The Best South African Racehorses in the History of The Sun Met
It's the biggest race of the summer season where the best racehorses in South Africa compete over 2 000m for a purse of R5 million. But besides the powerful thoroughbreds churning up the turf in their quest for victory, The Sun Met has also become synonymous with thrills and glamour. This is where fashion, celebrities and high-stakes betting meet in an elegant and exhilarating spectacle.
The Sun Met draws over 50 000 people to the Kenilworth Racecourse on the last Saturday in January of every year, to celebrate the magnificence and speed of South Africa's top racehorses. The event is as much of a highlight on the social calendar today as it was when it began 134 years ago, when the first official running of The Metropolitan Mile (later shortened to 'The Met') took place at Kenilworth in 1883.
The history of horse racing in the Cape
The first recorded race meeting of the African Turf Club was run on Green Point Common on 18 September 1797, and was won by the five-year-old Zemman Shaw. Traditionally, spring and autumn festivals were held over three or four days and were popular affairs with thousands attending the races, dinners, fairs and theatre. But it was only after the second British occupation of the Cape (1806) and under Lord Charles Somerset (governor of the Cape Colony from 1814 – 1826) that horse racing became prominent and the import of breeding stock was encouraged. This established the Cape of Good Hope as the birthplace of horse racing in South Africa and helped secure racing as an ongoing sport.
The origin of South Africa's top racehorses
South Africa's best racehorses come from a long line of crossbreeds. Horses are not indigenous to the Cape, and according to history, the first horse to arrive in Cape Town (in 1792) was found shipwrecked on the beach with a rope halter around its neck. The Dutch, having arrived to discover the lack of horses in the region, purportedly imported Timor ponies from Java. The bloodline of these small breeds lives on today in the well-known Basuto (also Basotho) pony of the Kingdom of Lesotho.
Eventually a home-bred or crossbred pony called Capers became popular at the Cape settlement and was useful as a military mount. Later, Persian, South American and English thoroughbred stallions were imported with the result that much cross-breeding was allowed to happen, leading to the best racehorses in South Africa.
The history of Kenilworth
By 1863, racing took place at both Green Point Common and Kenilworth (although not the same site as today). The Queen's Plate still runs today and was first run in 1861 and later moved to Kenilworth. By 1893 racing at Green Point Common had ceased altogether. A new venue had been chosen some 20 years before – Kenilworth Racecourse as we know it today – but this site was only acquired in 1881. The first Metropolitan was held at Kenilworth in 1883 after the track was laid out and a grandstand erected.
The end of the Anglo-Boer War and the formation of the Union of South Africa saw an upsurge in the popularity of horse racing. The Second World War saw all races move to Milnerton Racecourse as the military took charge of Kenilworth. In 1955 all races again took place at Milnerton during the building of the main stands at Kenilworth. A milestone, in 1973, was the decision to run the Metropolitan as a conditions race (weight-for-age plus penalties) and not as a handicap. This was well received by the racing fraternity and attracted South Africa's best racehorses to the event.
The origin of the Metropolitan
The Sun Met is an important contest as it puts South Africa's top racehorses on an even footing. It's run over the Kenilworth 2 000m, which has a long run-in and gives a fair chance to runners. Plus, at sea level, the best South African racehorses have an equal opportunity. Originally, the race was run over a mile (1 600m). By 1915, the race had been extended to 1 800m and finally set in as a ten furlongs race (2 000m) in 1948, which remains the running distance today.
- For a decade The Metropolitan Handicap was run more than once a year – between 1895 and 1909.
- In 1901, The 'Met' was run five times – in March, April, June, October and December.
- The Metropolitan was not run in 1914 and 1918 due to WW1.
- The Metropolitan Handicap of 1943 and 1944 was run at Milnerton, with Kenilworth being used during the war years as a military base.
- The 'Met' was traditionally run in November before it moved to January in 1947, when Thorium beat Cape Heath by 3½ lengths.
Why only the best South African racehorses take part in The Sun Met
It all comes down to weight. Weight-for-age (WFA) is a scientifically formulated system that regulates the relative weights carried by horses which make up for the difference in maturity. Younger horses, for example, carry less weight. WFA takes into account the fact that sprinters mature earlier than stayers, so the WFA allowance is different for sprint or middle-distance races and stayers' races.
In a handicap race (like the Vodacom Durban July or Sansui Summer Cup) the best horses in South Africa would concede much more weight to other runners. The Sun Met weights are based on WFA, with runners earning weight penalties based on Graded races won, with a maximum of 2kg penalty. Historically, top weights often win The Sun Met, as opposed to big handicaps, like the Vodacom Durban July.
The Sun Met roll of honour includes the names of many of South Africa's top racehorses, like Ariel, Pocket Power, Wolf Power, Model Man, Empress Club, London News and Horse Chestnut. Over the course of the history of The Sun Met, three families have dominated race victories – the Lairds, Millards and Kannemeyers, who between them won the race 10 times.
Syd Laird won it twice with Politician racehorse in 1978 and 1979 and Alec Laird won it with London News in 1997. Terrance Millard won it with Arctic Cove in 1983, Mark Anthony in 1988 and Olympic Duel in 1991, while his son Tony Millard won it with Empress Club in 1993. The Kannemeyer team, Peter and son Dean, won The Sun Met with Sunshine Man in 1980, then with Divine Master in 1992 and with Pas De Quoi in 1994.