And then there were four. The number of trainers at Philippi has dropped to the lowest that any of the present trainers can remember. The only ones left are Brett Crawford, Mike Robinson, Mohammed Allie and Justin Snaith who has his own place across the road but rents a 30-box yard and makes use of the facilities.
“When I started training (in 1974) the place was at the height of its popularity and it was full,” recalls Stan Elley. “I had to take a yard down the road and I had my name down on a waiting list for what seemed forever. When I did eventually get in there were ten trainers and there were still six or seven when I finished in 2015.”
Robinson moved to Philippi from a private trainer’s job at Drakenstein to become a public trainer in 2013. He mentally ticks off those who are there no longer – “Stephen Page emigrated (to Australia where he now assists Winx’s trainer Chris Waller), Stan retired and so did Carl Burger and now Riaan van Reenen has joined Glen Puller.”
Crawford set up shop there in 2009 with not much more than an empty stable and a huge reputation. He has built on the latter and now has one of the biggest and most powerful strings in the country. If ever Philippi needed an advertisement, his success is it.
“The tracks are the best in Cape Town,” says Robinson who operates with a string of 30. “They are all sand and we have a light track and a heavy one plus an 800m circular one that we use for hacking. The horses love the sand, the open spaces and there being plenty of room.”
Elley indicates that he also considers it better than Milnerton and adds: “The tracks are better and, while it may not be aesthetically pleasing, the fact is that horses thrive there.”
“The tracks are the kindest in the country. It’s virtually impossible to break a horse down on them,” says Chris Snaith. “And look how well Dennis Drier does from there every Cape season.”
So why has it become unpopular? “I don’t think it has,” says Robinson. “It’s just that the numbers have been dropping. We need to persuade more owners to bring their horses here,” and he adds, tongue in cheek, “but not to Brett and Justin – they have got enough!”
Van Reenen’s decision to hand in his licence was based on economics and has triggered a flood of website suggestions about limiting the number of horses that a trainer should be allowed and, even worse, the number than any one owner can have with a single trainer. Any such move would surely sour the bigger owners at a time when racing needs them like never before.
Unless he is unbelievably good, a trainer needs to be a salesman and his principal product is himself (or herself). “Horses don’t come to you, you have to go out looking for owners,” says Chris Snaith whose lessons have been learned over almost half a century that includes the 1991 July winner Flaming Rock. “You also have to give your owners the information about their horses that they are looking for. If you don’t, they will move them to someone who will.”
By Michael Clower