Almanack: Racing rescued by veld touch

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The Independent Online
THE past week has been a dismal one for Britain's betting-shop punters, as meeting after meeting has succumbed to The Big Chill. But one ray of sunlight has illuminated the frosty scene in bookies' parlours: live horse racing from sunny South Africa.

Not every racing aficionado approves of this innovation - indeed, one described it to Almanack as 'punter-fodder beamed in to keep us awake' - but those who know the real thing rave about the beauty of the flower-bedecked course at Clairwood Park and grow misty-eyed recalling post-race whisky and biltong (air-dried meat) sessions. It sounds more glamorous than a wet Tuesday at Sedgefield.

The coverage is brought to us by SIS, racing's own broadcasters, who switched to South Africa when live racing from Hong Kong failed to excite the punters. 'We heard about it some years ago from bookmakers who'd been to South Africa on holiday,' says SIS's racing director Terry Ellis. 'They said that the racing there was good, and as close as they'd seen to British conditions anywhere.' The advantages of racing from South Africa are threefold: they are two hours ahead of British time, so live racing starts at mid-morning our time and dovetails nicely with the beginning of our own programme (the bits of it that aren't deep-frozen); South Africa has on-course bookmakers rather than a Tote monopoly, so that odds can be relayed directly to our offices without having to be converted; and the average November day at Turffontein looks like high summer at Ascot.

But there remains a nagging doubt. Is it socially and politically acceptable to wager on horse racing in South Africa? 'They're bloody proud of their racing,' avers Peter Burnand, a racing consultant and regular visitor to the country, 'and one of the great features of it is that anybody, of whatever class and colour and creed, can go wherever they like.' To double check, Almanack seeks the guidance of the ANC. Do they approve of horse racing? 'Ah, that's part of gambling, right?' says Ronnie Mamwoepa from their offices in Johannesburg, 'and I think we'll have to have a closer look at all these forms of paid lottery and gambling . . . it's an economic matter.' Does Ronnie like a flutter? 'No, I am not a gambler,' he says, disapprovingly.

So the only controversy associated with South African racing is economic - a topic that will be familiar to any regular visitor to a turf accountant. So what about picking winners? 'You guys must be really in the dark,' smirks David Mollett, racing man at the Johannesburg Sunday Times. Can he enlighten us - a few names to look out for the next time we're snowed off? 'Well, the champion jockey at the moment is Pier Strydom. Invariably he makes 'is charge from the beck, a la Piggott but not quite the same telent. Jeff Lloyd rode 313 winners in the season before last, e's beck from Hong Kong on 8 December. And Dougie Whyte is joint top in the jockeys' log with Strydom. Trainers? You've got Ormond Ferraris, and Tony Millard, who won the championship in 'is first season as a trainer . . . and Pat Shaw has a good punting stable.'

There you have it - but please don't write to Almanack if the above fail to storm home. One thing that South African racing does have in common with its British counterpart is unpredictability.

(Photograph omitted)