Nicholson recalls the old days at the races
IF YOU were to ask retired racehorse trainer Johnny Nicholson to choose the best year of his life, it would probably be 1980.
That was the year his sixyear-old champion stayer, Beau Art at 8-1, won the Durban July on its fourth try. It was a champagne occasion, too, for jockey Freddie Macaskill, who celebrated his 26th birthday on the same day, July 5.
The tote win pool 27 years ago was R549 494, which was small fry compared to today’s multimillion rand win pools.
“There are no words to describe the feeling of watching the horse you have nurtured and trained, win the July,” said Nicholson, who retired 14 years ago. “Every trainer dreams of this moment, but to be one of the lucky ones, wow, it still gives me goosebumps to think about it.”
Aged 77, the former Grand National steeple-chaser and three-time equestrian phaseeventer champion, still follows horse racing. He knows the lineage of just about every horse that’s ever entered a race track.
Given the chance to recall the history of the Durban July, he was happy to oblige.
“First we have to remember that in the early days, racing in South Africa was looked upon as a sport and recreation. Today, it is a vibrant multimillion rand industry, so the dynamics are very different,” Nicholson said.
He opens the curtains on a typical July of the 1970s and early 1980s, when Bridget Oppenheimer, fondly known as Mrs O, Peter Maxwell, Terrence Millard, Syd Laird and Peter Duffy would mingle with the punters, while picnic sites were a joyous mix of crayfish, champagne and friends getting together for a race-day splurge.
A well-known personality on the course would have been Ernie Duffield – binoculars in hand – who did the commentary for 29 consecutive Julys, and created Duff’s Turf Guide, the forerunner for today’s Computaform. “Today, you don’t see the numbers of smartly dressed race-goers on course like you used to,” said Nicholson. “They are either tucked away in the boxes upstairs or in VIP tents, which they seldom leave. “I do miss that exclusive stylish element and talking to punters on the courses that knew their racing. Of course, there were always the outrageous fashions and those who wore no more than goose-bumps, but that was part of the fun.” “If you asked one of the young models you see these days parading their flamboyant designer clothes for a comment on the horses, I don’t think they would have a clue, but maybe I am being a bit harsh,” he added. But back to the early memories: “Well, the first thing that heralded the big day was the fleet of brown and cream of Medwood floats, gleaming in the morning light, transporting the horses from Summerveld down Fields Hill to Greyville.
“The big excitement was when the floats containing the July horses arrived almost like royalty with flags and bunting. The owner of Medwoods, Eddie Bath, drove the float himself with a pair of traffic cops leading it.”
The dress code now is not strict, added Nicholson, who remembered when a woman’s outfit had a gorgeous hat, and men wore hats, jackets and ties and carried binoculars.
“Apart from the Jockey Club stipendiary stewards, there were even race-course detectives watching out for any inappropriate behaviour,” he said. “We used to refer to the fair-haired ones as James Blondes!”
What about a return to training? “No. I think I had some of the golden years. I always like to think that the first priority is the welfare of the horse, and sometimes that can get overlooked.”
On that score, Nicholson would like to see a better policy for young horses, as well as a restriction of certain medications to horses under the age of four.
“Oh yes, and what about a return of the flags for the arriving July runners. They are the ones that really need celebrating. They are the real heroes of the day,” he said.
Former racehorse trainer Johnny Nicholson, 77, with a picture of Beau Art, which has pride of place in his home. A young Nicholson, right, in the 1970s.