Summer Cup Day: Joburg’s greatest race and six other feature races



Mike de Kock
Summer Cup king . . . trainer Mike de Kock

History: The Summer Cup is nearly as old as Johannesburg and it's fitting the race is run at a venue that overlooks the city's landmark mine dumps.

These dumps form an integral part of the history of the Summer Cup. Well into the 1880s news about the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand resulted in an influx of people desperately seeking fortune. They came from all walks of life in coaches and ox wagons, as well as on foot and horseback.

Johannesburg was then a bleak region dotted with the occasional marsh, but what those who settled had in common was that they were prepared to gamble their lives on the chance of making a quick fortune.

The first horseracing in Joburg took place in December 1886 and the inaugural Summer Cup was run the following year as the Johannesburg Handicap. The race was won by outsider Haco, a five-year-old trained by Mr Du Plessis and ridden by J Bundy. Second, the 13-8 favourite, finished fourth.

No one could have imagined that from its humble beginning the Summer Cup would become one of SA's most famous racing events. In its heyday the Summer Cup was the highlight of the Johannesburg feature-race season and one of the city's social events of the year.

But after Cape challenger King's Guard's victory in 1971, the name of the race was changed to accommodate a sponsor. As the years rolled by further changes to the name, conditions and date diminished the event's glitter and it eventually became the Champion Stakes, run in April. In 1999 horseracing and tote betting company Phumelela reintroduced the Summer Cup to the racing calendar in its traditional format and the event is now firmly established as one of the “Big 4” on the country’s racing calendar.

Many famous horses have won down the years and they include Pamphlet (1917), Lenin (1940), Cuff Link (1963), Caradoc (1966) and Home Guard (1970).

One horse who really grabbed attention was Java, trained by Jack Butler. He pulled off a remarkable Summer Cup hat-trick from 1956 as a four-year-old before going on to claim the honours again the following two years.

Elevation was to repeat those exploits almost 20 years later. Trained by the inimitable George Azzie, the chestnut landed his first victory in 1972, when the race was run as the Holiday Inns for the first time. He went on to score again in 1973 before completing a fantastic hat-trick under a big weight in 1974.

Trainer Mike de Kock has won the race a record nine times with six of those victories coming since the race's reintroduction.


Go Elevation . . . the King of Turffontein


Elevation        George Azzie
Elevation (left) and George Azzie (right)

Robert Garner

Many equine greats have raced at Turffontein Racecourse, home of the Summer Cup, down the decades but none deserve the title "King of Turffontein" more than Elevation.

This long-striding chestnut is one of only two horses to have won the Summer Handicap three years running.

The first was Java (1956-58) and Elevation followed in his footsteps nearly 20 years later. He won the race from 1972 to 1974, the first three years in which the race was run as the Holiday Inns.

Turffontein is the fairest and toughest racecourse in South Africa. From the bend at the 1400m mark, the track rises 12 metres before joining the main straight at the 800m mark.

This steep climb followed by the long main straight tests a horse's stamina and courage to the limit, especially in races over 2000m and beyond. It's a test many horses fail, but not Elevation who had no equal over the Turffontein 2000m.

Elevation was a leggy yearling, but top trainer George Azzie went to R24,000 to buy him on behalf of famous international owner Charles Engelhard at the 1970 National Yearling Sale.

Elevation won three of five starts as a two-year-old, including defeating, among others, two other future champions in Sentinel and In Full Flight in the Administrator's Champion Juvenile Stakes at Greyville.

Elevation's principal success as a three-year-old came in the SA Derby over 2450m at Turffontein. He was pipped by Mast Ahoy in a no-holds-barred duel that continued after the line with James Maree on Mast Ahoy unseating Martin Schoeman on Elevation.

Elevation ducked and brought down Mast Ahoy with the result that both jockeys were on their way to hospital, when an objection on behalf of Elevation against Mast Ahoy was upheld.

Engelhard died not long after the Derby and Elevation was bought for a then record R42,000 at a sale by Eric Gallo and Dennis Mosenthal.

He stayed in training with Azzie and later that year showed stunning versatility to first win a 1000m sprint at Gosforth Park before capturing the inaugural running of the Holiday Inns, in which he defeated stablemate Pedlar with Mazarin third.

A year later he saw off KwaZulu-Natal challengers Cast Away and Yataghan to win the race for the second time and completed an amazing hat trick in the 1974 Holiday Inns.

The conditions of the race were changed that year and Elevation found himself with 60,5kg to shoulder, a task which most pundits reckoned was beyond him.

Elevation made light of the weight in the race itself and stormed through from behind to beat Queen Of All, to whom he was conceding 11,5kg, by 1.50 lengths.

He was retired to stud soon afterwards and proved a great success as a sire. He won the South African Sires Championship in the 1984-85 season, one of only two SA-bred horses to do so in the 20th century.


Three-year-olds in the Cup

Robin Bruss

Caradoc was the last three-year-old to win the Johannesburg Summer Handicap, trained by George Azzie, back in 1966.

He carried just 98lbs (45kg) and beat seven-year-old Dr John (53 kg). He wasn't the only three-year-old to win for George Azzie, as he had also won the race in 1962 with three-year-old Numeral, who also carried 7 stone (98lbs or 45kg). In those days the scale of weights went from 9 stone (57kg) down to 45kg.

Weight is a big factor in determining the outcome of races and in the earlier days of the Summer Cup, when the long handicap applied, three-year-olds fared well.

The first three-year-old to win was Polinique in 1925, who carried the postage stamp of 38kg. In the 1930s, four three-year-olds won and three of them carried low weights - Stay Melody (49kg), Glolite (50.5kg), and Golden Apron (48.5kg).

The amazing Lenin (Sunstone-Drohsky) won as a three-year-old in 1940 carrying 55kg. It was a victory for the ages. He came into the race having won seven of his nine starts, of which six had been stakes races. He had won the Champion Stakes over 1800m at Greyville by four lengths before he turned three and prepped for the Summer Handicap by winning the Natal Guineas by five lengths and the Benoni Guineas by 10 lengths.

He won the Summer Handicap by 0.50 lengths from four-year-old Spanish Armada on 11kg worse terms than weight-for-age. Lenin won 18 races in his career - 16 of them stakes races - and such was his dominance that he won the 1200m Merchants Handicap with record top weight of 65kg and the Transvaal Handicap (now the Gold Bowl) over 3200m carrying record 65kg.

These victories led to the belief that three-year-olds with low weights were too well treated, and in the 1940s weights were higher and none won the race.

In the 1950s, three-year-olds had light weights again and there were three winners, namely Ossian (1950 - 46kg), Flash On (1952 - 45kg) and Nagaina Hall (1954 - 48kg).

After the weight scale was reduced in the 1970s, three-year-olds stopped running in the Summer Cup altogether. The race subsequently underwent a variety of changes to its name, date and conditions and during that period two three-year-olds were successful - Enchanted Garden with 49.5kg in 1986 and Empress Club with 52.5kg in 1992. The race was resurrected in its traditional format by Phumelela in 1999 with another famous Joburg race, the Dingaans, put in place as the main supporting feature. In 2018 the Dingaans was scheduled the weekend prior to the Summer Cup.

The Dingaans was first run in 1920 when it was won by five-year-old called Make Believe, the Dingaans Plate was for many years a race for measured horses of all ages. In 1950 it was decided to phase out Pony and Galloway racing and the Dingaans Plate of 1954 was the last race for measured horses.

For the next five years it was a fixed-weight plate for three-year-olds, becoming a handicap from 1960 onwards. Since 1984 the race has been run at level weights with a sex allowance for fillies.

The race was run over 1800m for a time (1969 and then from 1976 to 1983). It has undergone several name changes down the years because of sponsorships. In 1963 it was run as the Players’ Gold Leaf Handicap and for the next three years as the State Express 555 Handicap.

The race is now firmly established on the calendar as the first major feature race of the season for three-year-olds. Past winners include Riboville, Politician, London News and Horse Chestnut.


Event details: In its heyday the Summer Cup was the highlight of Joburg's horseracing feature-race season and one of the city’s social events of the year. Since Phumelela reintroduced the race in 1999, its stature has grown and the race has again become one of the “Big 4” on the South African racing calendar, the others being the Vodacom Durban July in Durban, the Sun Met in Cape Town and the President's Champions Challenge at Turffontein.


Feature races:

R2,000,000 The Gauteng Summer Cup 2000m Grade 1
R500,000 TAB/Betting World Dingaans 1600m Grade 2
R350,000 New Turf Carriers Merchants 1160m Grade 2
R350,000 World Sports Betting Ipi Tombe Challenge 1600m Grade 2
R200,000 Gauteng Tourism Authority Magnolia Handicap 1160m Grade 3
R150,000 Racing Association Handicap 3200m Listed

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