Sport

HOME TURF

Enthusiastic duo saddles up to save horse racing in the Western Cape

Enthusiastic duo saddles up to save horse racing in the Western Cape
See It Again beats Charles Dickens, in the middle, to win the Splashout Cape Derby during the SplashOut Cape Town Seafood & Jazz Racing Festival at Hollywoodbets Kenilworth on 25 February 2023 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo: Peter Heeger / Gallo Images)

Horse racing, especially in the Western Cape, lost its lustre for a while. But two hard-working enthusiasts – Greg Bortz and Owen Heffer – are turning this around.

Unlike many of the great racecourses of the world, there is no statue of a famous horse paying homage to exploits at Kenilworth. Not yet, that is.

In time, who knows? Perhaps there will be a Pocket Power statue, or Wolf Power, Politician, Sea Cottage or Horse Chestnut. Perhaps Charles Dickens. It would be a permanent reminder of the giants who have graced the turf.

However, when they come to honour the great achievers, perhaps they will also find room to acknowledge two men who have saved racing in the Cape from oblivion. 

With Cape Racing floundering in 2022, Greg Bortz and Owen Heffer embarked on a path to turn the industry around. Racing returned to Hollywoodbets Kenilworth on Sunday, the first meeting of the season, after the first four months had been held at its country cousin, Durbanville.

Record crowds had flocked to the “country course” venue from August to late November, but the 1974 Bachman-Turner Overdrive hit, “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet”, could have been re-released in the past week.

Simply put: The venue is unrecognisable from what it was when last seen publicly in July. A facelift for the grand old lady of the Cape racing scene? Not even close. More of a complete makeover.

How did we get here? Bortz takes up the story: 

“[Former Kenilworth racing co-chairman] Robert Bloomberg came to see me. I knew that racing was in bad shape, and the product was getting worse and worse,” Bortz said.

“But I was not aware of the extent of it. I was told that Hollywoodbets were looking at the situation. Through that process, we were put in touch with one another. I didn’t know that Owen was Hollywoodbets, but I knew him from Winning Form days in the 1980s. 

“My view was that partnering with the biggest bookmaker made complete sense. That happened to be Hollywoodbets. In Owen’s case, his overriding primary objective was to save racing. 

“Hollywoodbets, of course, enjoy a secondary benefit – namely if racing is saved, there is still horse product for its customers to bet on.

“So, the strategy made sense on both an altruistic and business level: raise stakes to stimulate the demand, which produces more owners, which means more horses being bought, which means more horses being bred, which means a bigger horse population, which means bigger fields, which means more betting turnover. 

“The manner in which Owen and his team do things is inspirational. Not only is Hollywoodbets an exceptionally well-run organisation, but they always do the right thing.

“They always prioritise others and the community. The reality is that I am the one doing interviews and in the forefront, but I would be nowhere were it not for the leadership, guidance, support and encouragement of Owen and his team.”

Greg Bortz has helped revive horse racing in the Western Cape with his work at Kenilworth Racecourse. (Photo: Supplied)

Transformation

What is immediately noticeable at the revamped venue, which staged its first meeting of the season on 26 November, is the transformation from the ageing old lady of yesteryear.

I ask Bortz about his and Hollywoodbets’ ambitions. His face lights up.

“We are building something spectacular at Kenilworth. This property will be a place for families to visit daily. We are not yet ready for the ‘big reveal’. But it is safe to say that there will not be too many better or more beautiful places to race from in the world. We are shifting the racing paradigm.”

Trainers, owners and media have been gushing in their praise of the changes. From a viewing perspective, race-goers will notice a better-elevated view of the final stages, and big screens, while a Flemington Racecourse-type winning post structure, complete with huge arches, has been erected. 

Other changes include a fresh “look and feel”, enhanced sound systems, a superior parade ring experience, a world-class winners’ enclosure, and a revitalised owners’ lounge and hospitality facilities. The changes are evident as soon as you enter the gates.

Team effort

So, who really is the public face of the Renaissance man? 

“It’s not me, it’s we. I have a magnificent team alongside me. The future of racing is in good hands,” the 54-year-old emphasises while standing on the deck of his Atlantic Seaboard house.

Bortz left South Africa in 1994 and returned in 2012, retiring at 42. He was nearly lost to South Africa again in 2019.

“It was late 2019 and I was planning on going back to the US, to launch another private equity fund. I’d already built a house in Arizona. I’d been retired for a number of years and wanted to get back into private equity.

“I had not worked for years, spending my time racing, reading and travelling – it was time for a change. Then the Covid pandemic struck and all bets were off, and I decided to stay put.”

He reckons that while overseas he didn’t follow racing at all, let alone the South African scene. In explaining the disconnect, he says: “I first got to the US in 1996 after living in London for two years. I’d been a racing enthusiast all my life up to 1994.

“But you have to remember that this time was pre-Internet, pre-cellphones, pre-text messaging and all that, and when the US became my home I lost all interest in racing.”

The step into fatherhood also played its part. “My three children were all born in and still live in the US.”

His 25-year-old daughter is in Miami, his 23-year-old son is an investment banker in Los Angeles and his 19-year-old son studies at the University of Wisconsin.

His lack of racing interest was in direct contrast to his life growing up in Durban where he lived near Greyville racecourse.

“I feasted on listening to commentators like Eric Denman and Craig ‘Eagle Eye’ Peters, but in the US there was all this dispassionate commentary without the horse’s names, such as ‘the 3 horse leads from the 2 horse’ and ‘they’re at the quarter pole’. It felt like a different language.

“I had grown up watching the likes of Wolf Power, Prince Florimund, Gondolier. The best I saw, though, was Devon Air. She was a front runner who won the Republic Day Handicap (1,900m), the Durban July (2,200m) and Gold Cup (3,200m) in 1984. That mare was something else!”

Now into his stride, reminiscing about the past, Bortz pauses to say, “And here comes my favourite horse. Come here, Blue, and say hello.” Not quite a horse, but a Great Dane, one of three in the household.

“The other two are at the groomers, but he’s too old to go.” How old? “He’s eight and that’s starting to become a dinosaur in Great Dane years.”

I can’t help asking why he’s called Blue. His coat is black and white. Perhaps because Bortz’s own racing colours are blue? Technically they’re aquamarine, an optical alternative in much the same way that the Springboks’ away jersey is called Hyper Jade instead of Checkers Sixty60. 

“No, he’s called Blue because of his eye.” And there it is, his right eye the colour blue. But, we’re getting distracted, even as Blue wolfs down a stick of droewors as he gazes at his favourite human being. In that moment Bortz is Blue’s sole mate and soul mate.

Future Variety after winning at Kenilworth is surrounded by owners from the Centenary Syndicate. (Photo: Supplied)

Racing history

“As I was saying, I grew up in Durban and used to go to every race meeting that I could.

“In 1994, I voted in the first democratic election and was proud to have been a part of the country’s new history. I then decided it was a good time for me to move on. So, I went to London.”

Then, two years later, Bortz moved to the US and only picked up racing again in 2012. 

“It was like being in that Leon Schuster movie in which he portrayed the character of rugby’s Naas Botha and was knocked unconscious in the 1980s, only to wake up in the new South Africa in the mid-90s. He couldn’t understand what was going on!”

And he laughs. “That was like me and racing.”

At the tail of those 18 years spent overseas, he returned to South Africa with his family on holiday for two weeks.

“I had sold my businesses and was wondering what I would do next. That’s when I told my wife, ‘We’re going to take the kids out of school and go live back in South Africa for a year.’

“She said I was crazy, but agreed that I first return for a fact-finding mission. I came back to South Africa to look for schools and an apartment.”

Then serendipity stretched out her hand. 

“After two weeks of looking, I was shown an apartment that I thought was suitable. I walked in and there were pictures all over the wall of someone else’s racing winners.” 

The apartment was that of Bryn Ressell, himself a prolific owner and whose colours are the red, black and yellow of his beloved Hamilton Rugby Club. 

“I said to Bryn that I’d rent the apartment for a year on one condition – that he took me to the races. If I hadn’t walked into Bryn’s home, who knows if I would have reconnected with racing? I went on to buy a horse at a sale and then bought 17 more. Needless to say, our one year came to an end and we never left!”

Bortz explains some of the changes introduced by the partnership with Hollywoodbets.  

“We introduced new thoughts, and have not been afraid to change. For example, we agreed with the philosophy of Gold Circle and Hollywoodbets of implementing the American saddle cloth and draw system.

“That means horse No 1 is also drawn No 1. Don’t get me wrong, the ‘old traditionalists’ – of which I’m one –  complained that they were used to the highest merit rating being No 1 on the racecard.

“But when we understood what Hollywoodbets were doing in KZN, and how this positioned our product for the American market, as well as simplified it for the next generation whom we need to bring into our sport, we knew we had to bring it to the Cape as well.

“We’re not trying to save the sport for a shrinking number of older people. We have to reinvigorate racing as a new sport for new people.”

Bortz and his team at Cape Racing tell it like it is.

“We are focused on attracting and retaining owners. We need to expand the ownership base beyond a handful of wealthy people,” he said. 

“Our main focus is on our syndication efforts – encouraging fresh, young blood into our sport. This is fundamental – we must succeed. We have no choice.”

Then, a crack of the whip. “Punters are crucial, but it is incorrect to think they are the sole lifeblood of the game. We could hold races without punters.

“We could not hold races without owners. So while others fixate on restoring the tote to its former glory to save our sport, we believe we need to increase the ownership base to achieve this outcome. 

“No owners mean no horses and nothing to bet on. Having punters without horses does not help. Betting income used to be the sole source of the stake money. That is no longer the case. Alternative revenue streams are fundamental to our success.

“These alternative streams include broadcast, conferencing and events, commercial property rental, food and beverage, other betting products, and so on.”

Winners? 

I put it to him that people are drawn in numbers to any sport by producing champions, which creates media interest, which draws in the public.

And that Charles Dickens, the superstar four-year-old who has been widely considered the best horse seen in South Africa in the last 20-odd years, is that champion to bring the crowds back on big race days.

“Charles Dickens has helped tremendously with awareness, but nowhere enough outside of racing,” Bortz replies.

“From a Cape Racing perspective, Charles Dickens has come a year or two too soon. Not enough people have seen Charles Dickens. It is unfortunate that this ‘generational horse’ came along just a touch too early for us. 

“We need to make certain that in a few years, another Charles Dickens is capitalised on to its full extent. There’s so much evolution to make.

“We don’t have a sufficiently developed online platform; we don’t have our own TV channel or our own content. Ideally, our own broadcast team would follow Charles Dickens day in and day out, capturing the story. The heroes are the horses. We need to tell the story properly so that more people fall in love with our sport.”

I ask Bortz to expand on his relationship with Hollywoodbets and Heffer. 

“I have the distinct good fortune to be working with the most honourable, ethical, capable and supportive people I have ever met,” Bortz said.

“Owen’s approach to business and life is so simple, humble and uncomplicated. And it’s this humbleness, straightforwardness and simplicity that has made him and Hollywoodbets so successful.

“He surrounds himself with people of similar character and ability. It is because of my chairmanship of Cape Racing that I find myself at the centre of interviews and press such as this. 

“But there is absolutely no doubt I could not succeed if it were not for having Owen and Hollywoodbets in my corner. Owen seeks no attention, applause or gratitude. But he and his team deserve it all. I hope everyone in racing can one day comprehend the extent of their commitment to our sport.”

Bortz describes himself as “an average owner at best”. But average owners don’t have Grade One winners (the highest level in racing) and he’s had two – Undercover Agent and Pomp and Power.

I ask him how many winners he has had as an owner. “I’ll show you,” he says. “Blue, stay here.”

We go downstairs to a room adorned with framed winners. He has them all in numerical order of winner, but he’s still waiting for the latest to arrive and be mounted on the wall. It’s Unicorn Alert, a three-year-old by Vercingetorix that Bortz owns with Gina and Leon Ellman.

It was backed into 5/4 favourite, but the money didn’t come from Bortz.

“I’m not a punter, which doesn’t mean that I never was. In 1986, I was in Standard 9 (Grade 11) and I won a Pick Six that paid R36K off a R12 perm.

“And I won R10,000 on the Anton Marcus-ridden Icona in the 1991 Gold Cup, but it had to survive an objection to keep the race!”

Unicorn Alert’s picture will hang near to the largest framed one in the area. It shows jockey Richard Fourie saluting to the grandstand after winning the 2015 Peninsula Handicap at Kenilworth on the 10/1 shot Orion. 

“I said to Richard in the parade ring that when he wins he must salute in the direction of my suite. In true fashion, he delivered on all fronts!”

Does the man ever slow down? 

“I tend to sleep four to five hours a night at most. I have bad shoulders which makes sleeping difficult, and, on top of that, I can’t switch off my brain.

“I wake up in the middle of the night, thinking, and I send myself reminder emails. I’d estimate that I spend 16 hours a day working. I am lucky that Gina is so supportive and understanding.”

With the subject touching on other sports, I asked him about his own background. 

“I played cricket and tennis. I was an average cricketer at a weak sports school in Durban (Carmel College). I thought I was half-decent until I came to UCT and had a tryout in the nets. I realised how useless I was and called it a day before my career started.”

Ah, what about in a supporter role? Just about everyone has an EPL side that they follow.

“I’m a passionate Spurs fan. I’ve been a season ticket holder for a long time.”

This means that Bortz is enduring the most successful season with Tottenham that the north London club has experienced in many years, even topping the table for a while in October. 

He smiles and says it won’t last. “How’s my luck? Horseracing and Spurs. Spurs taught me that you get raised up to be kicked back down.

“It’s a good club to have supported because it helped develop my best characteristics. I can handle any disappointment, and feed off little crumbs.

“The first time I ever saw a football game – remember, back in the early 1970s there was no TV – I went to the cinema with my mom. I was five or six. They used to have a supporting show before the main movie … it was like airport board-type information.

“They were showing FA Cup final highlights and my mom read out the names of teams in the competition that year. We liked Nottingham Forest and Tottenham Hotspur. We started supporting Tottenham.

“Guess what? That year they got relegated and Forest went on to win the League and European Cup! That was my form. The team I started supporting got relegated immediately!”

Bortz looks at his phone. At the exact moment, the door opens and two more Great Danes bound towards him. They’re back from the parlour. 

As with everything, Bortz’s timing is perfect. DM

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

X

This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.


Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

Make your taxes work for you

Donate to Daily Maverick’s non-profit arm, the Scorpio Investigative Unit, by 29 February 2024 and you’ll qualify for a tax break.

We issue Section 18A tax certificates for all donations made to Daily Maverick. These can be presented to SARS for tax relief.

Make your donation today

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick The Gathering 2024 banner

Daily Maverick has secured an esteemed speaker line-up...

to help make sense of Elections 2024.

Trevor Manuel, Prof Thuli Madonsela and Minister Ronald Lamola are among the latest panellists confirmed for Daily Maverick The Gathering Twenty Twenty-Four.

Join us, on Thurs 14 March 2024 at CTICC Cape Town or online wherever you are, for an event that will put the election in perspective.

Become a Maverick Insider

This could have been a paywall

On another site this would have been a paywall. Maverick Insider keeps our content free for all.

Become an Insider