Jack Milner
4 minute read
28 Nov 2015
11:00 am

Van Niekerk seeks first Summer Cup win

Jack Milner

In racing for the passion, Chris takes no victory for granted.

There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man,” said Winston Churchill – and it’s a quote with which owner Chris van Niekerk concurs.

Van Niekerk is one of the most prominent and successful owners in South Africa and it all came about through his love of the horse.

“I was brought up in Vryheid in a farming community and before I wanted shoes and a bicycle, I always wanted a horse. There is something special about them. So when I had a bit of money the first thing I did was buy a horse.”

Van Niekerk owns two runners in today’s Gauteng Sansui Summer Cup – ruling favourite French Navy and Halve The Deficit. Van Niekerk acquired his familiar royal blue colours with the red spot in the early ’90s and began racing in KwaZulu-Natal with Paul Lafferty.

“When I started to become more serious I needed to find someone in Joburg and I was given three numbers. It was mid-afternoon and I called all three. Only one answered his phone: Sean Tarry.”

The rest is history. It started a remarkable partnership which hit its peak at the end of last season when Tarry became South Africa’s champion trainer for the first time. “If you look at the money I spend against our overall strike rate, we must be among the better partnerships in the game. I don’t go for ‘big-ticket’ horses, only when I’m in partnership with others.”

When it comes to buying the horses, Van Niekerk leaves it up to Tarry. “I learned that early in our relationship, when we acquired National Colour. I didn’t want to buy her, but Sean insisted. He obviously saw something which I didn’t. She turned out to be one of my best horses, with wins overseas.

“I’m not really a fan of partnerships unless I get along with the people. I also like partnerships with people who are starting off.

“Sean is very conservative in his approach so when he tells me a horse is ‘nice’, I know I can expect something.” That was the case with French Navy.

“Sean found him and we paid R100 000 on the Ready To Run Sale. That’s the kind of buy I like. Sean came and told me he was ‘quite a nice horse’ so I realised he was decent. We try not to geld the colts, but I follow what Sean tells me in that regard.

“After French Navy was gelded he improved and we started to see the quality when he ran third in last year’s Dingaans.”

Van Niekerk is also chairperson of sales company Cape Thoroughbred Sales (CTS) and has had to deal with a lot of criticism as they are seen as trying to usurp the Thoroughbred Breeders Association.

“CTS is doing a good job. We have good staff, good partners supporting us and we put on a pretty good sale. The criticism has abated a bit.

“Competition has raised the game of both parties, which is good. It gives both vendors and buyers different platforms and sale prices have increased.

“Just look at this year’s Cape Premier 1. It is a serious showcase for South Africa and has changed the (racing) landscape in the country.”

He is also delighted his son Erich has started to show a lot of interest in horseracing. “He’s getting excited about it and is now involved in a syndicate.”

Van Niekerk has won the Vodacom Durban July twice – in 2012 with Pomodoro, and the following year with Heavy Metal – but has yet to win a Summer Cup or J&B Met.

“I never take any win for granted, whether it’s a maiden or a feature.

“But it would be nice to win both of those. I’m also looking forward to the Million Dollar race in Cape Town. That will be interesting.” Van Niekerk is not a betting man but does feel extra pressure when his horse is favourite for a big race.

“I don’t bet. When I buy the horses, it’s a big enough bet.

“I’m in the game for the passion and, quite honestly, if I made business decisions the way I buy horses, I would be bankrupt. I am quite happy to let everybody else back them.

“I don’t have any anxiety about a race, perhaps just a few seconds when they are in the starting stalls, but after that I get caught up in the excitement. To win is exhilarating.

“But somehow, and I don’t know why it is, I prefer not to be favourite. What I do hate is when people say to me: ‘Your horse is a certainty.’ That I don’t want to hear.”

As for Halve The Deficit, Van Niekerk said: “He has a good and consistent record. My approach is, if you’ve got a ticket, you’ve got a chance!”