– Robyn Louw

They say Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels. Someone who is doing the same in the SA training ranks is Candice Robinson, who has just become our first lady trainer to saddle a July winner.

Saturday, 1 July 2017 was one for the history books when the littlest horse, with the biggest weight and the tallest jockey, stormed to victory for Candice Robinson, having her first go at the July under her own name. If that isn’t impressive enough, Marinaresco did it with the same jockey as Pocket Power, carrying the same famous silks for part-owner Marsh Shirtliff and with dad Mike Bass owning a share in the horse, it is likely the first time a trainer saddled a July winner for their father too !


We caught up with Candice Robinson the day after the big race and found her taking a few moments to grab an ice-cream and a few moments of quiet (well, until we showed up anyway) on the VDJ_6Durban promenade.

“No, no,” she protests when we apologise for the intrusion. “I’m just relaxing for a few minutes. We’re all a bit tired. It just hasn’t stopped!” While one might be forgiven for thinking she meant the victory celebrations, she explains, “My poor mother is sick with food poisoning, plus she fell on her way to the winner’s enclosure. She landed on her hip and now she can hardly walk. It’s been a bit of a nightmare, actually. Never a dull moment!” she exasperates good naturedly and somehow makes it all sound like a light-hearted adventure rather than additional pressure on top of what must have been an incredibly long and nerve-wracking day.

What’s it like waking up as the latest July winning trainer? “I’m just trying to catch up on all the messages and Facebook posts,” she admits. “There have been a million messages from far and wide. People have come out of the woodwork that we haven’t heard from for years.” Noting that one is always overwhelmed by the number of friends and acquaintances that you know are out there, but who one doesn’t necessarily hear from or contact on a regular basis until big occasions like this, she agrees readily. “It’s quite nice actually. One forgets.”

“I had a feeling all three would run well. Last Thursday after the sprint up, they all just looked unbelievably well and fit. They looked spot on. It was difficult for me to think which one would finish in front of the other. They really peaked at the right time. I must say Robert (Fayd’herbe) did a great job and a lot of praise must go to him – it’s not easy to deal with the pressure. I think he took a fair amount of criticism with Marinaresco and I think a lot of people wrote him off after his last run, but he was just spot on for Saturday and he ran accordingly.”

Writing History

Much has been made about it being Candice’s first season and her first July under her own name as well as the additional provenance of running Marinaresco in the famous pink, white and blue that Bernard Fayd’herbe and Pocket Power carried to victory for her father’s string back in 2008, but it’s particularly special that Mike Bass owns a share in Marinaresco. “They are coming up with all sorts of stats, I don’t know where they get them from, but I think it must be the first time anybody has trained a July winner for their father. I said to him afterwards, ‘I trained a winner for you today, Dad’ which was nice. I was really happy for him.”

All in all it was a real family affair as Bass Racing is very much a team effort between Mike, Carol, Candice and Mark and there is another bit of provenance with assistant trainer Robert Fayd’herbe being jockey Bernard Fayd’herbe’s brother.

And of course there’s the small matter of Candice being the first lady trainer to saddle a July winner. “They are saying I am the first. I wouldn’t know, but according to the general opinion out there I am. I think it’s quite nice for us ladies for a change,” she says proudly.

Mad Dash

Asked how the horses have pulled up from the race, she reports that Marinaresco has a bit of a swollen eye, “He must have got hit by a clod, but he’ll be fine. It was a bit of a late night last night, so I haven’t been out to check on them yet myself, but Robert is there and as long as they are eating, they’re fine. We’ll trot them up and check them all thoroughly in the afternoon.”

The July is a bit of a scrum – what were her thoughts as she watched the race unfold? “They turn for home and it’s just a mad dash. It was quite difficult having three horses to watch. I started watching Nightingale first, with her black colours – she was probably the best placed in the race, really – so I had my eye on her. Then I was watching Marinaresco until Bernard switched him in and got behind the other two horses, so I stopped watching him and went back to Nightingale. Then I saw Horizon coming – he’d turned for home last and was coming down the outside – so I could see the two of them and was shouting for them and didn’t actually see Marinaresco on the inside. All of us sitting around the table – my mom, myself, Marsh and my dad – none of us realised he’d popped up. We only saw it for the first time on the slow motion replay,” she laughs. “I had to watch it over and over a few times for it to actually sink in!”

Little Horse, Big Heart

VDJ_13Bred by Mauritzfontein Stud by Maine Chance Farms’ champion sire Silvano out of the Fort Wood mare, Gay Fortuna, the little horse has quite an interesting name, which was kindly explained by Guy Murdoch. Fortuna is the Roman goddess of Fortune and is often depicted holding a ship’s rudder. Marinaresco is the Italian word for sailor. Marinaresco stopped the clock for the 2200m trip in 132.51 and Candice was full of praise for jockey Bernard Fayd’herbe. “Bernard rode a great race and that’s exactly how Marinaresco wants to be ridden. He likes to be left alone early and sit quite far back, sneak up a few positions and then switch off a little bit. He has an unbelievable turn of foot, which he has when ridden like that, and that’s him. With his run in the Gold Challenge we just did the wrong thing, and trying to keep him close to the pace over a mile, I think it was just too much. But in a way, maybe it wasn’t a bad thing and Bernard knew exactly how to ride him this time round.”

Marinaresco seemed to take all the big day hype in his stride and didn’t look the least bit perturbed by any of the post-race formalities. He hadn’t broken a sweat and didn’t even look out of breath. “He was very relaxed and so chilled the whole day,” notes Candice. “He was quiet to saddle, quiet in the ring – everything. He was like ‘I’ve got it. I know what I’m here for.’ He’s just an amazing, amazing little horse.” Marinaresco is the first horse since Pocket Power to win carrying top weight, she reflects, “It’s all sorts of little details like that that make it so special. It’s a big feat for a little horse like that. I don’t think people realise just how much. For the size he is to carry top weight and there were some pretty well-weighted horses in the race this year. It’s usually won by the best handicapped horse, that’s what the July is all about. It just makes it all the more special.”

Commenting that they are in danger of needing a new plaque to match Pocket Power’s one at the front door of their yard, she agrees. “He’s like the little mini Pocket Power!”

Meant To Be?

It seems a little unfair to enquire if there are any definite future plans for Marinaresco yet and asked whether he has done enough for the season or might have another run before coming home Candice says they are still undecided. “I won’t say definitely not. We’ll possibly look at the Champions Cup, but we’ll just have to wait and see.” After that it will be back to Cape Town to prepare for the Cape ‘Summer of Champions’. We’ll probably go the usual route of the L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate, the Green Point and the Met again,” she says.

Of course it could all have been quite different. Fortunately – or unfortunately, depending on one’s point of view – plans for Marinaresco to join a proposed export consignment to America at the end of the 2017 Cape summer season fell flat. “He was supposed to go overseas, but they couldn’t fill up the plane and then there was an AHS issue, o he stayed.” And perhaps, like so many things in racing, it’s all worked out as it should.

Remarkable Feat

This year’s July produced a blanket finish with the first 8 runners all crossing the line within 2 lengths of each other and while it is hard not to focus on the winner, it should also be noted that all Candice’s runners did her proud. Anthony Delpech on the gallant Nightingale crossed the line less than half a length back to deadheat for fourth with Krambambuli and Richard Fourie and Horizon were only a fraction of a length behind them in fifth spot. As first attempts at the July go, it was the most incredible performance.

Wife, mother, devoted daughter, human to very demanding Chihauhau named George, serious top level dressage rider, boss of one of the most competitive racing strings in the country and now the first lady trainer to saddle a Vodacom Durban July winner – in her very first season – is there anything Candice Robinson can’t do?