Mike Moon
Horse racing correspondent
10 minute read
20 Jun 2022
11:01 am

Pioneer trainer Anne Upton, an icon of South African turf, dies at 86

Mike Moon

This profile on Anne Upton was first published in Racing Express. This is an edited version.

The Anne Upton gazebo at Scottsville racecourse. Picture: Gold Circle

One of South Africa’s pioneer female trainers, Anne Upton, has died at the age of 86.

Upton carved her name into South African turf legend by training two reject horses to win Johannesburg’s biggest race. Whenever racing people reflect on the long and eventful history of the Summer Cup, Upton’s name is likely to crop up.

Furious won the 1978 Holiday Inns (previously the Summer Handicap, now the Summer Cup) – just a year after being consigned to the scrap heap, about to be sold by his wealthy and impatient owner. The gelding’s trainer was seriously “small time”, operating from a private yard on a smallholding in Hilton, near Pietermaritzburg. Her stables had never housed more than 16 thoroughbreds, most of them family homebreds.

The millionaire behind Bull Brand beef products, Cyril Hurvitz, had bought Furious on the National Yearling Sale in Johannesburg. But the young son of Savonarola contracted biliary and, when he came to race, performed dismally.

Hurvitz wanted to get rid of the expensive flop when his then trainer, Fred Rickaby, who’d noticed Anne’s talents as a horsewoman, suggested she might have the patience and resources to turn the gelding around.

“Hurvitz called and said if I wanted to train Furious I should collect him from Fred’s yard at Summerveld,” recalls Anne. “When he arrived, he was a little light as a result of his illness, but he was very scopy. I thought cross-country work in the plantations around our farm would build him up, and it did.”

Furious’s first start for Anne was at Scottsville in January 1978, over a mile.

“In those days there was the dip in the back straight at Scottsville, where horses disappeared from view. With Furious still inexperienced, I didn’t want him tangling with other horses, so I told jockey Harold Taylor to hang back in the dip,” says Anne. “So he came into the straight stone last. But he won by a distance. It was phenomenal.”

He won again in February at Greyville.

“I phoned Hurvitz to tell him – he was in Botswana counting his cattle – and he immediately said he wanted to win the Holiday Inns at Turffontein at the end of the year with Furious. In those days it was tough qualifying for major races, but Hurvitz insisted I do whatever was necessary.”

Pioneer trainer Anne Upton
Anne Upton at the peak of her career. Picture: Sporting Post (www.sportingpost.co.za)

Furious kept on winning and clinched his spot in the big race when he travelled to Turffontein to win the Black & White Gold Bowl.

On 9 December 1978, less than 11 months after his first win, ridden by Robbie Sham, Furious claimed the Grade 1 Holiday Inns in style.

Unbeknown to the trainer, from the moment he instructed Anne to aim at the big race, Hurvitz started backing his horse heavily. It was one of the biggest betting coups ever landed in the country.

Anne was born in Pietermaritzburg in 1935 and educated at Wykeham School in the city.

At four, she was put on a horse by her mother, a noted horsewoman. She grew up in the horsey environment of the Natal Midlands, with all her family involved in equine sports. Her father, Jimmy Hampson, had racehorses with trainer George Salter.

At 16 Anne was winning flat races at gymkhanas and polo tournaments with the Underberg ladies’ team. Her uncommon talent at schooling ex-racehorses as polo ponies grabbed attention.

“My mother sent me to Mrs Elizabeth Jonsson, an equitation specialist, who also noticed my gift for handling difficult horses.”

Anne was persuaded to apply for a racehorse trainer’s licence, which she was granted in 1957 – at the age of 21.

At the time, the only other woman trainer in the country was Johannesburg’s Hilda Knaupp.

At first Anne trained for her father and her husband, the former Natal cricketer Lou Upton, and had early success with a number of place finishes.

Her first winner came in 1958 with Infringe, one of three “broken-down” horses from champion breeders the Birch Brothers.

Another Birch horse, Dowry, retired from the great Syd Garrett’s yard with a breathing problem, was used as a breeding stallion by the Uptons. His offspring included Dowry’s Son, Anne’s first feature race winner in the Kruger Day Handicap and who won seven in all.

Tympanist was an early star, sent as a three-time winner by wealthy owner Walter Grindrod. “He’d become uncontrollable and dangerous. I worked on him, got him right, and he won six for me.” Jurgen Rodseth sent her High Art, another temperamental type that Anne sorted out with tape recordings in the pens and got to win six times.

“So, I developed a name for fixing bad horses.’

Anne says secrets of her success were simple.

“Firstly, you’ve got to try to think like a horse. Work out what their problems are; why they resent doing what you ask them to. For example, it might be their vision, which isn’t as good as you’d expect. Secondly, quiet handling is essential. And thirdly, no use of a stick in training.”

Anne was also wary of jockeys quick with the riding crop in races, and once unsuccessfully asked stipendiary stewards to prohibit a rider from carrying one when riding her horse. On another occasion, in the parade ring, she asked a notoriously whip-happy jockey to show her his “persuader”, then refused to give it back, forcing the astonished rider to race without it. He won.

After Furious’s Holiday Inns victory, owner Hurvitz said the Met should be the next objective. Anne politely disagreed. “I told him his horse had done him proud and needed a rest. Also, I’d worked out that the Kenilworth left-hand turn wouldn’t suit him. We didn’t go to the Met.”

The next target became the 1979 July Handicap. Bold Tropic was an up-and-comer in the Hurvitz red and grey checked silks and the owner didn’t want his two stars competing against each other. Anne was forced to skip a planned prep run, in the Drill Hall Stakes at Greyville, in favour of Bold Tropic. The alternative prep, on a hard Scottsville track, resulted in a jarred leg and Furious had to be scratched from the July.

By August he’d recovered and doddled the Grade 1 Champion Stakes at Greyville. In all, Furious won 14 races, including the Gold Cup under top weight and the Transvaal Champion Stakes, and ran 18 places, including a third and a fourth in subsequent runnings of the Holiday Inns.

“He was a horse in a million,” says Anne. “It was only the handicapper who got the better of him. Top horses have it much easier today. If I could have him racing now, he’d be another Pocket Power.”

In retirement, Furious became the pre-race parade lead horse at Turffontein, enormously popular with racegoers. He is honoured by the Furious Room venue at the course.

North Island was another no-hoper that ended up at Hilton after being culled from a big stable. “I looked at the breeding and wondered why he’d been running over 1200m and 1400m when he’d been bred to go over ground,” says Anne.

The New Zealand-bred won four races for Anne – from 1800m to 2450m.

“He came into the Holiday Inns with just 49.5kg – very different to what Furious had,” recalls Anne. “I told the jockey, Patrick Wynne, to take him to the front, let him run, and see if the others could get him. He held on to win well.”

The owners, Campacres Syndicate, landed a major gamble but dissolved the partnership soon afterwards and North Island moved to a trainer in Johannesburg.

One horse that had Anne thinking she’d bitten off more than she could chew was Without A Doubt, sent to her by owner Tiaan van der Vyver after other trainers had given up.

“This horse was seriously mad,” she says. “But I found out that he’d once reared in the stalls and hurt his back. He was in pain and had a mental block. We worked on him slowly, only light dirt-track work. He eventually won me seven and ran sixth in the July.”

In terms of ability, the only rival to Furious was St Ivo, a British import by legendary racehorse Sir Ivor. He joined Anne – who had by then moved her operation to the new training centre at Ashburton – in a batch belonging to Harry and Bridget Oppenheimer.

“I won with four of the five Oppenheimer horses I trained, but St Ivo was by far the best of them. The key with him was discovering he was blind in one eye, which no-one had picked up. I covered the eye and he won by seven lengths. But, tragically, two weeks after this win he got a bad virus, which ended his career.”

Of the jockeys she worked with, Anne mentions Kevin Shea as “an exceptional talent from early on”. Others she admired included Cyril Buckham, Charlie Barends and David Payne. Of the trainers, George Azzie “was always there for me”, and Jackie Gorton impressed on her the vital importance to a trainer of pedigree knowledge. “And Fred Rickaby was a wonderful man and a great judge of a horse.”

A man close to her heart was the late Charlie Whittingham, the legendary American trainer who she met when he visited South Africa in 1980. The Upton and Whittingham families formed an enduring friendship. “I learned a lot from Charlie, from visiting him in the US and chatting on the phone. I could call him up at any time to discuss a horse problem.”

The last runner Anne saddled was a winner – Abernant Star, for Johannesburg’s Peter White, a loyal patron of many years. The gelding won seven races, including the 1998 Guineas Trial and the 2000 King’s Cup.

Anne left Ashburton in 2000 when Gold Circle tried to force trainers there to buy their barns. The ill-conceived plan collapsed, but when Anne inquired about returning, all boxes were taken. She decided to quit.

A great talent was lost to the game prematurely.

Anne never had more than 20 horses at any one time but was a match for the biggest trainers in the country. Indeed, she got horses to do things none of them could.

“I cannot tell you how many winners I saddled, but I know I was lucky and blessed to have this gift to train and relate to horses,” she says.

After racing, she put her energies into building up the Natal Midlands farm she bought in 1981 and sold in 2008. In retirement, she and husband Lou live on the Sakabula a golf estate at Howick, “gardening and looking after dogs”.

The couple did not have horses in training in the latter years, but Lou retained his black and green colours and Anne the all-scarlet bequeathed her by grateful owners – Major Leonard Arthur and his wife, for whom Anne trained eight-time winner Eastern Jade, among others.

Anne Upton has the gazebo shelter in the parade ring at Scottsville Racecourse named after her. But she will be best remembered as the wizard who found redemption for scores of so-called problem racehorses.

When news of her death broke, one of the first comments posted on the Sporting Post website was from David Payne, former South African jockey and now hugely successful trainer in Australia. Payne described her as “a true legend” who was a pleasure to ride for.