wins in the Senor Santa, Man O`War and Computaform Sprint. He has
pretty much beaten the best that the province could offer over both 1000m and
1200m and he is going to illuminate the racing scene in no uncertain terms if he
maintains this level of form. Narc and Seventh Rock were reasonable contenders,
but Mythical Flight, for all his undoubted brilliance, and Succesful Bidder, had
not achieved enough in the required period to be considered.
The sand campaigners were honoured for the first time and Narc was duly
crowned in this category even though he has not been seen in these parts for
many a month. His brilliant win under top weight in the Emerald Cup, over a trip
that stretched his stamina, must go down as one of the performances of the
season and he is arguably the best sand specialist we have seen in this country
to date. Fair Brutus is a formidable campaigner and his wonderful victory under
65,5kg will also go down as one of the year`s highlights while Naples has not as
yet scaled the same heights as Narc but earned his nomination with a string of
The awards for jockey, trainer and owner were decided on a points system and
there were few surprises as Piere Strydom, Charles Laird and Ingrid & Markus
Jooste scooped the honours. Strydom is riding better than ever at the moment,
Laird is a consummate professional who delivers consistently under huge pressure
and the Joostes have added a new dimension to South African racing with their
string of Australian imports, their huge investment paying big dividends for the
racing public who can get their pulses racing by watching exciting prospects
such as Merlene De Lago and Warm White Night.
The Cohen family`s Odessa Stud picked up the breeders award, a tribute to the
standard of excellence they have maintained so consistently for many a year.
There was an emotional build up to the awards ceremony itself as the big
screen threw up a montage in tribute to various racing personalities who had
passed on, starting with the Hennenman plane disaster of 20 years ago and
culminating in the recent deaths of Buddy Maroun and Laurie Jaffee. It added a
sombre note to the proceedings, but it was fitting that their memories be
honoured as every individual mentioned had contributed handsomely to the rich
tapestry that is South African racing and which brings so many thrills to so
many followers of the sport.
Looking at the evening as a whole, there were murmurs from the odd malcontent
about the slightly crowded venue, but it would be churlish to complain as the
ceremony was slickly handled, speeches were kept tastefully brief and the
catering staff delivered an outstanding level of service. Clyde Basel and his
team can look back with some satisfaction on a successful night and indeed, a
memorable feature race season.