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Battle lines are being drawn in a fight to own Greyville racecourse, home of the Durban July and one of the oldest racing venues in the country.
What has made the situation tenuous is that Gold Circle, the present tenant at the racecourse, has not had its operating licence automatically approved because of a change in gambling legislation.
Waiting in the wings is an aggressive and powerful BEE consortium that has made an unsolicited bid to the eThekwini municipality, saying that Gold Circle is “running racing into the ground” and should not be allowed to continue operating from the landmark venue.
The woman behind the takeover bid, racehorse breeder and businesswoman Phindi Kema, said yesterday that her company, Africa Race Group (ARG), based in Port Elizabeth, was a perfect halfway point between the racing operations of Durban and Cape Town.
“To solidify the business, we require critical mass and the location is equally important – hence our interest in Durban and Cape Town,” she said.
Her bid for control of Greyville was given a major boost by the Gaming and Betting Board last week when it said black economic empowerment in horse racing was now a priority.
Kema, 40, said Gold Circle had sold three racetracks – in Gauteng, the Free State and recently the Clairwood racecourse in Durban – reducing opportunities for owners and trainers to make money. She said the sale of the racecourses were of “absolutely no benefit to the industry”.
Greyville, which measures 2 800m all round, was the last racecourse property owned by the government and her view was that it should go to an empowerment company and benefit all South Africans.
“It does not necessarily have to be owned by ARG… We are of the view that the two existing operators (Phumelela and Gold Circle) should not be considered precisely because they have run the industry into the ground,” she said.
Yesterday, Gold Circle chairman Robert Mauvis accused Kema of having a political agenda. “They (ARG) are trying to create issues that don’t exist. They have a mischievous political agenda,” he said.
However, provincial Gaming and Betting Board chairwoman Sibusisiwe Ngubane told The Mercury last night that the delay in Gold Circle’s application for an operating licence was because Gold Circle had failed to submit all the information needed for its renewal under the new laws.
Ngubane recently met key industry players, including Gold Circle, where they presented transformation guidelines detailing minimum standards in the horse racing and betting industry. One of the requirements was that industry players must have a minimum of 26-percent black partnership.
The board also said black partners must be KZN citizens and reflective of its demographics.
“Therefore black partners will have to buy those shares. We are not saying white business should give their shares away,” Ngubane said.
She also said that each application for licensing or licence renewal would be considered individually by the board.
Mauvis said Gold Circle’s lease with the eThekwini municipality allowed it to operate at Greyville racecourse for the next 57 years. He found it “absurd” that a discussion involving the sale of the racecourse was even taking place. “The city manager (S’bu Sithole) has not brought that to our attention. So I don’t think the city is dealing with them (ARG) in a very serious light.”
Mauvis said he believed ARG’s proposal was just an “enquiry” and that Greyville racecourse was a very special piece of land. Having Gold Circle as a tenant would ensure its survival for many years.
“It is very expensive to operate a racecourse. We don’t make money out of Greyville. That is why we sold the Clairwood racecourse – so that we could focus on entertainment and horse racing at Greyville… We employ far more people than any other gambling industry, especially unskilled labour,” he said.
Mauvis said the profits made by Gold Circle went towards upgrading facilities.
A spokesman for eThekwini, Thabo Mofokeng, said ARG’s
proposal would be processed, “taking into consideration arrangements the city has with Gold Circle, and replied to accordingly. There has been no concrete development regarding this matter”.
Mofokeng said the municipality was also discussing with Gold Circle the future development of that area as part of the Florida Road precinct extension.
Kema said her company was bringing a “new thinking” into SA horse racing and not everyone was comfortable with this approach.
“It is important to change the image of SA horse racing so the industry can attract expertise and investment. This can happen when it is seen by the rest of SA as a dynamic industry, not the dinosaur it is now,” she said.