Nicci Garner
4 minute read
26 Nov 2016
6:06 am

From waterboy to top racing trainer

Nicci Garner

The 34-year-old Vereeniging-bred trainer's winning strike rate for November so far is a phenomenal 42.11%.

Johan Janse van Vuuren has had his racehorse trainer’s badge for only four years, but has rapidly made a name for himself as a man with a sharp eye for a yearling and the ability to present a horse primed to the moment on raceday.

Charity Mile Day earlier this month was a prime example, when his runners won four feature races, including the headline Peermont Emperors Palace Charity Mile. The 34-year-old Vereeniging-bred trainer has not had many runners since that red-letter day but his winning strike rate for this month so far is a phenomenal 42.11%.

He has six horses running at Turffontein on Saturday, including Irish Pride in the big one, the R2-million Gauteng Sansui Summer Cup.

The lightly weighted gelding is not expected to give Janse van Vuuren the biggest win of his career so far, but that does not mean he cannot give the big guns a fright under a light weight, even from the widest draw of all.

“After all,” says his trainer. “It is a handicap.” His other runners include highly regarded grey filly Negroamaro in another of the seven feature races, the Ipi Tombe Challenge, and a hot-looking youngster called Green Pepper in the Magnolia Handicap.

They are the two he believes represent his best chances of making the No1 box at the meeting.

On the morning of another big raceday, the man, who like many racing people is hugely superstitious and fears he will jinx his chances with a wrong word, will be following a rigid routine in an effort to keep his nerves at bay.

Then, through the afternoon, knowing his charges are geared up and raring to go, he will sip on a good red wine, “which helps with my nerves”. His ascension into the ranks of prominent trainers has been whirlwind and nothing short of phenomenal, given he had very little to do with the animals he loved so much growing up.

“My grandfather and dad had shares in racehorses all my life, but I was not involved in the working side of things. From age 10 or 12 a friend and I used to pool our R5 pocket money to take Place Accumulators (a bet in which you must pick one or more of the first three horses past the post in seven consecutive races to win). We never read books, we studied Computaform (a popular horseracing form guide) instead.”

The late Mike Riley trained a horse owned by one of Janse van Vuuren’s uncles, so the teenager talked his way into a holiday job in the yard “as a water boy – I used to clean out the water buckets”.

Riley suggested when he finished school he should do an accredited diploma with the late Mitch Hansen, who had trained for a short while and ran the Stonyhurst riding school near Hammarsdale in KwaZulu-Natal.

He was refused because the course was full, but then a place opened and he jumped at the chance. Janse van Vuuren had never sat on a horse before and knew next to nothing about caring for a thoroughbred. Hansen gave him a crash course and then got him his first real job in horseracing as an assistant to trainer Geoff Woodruff.

At the same time, Janse van Vuuren became an agent for now-retired champion jockey Mark Khan. Then came the time for him to spread his wings and take out his own trainer’s license.

With encouragement and an invitation from businessman Laurence Wernars to buy him a horse or two, Janse van Vuuren decided to take the bull by the horns. He put in his papers and went off to a sale, where he had fun without going overboard. When he tried to give the card back after the sale,

“Laurence told me to keep it”.

Two other owners, Harry Wilson and Jaap van der Vendel, gave him significant support. He opened stables at the Vaal Racecourse training centre in 2012, starting out with just nine horses, and saddled his first runners, Saddle Bags and Brigadier General, at the Vaal on November 24, 2012.

In the next five months he only had another 14 runners and early in May 2013 he landed the first of his 143 winners to date when Van der Vendel’s Casha won a Maiden Juvenile Plate.

He’s built his string up to 120 horses in the last few years and has the much-valued support of former champion jockey Gavin Lerena as well as talented rider Randall Simons, both of whose opinions he respects.

They have rides for him today and, with 24 wins already since the season started in August, he’s well on his way to realising his aim of 100 wins in the campaign.