Racing has lost one of its most valuable owners, and also reignited debates about the use of the whip, with Laurence Wernars callin git quits.
If we thought 2020 couldn’t get any worse, it just did – for South African horse racing anyway.
One of the country’s leading owners, home, announced on Tuesday that he was pulling the plug on his racing activities – though he’s keeping some breeding interests.
Wernars has more than 250 thoroughbreds in training and at stud. His racing silks of white with a black fleur de lis and red sleeves are familiar around the country, with many runners saddled by rising trainer Johan Janse van Vuuren.
Current Wernars star Divine Odyssey finished sixth in the 2020 Durban July, just 3.45 lengths behind winner Belgarion.
The successful businessman has been pumping many millions of Rands into the industry every month.
Bizarrely, a decision to quit the game came after two Wernars’ horses dead-heated for first place in Race 1 at Turffontein on Saturday September 26. This was hailed as a remarkable, historic event, with no-one able to remember when last the same colours shared a win.
Oh, happy day. Not so fast: racing usually has a twist to the narrative.
The stipendiary stewards – the cops of racing – were not happy with how the seven-horse Welcome to Turffontein Maiden Plate played out and convened an inquiry. The customary National Horseracing Authority statement on such probes is yet to be released to the press, but Wernars wasn’t waiting for that.
On Monday 19 October he resigned from his position on the board of the NHA. On Tuesday he revealed was quitting all racing involvement because of how the inquiry was handled.
“The wound is still very fresh and I’d prefer to issue a formal press release in a few days. But I’m happy to confirm to you that I will be disposing of my racehorses, but retaining my stallion and broodmare interests,” he told racing paper Sporting Post.
The NHA also advised inquiring media to await its press release.
Racing fans trying to piece together events leading up to this dramatic and damaging development have gathered that the stipes weren’t happy with the performance of jockey Chase Maujean on 18-1 first-timer Puerto Manzano, who got up on the line to dead heat with stablemate – and hot-pot 7-20 favourite – Thumbs Up, ridden by Raymond Danielson.
The stipes questioned whether Maujean had tried hard enough to win.
It is, of course, the stipes’ job to look after the interests of the betting public by ensuring fair competition. They presumably felt Maujean might have delivered the upset result with bit more effort. As it was, payout dividends were shared, with backers of both horses getting less than they might have.
Judging by Wernars’s comments to Sporting Post, he wanted to give evidence at the NHA inquiry but was barred from doing so as he was an NHA board member and thus had a conflict of interests.
So, he chucked it all in.
“It is inevitable that NHRA board members may also be owners or other stakeholders invested in the sport,” said Wernars. “I declared upfront to the NHA that I wished to be a witness in this inquiry as I own both horses and was privy to the instructions given by the trainer to the jockeys. Yet, together with the jockeys and the trainer, I have had my integrity brought into question. I have spent my entire life building up a successful business – this leaves a sour pretaste.
“We get behind the principle of reducing the use of the whip, then punish a jockey as he is deemed not to have used the whip sufficiently. There is nothing in the rules that says a jockey has to use his whip. Chase’s mount is bred for 2000m and he made up a lot of ground. Chase got him up to dead-heat. In other words, he is being punished for effectively winning.
“Who knows how the result would have gone if he had made more liberal use of the whip?”
Not only does racing lose a valuable owner, but the old whip question is back under the lash.
This comes right on top of operator Phumelela’s financial collapse, the slashing of prizemoney, the emigration of several talented trainers and jockeys, a two-month pandemic shutdown and the killing and wounding of horses in a stable-yard riot in Port Elizabeth.
Racing can only hope Laurence Wernars has a change of heart. He’s the sort of racing fanatic the game truly needs – a rich businessman whose wealth was acquired honestly through hard work and exceptional entrepreneurial talent. Let’s just say there are other ownership characters we would more happily do without.
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