SA horse racing in dire straits as Phumelela likely to apply for business rescue

Picture for illustration purposes.

Major horse racing operator Phumelela is likely to apply for business rescue status ‘within a few days’ – plunging the troubled South African industry into chaos.

World-renowned racehorse trainer Mike de Kock told the country to “expect mass euthanasias” as a result of disastrous financial losses in the wake of the government refusing to allow the sport to resume operations in the coronavirus lockdown.

In a letter to staff on Thursday 7 May, Phumelela Gaming and Leisure Ltd, a JSE-listed company, said it did not envisage racing and betting on sporting events to resume “for some time” and was preparing for business rescue.

Some staff members will continue with admin work, but others will be put on “no work-no pay” status, said the letter. Phumelela runs race meetings, racecourses and training centres on the Highveld, in Port Elizabeth and in Kimberley and manages racing in Cape Town under contract. It employs many thousands of people and controls six of South Africa’s eight racecourses.

This week the government turned down the combined racing industry’s pleas to resume action on a no-crowd basis, with only essential workers, strict hygiene and a televised product for betting. Officials decreed racing was “not an essential activity”.

That means many horse owners, reliant on flows of prize money from racing, cannot afford to keep their horses in training – leading De Kock and others to predict mass euthanasia.

De Kock said: “…there’s two things that stick out in my mind and that’s job and horse welfare.

“We can expect – I know it’s a very, very ugly word – but we can expect mass euthanasias,” he said in an interview in a video recorded by racing presenter Andrew Bon and commissioned by Drakenstein Stud in Western Cape.

“We don’t know where to give horses away. The ‘second-home’ market has virtually died. The grim reality is euthanasia and the grim reality is mass job reductions,” added De Kock.

There are more than 25,000 thoroughbred horses in the country, with tens of thousands of people employed in looking after them – in training yards and in a well-regarded breeding sector.

Horse owner Robert Bloomberg, the joint chairperson of Kenilworth Racing in Cape Town, was quoted in a report on Thursday saying horses were already being put down as training stables ran out of money to feed them.

Kenilworth Racing, custodians of Western Cape racing, issued a statement late on Thursday 7 May saying it would be reviewing all operations and cost structures and placing most of its staff on effective furlough.

Gold Circle, the operator of the two racecourses in KwaZulu-Natal, is expected to post dismal financial results shortly.

Under the lockdown regulations, organised sport will only be allowed at Level 2.

The racing industry, under national officiating body the National Horseracing Authority, appealed to the government to allow a resumption during Level 4 on animal welfare grounds – bolstered by the case for preserving thousands of jobs and getting money flowing in the economy through the game’s daily multimillion-rand betting activities.

The government failed to respond to these appeals for nearly a week, then said no.

Phumelela also owns the tote betting agency and racing channel Tellytrack on DStv. It beams South African racing live to 26 foreign countries as a supplementary betting platform, deriving a lucrative foreign exchange revenue stream that has effectively subsidised local operations for several years.

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