Fairview protests: the current state of play

Some of the former employees of Dippin Blu Racing in Fairview, Port Elizabeth who stormed the stables in protest on Thursday, 17 September 2020, killing one horse and injuring over 20 others. Photo: Mkhuseli Sizani

Transformation in South Africa’s horse racing industry has been thrust into the limelight by last week’s protests at Fairview racecourse, with a rescue plan now finally granting the long-simmering “grooms’ issue” much needed urgency.

Horseracing is reeling from the mob attack on the Port Elizabeth stables of trainer Yvette Bremner last week – with the incident making headlines around the world and debates getting heated.

Disgruntled former grooms of Bremner’s Dippin’ Blu yard, along with grooms from neighbouring stables and scores of fellow residents of a nearby informal settlement, forced their way into the training centre at Fairview racecourse and chased 28 horses from their boxes, allegedly in revenge for a labour dispute that did not go in their favour.

One horse died and about a dozen more were badly injured as the baying crowd of 150-200 chased the loose animals around the property, beating them with kerries, slashing them with pangas and throwing stones.

Developments since then:

One man was arrested by police and was due to appear in court on Tuesday, charged with malicious damage to property and public violence.

Animal welfare groups such as the National Society for the Protection and Care of Animals (NSPCA) and the East Cape Horse Care Unit vowed to press their own charges of animal cruelty, while racing operator Phumelela said it would work with police to bring culprits to justice.

Bremner and her partner Hedley McGrath – a prolific investor in racehorses – said they were quitting the game for good.

“I’m exiting, without doubt,” McGrath told interviewer Nico Kritsiotis of online broadcaster Clocking The Gallop. He added that Bremner – a leading trainer in PE for decades and a highly respected horsewoman throughout the country – had been badly traumatised by the events of Thursday and would be handing in her licence.

Most of the Dippin’ Blu horses were relocated from Fairview to Summerveld training centre outside Durban over the weekend. Eleven injured horses have remained behind until they are well enough to travel. Bremner’s long-time assistant trainer Carl Hewitson, a former jockey and father of former SA champion rider Lyle Hewitson, has taken charge of operations in KwaZulu-Natal.

Some UK- and Irish-based members of the International Racing Club, which had a number of horses in Bremner’s care, have quit the ownership syndicate as “they want no part of such things”, according to IRC spokesperson Mike de Haast. He said IRC, which has spent many millions buying horses for overseas participants – thus bringing in welcome foreign exchange and creating jobs – was “reviewing further participation” in South Africa.

The National Horseracing Authority refused to allow the IRC to race its horses in black silks at other venues around the country as a sign of protest. The NHA told stipes to withdraw the carded runners of trainers that defied this order. De Haast called this action “disappointing” as the protest would have been a peaceful show of empathy for horses and people affected by the violence.

The incident has deep political and racial undertones, with social media expressions of horror at the cruelty to animals balanced against the plight of grooms, who many observers feel have been poorly treated for ages in South Africa. Disastrous political administration in Eastern Cape, which has seen water supplies dry up and indigent people forced to eat wild vegetation to stay alive, has compounded the desperate situation among poor people.

McGrath claimed money allocated for groom accommodation in PE had not been spent as it should have, resulting in many workers having to live “in the bush” around Fairview. By contrast, he detailed how he and Bremner had helped their staff build decent accommodation and gain access to clean water supplies.

Racing operator Phumelela declined an interview on Clocking The Gallop, saying it did not want to be drawn into a debate via the media on the “unfortunate incident”. The company – currently in business rescue – said its focus “has been and will remain on ensuring the continuation of undisturbed racing at Fairview and the safety of spectators, personnel employed at the track and the horses”.

McGrath said he had been forced to employ armed guards to protect Dippin’ Blu horses around the clock for the past seven months, following the start of the labour dispute in February and public threats issued by the striking staff cohort. Phumelela had not provided any protection, he said, adding that gate to the training centre was manned by a single guard and claimed that on Thursday it had been left open, allowing the attackers to stream onto the premises.

McGrath and De Haast slammed what they saw as a lack of concern from Phumelela and the NHA, though the former pointed out that national chief stipe Arnold Hyde had been sympathetic and helpful.

Transformation in South Africa’s racing industry is front and centre of the rescue plan drawn up the Phumelela business rescue team, with the long-simmering “grooms’ issue” one of the immediate priorities.

The events of what is being called “Black Thursday” might force the rescuers to give it even more urgency.

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