Stanley Greeff - Inset with Shy Pruto, 1962
(Images : Summerhill Archives/Tab News)
1928 - 2010
As Port Elizabeth racing prepares for its biggest weekend of the year on 25 November, headlined by the Algoa Cup, Mike Moon remembers one of its greatest men of the turf.
Stanley Greeff was 12 when he saw his first racehorses. It was a life-changing moment. Enchanted by the creatures, he followed them as they were led down the road - and kept following for the next 70 years.
After that first experience he never contemplated doing anything in life but racing thoroughbreds. It was often tough going but that early passion for horses fuelled the will to make good.
He became one of South Africa’s best trainers and the towering figure of Port Elizabeth racing for decades. He set so many winning records that no-one seems to have managed to keep a precise tally of them. Certainly no-one’s likely to better them - not even his talented son Alan, the worthy inheritor of Halo Stables at Fairview from where Greeff senior sent out thousands of winners.
Stanley Greeff saw those first racehorses as they disembarked from a train at Wynberg in Cape Town where his father, Cornelius, was the newly installed station master - having been promoted from Worcester station, where Stanley was born. Struck by the size and beauty of the animals, the 12-year-old followed them as they walked to the nearby racecourse.
He passed through the gates of Kenilworth in the wake of the string as it arrived to compete at a meeting. And it was no ordinary meeting. It was 2 November 1940: Met Day.
Young Stanley watched Ming win from Pigling Bland in that wartime renewal of Cape Town’s premier race and it sealed the deal for him. From then on, he was at the races every Saturday, hopping the fence to gain access to the adults-only venue.
Stanley got himself part-time jobs at Milnerton stables and rode in amateur races at Durbanville. A schoolmate and fellow rider was Terrence Millard, who became a lifelong friend and a great trainer himself. Other rivals at the time included Syd Laird, Ralph Rixon, Peter Kannemeyer and Theo de Klerk - all of whom later made their mark in racing.
Stanley graduated to professional riding and had winners. “But Dad always said he wasn’t much of a success as a jockey,” says Alan. “He was too tall and too heavy.” A photo on the wall of Alan’s office proves the point, showing a lanky-looking Stanley aboard a winner at Durbanville in December 1945.
He became assistant trainer to Sonny Whiteford and then to Sebi de Meillon at Milnerton. The legendary Syd Garrett occupied the next-door yard and Stanley took advantage of the chance to learn from a master, absorbing everything he could.
Taking his own licence in 1952, Stanley achieved moderate success with limited stock. His first good horse was Sun Lass, a filly whose elevation to stardom was a tale Stanley told with relish all his life.
She was an unprepossessing little thing with few prospects. But when a well-regarded stablemate, a feature-race candidate, found himself short of galloping companions she was pressed into service. She ran away from the top colt, causing consternation, with Stanley fearing the latter had gone wrong on the eve of the big race. When the colt romped in on the day, the penny dropped. He had something special on his hands.
Sun Lass won 10 races, including the Paddock Stakes, and placed fourth in the Met. As a broodmare her winning offspring included Durban July victor Yataghan and her female progeny also produced much black type.
In a fiercely competitive era, it wasn’t easy going in Cape Town. Apart from “setting up” betting coups - as most trainers did at the time to keep heads above water - Stanley took to raiding the lesser centre of Port Elizabeth. His horses travelled up the coast overnight on the Union Castle mail ships that plied the East Coast.
Good friend and ace jockey Johnny Cawcutt rode many of the horses on these successful raids and Stanley grew to love PE and its friendly people. He decamped up the coast in 1962, working as assistant to trainer Fred Pienaar before setting up on his own at the old Arlington at Walmer.
“He battled for a long time,” observes Alan. “He was certainly not an overnight success in PE. But in those days all the trainers helped each other and he survived.”
Stanley’s marriage in 1968 to Lorraine, his second wife and mother to Alan and Jenny, marked the beginning of ascendancy on the track.
The Greeffs lived for many years on a smallholding at Greenbushes, near present-day Fairview, and Stanley kept cows, goats and chickens, made butter and grew veggies with the same dedication he had for horsemanship.
“He was a very hard worker. Always busy, never idle,” remembers Lorraine. She also recalls the racecourse glory days and seeing Stanley carry off more than 25 Eastern Cape champion trainers’ titles down the years. He doubled up by winning championship in Bloemfontein in 1991 with travelling horses.
Through the 1970s, ’80s and into the ’90s, he won every major race on the PE calendar. Trainer Andy Smith provided the stiffest opposition - as his son Gavin Smith now does for Alan Greeff. (Indeed, the names Greeff and Smith are the only ones you’ll see on an Eastern Cape training honours board for the past 40 years or so.)
The outstanding runners included Polly Bisqui, Loadstone, Thrilling, Broad Run, Western Wind, Annie, Blue Nile, Soho Secret and La Fabulous.
Halo Stables is named after the filly Halo, who was Stanley’s 100th winner of the season in 1980. He’d earlier broken Millard’s South African record of 90 winners in a season and went on to set a new mark of 105 - a phenomenal achievement from relatively few meetings.
The first Greeff horse always mentioned is Polly Bisqui, who won 13 in a row, setting a new national fillies’ record. Her victory in the Grade 2 Tibouchina Stakes at Clairwood illustrated how Stanley was ever ready to take his horses to major centres.
The Met in Cape Town was always in his sights. He managed two seconds, with Western Wind and Soho Secret, and a fourth, with Western Wind. “He was so distraught about that fourth place because he was sure Western Wind would have won if he’d got a clear run,” remembers Allan.
Another name always mentioned in relation to Stanley Greeff is Gavin Venter.
The rider joined him as an apprentice in 1975, fresh from the SA Jockey’s Academy, and they stayed together as a team for 35 years.
“We worked very well together; we respected one another. We won Eastern Cape trainer and jockey championships together 16 times in a row,” says Gavin, now an assistant trainer to Tara Laing at Fairview.
Gavin rates Polly Bisqui and Soho Secret as the best Greeff runners he rode. The latter won 10 times and became SA’s champion broodmare thanks to her brilliant son London News.
“I rate Stanley Greeff the country’s best trainer of fillies and mares,” declares Gavin. “He just had a knack with them; it came naturally. He never pushed any horses too hard, but was particularly careful with fillies. And once he got them to the top he could keep them there for quite a while.”
For all his filly sensitivity, Stanley was no softie.
“He was tough as teak to work for,” grins Alan, who learnt this first-hand when he became an assistant in the 1990s after a lengthy educational programme mapped out by his father that took in learning at the hands of the Millards and at top USA farms. “He didn’t take any nonsense and was respected for it.”
Gavin Venter concurs: “He was a very hard taskmaster. Not many other jockeys stayed with him too long. I remember once I rode six winners on one day and our apprentice, Delano Pieterse, rode another. But I lost out in the main race, running a short-head second on a 33-1 chance. Mr Greeff didn’t speak to me for a week he was so upset at not winning every race on the card!”
As uncompromising as he was on the job, Stanley was always ready with help and advice for those in need, remembering kindnesses he’d received during his hard times. Alan recalls that if a fellow trainer was under financial strain, his father would often donate bags of horse feed - but deliver them anonymously, to avoid embarrassment, after the recipient had left his yard for the day.
In the mid-1990s, Stanley handed over to Alan but maintained an active daily interest in the operation. Even as he entered his 80s and fell ill, Stanley would insist on going to gallops and the races.
“We’d drive him to Arlington and park the car next to the stewards’ room, above the steps, with a view of the track,” says Allan. “We’d set up a table and chair for him and he’d enjoy a whisky, watch the action and chat to all the people who dropped by to say hello.”
Alan says his father “ate, drank and slept horses and racing” and often said he’d lived a most rewarding life and wouldn’t want to change any of it.
Stanley was diagnosed with lung cancer in April 2010 and passed away in August that year. Another veteran PE trainer, Nic Claassen, died on the same day, leaving the region’s racing community in shock.
Champion breeder Mick Goss penned a heart-felt tribute on his Summerhill website, in which he said Stanley “was a dyed in the wool horseman if ever there was one”, and added: “Fond of the most amusing fables of our sport, he was racing’s unofficial custodian of the anecdotes of his era… Rest well, old pal…”
Extract from Tab News