When it comes to big weeks in racing terms, they don’t get much bigger than this in South Africa. Without doubt, the continent’s biggest horserace, if not its biggest sporting event period, takes place at Greyville Saturday, as its done since Campanajo took the first running of the Durban July in 1897. Victory etches the names of the winners, the horse, the owner, the trainer and the rider not only into the history books, but it embeds them into the memories of racing fans across the length and breadth of the nation.
There’s scarcely a granny or a nanny that hasn’t had a tilt at the tote come the first Saturday in July, and with one of the best fields in many years, the 2007 edition promises new records in every sphere. For the folk at Summerhill, the event evokes nostalgia, and our association goes back to 1946 when Pat Goss Snr’s diminutive St Pauls (still the smallest horse ever to win it) broke the track record from the outside draw before 120 000 fans.
In 1951, the first Hartford-bred winner, Mowgli, claimed the honours in spite of a chronic wind infirmity which not only led to his collapse after the winning post, but eventually put an end to one of the most brilliant racing careers in our history. Mowgli strung together a total of six Grade One victories in the space of eleven weeks (from 1200 to 2200 metres) establishing a world record in the process, and was the only horse to receive two votes (among the exalted likes of Sea Cottage, Colorado King, Hawaii and Horse Chestnut) when the country’s handicappers met at the turn of the millennium to decide the Horse of the 20th Century.
Truth is, whether he was the best horse or not – these things are apt to promote inordinate debate and generate great heat – it’s an undeniable fact, he was the most courageous. Three times (and always over distances exceeding a mile) he collapsed as he passed the post, clinging on desperately after he’d had to race the length of the straight on a single breath.
Whatever your inclinations, this was some horse. For what it’s worth our vote, despite our sentiments, would’ve been for Sea Cottage, who ran behind Hartford-bred Ajax in the big race at his first attempt in 1966, following an assassin’s attempt on his life twelve weeks before the event. A lapse of two and a half decades ensued before the Summerhill born Dancing Duel did the trick in the 1993 renewal for our great friend, Luke Bailes, following victories in the S.A.Guineas and the Daily News 2200, as we know them today.