Ni­chol­son re­calls the old days at the races

Weekend Argus (Sunday Edition) - - NEWS -

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.

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