A potentially serious situation was diffused at Turffontein on Saturday when racing officials persuaded a group of about 50 protestors assembled on the racetrack to leave the course so that racing could continue following its interruption after the second race on Champions Day.
While racing resumed after a delay of about an hour – the result of a grooms’ protest against working conditions – one sad and unfortunate consequence was the decision by veteran trainer Ormond Ferraris to hand in his license.
The 87-year old Ferraris, upset and severely stressed by the grooms’ actions, had to be taken to hospital for a check-up and observation when his staff decided to desert the yard around 4am on Saturday morning. He was released on Saturday afternoon and told Turf Talk on Sunday: “I have made my decision, I am giving up training.”
Grooms prevented horses from cantering up the straight before the start of the third race.
Ferraris, who has served the horseracing industry with great distinction for 70 years, said that trainers at Turffontein were aware of the pending strike on Friday. “I arranged with my 20 grooms to come to work Saturday at 3am, an hour earlier, so they could attend their meeting which was scheduled for 5am.
“All I wanted them to do was the bedding, and to feed and water the horses. Just a few came along at three but soon disappeared leaving me and my Head Lad of 40 years, John Sibeko, to get by on our own. I was distressed, they had to take me to the Union Clinic but I am feeling better now. This is it, this is the third protest action of this nature we’ve had to endure recently and I am not prepared to put up with this any longer. I am out.”
Ferraris said that there were “troublemakers” in the grooms’ ranks who have stirred up the rest with a variety of demands, including higher wages and for an office to be allocated to one of their faction officials at Turffontein.
“I would love to pay the grooms what they want, big salaries, but it is simply not possible. The sport of racing cannot sustain this. The costs of feeding and training horses today are astronomical and stakes haven’t increased in proportion to the high expenses. The few millionaires in racing can afford it, but I fear for the middle man, the smaller owner. This kind of pressure is going to hit them and the smaller stables the hardest. They are battling to feed themselves, let alone their horses. There is just no way they can survive!”
Ferraris recalled when he first started: “In those days, training racehorses was a relatively cheap profession. We could buy 150 pounds of feed for just 10 shillings and our workers were paid well because everything was affordable. In the 60s and 70s the big trainers had 30 horses in their stables, the smaller ones had 10 or 12, but we all made a good living. We raced twice a week and the sport was simply great. But the good times are over now.“Today, costs are out of hand and this has had various ramifications. Racing is in trouble with escalating expenses and all the demands from workers. Look at the outcome of this issue. I have 10 horses leaving tomorrow for Durban. They are owned by Hong Kong Syndicates who want to see their runners in barrier trials. My son David sent them a list of KZN trainers and they decided on Garth Puller. A further 20 horses will be sent to other trainers. Thereafter, my grooms will be paid off. They will be unemployed.”
Reflecting on his career, Ferraris said: “I’ve had a marvellous time, I wouldn’t have it any other way. To come to the end of my career in this way is disappointing, to use a moderate word. But perhaps making the break, seeing things from the outside without involvement will be good for my health.”
Phumelela’s Racing Executive, Patrick Davis, said that Saturday’s strike had nothing to do with the racing operator. “We are not going to comment on the matter at this stage, it happened as a result of friction between grooms’ factions. We will, however, be issuing a statement in the course of next week.”
Vee Moodley, CEO of the National Horseracing Authority, said that he, too, preferred not comment at this point and referred us back to Davis.
– Turf Talk