The 'plain and modest' champion no one wanted

2014-12-17 14:30

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Champion racehorse Louis The King’s success story almost never happened. Put on the KZN yearling sale at the Suncoast Casino in the week of the 2011 Vodacom Durban July, the colt was shunned by horse buyers – he didn’t raise a single bid.

Meanwhile, Johannesburg trainer Geoff Woodruff arrived at Suncoast to give a few tickets for the July to a friend. As he got out of his car and walked across the car park, he met Louis’ dejected breeder, Phillip Kahan, leaving the sale.

“Tell me,” said Kahan pointing to Louis’ photo in the sales catalogue, “what’s wrong with this horse?”

Woodruff looked, saw that the colt’s father had been a very good racehorse and asked, “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” said Kahan, “I love him.”

A canny Woodruff asked what Kahan wanted for the horse and was surprised to find it was a bargain basement R60 000.

“An average sale price is R250 000-R300 000. Even if Louis was going for R100 000, I wouldn’t have bought him, but R60 000?” says Woodruff.

So he shook hands on the sales deal in the car park for a horse he hadn’t even laid eyes on.

“I trusted Phil’s instincts, I know him for long and he’s never let me down, so I didn’t have a worry,” says Woodruff. But he did take a peek at Louis afterwards and saw “a nice horse – plain, unassuming and modest”.

In fact, there was nothing to suggest Louis was champion material. Woodruff thought he would do what he could for the horse to “amount to something”.

By May 2012, Louis had turned into a “nice little horse, but still nothing to catch the eye”. He had his first race over 1 400m as a three-year-old in November last year and Woodruff was “pleasantly surprised” to see him win.

He then entered Louis in a 1 700m race. “He absolutely bolted, he was full of running. I thought then that this horse had something,” says the 58-year-old trainer.

After two more good races, Woodruff primed Louis for the Sascoc Triple Crown starting in March this year at Joburg’s Turffontein Racecourse. A Triple Crown comprises three races of varying distances for three-year-olds. Winning all three is considered a racehorse’s greatest accomplishment – only ­the legendary Horse Chestnut had managed to do this in South Africa in 1999.

The first race was the Gauteng Guineas over 1 600m on a rain-soaked track. Louis steamed to a win leaving the other horses trailing in his wake. He had a narrow win in the 1 800m SA Classic on March 29 and in the SA Derby over 2 450m on April 26, Louis pulled clear of the frontrunner as they left the other horses straggling behind.

Louis’ win in the Sansui Summer Cup two weeks ago have brought his total earnings to a staggering R6.8 million.

“He has repaid my faith in him many times over,” says the five-time champion trainer. “In fact, he has repaid it 100 times more than the price I agreed to pay for him in that car park.”

The Epsom-born former jockey came to South Africa on a working holiday in 1982 and never returned to England. He ascribes Louis’ success to two things – his temperament and his physiological make-up.

“I call him Laidback Louis. He handles pressure very well, I think he’s got BMT [big match temperament].

“He also has a big heart and a pair of big lungs, which means he doesn’t tire easily in running.”

The unassuming horse has become so popular with Gauteng’s racegoers that he has become known as the “people’s champion”.

“People really latched on to him after he won the Triple Crown,” says the trainer who is fondly known as “The Guv” in racing circles.

He says there have been several big-money offers from overseas to buy Louis.

“There was an offer to buy him for more than R10 million to race him in Hong Kong, but we don’t think he’s for sale,” says Woodruff, who regards his horses as his children.

Louis is now being aimed at the R2.5 million J&B Met in Cape Town on January 31.

“I’m cautiously optimistic about Louis’ chances in that race. I am confident in his ability.

“We want to fly the flag for Gauteng. What a famous win it will be for Johannesburg if Louis wins that race,” says Woodruff.

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