They’re off! Horse racing gets go-ahead

Durban July.

Horse racing will resume in South Africa from Monday 1 June – throwing a lifeline to a multibillion-rand industry in a state of near-collapse.

No spectators will be allowed on racecourses – only workers essential to staging eight races per meeting, such as grooms, jockeys and stewards. Race fields will be restricted to 12 horses, with 14 horses allowed in “pattern” (graded feature) races.

The live televised action on DStv will allow online and telephone betting to take place.

The first race meeting after nine weeks of lockdown will be at Greyville in Durban, on the Polytrack surface. On Tuesday the venue will be the Vaal racecourse near Vereeniging, with Cape Town’s Kenilworth hosting on Wednesday.

Jockeys will not be allowed to travel from province-to-province to ride – as is the norm. They will be allowed one journey to the province of their choice prior to Monday. Horses cannot travel outside home provinces.

Racing officials have been ready to go for weeks as they have pleaded with government for restart permission, arguing that racing is a non-contact sport with the actual action totalling just 15 minutes a day.

South Africa’s most famous race, the Vodacom Durban July, has been set down for 25 July – three weeks later than its traditional slot, to allow time for preparatory and qualifying races around the country.

The announcement of the restart was made by National Horseracing Authority CEO Vee Moodley on Thursday evening. The news was greeted with relief and joy in an industry that employs at least 60,000 people and is estimated to have an annual impact on the South African economy of at least R3-billion – thanks to thoroughbred breeding, feed manufacture, transport, betting turnover and horse sales, along with substantial foreign earnings from horse exports and income from global television rights.
South African racing has been brought to its knees by the lockdown – which delivered a devastating blow to an industry already struggling from revenue decline over some years.

Major operator Phumelela Gaming and Leisure, based in Johannesburg, went into voluntary business rescue on 8 May – putting the future of six of the country’s eight racecourses in jeopardy.

The Oppenheimer family – heavily involved in racing for generations – put up a R100-million emergency rescue package to keep the Phumelela ship afloat until the business rescue process is completed and a new dispensation for the sport is concluded.

A restructuring task team of prominent racing individuals, including De Kock, is charting a way forward for the game – possibly in consultation with the government, which has previously had little involvement outside of issuing betting licences and collecting gambling taxes.

A unified structure to run racing – including KwaZulu-Natal’s Gold Circle operator and Kenilworth Racing in Cape Town – is said to be the preferred option.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit South Africa in early March, racing authorities resorted to closed-doors race meetings with only essential workers allowed on course. However, all competition shut down with the lockdown on 27 March.

Exercising of horses was allowed to proceed at training centres around the country, with staff confined to on-site quarters, with strict hygiene protocols in place and heavily subsidised meals and other essential goods provided.

Horses’ training and feeding programmes were scaled back.

Internationally renowned racehorse trainer Mike de Kock recently warned of the spectre of “mass euthanasia” of the 40,000 population of thoroughbred horses if racing was not allowed to restart soon.

Owners and trainers, denied the lifeblood of prize money and betting take-off, have been battling to keep their animals fed and it is believed the putting down of horses has already begun in some places.

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