Cape Racing marked the Cape Town Met, plus 140 years of excitement and drama – involving every emotion from delight to despair, with the launch of a new logo.

The refreshing logo – it includes a thoroughbred and Table Mountain – is more important than you might think.

“It represents something new-age and modern, in keeping with us moving forward and trying to engage with the younger generation,” says events, sponsorships and marketing director Donovan Everitt, one of the driving forces behind the present emphasis on improvement of owners’ and punters’ experience at Kenilworth. “You won’t miss it because it will be everywhere: flags, billboards, social media – you name it, you will see it.”

Designer Karesh Rampathi of Incence Brand, predictably, sees it more artistically: “We had to define Cape Racing’s north star in a compelling and differentiating way, and come up with a brand like no other, as well as being 21st century and inclusive.”

Hopefully it will bring back memories of the great stars, both equine and human, that have graced this wonderfully-tended broad expanse of green turf, a fitting stage for any racing theatre.

It was built in 1881 and took over from the old course in another part of Kenilworth the following year when it shared the Cape Town fixtures with the racecourse on Green Point Common. However that venue folded a decade later as the emphasis became more and more on the Rosmead Avenue course.

It made history, legal as well as sporting, when racecourse secretary Graham Cloete introduced a tote for the 1887 Met. The bookmakers, up in arms at what they saw as illegal competition, went to the police to get Cloete arrested. He was charged, put on trial and found guilty. The judge, who seemingly didn’t share the layers’ views on the seriousness of the offence, dismissed any suggestion of a prison sentence and fined him one sovereign. Admittedly that’s a fair bit more than you might imagine – roughly the equivalent of R260 000 at today’s prices!    

But the controversial Cloete again upset the bookies in 1904 by informing Tattersalls that none of its members would be granted a licence for Kenilworth the following year. This time the objections went further and at a special meeting of the South African Turf Club one member stood up and said: “A racecourse with no bookmaker is like Hamlet without the prince.” Cloete won the day but attendances suffered until his decision was eventually reversed.

The 1905 Met was remarkable for the Chief Constable taking out the favourite in a dramatic mid-race accident. Police chief Hancock was watching the race from the sidelines on horseback. In its excitement his horse tried to join in, dashed out onto the course and into the path of the favourite. Punters were furious and Hancock was left red-faced.

The Met seemed to attract unwelcome drama. In 1929 the pilot of a light aircraft repeatedly circled the start, upsetting the horses and delaying the race for some 20 minutes. Soupcon, the favourite, got himself into a muck sweat and ran way below form. Big-time owner Albert Lavenstein had backed his horse to win a fortune and declared: “This is the end of racing for me and I will never have another bet.” And apparently he never did.

The prophets of doom had a field day in the early years when accounts spoke of the course being marred by “hard patches and sand.” In 1892 Captain Hayes, author of Among Horses in South Africa, was so unimpressed with Kenilworth that he wrote: “Not even the three-card trick and other such games can save racing in the Cape from dying.”

Compare that with British journalist Nick Godfrey, writing in his 2017 book Postcards from the World of Horse Racing, and summing up Kenilworth: “Believe the hype – an outstanding place to go racing.”

The memories of Cape Town’s oldest trainer Billy Prestage – he will be 86 this month – go back further than most. “I was 14 or 15 when I first went there and, strictly speaking, I wasn’t allowed in (as is the case today, you had to be 18) but I had a lot of fun riding in amateur races and in some hurdle races.”

Believe it or not, there used to be steeplechases at Kenilworth in the early days and at one time there was even one on Met day. Jean Jaffee, writing in her wonderful book They Raced To Win, reported that one fallen jockey in 1905 “was left writhing on the ground.”  

Prestage remembers 1953, albeit for the wrong reasons: “The stand was burned down!”

Kenilworth was closed for a year while a new one was built, and its races run at Milnerton. The same had been the case during the Second World War when the military took over Kenilworth.

The course also has a place in South African aviation history. Two days after Christmas in 1911 pilot Evelyn Driver, in a Bleriot monoplane, took off into the South-Easter up the straight and flew the 13k to Muizenberg carrying almost 2 600 specially-made postcards. It was the country’s first airmail flight. He promptly returned with mail for the Kenilworth area.

But it’s the equine stars, and those most closely connected with them, who have gone down in racing history. Arguments rage about which were the best horses. Almost throughout the 140 years the two biggest races at the course have been the Met and the Queen’s/King’s Plate. The race’s title has changed with the sex of Britain’s reigning monarch and both Queen Elizabeth II and her father, King George VI, have been racing at Kenilworth.

In terms of race victories Pocket Power comes out on top, winning four Plates and three Mets. But many rate Horse Chestnut, eight length-plus winner of the 1999 Met, even better while some old-timers put dual scorer Politician on top. Empress Club and the legendary Sea Cottage (two Queen’s Plates) also have their supporters.

In the Plate Anton Marcus stands alone among the jockeys with seven victories and he has also three times won the Met. Stanley Amos tops that particular list with six, one more than Jeff Lloyd and Ted Shaw whose victories came between 1906 and 1921.  

Mike Bass, Pocket Power’s trainer, won the Plate six times altogether plus five Mets. The legendary Terrance Millard won both races four times while Syd Laird won six Plates and three Mets. 

The new logo and the future have a lot to live up to but, if the past is any guide – and it usually is, Cape Racing has a wealth of action, thrills and high drama on its agenda.

And that’s not all that’s coming. “In addition to ensuring that the sport of horse racing is maintained at a world class standard in the Cape, we want to make it more accessible and more viewable to more people,” said chairman Bradley Ralph.

  “We aim to make the racecourse experience something for everybody, not just for box and suite holders, and the big focus areas are going to be betting, racing, marketing and development. We have to explore all avenues and look at what makes business sense. The reality is that we can’t survive on racing alone.

  “Punters are part of the lifeblood – without turnover, and the margins we make on that, we wouldn’t be able to pay stakes or even put on a racemeeting – but overall we don’t appreciate them enough. We have to start to improve their experience, both from an online and an instore perspective, with things like wifi in all branches and publications available as data in all outlets.”

  And Ralph wants to know what you think – “Ours is not a closed-door society, our racecourses are for the people of the Cape, and we are open to suggestions and ideas. Indeed we would welcome them.”

Words: Michael Clower

Photos: Lauren Rautenbach