Tag Archives: horseracing

A Wander Down Turffontein’s Memory Lane ~ Ashleigh Hughes (Love Racing)

In July 2016, Turffontein Racecourse was awarded a prestigious Blue Plaque, by the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation. Their vision is to preserve and protect our rich and varied heritage of Johannesburg and its associated social history, for the use and enjoyment of both current and future generations.” Of course my curiosity was piqued and a bit of research into the history of the racecourse, and surrounding areas, started me on an incredible journey back in time, into the history of horse racing in Johannesburg, and how it was thoroughly intertwined with the very beginnings of our beloved “City Of Gold”.


Old Grandstand 17 December 1931  - picture which was printed in 1979

Old Grandstand 17 December 1931 – picture which was printed in 1979

The name of the racecourse is often mistakenly thought to be associated with the grass surface that the horses race on, but the name goes back way further than the beginnings of horseracing. All the way back, in fact, to the original settlers from the Great Trek in 1838. When translated directly from old Afrikaans, Turffontein means “clay fountain”. It is listed as one of the original 20 settlers farms on the Witwatersrand, on the monument erected in 1988, to honour those first families who settled in the area. Abraham Smit owned the original farm called Turffontein, and in 1886, Paul Andries Ras, a descendant of another one of original settler families, bought the farm, when a rich gold reef was discovered in the area. The “gold rush” began in earnest by then, and much of the farm was pegged off by prospectors for mining. This new influx of people started to settle in shacks in what is now the Joburg CBD, and fortunes were made literally overnight, as the rich gold resources were extracted all over the area. With this burgeoning new wealth, gambling was a very popular past time, and with horse racing being already popular in many other mining towns, it was a natural progression for it to start in the new settlement too. The original racecourse had its finishing line roughly where the intersection of Eloff and Commisioner Streets is today, and the first Johannesburg Handicap over 2 miles was run on 17 June1887 – the winner had the rather ironic name of “Second”!

The popularity of racing in the new mining town grew significantly in just a few months, and in 1888, under the guidance of the very first president of the Johannesburg Turf Club, Captain Carl von Brandis, a new site was found just a few miles away, on the farm called Turffontein. Directly opposite the main entrance to the racecourse in Turf Club Street, is a road called Von Brandis, named in honour of the Captain who was so instrumental in the setup of this new racecourse. The Town Deep mine (later called the Village Deep) was also leasing a significant portion of the now Ras owned farm, and to this day the mining tunnels run deep underground, almost 1.5km under the racecourse. December 1888 saw the very first running of the Summer Handicap, which in its current form as the Gr1 Sansui Summer Cup over 2000m, is Turffontein’s premier racing event.

Oil painting of Captain Carl von Brandis, first president of the Johannesburg Turf Club in 1887 (Africana Museum, Johannesburg)

Oil painting of Captain Carl von Brandis, first president of the Johannesburg Turf Club in 1887 (Africana Museum, Johannesburg)

The enormous stakes offered at these early racemeetings attracted horses from all over the country, and Turffontein very soon became the hub of horseracing not only in Johannesburg, but in the entire country. But in 1899, the darkest period of Turffontein’s history began. The Anglo-Boer War broke out, which caused the indefinite postponement of many races, and the British designated the racecourse as a suitable site for what would become the biggest concentration camp on the Witwatersrand. Over 5000 Boer women and children were interred on the site, and even though there was an adequate water supply at the nearby Wemmer Pan, the conditions in the camp were atrocious. The British listed over 700 deaths in the camp, which was run from 1899 to 1902, and the bodies were buried on the nearby Kliprivier Berg farm, just 5 miles away. That site, known today as the Suideroord Concentration Camp Memorial, has a vast area dedicated to remember the people who died at the Turffontein concentration camp. The 150 year Great Trek Commemoration Memorial is also on this site.

Great Trek 150 Year Commemoration Monument at the Suideroord Concentration Camp Memorial site

Great Trek 150 Year Commemoration Monument at the Suideroord Concentration Camp Memorial site

When the war ended in 1902, it was back to business, as usual, for the Johannesburg Turf Club, but this time they had competition from a number of other turf clubs, which had sprung up in Auckland Park, Germiston (Gosforth Park), as well as in Benoni and Pretoria. Over the next two decades, Turffontein grew from strength to strength, and when the Prince Of Wales (Later King Edward VIII) did a countrywide tour in 1925, a decision was made to move a racemeeting from Auckland Park to Turffontein, as the new facilities were more suitable for a Royal Visit. The new grandstand was a very impressive 3 story structure. There was a vast staired viewing area from the ground level, leading up to a very elaborately decorated first floor viewing area. The two rounded balconies were beautifully preserved when the new grandstand was built in 1974, and they are still easily recognisable as the main feature of the entire grandstand.


There is also a training facility at Turffontein, split into 2 sections. The newer wooden stables were built to accommodate the trainers moved from Newmarket and Gosforth Park, when those courses were closed down and sold. The brick barns and yards are much older though, and construction on these buildings was completed in 1979. But the training tracks in the centre of the racecourse have been around nearly as long as they have been racing there. Up until the barns were completed, trainers had their yards in the neighbouring suburbs. Their horses walked down the tar roads, to the training tracks, and gained access through a gate, opposite the intersection Of Turf Club and High Streets. Gary Alexander and Ormond Ferraris are the only two current trainers still at the training centre, who have been there since the brick stable yards were originally built. Gary’s induna Boyi Mbele, and Mr Ferraris’s induna John Sebeko have both been with their employers since they first moved into the training centre. Both Boyi and John are very close to retirement, but you’d be hard pressed to find two more competent horsemen – I’ve asked for their sage advice on many occasions!

Gary Alexander’s Induna Boyi Mbele

Gary Alexander’s Induna Boyi Mbele

Gary’s father Duncan Alexander got his trainer’s licence in the late 1970’s, after an illustrious career as a jockey. His stable yard was just 800m from the racecourse, next to the Turffontein Post Office in Stanton Road. The stables are still standing, with the corrugated iron reinforced walls still in place, although they are now used as a storage space and low cost housing. There are various other stable yards throughout the residential suburbs, which have all been repurposed, but are still the original structures – the building techniques of yesteryear have really stood up to the test of time. In 1980, the Alexander yard moved to the newly built stables, and Gary took out his own licence in 1982. He recalls horses having to walk to Gosforth Park to race. If they raced at the Vaal, they had to walk the horses down to the Springfield train station, to catch the train to Vereeniging to race! There was a gate on the north east side of the course, near the 1400m mark, allowing horses to walk down to the nearby Wemmer Pan, to take a swim or cool their legs. The stories of days of yore, are absolutely fascinating, and it is quite remarkable how things have changed in recent times.

Another fascinating site within the racecourse itself, is a small graveyard next to the irrigation dam, in the centre of the tracks. Four of the very best horses to ever race at Turffontein are buried there: Caradoc, Furious, Beau Art and Aquanaut. Each gravestone has a brass plate with their racing achievements displayed – a lovely tribute to these special racehorses. All four horses have restaurants named after them in the Turffontein grandstand, and both Caradoc and Beau Art were also Lead Horses for racedays, leading out the youngsters onto the track for each race.

Another fascinating site within the racecourse itself, is a small graveyard next to the irrigation dam, in the centre of the tracks. Four of the very best horses to ever race at Turffontein are buried there: Caradoc, Furious, Beau Art and Aquanaut. Each gravestone has a brass plate with their racing achievements displayed – a lovely tribute to these special racehorses

Four of the very best horses to ever race at Turffontein are buried there: Caradoc, Furious, Beau Art and Aquanaut.

The original Standside racecourse, is regarded by many as the best turf surface and fairest course in the country. It is a 2800m clockwise turf oval, with a 1200m chute for straight races. Around the turn, between the 1400m and 800m marks, there is a sharp rise which has a 1:15m gradient, and is known as the “Turffontein Hill”. It has caught many a new jockey out, if they allow their mounts to stride to freely up that hill! The newer Inside Course was completed in late 2002, and has a tighter turn, and a much shorter straight, very much like the now defunct Gosforth Park. Racemeetings alternate between the two courses, to allow time for the turf to recover.

When Newmarket Racecourse in Alberton closed down in 2005, night racing was transferred to Turffontein, and it is a tremendous way to spend a Tuesday night in the summer. There are various restaurants which cater for all pockets on racedays, which have traditionally been Saturdays since the inception on the racecourse, and it is a most delightful family outing on a weekend afternoon. The next two major racemeetings are The Peermont Emperor’s Palace Charity Mile Raceday, on Saturday 5 November, and the Sansui Summer Cup on Saturday 26 November. Restaurant bookings and general enquiries can be made through Isizwe Hostpitality on 011 681 1702.



A Great Start ~ Ashleigh Hughes (Love Racing)

“One must always endeavour to keep your mount as calm and composed as possible, while in the starting stalls, because this is where your race is won, or lost!”, ~ says former five-times South African Champion Jockey Mark Khan.

And a low draw and a clean, quick getaway from the gates are essential for the jockey to position a horse in a race, in order to ride the best tactical race possible. Around the world the starting stalls have various names, like “starting barriers” in Australia and New Zealand, and “starting gates” in the USA. Here in South Africa, we refer to them as the “starting stalls” or “starting pens”, and they were introduced into common use in the early 1960’s. Before that, the jockeys had to line the horses up behind “the tapes”, which were spring-lifted mechanically, by the official Starter.

Today there is still an official “Starter”, who is licensed, and employed, by the National Horseracing Authority of South Africa. It is his duty to make sure that the horses are all loaded timeously and within the rules, and to get all the horses off to a fair start in a race. Once he “presses the button”, all the totalisator outlets are automatically closed off to betting on that particular race, in order to keep things fair, from a gambling perspective. Each stall has a set of two gates in front, which are held together by an electromagnetic solenoid. Pressing the button interrupts the power holding those magnets, and the gates spring open allowing the horses to jump out the stalls

1514~(With thanks to JC Photographics for the picture)


The official Starter has a whole team of assistants down at the start of a race. The Assistant Starter will make sure that each horse is loaded into the correct stall, and which order that they must be loaded. Generally, the more nervous horses are loaded towards the end, so that they spend less time in the stalls, which could impact on their performance in the race. There are also “Handlers” at the start – a bunch of really gutsy chaps, whose job it is to actually insert the horses into their respective stalls, and jump up to hold a horse’s head and soothe him, should it be necessary. It’s a tense, adrenaline-filled 1 to 2 minutes, as the nerves of both the horses and jockeys are heightened, as they anticipate the race ahead! In spite of this, there are relatively few dangerous incidents at the start in more than 3800 races run in South Africa each year. All the surfaces are padded extensively, to reduce the possibility of injury to jockeys, horses and handlers.

There is no staggered start in a horse race, which means that the inside draws are mostly favoured. With horses drawn on the far outside, the tactics would be to go a little faster than the other horses, and get to the front so that they can dictate the pace to their own needs, and try to win from the front. Others may prefer to “drop out” to the back of the field, and run on at the end of the race, to challenge the leaders in the finish. Whatever happens, it is far from ideal to be “trapped wide” around the turn, so the speed at which the horses jumps out of the stalls is really important in making tactical decisions in a race.

Part of the official Starter’s duties are also to ensure that all racehorses have been certified as “tractable” in the starting stalls before they race. A database is maintained by the NHA, with all the Starting Stall certificates of all active racehorses, so that the Starter can check that all runners at a race meeting have a valid Starting Stalls Certificate.

Young Horses being schooled

Most young horses start their schooling at the pens between 24 and 30 months. It’s a fairly slow process, with lots of repeat visits, positive reinforcement and good experiences. In the beginning the horses are just walked through the pens, with both the front and back gates staying open, and often with no rider on their back. Handfuls of lush, green grass are a welcome reward for these young horses, which enjoy the new challenge and change in their normal routines. Repetition of these relaxed schooling sessions is essential to build their confidence, and this process can take from 3 to 6 weeks depending on the horse. All South African racehorses must acquire a Starting Stall Certificate before they are allowed to race for the first time. These certificates are valid for 60 days, and if the horse has not raced in that time, then the horse must be repassed to be recertified. Once racing, however, that certificate remains valid in perpetuity, unless the horse misbehaves on a race day, and is declared “intractable”, whereupon they must be repassed again, and proven tractable. The reason for this is because there are a number of race meetings which are simulcast worldwide, and even a small delay can cause problems with bets being placed on the race in question.

A few young horses do have an aversion to the pens – gentle coercion, and subsequent reward is generally enough to encourage them into the pens. Occasionally there are a few horses that are quite terrified of the entire process. There are various options to help these horses overcome their fears. Nobody in South Africa has quite mastered these techniques as well as Malan du Toit, dubbed the “South African Horse whisperer”. He has worked with some of the best horses in the country, including South African Horse Of The Year 2014-2015, Legislate, and 2016 South African Triple Crown winner, Abashiri. Malan travels all over the country, and is always present when his “special horses” are running. He uses a pressure halter to gain their confidence, and then his main objective is to completely desensitise the horse to the entire situation. These horses are allowed to race with the pressure halter still in place under their bridles, as there is not enough time to remove them before the gates are opened. A trainer wants his horses to be relaxed, but alert in the pens on race days, not distracted by fear and adrenaline. Sometimes larger horses develop a fear of the sides of the stalls touching them as they go in – Monty Roberts developed a specially padded “blanket”, which is draped over the horse’s hindquarters, so reduce the contact the horse has with the stalls, while inside them. The blanket is clipped onto the back gate of the stalls, and the horse will literally jump out of the blanket as he makes his start, leaving the blanket safely behind. Sometimes a blindfold also helps reduce the fear of going into the stalls, and this will also be held by a handler, and removed as the Starter opens the gates. Because it is an exceptionally high pressure situation, any special actions needed to aid the horse go into the stalls, or to stand still inside, need to be simple and quick, so as not to stress the horse any further. The Starter and his team are also aware that horses are individuals, and they are very accommodating with horses with special needs.

Malan du Toit Schooling Legislate~ Malan Du Toit schooling legislate through the pens

Occasionally an older horse gets a fright, or has a bad experience in a race, which results in the horse refusing to load, or thrashing out dangerously within the confines of the stalls, resulting in their Staring Stall Certificate will be withdrawn by the official Starter. The trainer is then required to reschool that horse, and present him back to the Starter, on the racecourse on a race day, to prove that he will be compliant and tractable if he races again. In 2014, a very talented Jallad gelding, called Meissa, had his Starting Stall Certificate withdrawn after he refused to load for a Grade 2 feature race at Turffontein Racecourse. He had raced more than 10 times before that, winning 3 of those races, and the reasons for his sudden dislike of the starting stalls are still unknown. Trainer Gary Alexander took his time to reschool him, over the following 2 months, and he was so calm and confident in the stalls upon his return, that he was loaded first of all, in every subsequent race. He raced with the “Be Nice” pressure halter on after that, and still won another 3 races, having completely overcome his fear of the starting stalls. So, with patient schooling, anything is possible!

Meissa racing with a Be Nice pressure halter~ Meissa racing with the “Be Nice” pressure halter (With thanks to JC Photographics for the picture)