Perfect timing will be the key to a successful assault by Ten Gun Salute in today’s Vodacom Durban July at Greyville in Durban.
There was a lot of talk about this Australian-bred gelding before the race last year but matters did not go according to plan.
However, in trainer Duncan Howells, 50, he has a master strategist who learns from experience.
“Last year, he was starting to get coltish,” he said.
“This is not the easiest horse to deal with. We had plenty of problems with him but he appeared to have lots of stamina and I always felt that on pedigree, he would be a decent four- and five-year-old.”
Howells was brought up in Port Elizabeth and his father and his uncle, Roy Curling, were jockeys.
“My dad fell in a race and had a head injury which caused epileptic fits so he wasn’t able to ride again.
“My mother was dead set against me being involved in racing and she wanted me to get an education.”
But racing was in his blood and he moved to the Western Cape to become assistant trainer to Eric Sands.
“When David Payne’s assistant, Peter Muscatt, decided to go overseas I asked for the job. I came to Durban for a trial and have been here ever since.”
Howells has been associated with some top horses, but rates sprinter Via Africa as the best.
“I think she was the most honest. She won three Group 1 races and ran second to top colts like What A Winter on another three occasions.”
Two other top fillies he rated highly were Gypsey’s Warning and Same Jurisdiction.
“Both went overseas and raced in top company and I think it’s a huge achievement for the stable. My wife, Cathy, picks most of my horses and those two were not expensive. Not many trainers in South Africa can say they’ve trained a horse who is now five years old and racing in the UK.”
Victory in the province’s premier race has eluded Howells. However, if things work out well for Ten Gun Salute, that could change.
“Last year, I made a huge mistake. We had a good draw and Muzi Yeni and I were concerned that if we let him settle, those moving across from the outside would cut us off. So we agreed we should go forward. It was the wrong decision. He pulled all the way around and still only finished 3.25 lengths behind The Conglomerate.”
His second mistake was to bring Ten Gun Salute to Joburg late last year.
“He was exceptionally coltish and we had a tough time with him.”
Eventually, Ten Gun Salute was gelded and given a long break.
“He is still not easy but he is a much more mature horse. The only reason we ran him in the Betting World 1 900 was because we knew it was our only chance of getting him into the July.
“If you had asked me before the race, I would have told you he had no chance. But when I watched them going through the 1 000m the favourite Elusive Silva was already starting to come off the bit while Ten Gun Salute was still travelling easily. When he hit the front early, I knew he could win it.
“That was the first time I’ve seen him run the kind of race he needs to run. I had him fitter than I thought and that teaches you not to push horses. They need to be spot-on for the race.”
The owners wanted Yeni back on the horse for the Greyville 1 900, but Howells resisted at first.
“But my job is to get the horse to win. If you sit a moment and take out personal grudges, you end up doing what is best for the horse.
“Bernard Fayd’Herbe suggested we use a lead pony to take him to the start and that has been quite an eye-opener … He’s not an easy horse to train and it’s a fine line from getting him well and pushing him over the edge.
“There’s big hype on July day and lots of noise and I don’t want the horse to throw his toys out the cot before the race. He proved he runs better when fresh, so it is a matter of getting the timing spot on.”
Yeni was booked to ride Ten Gun Salute again today but is stranded in Mauritius. Howells has a great replacement in jockey Weichong Marwing.
“Weichong’s big-race and international record settled the matter… We felt he will be able to manage Ten Gun Salute, should he be difficult.” Howells also saddles Saratoga Dancer, a decent fifth in last year’s race.
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