South African horse racing may seem from the outside to be a sleeping giant, awaiting only a wake-up call to take a major role on the world stage.
Even a brief look inside the sport, though, shows just about everything BUT sleeping is going on.
Case in point: The continent's signature race, the Group 1 Vodacom Durban July at Greyville Racecourse, is as much an event for the locals as the Kentucky Derby is for Kentuckians -- with a touch of Mardi Gras and New York Fashion Week added to the mix.
The racing and, especially, the breeding industries are vibrant, too, despite onerous quarantine restrictions that put a lid on the economics of the business. The rules effectively prevent foreign horses from competing in South Africa's biggest races and make it hard for South African horses to compete on the world's biggest stages.
The quarantine requirements are prompted by disease indigenous to South Africa, namely African Horse Sickness, among others. To prevent spread, international travel rules require that horses leaving South Africa take a circuitous route that requires five months or more of quarantine in Capetown, then Mauritius, then England -- time when they cannot train.
South African horsemen argue the regulations are unnecessarily stringent because the disease – caused by a virus spread by midges, and deadly to most horses that contract it – is not present during much of the year and recently developed tests can identify it within a much shorter quarantine period. International organizations, chiefly the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities, are working to standardize protocols for horse movement. But progress has been slow.
Among South African horsemen, there is some suspicion the rest of the world might be a little reluctant to let more South African horses into the competitive mix. That might not be paranoia. On the relatively rare occasions when they have run the quarantine gauntlet, South African runners have acquitted themselves quite well, thank you very much.
South African trainer Mike de Kock, in particular, has made quite an international name for himself, especially during the Dubai Carnival, leading up to the annual Dubai World Cup night. He trained Soft Falling Rain, The Apache, Igugu and others to overcome the quarantine hurdle and perform well in Dubai.
J J the Jet Plane won five straight races in South Africa from March through July of 2008, was idled for almost seven months before resurfacing in Dubai, where he won the Group 3 Al Quoz Sprint in his second start. He went on to run with distinction in England during the summer of 2009, returned home briefly and was exported again in 2010 to defeat Singapore star Rocket Man in a thrilling renewal of the Group 1 Hong Kong Sprint at Sha Tin.
The quality of that race was reinforced when "J J" and The Rocket Man accounted for both the featured sprint races on the Dubai World Cup night the following March.
But even in the face of such proven success, it's tough to justify taking a good horse out of the country under the current restrictions. And, obviously, top horses from other jurisdictions are not likely to be found in South Africa's big races.
World-class horses, however, can be imported for stud duty and the nation's luxurious stud farms have done just that, quickly lifting the quality of the nation's breeding industry.
Summerhill Stud, overseen by the colorful and knowledgable Mick Goss, has been the nation's leading breeder by earnings for 10 years and counting. Goss recently lamented that as his stallions acquire reputations, they tend to be whisked away to richer climes and he is forced to find replacements.
The 10 championships testify to his success in doing just that. While showing his stallions to a group of visitors the day after the 2016 Durban July, Goss asked for prayers, not for his recently threatened health, "but for the next big stallion, which God has always delivered to Summerhill."
So, the industry soldiers on. And, frankly, it doesn't seem too much a burden on occasions like the Vodacom Durban July, held annually on the first Saturday of that month, when a throng descends upon Greyville, ready to party. Appropriately, it's officially billed as "Africa's Greatest Horseracing Event," because it's much more than just a race.
The course is decked out with scores of private tents, hosting parties that start early and last until they turn out the lights. There are fashion shows for local designers, one offering as a prize a trip for two to attend New York's famous Fashion Week.
Many race goers turn out in costumes relating to a theme, revealed annually in a poem composed by Ken Tweddell, event manager for Gold Circle, the authority conducting racing and wagering in the east of the country. This year's theme was "Leader of the Pack," referring not to a motorcycle-riding teenager of the 1965 Shangri-Las' song but, rather, to a deck of playing cards.
Tweddell, with a twinkle in his eye, admitted he was taking a chance that "somebody will show up in motorcycle leathers with his bum hanging out."
Actually, a bum hanging out wouldn't attract all that much notice on Durban July day at Greyville, given the nature of the unofficial "13th race" on the 12-race card. For that event, a scrum of mostly young, mostly "overserved" males strips down bare naked and dashes down the stretch to the finish line to the delight -- or not -- of the remaining crowd. Gold Circle doesn't sanction the event, which developed spontaneously more than a decade ago. But it doesn't do anything to prevent it, either.
It's fitting, really, because the Vodacom Durban July itself usually is a bit of a scrum. With 18 horses maneuvering for room on a very narrow turf track. "The Durban July is always a rough race with plenty of hard-luck stories," said trainer Justin Snaith, whose four runners this year finished fourth, sixth, seventh and 12th. The previous two runnings were decided in the stewards' room after claims of interference. "But it's the race everyone wants to win."
It is, in fact, THE race for South African owners, trainers and jockeys.
"Everyone is here. This is where everyone meets," Goss said. "The is the race everyone wants to win."
Even Callan Murray, still enrolled in the elite South African Jockey Academy near the Summerveld training center while bidding for the nation's apprentice championship, singles out the Vodacom Durban July.
Asked what races he would aspire to win anywhere in the world, the youngster said, "The Dubai World Cup and the Durban July."