By Andrew Hawkins
Ask any foreigner what they know about Cape Town and, almost without exception, those that know anything at all will respond: “Table Mountain.”
The monolithic, flat-topped Table Mountain dominates the landscape in South Africa’s second biggest city. It is impossible to visit the city without seeing its most famous landmark from every angle imaginable. In the summer, the “Cape Doctor” – a persistent, dry south-easterly wind – brings in the “tablecloth” – a dramatic veil of cloud that sits over the mountain like, you guessed it, a tablecloth.
Standing in the shadow of Table Mountain – though what doesn’t in Cape Town? – is the former Milnerton racecourse. What once could have been considered one of world racing’s most picturesque urban tracks, along with Happy Valley in Hong Kong and Rio De Janeiro’s Gavea, is now primarily a residential estate, having been closed in 2002.
These days, only the names of the suburbs and streets around the one-time circuit – Royal Ascot, Racecourse Road, Grand National Boulevard and Sandown Crescent – as well as the clusters of stables along these streets serve as a reminder to the “outside world” of what once existed. However, it remains in use as a training centre, although somewhat hindered by the pockets of land that have been sold. Renowned for its short, deep sand tracks that cause the “Cape look” of muscle and shape, it is home to some of the world’s most talented thoroughbreds.
— Table Mountain C/Way (@TableMountainCa) December 1, 2016
It is mid-morning on the day this writer visits Milnerton. The tablecloth has lifted, the clouds have disappeared, the mercury is soaring at a rapid rate; it’s a picture-perfect summer’s day. By now, any chance of seeing horses at work is remote; most trainers are long gone, attending to the many tasks that their role entails, if not making the 11-kilometre trek into Cape Town’s central business district to inspect yearlings ahead of the fast-approaching Cape Premier Sale.
One, however, remains out on the mounds, watching intently as a string of new arrivals – early two-year-old fillies with only a few weeks of training underneath them – canter over one of those noted sandy tracks. One by one the girls meander by, disappearing into the expanse of Table Mountain in the distance, appearing once again at a walk minutes later.
Sporting an olive cap and a navy-grey hoodie, with sleeves bunched up to the elbows, the 30-year-old trainer looks young for his age, boasting boyish good looks that prompt facetious comparisons to Justin Bieber among racing journalists from afar. A layman would struggle to distinguish between any of the young adults walking the streets of Cape Town and this racing blueblood, just four days removed from the biggest moment of his fledgling training career.
“A life’s dream,” said an emotional and excited Adam Marcus moments after his poster boy Vardy scored a memorable first Grade 1 victory in one of South Africa’s biggest races, the L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate, on the second Saturday in January. “It’s one of these races that’s weight for age and over a mile, it’s the cream of the crop. Just to be here competing in this race is a dream come true and to have a horse like Vardy win it in the style he has, I don’t think it will set in for quite some time.
“My dad won the Queen’s Plate three times and I think all three of them were before I was born. The photos are up in the house though, the trophies are there. When you start off training as a young person here in South Africa, it almost seems unreachable but you hope that one day you can get there.”
It was a race that, for a while, had seemed destined to never begin. As the horses made their way to the 1,600m start at Kenilworth, a grass fire broke out in the vicinity of the track, with smoke billowing across the course and hampering both visibility and air quality over the final furlong.
If that wasn’t enough to cause a momentary hold, a string of incidents behind the barriers seemed to bring to life Murphy’s law: anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Two runners required farrier attention, including one who cast his right front plate twice. The bridle on the defending champion Do It Again broke and had to be replaced; just when all seemed right, the bridle on the favourite Hawwaam slipped. A script that contained this many episodes would be discarded for being unrealistic.
It wasn’t anyone’s fault, although some racing fans comically (yet sternly) suggested that it was a conspiracy concocted to bring about the demise of the favourite, the notoriously temperamental Hawwaam. It is one of those things that, for some strange reason, only seems to happen come the big occasions.
Eventually, the gates crashed back, 22 minutes past scheduled start time. Jockey Craig Zackey, perched aboard Vardy, settled his mount second-last in the 10-runner field, one off the fence, about eight lengths behind lamplighter and outsider Crown Towers.
Entering the 650-metre straight, Zackey aimed for the extreme outside on Vardy, even in the knowledge that his mount had shifted in sharply when winning the main Queen’s Plate lead-up, the G2 Green Point Stakes (1,600m), enough to warrant a dismissed objection.
By the time Zackey reached the outside of the pack, Vardy was back last with each of his nine rivals to pass.
This time, though, Vardy went straight as a bullet, quickening up sharply and moving past his rivals as though he’d just joined the race. Top-class galloper Rainbow Bridge, who’d been near the speed throughout, tried to fight on stoutly but it was all in vain. As far as 250m from home, Vardy was the winner, with the margin at the line a length and a quarter. Rainbow Bridge and Gavin Lerena were eclipsed late for second by M J Byleveld aboard One World.
As Zackey trots Vardy in front of an adoring crowd, all adhering to the white and blue L’Ormarins theme that has made the Queen’s Plate one of the world’s hottest race days, Marcus emerges from the crowd to congratulate the four-year-old’s owners. Among them is Bernard Kantor, founder of investment bank Investec, as well as other finance bigwigs Greg Blank, Darryl Yutar and Jimmy Sarkis.
Marcus laps up the plaudits, taking time to indulge owners, sponsors, fans and the media. From the crowd, two Leicester City fans jump the fence, excited that their hero’s namesake has just won the L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate (and on Jamie Vardy’s 33rd birthday, too). They ask for a photo with Marcus; not only does he oblige, but he takes the time to talk with them too. He possesses a genuine, affable nature that is refreshing in the horse racing arena.
It all comes so naturally, the onerous commitments that accompany a big-race triumph. If you didn’t know any better, you’d suggest that he was born for the limelight.
Perhaps it was fate that Marcus would end up in the upper echelon of horsemen in South Africa, although unlike many in his situation, he has had to work from the ground up.
The second son of legendary jockey Basil Marcus, he was just three years old when his father was named Hong Kong’s champion rider for the first time. To this day, Marcus speaks certain words with a clipped South African accent shaped by years abroad.
“When we first went to Hong Kong, we were in the Jockey Club flats but when my dad became a contracted jockey, you are allowed to live off the premises,” recalls the younger Marcus. “I think that was good for him, because he drove to work, did his job, but he was able to come home and switch off with the family.
“I used to play and run around and go on the slides there at Sha Tin and even amongst the kids there was some pressure, it was quite something. We got along with everyone though, although I’m sure that a lot of people didn’t like my dad because of his level of success. That’s Hong Kong for you, it’s competitive.
“To this day, Dad says that Ivan Allan – even though he applied so much pressure – was the best trainer he rode for, while he had so much fun when he was riding for David Hayes because he’s such a fun character. I can’t wait to see how he does back in Hong Kong.”
I used to play and run around and go on the slides there at Sha Tin and even amongst the kids there was some pressure …
From a young age, Marcus has been exposed to some of the greats of world racing and says that he always tries to learn something from those with experience.
“Is John Size still so relaxed?” he asks, referring to the 11-time Hong Kong champion trainer. “To be that relaxed in that sort of environment is so amazing. I know my dad did meditation, he had personal trainers, he did whatever he could to keep him on top of his game in such a pressure-cooker environment.
With his father serving as retained rider for trainer David Hayes, it meant that the younger Marcus grew up alongside the Hayes children, particularly Ben and Sophie.
Ben Hayes is fast stamping himself as one of the leading horsemen in Australia. However, whereas the eldest Hayes son was brought into the training partnership with his father and cousin Tom Dabernig, Marcus was faced with discouragement from his dad when he first contemplated entering the training ranks.
“My dad had plenty of success training down here after he retired from the saddle, although it was more as a hobby at first once he retired as a jockey. He was bored, so he started with a couple of horses and it got bigger and bigger and bigger,” Marcus recalls. “His best horse was Jay Peg, who won the Cape Guineas and the Cape Derby for him down here. To this day, he still rates Jay Peg’s Cape Guineas win as his most special moment in racing, because it was the three brothers together – he trained, Anton rode and Selwyn owned.
“Herman Brown took over the training of Jay Peg abroad and I went to work with him in Dubai for a little bit before coming back to work as Dad’s assistant down here. For Herman, he won the Dubai Duty Free and the Singapore International Cup in 2008 and it wasn’t long after that when Dad received the call from the Singapore Turf Club. It was a long process, not just at their end but we also had 140 horses here so it was a big call. We were there for just short of two years but it didn’t work out, we made a couple of bad decisions and that was that.
“So Dad said, ‘let’s go back to South Africa’. However, he tried to put me off training. He told me I was nuts, actually; he said, ‘If you want to go back to South Africa and train, you have to start from scratch.’ Nothing was going to deter me, so I started putting the plans in place then.”
His first call was to South Africa’s first lady of racing Bridget Oppenheimer, whose black and yellow Mauritzfontein silks were carried by some of the greats of the turf, including Horse Chestnut and Greys Inn. He affectionately refers to her as “Mrs O”.
“I called up Mrs O from Singapore and said, we’re going to leave Singapore, would you support me back in South Africa? Without hesitation, she said, let me know the date you are arriving and the truck will be there when you arrive,” he said. “She pretty much started me up, Mrs O. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have been able to apply for boxes because I wouldn’t have had the horses. As it worked out, the timing wasn’t great because all of her horses had been allocated to their trainers already, but she had a couple left that had been injured on the form or were very backward and those were the ones that she sent to me. At least I had something to train!
“When Mrs O passed in 2013, it was a massive dip for me because every year we were getting bigger and bigger together and we had such a great relationship. It was a terrible loss, personally and professionally.”
When Marcus returned to South Africa, he had only seven horses and he had to battle from the bottom, just like any other debutant trainer.
“In hindsight, it could have all been different,” he says. “I often think about what it would have been like if we hadn’t gone to Singapore and I’d taken over dad’s 140 horses and we’d skyrocketed from there. Sometimes, though, it’s better to start from the beginning, although I’m not sure I would have said that years ago. The horses I started with, to get them to win a race was hard work. Dad said, ‘You don’t learn to be a good trainer from the good horses, it’s the moderate ones that teach you how to train.’ I tell you what, I learned that quickly! Trying to find the tactics and bits and this and that just to get that extra half a length out of them, it’s a test.
“It’s been baby steps but I’m hoping that we’ve got the momentum now that can take us to the next level.”
Dad said, ‘You don’t learn to be a good trainer from the good horses, it’s the moderate ones that teach you how to train.’
It was only in late 2019 that Marcus had his breakout moment. On that day, Vardy took out the Green Point Stakes, the main lead-up to the Queen’s Plate that he would later add, giving the young handler his first Grade 2 success. Just 35 minutes later, he was a Grade 1-winning trainer, with three-year-old filly Missisippi Burning a dominant victor in the Cape Fillies Guineas (1600m).
“I had won eight features prior to that day, but never anything above Grade 3 level,” he said. “It hasn’t been easy, I’m in my seventh season now but it’s only been the last year or so that I’ve started to get the support you need to be competitive in the big races. So when Vardy won the Grade 2, I was just ecstatic, and then the filly won and words can’t describe it.
“I actually wasn’t feeling too much pressure before the Fillies Guineas because I thought, we’d already won our race with Vardy, so I actually had a lot of fun in the lead-up to the big one. And to make it even better, my girlfriend Lucinda (Woodruff) won another of the big races, so it was a day you couldn’t have made any better.”
Despite the recent run of success, Marcus is keeping his numbers small with no plans to take in too many more horses – although in the days after our conversation, it is confirmed that Vardy’s half-brother, a Gimmethegreenlight yearling, will be headed to his a barn that at the time of our visit held 37 horses.
“It’s a very manageable number,” Marcus said. “I’m here on my own, I don’t have an assistant at the moment so I do everything by myself. My dad’s here though so we alternate weekends, every second Sunday and Monday he’ll come in for me while I hibernate and catch up on some sleep!
“I’m a perfectionist though, I have to be hands-on with every horse and this is an amount I can manage. It is small, but the general quality we have in the yard is far superior to what I have had before. In the past, I’d just try and get anything I could into the stable, but now we are starting to get some real good quality. We’ve got Do It Again’s sister, Vardy’s brother, both two-year-olds. You don’t need the numbers if you’ve got the quality.”
Ironically, while South Africa continues to produce talented horsemen (and women) and horses capable of matching it on the world stage, its industry is floundering. Prizemoney is plummeting, as is turnover, and participants are increasingly unhappy with the governance of racing in the country.
Phumelela, the nation’s largest horse racing operator, suffered its worst financial year in 2018-19, with the company talking of liquidation as recently as September. Until last month, Flamingo Park in Kimberley – one of only eight racecourses still operating in the country – was mooted for closure, with a 12-month stay of execution granted at the eleventh hour. There has also been industrial action taken by grooms, the most recent – at the biggest raceday of the year in Johannesburg – resulting in rubber bullets fired by police.
The last rites have not yet been read, but with limited public interest and a struggling economy, it finds itself on life support with no real sign of a reversal of fortunes.
There has been the issue of South Africa’s isolation from the global arena, given the strict quarantine protocols in place due to African horse sickness concerns. For more than a decade now, South African horses have had to undergo a rigorous regime to be able to leave the country, making it difficult for their best horses to travel and also deterring investment in the nation’s bloodstock – even with enticingly low prices on offer.
While there have been several false starts, it does appear that the situation is nearing resolution. The European Union auditors are scheduled to visit in April, with the possibility of imports and exports resuming once again by year’s end. That would be a significant shot in the arm for the industry, allowing international buyers to invest with confidence and presenting an opportunity for the South African thoroughbred to once again gain the respect that was earned by the likes of London News, Irridescence, Greys Inn, J J The Jet Plane and Variety Club, among others.
However, without local support, the industry cannot pick itself up off the canvas. It may be there from those who have grown up in racing, but that local support, from those outside of the racing bubble, is proving elusive.
One Johannesburg scribe describes horse racing as a vestige of colonialism, still viewed as white and elitist in what is now the rainbow nation. Like many former British colonies, horse racing was an imperial import into South Africa, with the first official horse race in the country taking place in Cape Town in 1797, two years after Great Britain had captured the city from the Dutch.
While South African racing was largely unaffected by apartheid, its links to colonialism have ensured that it only holds appeal to a narrow base. In other former British colonies in Africa, like Zimbabwe and Kenya, horse racing continues but on a far smaller scale. They provide a potential insight into what South African racing may become if it continues its current trajectory.
It is a sad state of affairs in a country that boasts a remarkable horse racing heritage, producing some of the greatest jockeys and trainers the world has seen.
Take note of the extraordinary statistic that between 1991 and 2013, only once was Hong Kong’s champion jockey not a South African. Basil Marcus (seven), Robbie Fradd (one) and Douglas Whyte (13) dominated the Hong Kong scene in a manner that is unlikely to be matched again.
In 1992, Michael Roberts won the Champion Jockey title in Britain, having partnered the likes of Mtoto, Indian Skimmer, Opera House and Lyric Fantasy while in Europe. Globetrotting rider Jeff Lloyd completed one of the greatest comebacks imaginable when, after suffering an ischaemic stroke in 2014, he returned to win three Queensland jockeys’ premierships before his retirement last year.
The same goes for the nation’s trainers. Mike de Kock has been a trailblazer on the world scene, becoming the first South African to saddle up a runner in the G1 Kentucky Derby (Mubtaahij finishing eighth to American Pharaoh in 2015), while also winning big races in Hong Kong, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, the UK, Turkey and Singapore.
Herman Brown was another to taste success abroad, while the likes of Tony Millard, David Ferraris, David Payne and Patrick Shaw have taken their skills elsewhere and applied them . There is also the new wave coming through behind them, with Douglas Whyte and Ricardo Le Grange the next South African trainers flying the flag globally.
The hope for the future, as far as trainers go, is strong.
De Kock’s son Mathew, long touted as a champion trainer in waiting, looks set to continue in his father’s footsteps. Just 28, there are early plans to launch an Australian satellite stable with Mat at the helm, with his father continuing the operation at home. Those plans will take another step forward when the junior De Kock heads to Victoria to work with Robbie Griffiths at Cranbourne next month.
And after what has been a breakout summer, Marcus has stamped himself as a pivotal player in the future of South African racing.
On this Wednesday morning, mere days after the L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate, Marcus sits in his office at his Milnerton stables.
Giant whiteboards are filled with information about feeds, shoes, work. It’s all been lovingly and deliberately written, methodically compiled in what seems to be a feminine script. Marcus, though, assures us it’s all him.
“Lucinda says my handwriting is girlish,” he laughs.
Each horse’s feed is mixed by hand; each horse has an efficient regime that Marcus follows to the letter. As far as stables go, few can match the attention to detail that this trainer undertakes.
Adorning the walls are not pictures of his recent successes. In fact, they aren’t even pictures of winners that he’s trained. They are winning photos from when he was an assistant trainer in Durban, first to his dad and then to Michael de Beer.
His pride and joy, at least on this day, is a bit. A horse bit. This bit, in particular, has been the not-so-secret key to Vardy’s recent run of success.
“When I go to Western Shoppe, I’m like a kid in a candy store,” says Marcus of Cape Town’s premier equestrian supply store. “This bit, I’m very proud of it.”
You see, Vardy has a parrot mouth – and, Marcus says, a “quite severe” one at that. A parrot mouth is essentially an overbite, where the top incisors don’t meet the lower teeth. For a racehorse, that can be an issue when exercising control, which comes primarily through the bit.
Marcus, in full Western Shoppe mode, explains: “We’d tried Vardy in a range of different bits, we were four bits down with no joy. For a long while, he was in a ring bit and he was relatively OK but he would be very uncomfortable in his races. Next, we tried a lugging bit, which brings a bit more stability, but he didn’t enjoy that.
“So I went on the internet looking for a bit that would suit him – one that would prove soft on his palate, but given he’s a big horse, would also provide control. There were a lot of bits that were soft but they wouldn’t provide the control he needed. And I stumbled upon this Acavallo bit, which was their initial one. I applied the Acavallo side pieces as well and that turned him around.
“It wasn’t easy getting it approved though, the Jockey Club actually X-rayed it to make sure it complied with their standards. I had to hurry them up because we were approaching the Winter Classic and it still hadn’t been approved. Finally, they gave it a go-ahead and it made all the difference.”
It was their original sensitive bit that Vardy was wearing when he won the Green Point Stakes, knocking the field over in the process – proof of the importance of control when wearing such a soft bit.
“It’s such a soft bit that Craig was trying to straighten him up and he couldn’t, because it’s flimsy and soft,” Marcus said. “As it so happens, Western Shoppe had sent me information saying there was a new version out of the Acavallo bit that’s got waves on it, it’s a little bit more sturdy. So I went and got that and it was always in the back of mind, and in the end I ran him in that in the Queen’s Plate and he went dead straight.
“After the Green Point, the other guys were ready to object if we lugged in again, so that was why we made the decision to change the bit. It wasn’t that big a change, it was the same brand, just a different mouthpiece. You don’t want to lose big races like that in the stewards’ room!”
Already on Marcus’ mind this day in mid-January is the richest race meeting on the African continent, Sun Met day at Kenilworth on February 1, with both Vardy and Twist Of Fate set to contest the featured G1 Sun Met (2,000m).
Few prizes have more prestige in South Africa than the L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate, but the Sun Met is one such race. The Met is to South Africa what the Cox Plate is to Australia or the Breeders’ Cup Classic is to the United States. It is the premier middle-distance clash of the season, a weight-for-age championship.
The top six horses on ratings – including the Marcus pair – are good enough that it would be a tantalising clash anywhere in the world, from Flemington to Fukushima. There’s the two-time Durban July winner Do It Again, out of form but eyeing off a historic third July later in the year that would be akin to Makybe Diva’s three Melbourne Cups. The reigning champion Rainbow Bridge lines up in a bid to retain his title, alongside his temperamental younger brother Hawwaam, potentially the best horse to have raced in South Africa in quite some time but also his own worst enemy. Throw in honest miler One World and it is a battle of the titans.
For Vardy, it is a step up to 2,000m for the first time. He was a cosy winner at 1,800m at his first attempt beyond a mile, taking the G3 Winter Classic in May, and he shapes as though the distance should be no concern on what he’s shown on raceday.
However, on pedigree, the trip should be beyond him. He’s a son of Var, winner of the 2004 G1 Prix de l’Abbaye (1,000m) at Longchamp, and most of Var’s sons and daughters have struggled beyond 1,400m. The great Variety Club was one exception though, finishing second to Jackson in the 2012 G1 Cape Derby (2,000m) and looking more than capable of stepping up in trip before injury brought a premature end to his career.
For what it’s worth, Marcus is confident about Vardy’s chances at the trip.
“Before the Queen’s Plate, I’d told the owners that I was actually a little bit concerned about keeping him to the mile because he was starting to work more like he needed a step up in trip,” Marcus said. “He’s starting to lose that natural speed and I think it comes with maturity. In his work, he’s going through the gears more rather than showing me brilliance. I know he’s by Var but he doesn’t look like a sprinter, he’s got these long legs.
“He’s so playful, he’s such a confident horse. He doesn’t get nervous at all. He loves it. I think we’re heading in the right direction, I think there’s still improvement to come. It’s exciting to have that calibre of horse in my yard, and I always thought he would be even better the older he got so that’s very exciting to think there may be more yet.”
When Marcus visits Twist Of Fate in his box, there is an unmistakeable connection between human and horse which belies the fact that he has only been in Marcus’ care for a handful of weeks. A recent stable acquisition, the Master Of My Fate four-year-old joined the yard when his former trainer Joey Ramsden pulled the pin on his racing operation to relocate to Australia.
“It’s quite interesting how he came to me, actually,” Marcus says as Twist Of Fate nuzzles his head in the crook of his trainer’s arm. “He’s owned by the River Palace Racing Syndicate and their main guy, Arveen Nagadoo, he’s Mauritian but he lives in Canada. He started investing in two-year-olds in my yard but obviously Twist Of Fate was his main horse and he was with Joey.
“One day, he calls me out of the blue and asks if I have a box for Twist Of Fate, obviously Joey had just told him that he was leaving. I said, ‘Do I have a box? I’ll find a box! I’ll make space.’ So Twist Of Fate arrived in mid-November and we only had four weeks to get him ready for his first run for me. Taking on a horse competing at that level and only having that amount of time to learn about him and get him ready, it’s not easy.”
Before he arrived at the stable, Marcus took some positive family advice about Twist Of Fate.
“Anton rode this horse when he won the KZN Guineas and he said, ‘Ad, he’s the kindest, sweetest horse you will ever come across, he’s an absolute gem,’ and he was right,” said Marcus. “He’s by Master Of My Fate and quite a few of them are known for being hot and bothered, but that’s not him at all. He’s lovely – you don’t come across colts as gentle as him.”
Twist Of Fate finished third in the G2 Premier Trophy (1800m), beaten five lengths by Hawwaam, before finishing a creditable fourth behind Vardy in the Queen’s Plate when stepping back in trip.
“I really think he improved from his first to second run with me and I’m hopeful he can improve again into the Met,” he said. “The trip will suit him down to the ground. I’m still learning about him but I think he’s peaking.”
Now firmly in the realms of big-race trainer rather than young upstart, Marcus would be entitled to feel nervous ahead of Saturday’s feature. However, apart from nerves, there is a genuine sense of calm.
“I’ve had limited opportunities to have horses good enough to compete in the big races so I don’t really feel that much pressure with regard to winning the Met,” he told the local media earlier this week. “It’s not the be all and end all.”
Perhaps that’s because he knows there is bigger and better yet to come.
Catch the Sun Met live from Kenilworth at 5:10pm local time (2:10am Sydney, 11:10pm Hong Kong) on Saturday, with the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s English broadcast to be hosted by Edward Sadler, Declan Schuster and Lyle Hewitson.