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Cape Town, the birthplace of horseracing in South Africa, has been hosting horse races since 1797. Here’s an even cooler fact: the country’s first recorded race, the Turf Club Purse, which was run on Green Point Common on 18 September 1797, was won by the five-year-old Zemman Shaw.

The Cape’s proud horseracing heritage can be seen in the quality of horses bred here. According to Candice Robinson of Mike Bass Racing, Cape Town has the best breeding grounds in the country: “If I mention some, I am probably going to leave others out, but a few of the larger studs in Cape Town are: Highlands Studs, Drakenstein Studs, Maine Chance Farms and Klawervlei Stud. Cape Town is by far the best breeding area in the country. They breed the best horses, and they’ve also go the biggest studs here.”

How Zemman Shaw would fare against the likes of Politician (the horse which won the J&B Met in 1978 and 1979) or Pocket Power (J&B Met winner 2007, 2008, 2009) is up for debate. After all, the industry has come a long way since Lord Charles Somerset first established and developed the sport in the region.

These days, the labour-intensive industry provides employment for around 12 000 people in and around Cape Town and contributes roughly R2.71-billion to the country’s Gross Domestic Product — at least those were the numbers in 2009, the last year stats were made available. Between 2002 and 2009, the industry made a cumulative contribution of R16.81-billion to South Africa’s GDP.  Somewhat surprisingly, the industry seems to weather poor financial climates fairly well.

“The racing industry is pretty much dominated by your upper echelon of wealthy people,” explains Robinson. “Racehorses are expensive, so it’s not a sport for any old person in the street. While most of the people involved in the sport are from old money, in recent years we have had some new money coming into racing. The industry has certainly maintained itself through rocky financial times… somehow it seems steady. There are people with less money who have smaller shares who do it for the love of the sport and I guess, in hard times, those are the people who fall away.”

While the industry is fairly robust, Robinson laments the lack of interest from the general public. Enthusiasm for horseracing, she says, is limited to big events such as the J&B Met.

“It’s not what it used to be in the olden days; these days nobody comes to the races anymore, which is really quite sad. I think that there is just not enough marketing, or perhaps not the correct marketing. Obviously people come to the big events and you get people who come for the betting —the backbone of horseracing — but it is much easier to do that via the phone these days. People just don’t seem to come to the racecourse anymore.”

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