The thoroughbreds emerge from the stables, breath steaming in the cold air, muscles flexing, hooves trampling the freshly turned soil. A man in a wheelchair watches them from the side of the track as they trot by.
Mike Bass is arguably one of the greatest owners and trainers of thoroughbred horses in South African history.
He’s 71 and stuck in a wheelchair after his right leg was amputated, but his passion for horse racing is undimmed.
Helping hands lift him and his chair over the churned earth and settle him on a grass patch in full view of the training track in Milnerton, home to Mike Bass Racing Stables.
Last year Mike developed pneumonia, followed by septicemia and the amputation.
“It’s very frustrating,” he says, touching his wheelchair’s armrest.
“I thought I would be back at it in no time, but I had nerve damage, so walking is difficult at the moment. Until then, I have to be in a wheelchair.”
It’s hell for a man who has trained champion race horses that thunder around a track at up to 70km/* . After getting a diploma in agricultural technology at Stellenbosch University, Mike travelled abroad for a bit before returning home to open the Western Province Riding School in Muizenberg.
He sold the business six years later and worked as a stud manager for two years.
He took out his professional training license and started Mike Bass Racing in 1976. Four years later, he had his first grade 1 victory in the Clairwood Winter Handicap. It was only the start. More than 100 victories followed over the years.
Asked how he felt when he lost his leg, he laughs. “Nothing,” he says. “I was in a coma. I just accepted it.”
A year later, and he still hasn’t fully recovered, but that hasn’t kept him away from the track. The same can’t be said for the many punters who these days watch the races on TV and use their phones to place bets – a trend, with its concomitant dwindling of race day crowds, which has been the biggest change Mike has seen during his 40 years in the industry.
“Now there’s so many other attractions,” he says.
Cape Town used to have three racehorse tracks, but since the Milnerton one closed, only Durbanville and Kenilworth remain. These days, Milnerton is used only for stabling, training and exercise.
Of the more than 100 Graded Stakes winners he has trained, his favourite is Pocket Power which dominated the world of horseracing by winning four L’Ormarins Queen’s Plates, three J&B Mets and the Vodacom July.
In a tribute to the champion horse on the Mike Bass Racing website he says: “It has been a marvellous privilege for us to train such a magnificent thoroughbred, and, on a personal level, I have been afforded the great opportunity to document and journalise his career from the very beginning, up close and personal, which has been a rare and unique privilege for me.”
Mike says race horses can cost between R20 000 and R1 million, “depending on the pedigree” and maintaining one of them can cost between R6 000 to R7 000 a month. Mike Bass Racing is currently training about 120 horses. Now Mike will be placing the family business in the capable hands of his daughter, Candice Robinson.
“I have every confidence in her. She’s very talented and very capable.” He adds, however, that his routine will remain unchanged, as he will still be coming to work with Candice. “I will just be in the background.”
Candice will officially take over at the start of the new racing season in September and says it will carry on as usual. Born into the industry, she had a stint in the corporate world for a few years, before returning to work for her dad.
“I’ve been here full-time for over 15 years. We’ve always worked together,” she says. Even though her father’s illness had been emotionally draining for the whole family, they had had to find a way to cope and keep things going. “We still had a good season.”
Gold Circle renamed the Grade-1 Champions Cup, to be run on Gold Cup Day, at Greyville, in Durban on Saturday July 30, the Mike and Carol Bass Champions Cup in honour of Mike and his wife.
Mike’s son, Mark, who heads up the website and off-course marketing of the business says the gesture is a great honour.
“It’s a great testament to his career. It’s great that the industry has honoured him in this way.”