The sight of trainer Zietsman Oosthuizen in tears of joy as he beamed his way through a TV interview at the Cape Town Met was perhaps the highlight of a good day for racing.
“Well done Attie!” said Oosthuizen, as if in private conversation with his horse, with a watching TV audience of hundreds of thousands worldwide feeling a bit like intruders.
He was, of course, referring to Atyaab, his stable’s five-year-old gelding who had just won Saturday’s 2800m Grade 2 Western Cape Stayers at Kenilworth – giving a galloping lesson to a bunch of top endurance horses.
It wasn’t just the trainer who was emotional, the whole racing world felt a tug on the heartstrings; it was the sort of small-guy-makes-good, second-chance-redemption tale that racing is wont to deliver.
Zietsman Oosthuizen, 41, has had a trainer’s licence for less than a year – and has had a rocky start to his career. Owner Suzette Viljoen, a fellow plattelander, only bought her first racehorse about three years ago. By contrast, Atyaab was an expensive Australian import who’d done well early in his career but had “gone wrong” and ended up as a big-stable reject.
From Ellisras farming stock, “Ziets” grew up with horses and got into racing as a dogsbody to Kimberley-based trainer Bill Human – driving floats around the country before graduating to full assistant. After 11 years of grounding, he took out his own licence – only for Kimberley racing to be closed down in early 2020 as operator Phumelela collapsed.
Determined to make a go of it in the game, Oosthuizen moved to Fairview in Port Elizabeth with 11 moderate horses, some of which were owned by Viljoen, who with husband Basie farm in the Schweizer-Reneke district. It took a while, but eventually the partnership started turning out winners.
Meanwhile, from small beginnings at Kimberley’s Flamingo Park track, Suzette had become so enamoured of racing that she’d got into buying horses big time – and quickly graduated to scores of runners with trainers all over the country. (Smart filly Captain’s Ransom was another winner for her on Met day, landing the Grade 1 Majorca Stakes with Cape Town trainer Justin Snaith.)
Atyaab has a regal pedigree and was bought on a top Australian sale for A$260,000 (roughly R3 million) by Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al Maktoum of Dubai and sent to South Africa’s master trainer Mike de Kock at Randjesfontein, north of Johannesburg. The colt lived up to the price tag by winning the Cape Derby and the Java Handicap, but then went off the boil.
Oosthuizen got excited when he saw blue-blooded Atyaab advertised on an online auction and persuaded the Viljoens to make a bid. An offer of R150,000 clinched a deal.
But Attie – as Ziets dubbed him – was not for galloping at that stage. Walking and trotting got him moving; then he made rapid progress as the rookie trainer tried different exercise permutations and struck on something that suited the horse.
When Oosthuizen entered Attie for the Summer Cup at Turffontein in November 2020, there was many a smirk over the country hick letting enthusiasm get the better of judgement. After all, the horse had not had a race outing for nearly a year.
Undaunted, the trainer got behind the wheel of his truck and drove Attie all the way from to Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg for his tilt at one of South Africa’s Big 3 races. Starting at 80-1, Attie justified the faith by finishing sixth behind the brilliant Summer Pudding in a 20-horse field.
The next long drive was from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town for the Champions Cup in early January. After leading the race most of the way, the 12-1 shot was run out of it and finished second.
It was back to Port Elizabeth and a recalibration before another Cape Town raid – for Met day. “Attie travelled like a real gentleman,” reported the conditioner; champion jockey Warren Kennedy said he’d learnt lessons from the earlier Kenilworth attempt, and Atyaab romped to a popular victory.
Passion is a horribly overused word, but it did seem apt when Ziets talked of how much success “against the big guys” meant.
“Attie is a legend!” he exclaimed more than once. Ziets is now one, too.