THE LEGEND OF SEA COTTAGE FIFTY YEARS ON
It is 50 years ago, almost to the day, that a sinister element of greed almost ruined the life and career of an astonishing racehorse.
It was in early June 1966 that three members of what has been described as Durban’s “seedy underworld” gathered to plot their crime – to shoot that year’s Durban July favourite, Sea Cottage.
The reason? A bookie (Sonny Chislett), who was owed a lot of money by a nightclub owner (Monty Labuschagne), stood to lose huge amounts of money if Sea Cottage was to win the Durban July. So the bookie, the nightclub owner and their sidekick “henchman” conspired and hatched their plan.
It was on the morning of June 10th that Sea Cottage and his trainer, the legendary Syd Laird, were at the Blue Lagoon, a norm in those days to work the horses in that area of the Durban beachfront, a short walk from Newmarket Stables. A gun shot rang out as a gunman shot Sea Cottage.
Fortunately the gunman had been spotted in previous days observing the horse’s movements, and with his easily recognizable yellow convertible, the henchman Johnny Nel, and his accomplices, were arrested.
Sea Cottage, now South Africa’s most famous racehorse, with superb medical attention, made a miraculous recovery and was training again a week later.
“When he was shot in the rump three weeks before the July, they couldn't locate the bullet on an X-ray, the equipment not what it is today. A doctor who had served in World War 2 advised against using penicillin which in 1966 would knock you off your game. He surmised that the bullet would have cauterized itself as he had experienced with the soldiers. Thus Sea Cottage was able to take part in the big race,” Alec Laird explains.
Although he was very young at the time, Alec Laird says that there are plenty memories from stories told by his father, Syd Laird, and others including his uncle Robert Sivewright who rode Sea Cottage to most of his victories. Alec, who is a legendary trainer in his own right, comes from generations of South African horseracing talent.
Sea Cottage came fourth in that year’s Durban July and a year later, in 1967, went on to win it. “My father said he almost withdrew from the race in 1966 but when Sea Cottage trotted with the bullet wound although lame, he never once put his ears back. My father said if he once showed that he was unhappy to work, then he would have stopped”.
When Sea Cottage was shot, get well soon cards and telegrams were received from far and wide.
By the time he retired in 1967, he had won 20 of the 24 main races he had participated in.
The Laird’s relationship with Sea Cottage began long before 1966. “The story begins with Sea Cottage's mother, Maritime, who was trained by my father's uncle Syd Garrett,” Laird says. Maritime won a few races and was a reasonable performer… “But she impressed my father with her courage and attitude. At the time my father was an assistant to his uncle. He asked the breeders to promise him first call if they bred a colt by Fairthorne, the stallion. Sea Cottage was born and leased to Syd Laird.
“He won his first race on December 12th, my father's birthday, as a young two year old. He remained a light framed athletic horse although he ate more than the other horses. He would catch his rider off guard by walking quietly on the way home from exercising but suddenly explode propelling his rider six foot into the air then running loose with everyone frantically trying to catch him. This would be on the beach at Blue Lagoon where they trained before the training centre at Summerveld was built,” Alec recalls.
Alec says he recalls his uncle Robert Sivewright clarifying what, in his opinion, separated Sea Cottage from his opposition. Most horses, he said, could maintain their absolute optimum speed for around 400m. Sea Cottage had the ability to keep it going for an extra furlong, around 600m. “That way he could come from behind, loop the field and still catch them,” Alec says.
“Sea Cottage would loaf in the early part of the race and you, as the jockey, could not tell him when it was time to go - he would take the bit on the turn and get going himself, making up his own mind”.
When Sea Cottage had to be put down at the age of 25 after he suffered a stroke, the bullet was found - it had moved to the inside of his leg and was donated to be auctioned at a horseracing fundraiser.
This year’s Vodacom Durban July takes place at Greyville on 2 July 2016. For more information about current events or more stories about the heritage of South African horseracing, go to www.itsarush.co.za or follow Racing. It’s a Rush on Facebook or Twitter.
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