The industry “Oscars”, a banquet bash at which shiny statuettes are dished out to the best performers in a variety of categories, is on hold.
So, the 2019/20 season winners in most categories – decided upon by a panel of racing gurus – are unlikely to be known for some time yet, but we do know the champions in those categories based purely on statistics.
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When the season ended at the end of July last Friday, it was with a bit of a whimper. Of course, everyone was pleased to have been racing after the damaging shutdown, yet there was little fanfare for brilliant performances in a tough year; minimal appetite for celebration in the gloom of coronavirus and government repression.
Nonetheless, we must record the standouts in a year that will forever be a milestone in the fortunes of South African racing.
Sean Tarry’s champion trainer title was the fifth in his career and cemented his place among the greats of the local game. The Randjesfontein master might not have the on-camera dazzle of some of his closest rivals, but he is every bit their equal when it comes to horsemanship.
Hardworking, ambitious and transparent with the public, Tarry epitomises the modern-day technocrat of the stables.
He headed the national log with winnings of R17.1-million – which came from 120 race wins. The latter included three Grade 1 triumphs: the Summer Cup with Zillzaal, the SA Fillies Sprint with Celtic Sea and the Golden Horse with Warrior’s Rest. Further graded race wins came courtesy of Cirillo, Eden Roc, Golden Belle, Ikigai and Shango.
With the possible exception of Celtic Sea, there were no “superstars” in the Tarry boxes over the season, making victory a testament to his dedication to all animals in his care.
Perennial rivals Justin Snaith and Mike de Kock ran into the money, so to speak, but were several lengths (or a few million rand) behind.
It was clear from last Christmas that Warren Kennedy was odds-on to land his first champion jockey gong – all he had to do was avoid injury or a lengthy suspension.
If ever there was confirmation of the maxim that one is never to old to dream, it’s Kennedy’s rise to the top in mid-to-late career.
It’s 22 years since he rode his first winner and he has never seriously been mentioned as a possible champ – apparently content with his slice of success in the top 20 or 30 riders in the country.
Come 2019/20 and the Durbanite nicknamed “Wagga” became “electrified”, as a certain commentator is wont to yell from time to time. He started travelling around the country and punching home winners with youthful zeal.
Kennedy clocked up 209 victories from 1,165 rides, 62 clear of second-placed Greg Cheyne. In third was rising talent Keagan de Melo on 101 and fourth was former champion S’manga Khumalo on 95.
If this year’s jockey title race was a procession – even boring compared to some battles of the past – next year’s might be a humdinger.
Muzi Yeni has made no secret of his burning ambition to be top dog. A hefty suspension and injury saw the popular rider manage only eighth spot in 2019/20.
Lyle Hewitson is back from overseas and showing the form that in 2019 saw him become the first apprentice to claim the title in decades. Similarly, Callan Murray is a prodigal with ambition and the firepower of the De Kock yard in his holster.
If Cape Town-based Richard Fourie (fifth this time) puts his mind to a championship campaign, his abundant talent would take him close.
Speaking of Cape Town riders, the mercurial Grant van Niekerk, kicked out of Hong Kong in ignominy, has started the new term like a house on fire, with six wins from his 14 rides to date. He clearly feels he has something to prove.
And what about 2019/20 champion apprentice Luke Ferraris? He finished seventh on the overall table behind Kennedy and is destined for glory someday soon.