Justin Vermaak, centre, buying horses in Australia. Photo: Supplied

CAPE TOWN – “I used to follow the trainers and the jockeys the way people follow their football teams.”

Whether you’re a football fan or more of a rugby, cricket or boxing devotee, that one sentence alone should do enough to relay one thing: Whoever those words belong to is seriously into their horse racing.

That passion and dedication is enviable. And if that passion pours from a five-year-old boy, it becomes awe-inspiring.

As about as awe-inspiring as the achievements of that five-year-old all grown up.

You don’t have to have a long-winded talk with Green Street Bloodstock director Justin Vermaak to know that horses are his thing. They’ve always been his thing.

And while that thing started before he could read or write, it’s when he turned 13 that it became an even bigger part of his life. Every weekend at 4.30am, to be exact.

“My father enjoyed having a bet, so the horse racing channel was always on, and I fell in love with the horses and the sport and just how everything worked.

“I remember getting a subscription to the Sporting Post, which is our newspaper, and I used to wait for it to come in the mail every Wednesday and every Sunday, and I’d look at all the horses that were running and follow my favourite jockeys and trainers from the age of five.

“When I was 13, my parents met a professional horse racing trainer called John Fox at a local restaurant in Hillcrest. They told him that I really love racing and asked him to take me to the training establishments so that I could see how things work behind the scenes.

“During school holidays and weekends, I would wake up at 4.30 in the morning and go to the track with him and meet all the jockeys and trainers.”

Leaning back on his office couch while talking about the different roles he’s taken up in the industry, Vermaak elaborated on how his job isn’t a standard nine-to-five one.

It’s extensive travelling (he had to swop his comfortable office couch – although he doesn’t spend a lot of time there – for a plane seat 75 times last year alone), and constant social media checks to keep up to date with international horses and happenings, and sometimes the occasional gamble.

And when it comes to that occasional gamble, the Durban-born, Cape Town-based buyer, who’s also director of the Western Cape Horse Racing Association, would be able to tell just how much a gamble he made when he was 19 paid off.

“When I was 18, the day after my final matric exam, I got in a float with a bunch of horses and we went to Johannesburg, and I started a satellite yard with trainer David Cunha.

“He was a young trainer and I was his assistant, and within one year, we won the biggest race in Johannesburg, called the Sansui Summer Cup.

“That’s what made me really focus on racing and what made me know this was going to be my profession. The jockey won the main preparation race on a different horse.

“I took my jockey off the horse he won the big race on, and put him on this horse. He was like a 50/1 outsider, the public gave him no chance of winning.

“There were newspaper articles in which the trainer of the other horse said ‘this young and naive agent has made a mistake’. And then he ended up winning it.

“At that time I started learning about other professions in the industry, and one of them was being a jockey’s agent.

“Studying horses and their form and where they’d been running... that was my strength. So I became an agent and left the training – financially, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity in it.

“When I was 19, I started this jockey’s agent business and it went well. Eventually I got offered a job at the National Horse Racing Authority as a handicapper.

“I was the youngest handicapper in the world by 12 years. There were four handicappers in the country, and I was one of them. I left after 11 months, the desk job, Monday to Friday, wasn’t for me.

“I restarted the jockey’s agent business and became an agent to my friend S’manga Khumalo, and within 16 months or so, I helped him become the first black champion jockey in South Africa.

“He was the first black jockey to win the Durban July, and then he won the championship the next year.

“In that time I got offered a job as a manager at a big breeding operation, so then I moved from the whole racing thing into breeding.

“I was Dr Andreas Jacobs’ manager for four years and two years ago, I went on my own. I’m now a Bloodstock agent, and I travel the world buying horses for my clients. So, that’s the private part of my business.”

While Vermaak used to “follow jockeys and trainers the way people follow their football teams”, you don’t have to be a devout horse-racing enthusiast to know that there’s quite a difference between fans of football and lovers of horse racing.

And it’s that elitist tag the 30-year-old Vermaak is giving a new dimension to.

“For the last three years, I’ve been trying to expand the ownership base and bring more people to the sport of horse racing because it’s a sport that’s losing public interest. It’s an elite sport and an expensive one,” he explained.

“So, I started a syndication company called Green Street Bloodstock. I would go to the sales and buy cheaper horses for like 20 or 50 thousand, that’s the real bottom-end. It’s hard to buy good horses at that price.

“Then we’d sell 10 or 20 percent shares. Our first horse was a winner, her name was Miss Nightingale, and then we went from two horses to 65 horses in about 18 months.

“About 16 months ago I expanded to Singapore as well, so we have Green Street Bloodstock here and Green Street International in Singapore. We’ve had winners there as well. We’re over 65 winners now in three years.

“I’m also the director of the Western Cape Horse Racing Association, and we’ve just incorporated a new, young board of people. It’s our new push to try and get people to the racetrack, not just to the Sun Met.

“The only real way you can do that is by getting them involved in owning a piece of the horse, that’s the only way you really feel the real excitement of the sport.

“It’s all good and well you go to the Queen’s Plate and people are partying, but then unfortunately in a lot of places, they barely know the races are going on, and then the racing is like a sideshow.

“We want people to actually get involved in the sport side of it, because that’s where you get hooked.

“We’re more than happy to introduce more people to the sport of kings, anybody is more than welcome to check out our website and get in touch.”

Vermaak’s age alone makes his story an inspiring one. After all, how often do you come across major horse racing stakeholders on this side of 40?

But while the digits in his bio are unique, given his achievements, it’s his passion for horses that will continue to make his journey in the sport of kings a supreme one.


Weekend Argus

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