Durban July Review – What A Day Out

After two days watching work at Summerveld, talking to trainers, trying to assess the form, and listening to my peers, race day is finally here.

Every year I fly about 9,000 miles as a guest of Gold Circle to take in the biggest race in Africa, and so far (touch wood) I have never been disappointed. I am not here to advertise anything or blow smoke, but I have to start by congratulating Hollywood Bets.  South African racing has not been in the best of places in recent years to put it politely (and Yes I know we don’t smell of roses in the UK either) but what odds a bookmaker would or even could be the saviour of the sport?

I cannot pretend I know all the ins and outs, but they seem to have invested heavily in the sport, emphasise horse racing over casino and other operations, and from conversations I have had, will continue to invest and are very much in it for the long term. Their colours are everywhere suggesting an extravagant marketing budget from the moment you land at the airport to every shopping centre I could find, and whether or not you are a fan of bookmakers (?) they have to be applauded for stepping up to the plate when the sport was in its darkest hour – anyone in the UK willing to try the same –  didn’t think so?

On to race day as we arrived bright and early ahead of the 12 race card, with the weather Gods laughing at me – hot sunshine on the one day I have to wear a suit with a collar and tie.  The course was already getting busy (this is South Africa’s equivalent of the Melbourne Cup, a national tradition for all the population) with all sorts of weird and wonderful outfits – as I have said before, this is Royal Ascot on drugs (not literally), and I will try and add some photos to give you a taste of the day.

Away from the racing I do like to have a look at the food and drink offerings, if only to attempt to embarrass the British racecourses whose prices should be filed under “R for Rip-off”, and it does seem fair to suggest that affordable offerings encourages punters to both attend the track in the first place – and have a good day that they can then recommend to their friends. A quick walk round evidenced cheap snacks such as Springrolls or Samosas (three for £1.07) chicken wings (four for £2.14), Hotdogs for 85p, and my personal favourite, a Bacon and Egg roll for £1.93!

Drinks are always another bone of contention wherever I travel, and I am fully aware that it all needs balancing against average income, house prices etc etc, but the fact that you can buy a beer for £1.50 or a can of “pop” for 64p should leave our racecourses hanging their heads in shame, regardless.  As well as plenty of food stalls to choose from (add in curry and burgers as well if those are your vibe), there are more and more on-course restaurants popping up which are very popular, though I should have booked ahead at the Shorthead Bar where they serve delicious Bunny Chow (curry in a bread roll, you need to try it to appreciate it), leaving me having to sit and suffer until next year at least.

The crowd would be the envy of every racecourse in the UK on any given day with an eclectic mix of ethnicities, sexes, ages, and dress sense, with racing uniting us all behind a sport we love, be that in the flashiest of suits or cut-off jeans and a t-shirt – all are welcome here and no-one feels out of place.

On to the fashion next and anyone who knows me will realise this is not my area of expertise, but it can be so wild and whacky (to my eyes) that it cannot just be overlooked. Fashion parades and prizes worth winning have seen the Durban July become a focal point for those wishing to show off their designs on the big stage, so it was always going to be interesting at the very least. When I first popped in it seemed a little quieter than previous years but that was just my poor timing as the regular competition (best hat, best dressed, best couple etc) got the crowd rocking along with the DJs on the stage, while alcohol flowed and everyone was having a good time. I lasted about half an hour before it became too noisy for me and I went back to the racing instead.

As those who read the preview will know, we started with a winner at odds of 3.2/1 which got me all excited as Quid Pro Quo showed a spectacular turn of foot to win the Golden Slipper, and if she trains on next year as a three-year-old we could be talking about a very very decent filly. I cannot pretend I know the depth of the form, but I do know a good horse when I see one, and unless the others were trees, she is one to back both this season and next.

The wheels fell off in race two when my suggestion was Truth who lied to me when suggesting he was a class act! All joking aside he was out with the washing losing his unbeaten record in the process and although I suspect there were excuses, I think we just have to chalk that down as one for the bookmakers.

Things aren’t done quite the same here in Africa but we still had a “party” before the big race with a marching band, local dancers and singers, perhaps not as finely honed as you would expect back home, but far more enthusiastic, and followed by a rousing rendition of their National Anthem which saw all and sundry standing as expected and singing along – even those who didn’t know the words (like me).

 

The race started within seconds of the last bar being sung (which seemed hasty) and once again (it feels like every year), I didn’t back the winner. Hats off to those who tipped Oriental Charm, Brett Crawford’s three-year-old Vercingetorix colt who won by less than a length from Cousin Casey, though in my defence, See It Again might have hit the top three barring a blocked passage – though in all honestly he would not have won. Anyone who watches the replay will see it was a pretty rough race by our standards with Daniel Muscutt lucky to walk away unharmed after all doors were closed on his mount Double Superlative, and plenty of other horror stories from the connections of the unplaced horses. “Winners away”, and it was presentation time but first we had a bit of Mango Groove, one of South Africa’s biggest bands, though whether that was enough to sooth losing punters is a moot point.

Five races to go, but only the one of any interest to me with the Grade One Garden Province Stakes over the mile (or 1600 mtrs).  My last chance to back a winner (I was never getting involved in the last few races) saw me backing Double Grand Slam (to small stakes), and as you might expect, she ran well to land a place (even if I did back her to win), but it was Humdinger who stole it for Mike de Kock. To be fair it was some performance for her to get back up near the line after being passed, and even more so when you consider jockey Piere Strydom is 58 years old, and he didn’t even look out of breath as he got off the filly – whereas I was struggling after cheering mine into third!

Interestingly, and a bit like some of the nights when we have live bands on after racing, I noticed plenty of “racegoers” arriving AFTER the July to make the most of the late-night parties being held in the hospitality boxes (I am still awaiting my invite), so while we go home – they are only just getting in the mood!  I’m not really sure what I think of that idea – on the one hand its money in racing’s coffers so who cares – but on the other, how can you encourage the youngsters to enjoy the racing if they can go straight to the party and never see a horse? Whatever I think, the facts are that the day was a roaring success, high class racing, a massive crowd, plenty of food and drink consumed, winning and losing punters, high (and low) fashion, and (most importantly) smiling faces everywhere, the way racing should be the World over. It was an absolute blast and I really hope to be back in 2025 but for the moment, I will pour another drink, take in my surroundings for one last time, appreciate how lucky I am, and look forward (?) to coming back to the United Kingdom.

Racing photo credit Liesl King

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