Mary Slack was a worthy winner of Saturday’s Hollywoodbets Durban July tournament in Grayville, which may seem a bit politically incorrect in some circles given her considerable fortune.
But context is everything. When you realize that Slack put so much of her own money into saving South Africa’s horse racing industry from collapse last year, it’s hard to envy her. victory in the country’s most famous race.
The “queen” of the local field, of course, had no chance to retreat. No one gives anything to anyone in racing – especially Durban July – and filly Soda Water and jockey S’Manga Khumalo, dressed in distinctive black and red Slack silks, started Saturday’s big race 16-1.
A July victory is the dream of almost everyone involved in the local game, but Mary Slack, a lifelong racing fan, is not thrilled about this great event. And that’s even after her parents, Harry and Bridget Oppenheimer, owned six July champions.
“Now that I’ve won it, I’m ecstatic!” she laughed afterwards.
“However, to be honest, I was a little dismissive of July. First, it is a handicap that penalizes the best horses. Secondly, the large field around Greyville is a little intimidating; I felt that the horse could easily get hurt in this fight.
“But today I am very excited and may have changed my views a bit.”
Slack’s reservations about July are likely the reason she only had two previous runners in the race. One was Soda Water’s mother, Espumanti, and the other was another filly, Illia Da Vittoria. None of them had clear passages in the chassis and did not shine.
“Espumanti is the most beautiful horse and as a rider she was way above average,” says Slack.
When the mare was retired to Slack’s Wilgerbosdrift Stud at Piketberg in the Western Cape, her high quality prompted Slack and pedigree adviser Jehan Malerba to match her to champion sire Silvano.
“You’re always trying to breed the best with the best.”
The result was another “best” winner of the Durban July 2022.
“As we have seen, sparkling water is an exceptional horse. Now she is on vacation, but I decided to leave her in training for another year, ”said the owner-breeder.
“My guess is that we will try to participate in the Summer Cup and maybe go to Cape Town (for a meeting in Cape Town in January 2023).”
Master trainer Mike de Kock saddled Espumanti for her six career wins, so Slack sent him a promising youngster to train for the track.
Before July, De Kock publicly expressed his confidence in Sparkling Waters, one of four runners from his Rangesfontein stables. However, he did not exaggerate her chances.
“Mike didn’t say outright that she was the choice, but I knew he expected her to do well.”
Sparkling Waters’ memorable day comes just weeks after Slack led to Royal Ascot victory three-year-old colt Claymore, who defeated Queen Elizabeth’s favorite Reach For The Moon in the Group 3 Hampton Court Stakes.
No present for the queen
“It was quite remarkable,” admits Slack, who has only recently started racing in the UK and trains only two horses. Both won.
“I was amazed. The only way is upstairs now,” she jokes.
Of beating the monarch and disrupting the bets of millions of her subjects, Slack says, “I regretted it a little. But you can’t give the queen a race!”
Following the collapse of South Africa’s largest racing operator, Phumelela, in 2020, Slack and her daughters, through their Mary Oppenheimer Daughters business operation, invested R650 million to rescue the business and set up a new company. This effectively saved the industry and tens of thousands of its dependents.
Asked what she thinks about the future, Slack says: “Well, I’m more optimistic than I was during the Fumelela days. The racing was on the line. I don’t think anyone realized how close she was to extinction. If this continued, spending so much money, we would have nothing left now.”
Although the July and other races in KwaZulu-Natal are run by a different operator, Gold Circle, most racers do not believe that they (or the Cape Town races) would have survived the complete collapse of Fumelela.
Slack does not have a position in the new operator 4Racing despite funding its launch.
“I don’t have any input or influence, and I wouldn’t want that,” she says.
She just wants the new managers to fix things. “They need to fix the basic things – infrastructure, betting, digitalization – clean up the admin.”
She also hints at a possible exciting development: a new racetrack just north of Johannesburg.
In addition, Slack is full of praise for Hollywoodbets, the bookmaker that is the third sponsor of Durban July.
“I was very impressed with the Hollywoobets organization. I have some great photos of the sparkling water after it won on Saturday, with thousands and thousands of happy, excited people in the background. Hollywoodbets did an absolutely fantastic job to make this possible!”