the future of racing in South Africa has been thrown into doubt after white trainers said they could be forced to abandon the sport following a racially tinged confrontation with their black grooms.
A row over pay turned violent last week after stable hands smashed down gates and tore down fences at South Africa’s biggest training yard, forcing farmers to barricade stables to protect themselves and their horses for nearly three days.
The grooms, participating in a strike called by South Africa’s most radical political party, chanted militant songs, according to Mike de Kock, a celebrated South African trainer, who said his family, staff and horses had been threatened with death.
He and other trainers said they had to force their way through a picket line of 300 weapon-wielding grooms in order to gain access to the North Rand Training Centre 25 miles north of Johannesburg, where more than 700 horses are stabled.
“We had to push our way through men armed to the teeth with dangerous weapons, such as metal stakes, poles, spades to get through the stables,” he said. “We feared for our own safety and for the horses and slept with them for two nights to ensure they were ok.”
Had the trainers not reached the stables, the horses would not have been fed or watered, trainers said, adding that the grooms had also threatened to turn the horses loose.
Earlier this month he said he was not calling for the killing of the country’s white minority, before adding the caveat: “at least for now. I can’t guarantee the future.”
It was almost inevitable that South Africa’s horse racing scene, which dates back two centuries, would become a target for Mr Malema.
Few industries in the post-apartheid era have less ethnic diversity. The country has few black trainers and owners, giving the sport a reputation of being white and elitist.
An unofficial South African Grooms’ Association was poorly supported and collapsed. One groom at stables north of Johannesburg, who asked not to be named, said: “We paid money to them every month but we stopped paying because they did nothing for us.
“Some grooms are not paid properly. But we don’t want to lose our jobs.”
Peter Naidoo, an owner, who has raced in Dubai, said: “We can’t have a repeat of what happened last week. We have no national grooms’ association or union, and trainers and owners approached me this week and I will form one with the support of everyone.
“We have to do something or our beloved industry will collapse. It is true a few trainers did underpay, and that will stop. Believe me. We have had so many upliftment programmes but we must do more.”
While conceding that some trainers underpaid and overworked grooms, Mr de Kock insisted that most of the industry’s 3,000 stable hands were well looked after.
Mr de Kock, who has trained winners around the world, including the UK, has threatened to cut his string of horses by 40 per cent and that his stable was “seriously considering our position in South African racing”.
The crisis forced the cancellation of races in South Africa last week. Although a pay deal was later reached with grooms’ representatives, many fear lasting damage has now been done.
Geoff Woodruff, another trainer, said he had received several reports of owners wanting to give up racing in South Africa, raising fears that the sport could die out entirely.
Horse racing in Africa’s former British colonies is in steep decline, barely clinging on in Kenya and Zimbabwe. Even before the present crisis, racing was struggling in South Africa, with fewer meetings and smaller purses.