Throughout the world there are special events that capture the imagination and interest of a nation and in South Africa it is the acclaimed horserace, the R4.25-million, Grade 1 Vodacom Durban July run at Greyville Racecourse in Durban that carries that iconic status.
Internationally acknowledged as Africa’s Greatest Horseracing Event, the Vodacom Durban July has been run without interruption every year since Campanajo crossed the line first in the Durban Turf Club Handicap over a 1600m on the western vlei at Greyville on Saturday, July 17, 1897. Not even two world wars and a soggy track in 1989 that saw the early races on the card abandoned, have prevented the race taking place.
About 3 000 people attended that first meeting and never dreamt that in years to come it would grow to a point where a crowd of 50 000 plus was the norm and on one occasion the gates had to be closed for security reasons after all printed entrance tickets had been sold.
And, just as the ladies at that very first meeting were dressed up in their finest outfits, Vodacom Durban July day for the last few decades has become the leading fashion and entertainment event of the year in the country with visitors and media from overseas making special trips to Durban to enjoy the “July experience” or report on the greatest racing event on the African continent.
While it is a day of excitement, fashion and entertainment, it is all about the finest thoroughbreds in the country coming together for the greatest challenge of their careers. For the horses, the jockeys, the trainers and the owners, it is the pinnacle of their racing experience just to be involved in the race and the debate about which of the many entries can lift the ultimate prize begins when the first entries are received with the intensity of the debate growing steadily to fever pitch as the big day approaches.
Many great thoroughbreds have competed over the years coming from some of the most famous stables and ridden by the finest jockeys of their generation. For some of us, memories extend to the past 50 or 60 years but there are a few who might just recall the likes of Kipling, Milesia Pride and Mowgli.
For some the memory is still clear of Kerason, the first of seven winners for the great Syd Laird, that upstaged stable companion and favourite Hyacinth in 1961 to win at 40-1 or, from the same stable, Colorado King that went to America where he won seven races and equalled the world 1800m record.
Few will not remember or have not heard the story of the mighty Sea Cottage – another Laird runner – shot on his way to an early morning training session, but recovering enough to run and finish fourth a few weeks later. He returned the following year to claim the win in a dead-heat with Jollify.
Great trainers like Syd Garett, Syd Laird, Jackie Gorton, George Azzie, Peter Kennemeyer and Terrance Millard and the heroes of recent years Mike de Kock, Mike Bass and Dean Kannemeyer have tasted victory. In the saddles were legends like Harry Berry, Tiger Wright, Bertie Hayden, Michael Roberts, Robbie Sivewright, David Payne who won the race as a jockey and a trainer, and the leading riders in recent years like Anton Marcus, Anthony Delpech, Piere Strydom, Felix Coetzee and Kevin Shea.
Certainly an iconic race and an occasion that stands head and shoulders above all others with a supporting programme of top racing that includes the R1-million, Grade 1 Jonsson Workwear Garden Province Stakes for fillies and mares over 1 600m under weight-for-age conditions. This is one of the most important races for fillies and mares in the country and the result will have a major effect on the annual national awards.
With just 18 runners taking part in the big race on the first Saturday in July,there is another 2200 metre event on the card in which those that missed the cut can compete. There have been occasions when the winner of this race has posted a quicker time than the big race itself.
Two very important races on the card are the Durban Golden Horseshoe and the Golden Slipper, Grade 2 races for juveniles over 1 400m that follow on from the 1 200m sprints for two-year-olds at Scottsville on Tsogo Sun Sprint Raceday and before the Premiers Champion Stakes and Thekwini Stakes, Grade 1 races over 1600m on Super Saturday that close the two-year-old’s season programme at the end of July.
Adding to the diversity of the day’s programme is the R500 000, Grade 3 Gold Vase over 3000m catering for the stayers that could also bid for glory in the country’s premier marathon event, the R1.25-million eLAN Gold Cup over 3 200m on Super Saturday.
The Vodacom Durban July is the race around which the country’s racing industry revolves, the race that put South African racing on the international map and the race that has gained international recognition as the showcase of the country’s standard of thoroughbred.
And yes, it is the most exciting and entertaining racing event in Africa and, if you have not been before, you have just got to be there this time.