Horses / Columnists
KwaZulu-Natal is still known as “The Last Outpost” because of its British Empire heritage and its inhabitants’ erstwhile habit of cocking a snook at the Nat government of apartheid infamy. Now the province looks like it might get a little outpost of its own – a patch of veld in the Northern Cape that hosts Flamingo Park racecourse.
South Africa’s horse-racing community was recently stunned by the bombshell that Kimberley racing would cease in November and the old track closed.
Racing operator Phumelela, headquartered in Joburg, said Flamingo Park’s weekly race meetings incurred it losses of R23.5-million per annum – leaving a rather, ahem, Big Hole in its balance sheet. Given the JSE-listed company’s already troubled finances, which even had it mentioning possible liquidation, the country’s only sand track would have to go.
Emissaries from Phumelela and horse-owner body the Racing Association were dispatched to the historic city to deliver the bad news. Owners, trainers and stable hands were offered sympathy and some help if they opted for a hasty relocation to Fairview in Port Elizabeth or the Vaal in Vereeniging. Otherwise, cheers folks.
Phumelela suffered a fearful shellacking on social media and comment platforms. How were these huge losses happening? people asked. A detailed breakdown of accounts was not to hand.
Milnerton, Gosforth Park, Newmarket, Bloemfontein, Arlington and Clairwood racecourses have all vanished over the years, feeding a sense that racing is headed for the knacker’s yard.
But then came good news: Gold Circle, the unlisted operator of racing in KwaZulu-Natal, entered the fray, offering to look at taking over in Kimberley. Nothing has been agreed yet, but the dreaded shutdown is on hold.
Kimberley racing might be the lowest level of the official racing set-up in the country, but, as such, it plays an important role in the industry – providing a viable playing field for horses that might struggle in stronger centres like Cape Town, Durban and Joburg.
This means employment for many thousands of people, not only at Flamingo Park, but in training stables raiding from other places, in transport companies ferrying runners, in betting outlets, and in sundry other functions – not to mention the breeding industry that supplies all the thoroughbreds.
Meanwhile, racing in The Last Outpost has been looking up of late, gingerly, with Gold Circle enjoying a slightly shinier image than its hapless cousin up north. Notably, the company has sold naming rights to Greyville and Scottsville racecourses to a bookmaking firm, injecting welcome capital into a game that’s long felt the squeeze around the world.
Whether the Banana Boys can turn things around in a far-off savanna is a moot point, but at least there’s hope.
Hope brought fortune seekers to this spot in the first place, to engage in a gargantuan dig to extract millions of diamonds from the great gem pipe spewing them out onto the veld.
Harry Oppenheimer, mega-wealthy successor to those early hard-scrabblers and a keen racing man, donated land for a Kimberley racecourse in 1957. World War 2 fighter-pilot hero Sailor Malan became the first chief steward of the racing club and horses have galloped there ever since.
Flamingo Park might not have the posh trappings of some venues of the Sport of Kings, but it is a part of the extended royal family. And even scruffy cousins of kings no longer have their heads chopped off.
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