/ 7 February 2024

How popular is horse racing in South Africa right now?

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Former President Jacob Zuma greets jockeys before the Vodacom Durban July.

Despite challenges, the big races are still enormous, colourful social events 

Horse racing is one of the most popular sports in the world, reaching almost every corner of the planet. And while you might think that the UK, US and Japan are the leading horse racing industries, they are not alone.

We can see traces of horse racing as a popular sport in most regions where the UK had colonies, and Africa is one of them. Now, if you focus only on the Kentucky Derby, let me tell you, there are a lot of exciting races worldwide that might not get as much attention as the big Kentucky event, but they are still worth the watch.

Horse racing is quite popular in Africa, particularly South Africa, with many races, some great horse racing venues, and a lot of passion.

But let’s dive deeper into the sport’s popularity in South Africa and find out more about its current state, as well as the future of the sport in the region.

The history of horse racing in South Africa

Horse racing has a long history in South Africa, with formal races dating back to 1795, when British administration was initially established in the Cape. Early South African horses, known as “Capers” performed well when shipped to India, where they were utilised for racing and army remounts.

Capers continued to play a part in early South African races until around 1860, when they were displaced by thoroughbreds and, in certain circumstances, Australian Walers. A handful of South African-bred horses made their way to Australasia, where they helped build some of the early colonial families.

Lord Charles Somerset’s arrival in 1814 provided a significant boost to Cape Racing. Somerset, for whom a well-known Cape juvenile feature is called, established a government stud and imported a large number of thoroughbred stallions and mares to help increase local bloodstock.

Just 11 years after Somerset’s arrival, South Africa had at least 10 colonial racing grounds, with Port Elizabeth (which created its own turf club in 1857) emerging as a local racing hotspot. The Jockey Club began in Port Elizabeth in 1882.

The South African Jockey Academy, South Africa’s sole school that provides academic instruction to prospective jockeys, was established in 1958. Since then, the institution has produced a legion of outstanding apprentices and jockeys, with alumni including Michael Roberts, John Gorton, Jeff Lloyd and Pierre Strydom.

Horse racing in South Africa

South Africa is a horse racing hotspot, hosting some of the world’s most renowned horse racing events. Here are some of the biggest horse racing events held in South Africa.

Vodacom Durban July

Many people mistake this for a fashion event if they do not see the fierce horse races on the 2 200m track. 

This race has drawn hundreds of competitors dressed in magnificent costumes, making it no less than a historical spectacle. 

When attending this race, supporters often wear the brightest costumes they own. It is as popular in South Africa as the Kentucky Derby betting by TwinSpires is in the United States. Durban is the go to place to watch and wager on horse racing.

The Gauteng Summer Cup

The Gauteng Summer Cup is unquestionably one of Africa’s most prominent horse racing competitions. This festival was launched in 1887 and has since grown to be one of Gauteng’s most colourful and magnificent events. 

This is also a horse race with some distinctive characteristics. The reason for this is that it is the only horse racing day that includes a mid-time show as well as prize money of up to R2 million for snatch activities.

The Sun Met

The Sun Met is an annual horse race held at Kenilworth Racecourse. The event has been termed Africa’s Richest Race Day, with the victor receiving a prize of up to R3 million. 

The inaugural race was conducted at Green Point in 1883, and it was one mile long. Initially, the event was known as the Metropolitan Mile. The track length was increased to 2 000m in 1948 and remains so today.

L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate

The L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate is another great horse racing event held in South Africa, which takes place at Kenilworth Racecourse. Unlike other horse races, this one has specific standards, for blue and white apparel. 

The L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate was established in 1861 and is one of Africa’s oldest horse racing events. Currently, the winner of this tournament receives R1.5 million.

Current challenges

The most serious issues in South African horse racing originate from a lack of investment and strategic direction. Many old racetracks have deteriorated significantly owing to decades of neglect. 

Modernising these facilities necessitates significant capital investments that have yet to materialise. This has impacted the delivery of pleasurable experiences to fans and tourists. Declining betting revenues have also reduced prize money and operational budgets for races of all sizes.

The future of horse racing in South Africa

Fortunately, all is not lost for the sport of kings in South Africa. The country’s weather and terrain are perfect for producing and racing thoroughbreds. 

Furthermore, the Durban and Johannesburg Turf Clubs provide solid foundations for future expansion. South Africa has also produced world-class champions on the track, demonstrating huge potential. The social and fashion scene at key race days underlines racing’s enduring popularity.