Suren Naidoo
4 minute read
15 May 2020
7:47 am

Durban July to go ahead, but with a lot less buzz

Suren Naidoo

The usual punters, fashionistas and other spectators – some 50,000 or more – won’t be allowed in.

Durban July.

Unlisted horseracing and betting group Gold Circle has confirmed that it will go ahead with the 2020 edition of its flagship event, the Vodacom Durban July, but the race will be held behind closed doors.

“Vodacom and Gold Circle have confirmed a joint commitment to run Africa’s greatest horseracing event, but under the strictest adherence to all government health protocols surrounding Covid-19,” the group said in a statement on Thursday.

This means the annual event, which generally attracts more than 50,000 spectators, tourists and fashionistas, will be staged “as a broadcast-only event behind closed doors” at Durban’s Greyville Racecourse.

Hospitality sector will suffer

The racing spectacle reportedly generates around R300 million for the KwaZulu-Natal economy, but the economic impact will be much less this year due to no spectators being allowed. Up to 40% of attendees are from outside the province, according to Tourism KZN statistics, which means the Durban hospitality sector is set to lose out.

“The Vodacom Durban July has enjoyed an uninterrupted history since first being run in 1897 – not even two world wars prevented the race from being run – and we are doing everything in our power to ensure that 2020 is not the exception,” says Gold Circle CEO Michel Nairac.

“Sadly, given the reality of the present circumstances, the race meeting will be staged behind closed doors and without spectators,” he adds.

Gold Circle has already moved the event from the beginning of July to the end of July, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The race usually takes on the first Saturday in July. The new proposed date is Saturday, July 25.

But things could change …

The group has, however, noted that due to the “extremely fluid nature” of the Covid-19 pandemic, things could change “as circumstances so dictate”.

“Any decision we make around the Vodacom Durban July this year will be made as a responsible company committed to the safety of all who are involved,” says Michelle van Eyden, the executive head of sponsorship at Vodacom.

“As a sponsor, we will work together with all relevant stakeholders and be guided by the horseracing fraternity and the experts in this industry, as well as in government, as we all work towards making this year’s race a reality,” she adds.

The horseracing, gaming and hospitality industry has been hard-hit by the pandemic, together with related lockdown and travel restrictions.

Casinos, hotels, sit-down restaurants and entertainment facilities remain closed countrywide under lockdown Level 4. Significant easing is only expected in Levels 2 and 1.

Sector casualties

The economic fallout from the pandemic saw Gold Circle’s main competitor, Phumelela Gaming and Leisure Limited, last week announce that it will file for business rescue and suspend trading of its shares on the JSE. Aviation group Comair announced a similar move in early May.

“The company has, for some time, experienced adverse economic and trading conditions. The effect thereof has been exacerbated by the nationwide lockdown resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic,” Phumelela noted in a JSE Sens statement on 8 May.

Since the lockdown came into effect on March 26, “the South African horseracing industry has not been able to stage race meetings, retail betting outlets have been forced to close and the company has been unable to generate sufficient revenue from its horseracing or betting operations”.

“Accordingly, the board of the company is of the view that the best option to ensure the long-term survival of the company and the sport of horseracing, is to implement a business rescue plan as contemplated in Chapter 6 of the Companies Act, 71 of 2008,” Phumelela explained.

Oppenheimer rescue package

However, the Oppenheimer family – through “Mary Oppenheimer Daughters” – has stepped in and offered R100 million rescue package to Phumelela.

The Oppenheimers are known horseracing fans and owners, with the late Harry and Bridget Oppenheimer among the first inductees into South Africa’s Horseracing Hall of Fame. Bridget Oppenheimer was a regular attendee of the Durban July before her death in 2013, with her horses winning six editions of the famous race.

It is unclear whether the Oppenheimer family will also be offering financial support to KZN-based Gold Circle or horseracing operations in the Western Cape.

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