In his quest to give South Africa’s most prestigious horse racing events Vodacom Durban July and the J&B Met a run for their money, Minister of Youth Sport and Culture Thapelo Olopeng could not have foreseen the tidal wave of criticism directed at his choice of venue.
He could be forgiven for his initial excitement at announcing the new development; Both the Durban July and the J&B Met have been instrumental as major tourist attractions in SA. The Met alone attracts over 50, 000 visitors, and contributes an estimated R70 million to the Western Cape economy while the Durban July contributes in excess of R400 million per annum to the KZN. The events are way more than just about the fine specimen of thoroughbreds gulping for breath on the race track.
They are glamorous social get together and haute couture events where fashions designers and lovers alike also get to display their finest.
“An international horse track will be built in Palapye to improve the horse racing competition as well as attracting foreign investors,” the minister announced recently. He was quoted as saying land had already been identified and that a bench-marking exercise would soon commence where a task team would be sent to countries like Dubai and the US.
But horse owners and race supporters from across the country came out guns blazing, accusing the minister and government of constructing the facility where it does not belong and concentrating developments in a single region at the expense of others.
“It is like opening a phane processing plant in the middle of Kgalagadi and expecting people from the north to transport their product here,” one horse owner told Sunday Standard.
Olopeng based his decision to appoint Palapye as the beneficiary for the developments on availability of land. “Palapye leadership have given us a piece of land where we will build a horse racing facility,” he said.
The minister said the current Maun horse racing event (Mascom Derby) would continue and his ministry would improve it to international standard at a later stage. But that assurance was not enough either.
He said they would also construct another one in Ghanzi/ Kgalagadi. “It is important that we should all understand the potential this sport has, and we should not micro develop it to only casual level,” Olopeng attempted to sound reasonable.
“What’s wrong with having more than one international facility for this sport? Some are saying Palapye will be too far for Maun horses. What will happen if Maun horses qualify to go to South Africa, Dubai etc.?”
However, following severe criticism from the public the minister seemed to have reneged on his initial plans and chosen Maun to be the recipient of the “international standard” racing track.
“I was contacted by Hon (Kosta) Markus and Hon (Reaboka) Mbulawa from Maun, informing me that they have engaged the landlord for the appropriate land to develop a racing track,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “If they become successful, we will start with Maun.” Following the initial announcement Sunday Standard contacted racing horse owners across the country to get their sentiments. “How can he construct the track in Palapye when those people hardly know anything about horse racing?” A disgruntled William Joseph asked rhetorically. He is a horse owner based in Charles Hill.
“I have 27 thoroughbreds which I bought in South Africa and England,” he said. “And I have won for three consecutive years here at ‘The Voice of Charles Hill’. I have never heard of a horse racing event in Palapye.” He says although the biggest race in prize money is Maun, Ghanzi remains the leader in terms of attendance rate. “Maun would also be reasonable because there are racing clubs from there.”
William also outlined the heavy costs of transporting horses for the events. “Transporting horses all the way to Palapye would be too expensive for me and the risks of my horses getting injured in transit are too high. I cannot take that risk with my P40, 000-00 thoroughbred. ”
He said as horse owners and stakeholders they should have been consulted. Ronald Esterhuizen from Veda shares William’s sentiments. He said the welfare of horses is a major priority for owners. He said transporting horses on its own presents a headache because they sometimes get injured along the way.
“More than 12 horses were injured by the time they arrived for the recent Mascom Derby in Maun.”
Esterhuizen told Sunday Standard they also had to sell two horses at giveaway prices to cover transport costs. He feels Jwaneng-Mabutsane would be the most ideal place to construct a horse racing facility.
“The minister has never contacted any of us about availability of land,” he said. He said horse racing roots in Botswana can be traced back to Kgalagadi.
Horse racing promoter based in Ghanzi, Shane Kebadile, said the minister must have been ill advised and had taken a decision that is in contrast with economic development. “Horse racing has grown significantly as a sport here in Ghanzi/Kgalagadi region. What the government is doing is regionalising developments and turning Batswana against each other.”
He said the money spent on constructing the “international standard” track could be used to construct three standard tracks around the country. “We are far from turning professional, and constructing a track of such standard would be a mistake,” he said. “We still need investors to help develop the sport further before we can talk of international standards.”