Mary Slack was a worthy winner of Saturday’s Hollywoodbets Durban July at Greyville, which might sound a tad politically incorrect in some quarters, given her considerable wealth.
But context is everything. When you realise Slack put a very large amount of her own money into saving the South African horse racing industry from collapse last year, it’s hard to begrudge her victory in the country’s most famous race.
There was, of course, no standing back for the “queen” of the local turf. No one gifts anyone anything in racing – especially not the Durban July – and filly Sparkling Water and jockey S’Manga Khumalo, bearing Slack’s distinctive black and red silks, started Saturday’s big race at 16-1.
A July win is the dream of almost everyone in the local game, but Mary Slack, a lifelong racing devotee, has been less than enthusiastic about the great event. And that was even after her parents, Harry and Bridget Oppenheimer, owned six July champions.
“Now that I’ve won it, I’m completely thrilled!” she laughed afterwards.
“To be truthful, though, I’ve been a bit dismissive of the July. Firstly, it’s a handicap, which penalises the best horses. Secondly, a big field charging around Greyville is a little scary; I’ve felt a horse could easily get injured in that scrum.
“But today, I’m very excited and might have changed my views slightly.”
Slack’s reservations about the July are probably the reason she’s only had two previous runners in the race. One was Sparkling Water’s mother, Espumanti, and the other another filly, Ilha Da Vittoria. Neither had clear passages in the running and didn’t shine.
“Espumanti is a most beautiful horse and was very much above average as a racer,” says Slack.
When the mare was retired to Slack’s Wilgerbosdrift Stud at Piketberg in the Western Cape, her high quality prompted Slack and pedigree adviser Jehan Malherbe to match her to champion sire Silvano.
“You always try to breed the best to the best.”
The result was another “best” – the 2022 Durban July winner.
“Sparkling Water is an exceptional horse, as we saw. She’ll have a holiday now, but I’ve decided to keep her in training for another year,” revealed the owner-breeder.
“I imagine we’ll try for the Summer Cup and maybe go to Cape Town (for the Cape Town Met in January 2023).”
Master trainer Mike de Kock saddled Espumanti for her six career victories, so Slack sent him the promising juvenile to prepare for the track.
Before the July, De Kock publicly expressed confidence in Sparkling Waters – one of four runners from his Randjesfontein stables. However, he didn’t oversell her chances.
“Mike didn’t say outright she was the choice, but I did know he expected her to do well.”
Sparkling Waters’ memorable day came just weeks after Slack led in a winner at Royal Ascot – three-year-old colt Claymore, who beat Queen Elizabeth’s hot favourite Reach For The Moon in the Group 3 Hampton Court Stakes.
No gift for the queen
“That was quite remarkable,” confesses Slack, who has only recently started racing horses in the UK and has just two in training. Both have won.
“I was astonished. The only way is up now,” she jokes.
On beating the monarch and foiling the bets of millions of her subjects, Slack says: “I was a bit sorry about that. But you can’t gift the queen a race!”
After South Africa’s biggest racing operator, Phumelela, collapsed in 2020, Slack and her daughters, through their business operation Mary Oppenheimer Daughters, put R650-million into the business rescue and a new company. This effectively saved the industry and its tens of thousands of dependents.
Asked her thoughts on the future, Slack says: “Well, I’m more optimistic than in the Phumelela days. Racing was on the brink. I don’t think anyone realised how close to extinction it came. If it had gone on like that, wasting so much money, we wouldn’t have had anything left by now.”
Though the July and other KwaZulu-Natal racing are managed by a different operator, Gold Circle, most racing people don’t believe it – or Cape Town racing – would have survived a Phumelela total collapse.
Slack has no position in the new operator, 4Racing, despite bankrolling its start-up.
“I have no input, no influence, and nor would I want any,” she says.
Her wish is simply for the new managers to fix things. “They need to fix the basic things – infrastructure, betting, digitalisation – clean up the admin.”
She also hints at a possible exciting development: a new racecourse to the north of Johannesburg.
In addition, Slack is fulsome in her praise for Hollywoodbets, the betting firm that has stepped in as just the third sponsor of the Durban July.
“I was super-impressed with the Hollywoobets’ staging of the event. I have wonderful photos of Sparkling Water after she won on Saturday, with thousands and thousands of happy, excited people in the background. Hollywoodbets did an absolutely fantastic job to make that possible!”