It’s a Durban July for the ages

Durban July.

The crown jewel in the country’s horse racing calendar will be very special this year, and not only in terms of the lack of spectators, but also in terms of the peculiarity of the runners on the track.

It will be one of the most momentous Vodacom Durban Julys in the race’s long history.

As usual, 18 brilliant horses will gallop down the Greyville track in pursuit of the biggest gong in South African horse racing – but, unlike in the previous 123 years, it will be eerily quiet.

The coronavirus pandemic means Saturday’s July will be contested behind closed doors – and a month later than originally planned.

You can follow all the 2020 Vodacom Durban July action right here on The Citizen, including a live stream of the races.
No crowd, no marquee jamboree, no drunken revelry. Instead of a mighty roar from 50,000-odd racegoers, the vast, empty grandstands will echo to only the crack of riding crops and shouts of frantic jockeys. Just essential workers – officials, trainers, jockeys, grooms – owners and box-holders will be allowed through the gates.

Obviously, masks and bottles of gloop will be everywhere.

The shouty action will be in lounges across the country as fans watch the action on television. Fashion – a staple of the July – will be done “virtually”, online somehow, to the theme “Butterflies”.

It’ll be strange – even for an event that has seen a lot in its time.

This patch of greenery in downtown Durban was a bit of wilderness called Western Vlei, home to grazing hippos from the nearby Umgeni River, when the British colonials started thinking about racing their mode of daily transport.

When the first July happened in 1897, Durban had a population of less than 20,000, so there wouldn’t have been a huge number of spectators perched in the rudimentary grandstand and on ox wagons drawn up along the track. But it was a bigger crowd than in 2020.

The July has seen triumph and tragedy, dead-heats and disqualifications, death and chicanery, mud baths and hard ground, royals and rogues, brilliant horses such as Pamphlet and Sea Cottage, great jockeys like Tiger Wright and Bertie Hayden, the shrewdest trainers in Syd Garret and Syd Laird, billionaire owners like Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa al Maktoum and the Oppenheimers and colourful ones like Solly Joel and Molly Reynolds – along with millions and millions of punters, stout-hearted folk putting dreams and wallets on the line.

Now there’s a new July peculiarity – and a powerful field of runners that is worthy of a rare occasion.

Six horses have won the great race twice: Campanajo, Corriecrian, Pamphlet, Milesia Pride, El Picha and Do It Again. Some of these have had a go at a third win – like Do It Again this year – but the hat-trick has proved elusive.

If trainer Justin Snaith’s plucky five-year-old gelding pulls it off, 2020 will be especially special.

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