South African Champions Season’s fever usually begins with the running of the Byerley Turk meeting, which was held at Greyville on Friday night, and if past year’s ending in “6” are anything to go by there is likely to be plenty of excitement and drama in the build up to and running of this year’s Vodacom Durban July.
This winter will mark the 50th anniversary of the most dramatic incident in South African racing history, the shooting of the great Syd Laird-trained Sea Cottage, and it is also a significant anniversary year for July-winning darlings Jamaican Music, London News and Spey Bridge, for Mick Goss of Summerhill Stud, for great trainer Terrance Millard and brilliant jockey Bartie Leisher, and also for late great commentator Ernie Duffield.
Sea Cottage was shot from a concrete shelter, which still exists today, while walking under the Blue Lagoon bridge on the bright morning of June 10, 1966. Earlier, a bookmaker from the Field Street “rooms” had allegedly approached the owner of the Monaco Club across the road and asked him to settle his considerable debt. The bookmaker’s explanation had been the widely expected Sea Cottage July win, which would result in damaging losses to his business. The club owner’s alleged response was to ask what it would be worth to “stop” Sea Cottage. The bookmaker’s alleged reply was he would forego the debt. A bouncer from the club named Johnny Nel then allegedly hatched the plan and agreed to carry out the dastardly deed. A few mornings before the shootings, “gangsters” who frequented the Monaco Club arrived on the beach at Blue Lagoon still dressed in their evening suits, purportedly to watch the gallops, and Nel was among them. Sea Cottage’s white markings made him an easy horse to identify. The great horse was shot in the soft flesh of the hindquarters with a pistol and reared in fright.
Trainer Eileen Bestel was first on the scene and had the distressed horse walked back to the Newmarket Stables. He made a remarkable recovery and appeared at the July gallops a couple of weeks later to tumultuous applause. He ran in the big race just three weeks after the incident and finished an unlucky fourth after being severely checked at the two furlong mark. However, he famously won the July the following year carrying topweight and with the bullet still lodged in his hindquarter, deadheating with the lightweight Jollify, to whom he gave 27 pounds. Nel had been arrested less than a day after the shooting. He had foolishly used his yellow convertible, one of the most conspicuous cars in Durban, to drive to and from Blue Lagoon and a passing fisherman had seen him speeding away. The remorseful man was sentenced to three years, but was released due to ill health after one year and died shortly thereafter. Sea Cotttage ended his career with 20 wins from 24 starts and was widely regarded as the greatest horse to ever grace the South African turf until Horse Chestnut arrived. Sea Cottage’s old stable is today a vendor stall in a section of the Stables used as a popular evening market. Syd Laird had always been terrified somebody would “get to” Sea Cottage and had metal plates fitted over the air vents on the road side of his stable. The now rusted metal plates can still be seen there today, on the road side of the market three stalls to the left of the main entrance.
The year 1906 marked the tenth running of the July and Bonnie Dundee was the second Argentinian-bred to win it.
In 1916 the Pietermaritzburg-owned Margin won from start to finish carrying the joint-lightest ever winning weight of 38,5kg and apparently won another race at Greyville a few days later.
In 1926 the July had its third short-head finish and the judge awarded it to 5/1 shot Moosme at the expense of the hot 3/1 favourite Narrow Gauge. The decision stands today as one of the most unpopular and controversial ones in the race’s history. Ernie Duffield had his only July ride in 1926, as an apprentice, but finished last.
In 1936, Petersfield became the first of three July winners for renowned Cape trainer Ted Shaw, who had previously won the Met five times as a jockey.
In 1946 St. Paul’s, a graduate of Pony and Galloway handicaps, became the smallest ever winner of the July. He was owned by Mick Goss’ grandfather Pat.
In 1956, the Rhodesian (Zimbabwean)-bred Spey Bridge carried a record weight of 58kg to victory. El Picha (2000) and Pocket Power (2008) equalled this weight carrying feat and then Heavy Metal broke it in 2013 when carrying 59,5kg to victory. However, in the old days the race was a long handicap and Spey Bridge had to give 13kg to the runner up Labby.
1976 saw a fairytale victory for one of South African history’s most popular grey’s, the Ralph Rixon-trained Jamaican Music. Two years earlier he had started second favourite but had infamously dislodged jockey Tom Rattley when pecking down the back straight. The intelligent grey had then won hearts by continuing to run as if he had a jockey aboard and crossed the line first but riderless. There was hardly a person who begrudged this gallant grey his official July win two years later.
In 1986, Bartie Leisher pulled off one of the all time great July rides, dictating in front on the Terrance Millard third string Occult to hold off even money stablemate Fool’s Holme. Another stablemate Enchanted Garden finished third. It was the first of Millard’s pair of one-two-three finishes.
However, Syd Laird still holds the July training record of seven wins and his son Alec won the Big race in 1996 with London News, who later paved the way for South African-breds overseas by winning the Gr 1 QE II Cup in Hong Kong.
In 2006 Dean Kannemeyer landed the second of his three Julys, winning with three-year-old Eyeofthetiger. The latter ran in the same Fieldspring Racing colours as Kannemeyer’s Byerley Turk winner on Friday night, Mambo Mime.