Spike Lerena is firmly established as one of Transvaal's leading trainers. He operates from Randjesfontein, north of Johannesburg, where his 75 horse stable includes Jungle Rock, winner of The Dingaans, the Southern Sun Classic and the Computaform Champion Stakes
Ricardo Paul - Spike to everyone - Lerena was born into a family that has been connected (on both sides) with horses.
"My grandfather came from the Argentine and he was a trainer. He came to South Africa in the early 1900s and, in fact, was the first person to import a horse from the Argentine. He imported mules for the South African Army and in amongst those mules he slipped a few racehorses. HE had a few quite good racehorses in Cape Town and trained right up until his death. He died at 82 in about 1950.
"He married an Englishwoman in this country and his eldest son, Louis, was a jockey for five years. My dad was a trainer in Cape Town and Johannesburg; my mother's brother is Freddie Chappell, an ex-jockey now trainer; I am a trainer and my brother Carlos, "Tex", is a jockey, so we are a racing family!
"There is a race in the Argentine called the Gilbert Lerena Stakes named after my grandfather's brother. The family is still involved in racing and breeding there. I've been to the Argentine, but I didn't have much success meeting my family. My grandfather belonged to the left or the right, whichever it may be, and the other half of the family belonged to the other half of the political scene. But since my visit the family has invited me to go back so I will probably go this year. If I do, I'll definitely bring back a horse or two!"
?As a young lad, Lerena (inevitably) was drawn into racing and began his apprenticeship as soon as he was old enough to join a stable.
"I was a jockey from about 1960 to 1968. In fact I began my apprenticeship in 1957 in Durban. I was there for a couple of months, but my mother brought me back. She didn't like the racing game. Then I was apprenticed to Freddie Chappell - that was a condition - I could only be a jockey if I was apprenticed to my mother's brother. And another condition was that I had to do my school work as well. So I was going to school and riding at the same time."
Eventually a battle against weight necessitated running for kilometres dressed for an Arctic winter, lose enough to ride very moderate horses - began the disenchantment with a jockey's life for Spike Lerena.
"I gave up riding because of weight problems and because my last couple of years weren't very successful either - mainly I suppose because of my weight. I rode for Freddie Chappell until 1963 in Johannesburg, then I went to Cape Town and rode for Allan Higgins for three years. I left Allan in about 1966 to ride for Eben du Toit, a well known trainer in the Cape. I was a sort of assistant trainer / second string jockey with Eben du Toit.
"I enjoyed my years as a jockey, though, and if I had my time again, I would do exactly the same all except I know a bit more now and might go about it slightly differently."
Lerena has always loved horses. He says he was born with them. He left the racing game completely for a couple of years after handing in his jockey's licence, but missed the horses so much he had to come back.
"I worked for several trainers and I believe I learnt from each and every one of them, whether it was something I should do or something I shouldn't do. One thing I do know is that you have to work hard to make a success of it.
"I first took out an assistant trainers licence and was with John Jacobs for two and a half years, then in October 1974 I started on my own. I trained at the Vaal and was there until 1982 and then I moved to Randjesfontein.
"I'm much happier here. I was very unhappy at the Vaal. It's too far out and the stables weren't to my liking. Horses do well there, there's no doubt about that, but it's not nearly as nice as Randjesfontein. You need a change of climate for horses and it's cold enough here, but not the ten or so degrees below freezing like the Vaal.
"I think Randjesfontein is probably the best centre in the Transvaal and will develop into probably the best in the country. The horses do very well - the environment is good." The Lerenas live in Halfway House close to the training establishment. Spike has three daughters all of whom love horses with perhaps the youngest at four years old the keenest rider. His wife Joy is not from a horsey background, but over the years has come to know about her husband's occupation.
"She has been taking riding lessons for about a year now, but I've not yet seen her on a horse!"
Spike was amused to hear he had been described as a guy who didn't trust his shadow.
"No, that's not right. People probably say that because I have a very closed set up. I train for approximately 38 clients and my 38 clients, myself and my jockey know what is going on here and if the press want to know I tell them, but I don't make a public nuisance of myself or use punters. I keep to myself. I don't worry about other stables. It's a hard enough business to control without worrying about other people."
He isn't superstitious though he wouldn't buy a green car.
"But as far as green clothes go, I am not superstitious. For my very first winner I wore a green suit. I just don't do things that are unnecessary, you know. I don't walk under ladders because you can get injured. But I am not really superstitious. I don't like to see a black cat on race day, but I don't let it affect me. I've had winners when a black cat crossed my path."
Lerena operates a 75 horse yard. He has two assistant trainers and a stable employee to help him run his business. He goes to a great deal of trouble selecting his horses and follows families he knows and has had success with.
"Breeding is one of the most important factors in buying a horse. I first go through the catalogue checking on the breeding. There are sires I like and dam lines I like. I like Elevation, Jungle Cove (USA), and a new stallion Argosy (USA), whose progeny will only be on sale next year, but he's the type of stallion I would go for. He is very well related with a strong dam line and I've seen him and he is a very nice horse.
"I tend to like to keep to families if the horse's conformation is good, but I have to like the individual as well. I wouldn't buy a horse if I didn't like it. I have no preference for colts or fillies as today you can have as many fillies as colts in your stable. I have had some good fillies."
At the moment Spike has no stable jockey.
"I had my brother riding for me for about ten years and he rode most of my winners during that period. But the last year I have had several jockeys riding for me. When I give jockeys rides they must come and work the horses here. I believe the jockey must feel the horse he is going to ride. I use Gavin van Zyl, Danny Lombard, Christie Blom and Bartie Leisher."
Having come through the ranks, Lerena is cautious about this assessment of the present day jockeys.
"I think the standard of jockeyship at the moment is average to be quite honest. We have got one or two very good jockeys, but on the whole it is average. There are obviously good points in favour of the Academy system, but I think in this day and age if an apprentice stayed with his master hed be in as good, or even a better position, than in the Academy. I'd like to have an apprentice living with me and working with my horses. The problem is that the apprentices coming out of the Academy don't know about horses. They know how to get on a horse's back and how to gallop the horse and that's it. They don't live with the horse. If you live with your master you are with the horses 14 hours a day and you become a horseman. At the moment they are not horsemen, they are machines on top of a big machine. There are not many horsemen around that have come out of the Academy."
This hard working trainer feeds the horses himself. He is basically an oat man, but treats each and every horse individually, and those that do better on cubes or mixed rations get what suits them best. Like many of the modern day trainers he understands blood readings and takes regular samples from his horses.
"Normally I take the blood to see that the horse's white cell count or red cell count is good. You can pick up if he is starting to sicken just before a race. If I see a horse is well enough and I think he is going to win I take his blood a week or 4 days before the race. If his blood is normal I won't bother with it again. The blood goes to a local laboratory and the results are back in about three hours."
Lerena has been associated with several good horses. Duc du Orleans won the Smirnoff Plate and the SA Nursery for him; The Mazarin horse, St Tropez, won the Dick King Stakes and was second in the Republic Day Handicap; the six time winner On Call: Supreme: Lawn: and now Jungle Rock.
Spike considers Jungle Rock, winner of the R300 000 Sigma Classic, The Dingaans and the Computaform Champion Stakes, the best horse he has trained. He is quick to defend the couple of poor runs that Jungle Rock produced in the Sun International and the SA Two Thousand.
"I don't count those two runs. People wrote him off, but I didn't - he's a very, very good horse. In the Sun International he didn't have things his own way. He was drawn very badly and he ran very wide, O I personally excused that run. In the SA Two Thousand he got injured on the way to the course and probably suffered a bit of shock. He also raced very wide and you can't win races running wide.
"He's still a big baby and has a lot of maturing to do. I think he will be a very good four-year-old. From now on if he doesn't get a good draw we are not going to run him."
Spikes faith in the wilful big colt has been rewarded and Jungle Rock appears to have settled down. He won a 1600m Middle Division at Gosforth Park at the beginning of June, and ran an excellent race in the Mainstay 1800 at Clairwood six weeks later finishing third to Model Man and Ecurie (Arg). At the end of August he came from Gosforth Park to finish a most impressive second and followed this up a week later with an easy win in the GrII Computaform Champion Stakes over 1800m at Turffontein, to take his stake earnings to R400 420.
The grey son of Champion sire Jungle Cove (USA) cost his connections R105 000 and was up to that time the most expensive horse Spike Lerena has bought.
"He was really expensive for me. I'd never gone beyond R60 000 before that!"
Lerena also has a great affection for the Persian Wonder (GB) gelding, Lawn, who he bought for a syndicate when the horse was seven years old. He feels great affection for Lawn, but for Lawn he might not have Jungle Rock in the stable.
"Lawn was different. He was more like a pet than a racehorse. He was good to us and, in fact, the old horse did so well for the Lawn Syndicate that they bought Jungle Rock for me. Lawn did everything we wanted him to. He was very clever. He earned over R70 000 in about 18 months for us. I raided Cape Town twice with him for the Metropolitan. Both times he ran fifth, once 4 lengths behind Arctic Cove and Wolf Power and the next year 5 lengths behind Wolf Power and Arctic Cove and he was 7 and 8 years old at that stage."
Lerena believes there is a lot that can be done to improve racing. He feels the Transvaal authorities have let time and opportunities slip by over the last ten or so years. However, he is heartened by the recent signs of a change in attitude.
"I think Transvaal racing has taken a step in the right direction. They've formed this Development Fund and at last they have purchased two training centres. I believe that the lack of adequate training centres in the Transvaal is the reason racing took a dive in this province.
"Fifteen years ago we were the strongest racing centre in the country and then up until a year ago we were probably one of the weakest because there were no training facilities. But now they are making a move and have bought Randjesfontein.
"If all our clubs got together they could really do a lot for racing, but they never work together. It's been like this for years. They never sit around a table and agree on anything. If all the clubs worked together and improved racing in the Transvaal I believe we would probably be the racing force in the country again. Transvaal is the richest province racing, but if you look at the facilities for training racehorses you wouldn't believe it. It has taken a long time for those in power to realise that trainers and owners need facilities to train racehorses. But it starts there - no facilities, no racehorses.
"So now, at last, it looks as if they are starting to do something. Hopefully everybody concerned will get together and really do a good job."
Lerena is enthusiastic and confident about his stable's future. He loves his life with the horses and makes the most of his opportunities. His horses reflect the care and attention lavished on them and area always well turned out.
He is set for the new season with a strong hand of already proven horses and some well-bred youngsters form the 1986 National Yearlings Sales waiting in the wings. He is prepared to race anywhere and enjoys his sorties to the other provinces. He does, however, admit that he is "Happiest where I have just won!"
SA Racehorse - October 1986
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