Nicci Garner
3 minute read
4 Jul 2015
8:40 am

From juice bar to Durban July

Nicci Garner

Months of hard work will culminate in two minutes of nerve-wracking tension for racehorse trainer Sean Tarry, who sends five of his charges into battle in the blue riband of South African horseracing today, the Vodacom Durban July at Greyville.

Trainer Sean Tarry, pictured here with Pomodoro, who gave him his fi rst Durban Vodacom July victory in 2012. Tarry has won the race twice in the last three years. Today he sends five of his charges into bale.

It’s hard to win the R3.5-million race, but he’s done it twice in the last three years, with Pomodoro in 2012 and Heavy Metal a year later. And to be fielding more than a quarter of the field in today’s race is a real feather in his cap.

For Tarry, this year, there’s more on the line than winning Africa’s most famous race, because victory by any of his five would secure him his first national trainers’ championship – something he has coveted since he first took out a trainer’s license in 1997.

In the minds of most racing fans, he already has the title in the bag because he is more than R6 million clear of nearest pursuer Mike de Kock, but Tarry, 46, will not be celebrating prematurely after having the title snatched from his grasp in the final days of the 2011/12 season.

“It was gut-wrenching to get beaten,” he admitted. “After that I decided to make it happen. And if it does finally happen, it won’t be in a weak field with the likes of world-famous Mike de Kock and ruling champion Justin Snaith among my rivals.”

The Durban July is a handicap, so theoretically all five of his charges – Legal Eagle, French Navy, Halve the Deficit, Gold Onyx and filly Tamaanee – are not without winning chances. However, it is widely recognised that Legal Eagle and French Navy are the pick of his July army.

That he consistently manages to pick young horses who turn into stars often bemuses horse racing pundits. After all, he hardly has a racing pedigree and his venture into the sport started later than most.

Tarry was in his 20s when he decided on a sea change in his life, switching from running a juice bar to training racehorses “because it seemed like a fun thing to do”.
Until then, he’d had little interest in horse racing, even though his father was a small-time punter and his brother Mark studied pedigrees and breeding. “It just didn’t grab me,” he said.

Always competitive, the more people derided his decision to race horses, the more determined he became to excel.

After stints as an assistant trainer, at 28, he became a trainer in his own right, with just 16 horses owned by his brother. His first runner was a winner – Supreme Magic – who paid R199 for a TAB win. Nine days later, he was drinking champagne after Sorevof gave him his first feature-race win in the John Breval Memorial.

He soon learnt training racehorses was a challenging profession, but used the next decade to hone his skills as a trainer and built a powerful base of racehorse owners, notably Chris van Niekerk, a prominent businessperson who has been the mainstay of the Tarry yard for more than a decade.

Tarry broke into the big time in 2005 when Alastor won the Cape’s premier race at the J&B Met, and since then, he has not looked back with at least one high-class runner in his care every year.

Unlike many of his colleagues, Tarry has proved adept at training all types of racehorses – from sprinters to marathon runners – and few of the most coveted feature races in the land have eluded him so far. His big-race successes range from the Gold Cup, horse racing’s equivalent of a marathon, to the 1 000m Computaform Sprint, the premier test of speed in South African horse racing. One of his former charges – Mythical Flight – still holds the race record, having broken the elusive 55-second barrier over 1 000m to win in a sizzling 54.96 seconds.

“Probably the most important thing in my job is something a lot of trainers miss. Yes, the animal is very important and a trainer has to be a good horseman, but horse racing is all about competition. If you don’t know how or where to compete, it doesn’t matter how good your horses are, they won’t go far,” says Tarry. “That is one of my strengths – I identify the right opposition and place my horses accordingly.”

And that is how he comes to have five horses in today’s big race. They’re ready but whether they are good enough, only the race will tell.