For thousands of people — those who know little about betting and even less about horses — the J&B Met is not really about the horses. It’s about seeing and been seen. It’s about getting dressed up and socialising and posting it all on Instagram. It’s about the glitz and the glamour and that awesome after-party.
Don’t get me wrong; it is also about the horses. It’s about the thrill of placing a bet and cheering like a maniac when the horse you picked gallops down the home straight… but if your horse loses, you’ll shrug it off, grab another drink, and stalk your celeb crush.
For most, the J&B Met is just one of Cape Town’s top fun, social events… and this is a good thing. It is what draws tens of thousands of people to Kenilworth Racecourse year after year. It is what makes this event so successful and guarantees its longevity. But there was a time when the Met’s status as one of South Africa’s big three in horseracing wasn’t certain.
The first recorded winner of the Metropolitan Mile (as the Met was once known) was Sir Hercules, in 1883. The race was originally run on the Green Point Common: the competitors were English soldiers attached to the Cape Garrison; the spectators, ladies of the Cape. In the late 19th century the race was moved to the Kenilworth Racecourse and it became the South African Turf Club’s feature event each summer.
Over the decades, the event lost some of its sparkle and although it had been firmly established as one of the country’s top three races by the 1960s (alongside the Durban July and the Summer Cup in Gauteng), the general public — and even those in the industry — began to lose interest.
Then, in 1978, which was (not-so coincidentally) a mere year after Justerini & Brooks began sponsoring the event, a magnificent chestnut called Politician entered the race. The stake was R50 000 and Politician had an outstanding reputation. The crowds flocked to the racecourse and Politician, with “Big Race” Bertie Hayden in the irons, did not disappoint.
Trainer Syd Laird returned with Politician the following year, drawing an even bigger crowd, and Politician achieved something unprecedented by winning the Met two years in a row. Politician’s impressive feat was only matched — and then beaten — by the legendary Pocket Power, the horse that won the J&B Met in 2007, 2008 and 2009.
Since J&B began sponsoring the event 39 years ago, it has grown tremendously and evolved into something quite spectacular. With a stake of R2.5 million, the J&B Met is now the largest outdoor annual horeracing event in Cape Town. In 2002, for example, more than 50 000 spectators pitched up at the Kenilworth Racecourse on the day, forcing event organisers to close the gates and put up “house full” signs half way through the afternoon!
The horses may once have drawn modest crowds to the Kenilworth Racecourse, but it is the grand spectacle, the opportunity to rub shoulders with the country’s rich and famous, and the promise of a day packed full of entertainment that bring tens of thousands of South Africans back to the J&B Met each year.