Ralph Rixon has worked his way up the professional ladder with some help along the way from Jamaican Music, Grey Sun and now a big, bustling chestnut called Wild West. He has trained the winners of most of South Africa's important races, and just two months ago Wild West won the R250 000 J&B Met, the plum of the rich Cape summer season.
“I bought him at Germiston. He was a beautiful yearling. I often wonder why the trainers didn't like him. He was out of a top mare - a mare that only raced until she was three and who won both the Fillies Guineas - the Cape Fillies Guineas and the Natal Fillies Guineas. He was very cheap as far as I was concerned. He only cost R40 000. He had one very slight fault - one of his knees was off centre, but I thought his size had something to do with it and today you can't notice it at all. He has grown right out of it. He was one horse I never thought I'd get for that sort of money, and he was one of the ones I had specially picked.”
Wild West came to hand quickly and half way through his two-year-old career was working with older horses on the training track at Philippi. He had his first run in Natal in mid-June and three weeks later won impressively in a field of 19 at Greyville. The big chestnut went from strength to strength as a three-year-old running 11 times for 6 wins, 3 places and R129 900. He won the last leg of the Triple Crown, the SA Two Thousand, and was placed in both the others, and finished the season with a brilliant second in the Rothmans July Handicap.
Ralph Rixon's faith in the son of Roland Gardens (Ire) was further rewarded with a storming win in the Gr1 J&B Met at Kenilworth on the 18th January 1986.
“I think he is a very, very good horse. Probably one of the best I've had because he's a much stronger horse than Jamaican Music. You can prepare him better and he takes it. He eats well and he works well. Jamaican Music was a light little horse. You couldn't work him too much and he never ate too good. Wild West is as good as Jamaican Music was, but he is a much stronger and hardier horse. It makes it very much easier.”
It is a measure of the man that he has never been afraid of hard work. Picking Wild West from the 831 yearlings catalogues for the 1983 National Yearling Sales was not just luck.
“Before the Yearling Sales I do a lot of work because I am not in the top buying bracket. I have to find top horses in the middle price range. When you are restricted money-wise you have got to do that much more work. I go to the farms - I must go to at least 20 farms before the sales - and then I work for a solid week at Germiston before the selling beings. I probably look at 350 horses that I have liked on their breeding, so if one of them comes up at the right price I can snap it up. This is one of the secrets, I think. You have to sit there day and night and just wait patiently because there is always a lull in the Sale here and there, and this is where you can usually get a bargain. I had a good time last year - but, of course, as you climb the ladder so you get more money and clients put more into it and it gets easier.”
Rixon tends to stick to families he knows, has trained and has had good results with. Twing and her daughters Twang and Twong, Jamaican Music's progeny and the good racemare Welsh Pageant and her daughter Welsh Impulse (by Jamaican Music) have all done well for the trainer.
“I buy all my own horses, or I would say 90% of them, and I deal them out afterwards. Whatever I pay for them, I pass them on to get the best bargain for my clients. It's very difficult if you have three clients all wanting the same horse, so this way the prices vary and you can talk to the client afterwards. If the horse cost R5 000 more than your client wanted to pay, you have to persuade him to take it if you think it is a top horse. Because, you know, we always go over the client's limit!”
From the beginning, Ralph Rixon took a view on the progeny of Roland Gardens (Ire), the English 2000 Guineas winner.
“Well, I had one from his first crop. A horse out of Indira who was brilliant. In his first run he beat Tucaman by 3 lengths. He was very, very soft, though. Eventually he went in the shins, went in the knees and went in the joints over a period of two years. So that introduced me to the Roland Gardens. They are good horses if they are sound. You have to pick them though. The Roland Gardens have two faults - bad legs and short necks, otherwise they are beautiful horses.
“I think every trainer has a particular type. I go more for the big, strong athletic type of horse because I have had such a lot of luck with horses like Craftsman.
Ralph Rixon was born and grew up in Claremont in Cape Town. His early days were spent with hacks and jumpers.
“A little way away from us there were the West Lodge stables of Witkowsky where both hacks and racehorses were kept. We used to go down to the stables and play around with the horses. Eventually we bribed the grooms to put us up and lead us around in the afternoons. Then we started riding properly and from there we began riding work - and that's how I got into the racing game.
“In the meantime we were show jumping and riding in gymkhanas and then when I was 13 years old I rode in my first race, the non-Thoroughbred hurdle race at Durbanville. My mount was a Basuto pony and, of course, Hennie de Jager had something in there. I was a great friend of Hennie. He was a few years older than me but he helped me along. In the race the two of us went to the front and were soon a furlong ahead of the rest. We came head and head over the last jump and my pony was that tired he couldn't pick up his legs on the other side and we came down. That was my first race. That same afternoon I rode in a flat race and from there I started riding regularly at Durbanville at the amateur meetings.
At that stage young Rixon thought no further than who he would ride at the next meeting. He was flexing his muscles in the tough horsey crowd who rushed from the stables to school and school to the stables.
“For three years we rode at Durbanville, going to school, of course, but getting off on Wednesdays. We had 18 meetings a year - about one every three weeks- for the amateurs at Durbanville in those days. That was in 1945. It was very good fun.
“And then when I was 16 years old and getting really involved with horses, my dad pulled me out and said I could do what I liked with horses after I had done a trade. My uncle was a big building contractor in town and he took me as an apprentice carpenter. But I still went on riding at Durbanville. I took the trade and then at the age of 21 I married Val. We stayed here for a year and then we went up to Northern Rhodesia, Zambia now.”
The Rixons settled in Kitwe, the leading town of the rich Copperbelt in the north of the country near the Congo border. Copper was booming, development mushrooming. It was the days of the enormous copper bonuses and there was no shortage of money to be earned by those with skills to offer.
“After 18 months up there I started building on my own. There were small gymkhanas most weekends and we brought a few of our horses up from Cape Town, and, of course, we cleaned up the locals because we were so much more experienced. I remember one weekend gymkhana where there were 30 events and between my brother Roy, Val and myself we won 23 of them.
“Eventually they started having amateur racing on gymkhana days and this went from strength to strength. Then we had the gymkhanas on Saturdays and the races on Sundays. Racing then turned professional and we all had to take out licenses.”
The Rixons spent 14 years in Northern Rhodesia during which time Ralph imported over 600 horses for himself or his friends and their connections. His business flourished and he became very involved with training horses for the local race meetings.
“Our son, Guy, was a sickly boy and half the time he was in hospital in Cape Town, so when education became a problem too, we decided to come south.
“We first went to Durban and I got stables there. I bought eight horses at the Yearling Sales in Johannesburg and went on to Natal. A few of my better horses racing in Southern Rhodesia at the time were coming down to join me and I applied for my licence in Natal. Mr Sproule, the then head of the Stipendiary Stewards, told me they didn't want any trainers in Natal that came from the bush. We could go back to the bush or to Port Elizabeth or to Cape Town and apply for a licence there. So we packed up and came back to Cape Town.
“We looked around Cape Town and I bought this piece of ground here in Philippi. By then we had spent all our Rhodesian money so when one of the big contractors in town asked me if I would do a difficult job for them I accepted. It suited me fine because I had a nice income while I was building the house and stables. I did that for a year until I was established and I applied for my licence, and I started from there.”
As the years have passed, the Rixon's roots have gone down deeply. Their son Guy, once the stable assistant, has his own training establishment in Cape Town, and the two other boys have left the nest. Life for Ralph and Val has got into an established routine.
“We are very happy here because we have the best of both worlds. We spend six months in the Cape and six months in Durban for their winter season. We have got permanent stables in Durban and own a flat there.
“Horses do very well in the Western Cape and I think racing is keen down here. The entries are disappointing though. Take today, there were 29 entries in a race that now has 7 runners. Why are fellows entering horses just to scratch them? We often have races cancelled, so if you've got an outstanding horse, your panic is to see if the race stands up because if there is a good horse in it everybody seems to scratch. The way I look at it, second place for the owner is better than the horse standing in the stable - or third place, or fourth place. If the horse runs fourth it feeds him for a month. As a trainer you have to look after your clients - it's your business - and the more success you have for them the better for you in the long run.”
Ralph Rixon believes there is no substitute for experience. He feels the Johnny Come Latelys don't produce horses like those prepared by trainers who have grown up in the game.
“I think there is nothing better than experience. I learnt a lot from a very old friend of mine, Colin Tyler's father, and he was from the very old school, from the real old school. What he taught me 35 years ago, I'm still putting into practice today. He was brilliant because he was a man of 70 when I knew him, so that was 70 years of experience that he pushed into Colin and I and a few of the local boys. If a trainer hasn't got an eye he isn't a trainer.
“You learn as you go along. I remember I had a very good filly and one of the top trainers of the day bought her full brother the following year. He was a bad legged horse and I had a chat to the old man and asked him if he wasn't worried about the colt's legs. He patted me on the shoulder and said, ?Son, you just give them six months longer and they are just as good.' That was Willie Kleb. And I learnt. Horses are born with the turnings in and the turnings out and they learn to cope with them - given time.
“I train out of the manger. If the horses are eating well they can work well. I think this is one of the things that has helped me succeed. I am very strict about the leavings in the morning, because you can push a horse so far backwards if he is feeling off and you work him hard.
“We are not reliant on blood tests. We do our small tests ourselves. If we have a problem or we have a horse in a big race we do monitor the blood. But I don't go overboard. I think a lot of people pay too much attention to blood.”
Assessing the horses in his stable and programming their racing careers is part of a day's work to Ralph.
“We have a very nice Roland Gardens, Honey Bear, that we brought out the other day. I think he is the nicest Roland Gardens I have ever seen or trained. He has a beautiful swan neck which most of them haven't got. He is a good legged horse and he can gallop. It's early to tell, but at this stage I think he will definitely go through to the tops, and he must stay, his whole family stays.
“I have also got this new French horse - the first imported horse I've ever had, so it gives me a chance with the top boys and their imported horses. He has just come out of quarantine and we are fooling around with him, hacking one day and trotting the other. I'm in no hurry, he will tell me himself when he is acclimatised. All my horses tell me themselves when they are ready for strong, hard work. Again it all goes back to the empty manger.”
Petite and smiling Val Rixon has always been involved with her husband's horses. She was a highly competent work rider, amateur race rider and show jumper. She has owned a number of the good horses Ralph has trained and is part of the team he always refers to as “we” when discussing anything to do with the yard.
“Val plays a terrifically big part as far as I am concerned, because I always have her to fall back on. She has been a horsewoman all her life and knows conformation well,. Of course now and again we have a disagreement over something but it's terrific to turn to her and ask her opinion because two opinions are so much better than one. And, of course, her jolly outlook on life helps a lot.”
Ralph has mustered a dedicated, expert team around him to help produce his horses at their peak.
“I think stable management counts for more than anything in training a horse. I have a very good team at the moment. Geoff Woodruff is my main assistant, and I have a second assistant, Arthur Grey, who was with a training stable for 23 years and an excellent amateur race rider. My stable jockey is Greg Holmes and I have got young Eric Chelin who has just come out of his time. He is very light but he will be a top jockey in 5 year's time. He has got brains and ability.”
Chelin is a product of the South African Jockeys' Academy, and although Rixon thinks highly of the lad, he is not so enthusiastic about the system of training apprentices in South Africa.
“I think if there wasn't an Academy we would get more top riders. It would then be the keenness of the kid himself to go out and start from the bottom, shovelling out the stable and trying to get a ride on a decent horse. That is what makes top boys.
“Since the Academy started we only have two or three top boys, while in the early days there were 10 top boys at the same time, and there wasn't any difference between them. The kid that battles to get to the top, as with any business or profession, is the keen one who is successful.”
Ralph and Val have established their lifestyle and are more than happy with it. Their life is inextricably entwined with horses. Most of their friends have a common interest - the horse. Their ups and downs are those totally understood by people involved with the unpredictable Thoroughbred.
“I love my racing. I have made a very good living out of it and I wouldn't change it for anything in the world. We all have our aggravations, but on the whole it's a beautiful life. I'm not a fanatic as far as racing is concerned. If you win today and you get beat tomorrow there are always other meetings coming up. Like one of the old trainers said, you've always got that unraced two-year-old in your stable. Other than that it is just hard work, and more hard work!”
SA Racehorse - February 1986
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