Without knowing his pedigree who would’ve thought when he was ravaging the defences of the Kimberley Boys’ backline in the early 60s, that this former centre three-quarter from Christian Brothers College in Kimberley, would one day stand aloft among the leading conditioners of racehorses in the country. We speak of course of Dennis Ralph Drier, the man everyone wants to know right now, and the darling of a social set to which he never belonged, but into which he and his glamorous wife, Gill have so seamlessly settled.
Saturday’s escapades at the Festival Of Speed reminded us once again of the power of professionalism, single-minded dedication and the God-given gifts of a fine horseman. The bracketed suffix of “Dennis Drier” behind the names of the heroes and heroines of South Africa’s biggest assembly of sprint races, has been a recurring theme at the Festival Of Speed. The arrival of Seventh Plain and Captain Of All in the Golden Medallion (Gr.1) and the Tsogo Sun Sprint (Gr.1), whilst remarkable by any standards, was all part of the routine of a day’s work for this man. When it comes to making one horse right for one day, no-one does it better than D.R. Drier, and here we touch on what was really remarkable about Seventh Plain’s victory: since 2011, only one other conditioner’s name has managed an appearance on the victor’s podium besides Drier’s, which means that in four of the past five renewals, the ace has been up the sleeve of his yard. Little surprise then, that he developed a reputation as a “sprint” trainer, to which his response was as eloquent as it gets: a couple of Julys, Gold Cups and other marquee events followed in quick succession.
With a career spanning as many years as his has, it wasn’t that long ago that his principal patrons, Harry and Bridget Oppenheimer, after a long and happy association, decided in the wake of several drought years, to follow a fresh option: and so one of the most famous relationships in the game, came to an end. I know only the accounts of third parties, but I have first-hand knowledge of how this couple dote upon their horses, and I know how much that relationship meant to them; it doesn’t take a genius then, to understand the devastation which the removal of 34 horses from a single yard would’ve wrought upon that stable. For most people, particularly at their point of seniority, it would’ve meant the end of the world, but when you’re dealing with Dennis Drier, you wouldn’t want to be betting against him too soon; his gifts are not so much of style, but of character.
The great Joe Louis, who ruled the heavyweight boxing roost for eleven long years, is supposed to have defined a champion as one who, “having been knocked down and is unable to get up, does exactly that”. We should hesitate to label Drier with too many tags, but he is surely the spiritual brother of old Joe.
Whilst we were long-time members of the same social scene, in the business sense of the word, we got to know Dennis and Gill for the first time when Bridget Oppenheimer purchased Spook and Diesel from our yearling draft at the National Sale. As an aside, the former “First Lady” of South African racing had Cheryl and I around to the Oppenheimer home, Brenthurst, on the eve of the sale, and I was placed alongside Bridget Oppenheimer at the dinner table. Let’s face it, Spook and Diesel was an unusual name likely to deter buyers, so much so, that when our partner in the production of the colt insisted on using it, we did everything we could to discourage him.
It struck Mrs Oppenheimer as a little odd, too, (as she put it so politely!), but upon the explanation that it was the nickname for a “cane-and-coke”, she was quick to exclaim “That’s my favourite tipple!”. So she bought the colt, and the rest is part of the history of this farm, and no doubt, of Oppenheimer and Drier folklore, too.
When it comes to buying horses, nobody works harder than this industrious couple; there are no last minute turn-ups at the sales to inspect the horses. Like the old-timers in Dennis’ lineage, Syd Garrett, Syd and Russell Laird, they still make a pilgrimage of visiting the farms, so they can plot the progress of the youngsters going into the sale. They don’t want much from the youngster, only physical perfection, and they’re unfettered by the complex theories of dosage, the snobbish elements of black ink on the page, or the question of how many strains of this-and-that the pedigree contains. Both of them have deadly eyes for an athlete, and what they’re looking for in a catalogue, is a history of hard-hitting runners, horses they can count on and a family that will stand up to the demands of the game. In a manner of speaking, it’s what the Driers and the Brevals are made of.
I remember the day like it was yesterday, when Spook and Diesel made his way to the post for what was then the Smirnoff Plate (Gr.1), yes, in modern parlance, the same Golden Medallion he’s made his own. Spook and Diesel had gone down narrowly for the laurels in the old Bloodline Million, and here he was, taking on the same adversaries for what was ultimately the Two Year Old Championship of South Africa. As “Spook” left the parade ring, Dennis looked at me and muttered “no excuses today”. He didn’t need any, destiny came rushing up to greet him. When the horse returned to scale, a prominent member of the Catholic clergy was so overcome, he forgot the injunction against the worship of graven images. He asked for, and received, a few blonde hairs from “Spook’s” tail.
I remember too, the return to scale of Beach Beauty following her destruction of the cream of South Africa’s fillies in the Paddock Stakes. A matronly sort pressed against the rail of the Number One box and shrilled in that unmistakable “Millerton” accent “If I ever get to own a horse, this man’s going to train it”. You wonder what he ever did to deserve that! On Saturday, when Captain Of All and Seventh Plain made their moves down the middle of the track, it was another case of the quiet Drier assassins come to do a job.
Through his actions and the obvious emotion his horses invoke in him, Dennis Drier’s taken racing to the people more effectively than racing’s administrators could ever wish to do. He’s more use than a dozen advertising agencies in bringing fans to the races. Whether in victory or defeat, he treats those two imposters just the same. “I don’t mind being beaten” he thinks “but I don’t have to like it”. The man is from the pages of Damon Runyon, and if you didn’t feel for him in those days of the long slump, when his luck deserted him and the Oppenheimers departed, then to paraphrase Runyon, you must be such a guy as will never be moved by anything less than an earthquake. Meanwhile, it'll take an earthquake to get him out of the headlines he's made a habit of occupying in just about every one of the past ten years.