The Castle Tankard is the oldest sponsored horserace in Southern Africa and its early history provides a fascinating glimpse and insight into the origins of thoroughbred racing in Zimbabwe.
It all began in August 1959 when the Owners & Trainers Association first proposed to the Stewards of the Mashonaland Turf Club the prospect of staging sponsored horse races in then Rhodesia. A Sponsored Races Sub-committee was subsequently formed and tasked to approach prominent commercial concerns with the idea.
Initial progress on sponsorship was slow and so the Stewards organised an Invitational Sprint Race over 1200m to garner corporate interest. In order to give the race an international appeal, Kenyan trained horses were invited to the race. Ultimately, a field of seven runners was proposed to contest the event inclusive of Rhodesian trained My King, Fourth Edition, The Tiddler, Just Friendly and regional contestants, Riza from South Africa, Herald III and Gold Finesse from Kenya.
The National Breweries came on board in February 1960 and offered to sponsor that race to a stake of £2,100.00. This led to the birth of the Castle Tankard on Easter Monday, 1960.
The inaugural race was a roaring success with record attendance figures and a Totalisator turn-over well above double the average. The results were 1st Riza, 2nd My King, 3rd Fourth Edition and 4th Herald III. Both the National Breweries and the MTC Stewards were determined to esure the continuation and sustainability for this first sponsored race in Southern Africa.
In 1961, the race distance for The Castle Tankard was increased to a mile (1600m) and was won by one of the leading young milers in Southern Africa,the 3-year-old aptly named Speed Fiend.
Encouraged by the appeal generated by the Castle Tankard in these formative years, the National Breweries increased the stakes to £4,000 in 1962 and the conditions of the race were changed into a Handicap attracting a field of 14 starters. The popularity of the Handicap conditions was reflected in the attendance figures and Totalisator turnovers and so these were retained in future as conditions for the Castle Tankard.
In 1963, the distance was again increased to 2000m with 10 runners taking part. There was a heavy downfall of rain in the morning of the race and bottom weight, Basilica won a close run race. 1964 saw a change in race dates from Easter Monday to 2 May and the race reverted back to 1600m. 19 horses participated, 9 of which had come from South Africa. The visitors triumphed with 3 South African horses taking the first 3 places.
The 1965 edition of The Castle Tankard saw a reduced field of 11 runners lining up to contest the lucrative event. In those days, there were no starting stalls in operation and a tape start was used to begin the race. The year will be remembered forever as the year of the false start. The field was obstreperous when called into line and more than a dozen attempts to walk up were spoilt by horses rushing the tapes at the critical moment. The chief culprit was Hay Trop ridden by M. Roberts. Eventually, the starter thought he saw a chance of getting the field away and pressed the lever but immediately realised that it had not been a fair start for all. He signalled for a false start and about half the field pulled up but the other riders continued to race the full distance. There was a delay while these horses eventually walked back to the start and the proper race could finally take place. The first four horses past the post, Rose Knight, Hay Trop, Grand View and Punters News, had not taken part in the false race.
In 1966, when conditions for the race were being reconsidered, Mashonaland Turf Club commissioned a straight 7-furlong (1400m) course, the only one in Southern Africa at the time. It was decided to hold the Castle Tankard over this distance. 13 runners took part, five of which were from South Africa and in an exciting finish, the first three horses past the post were all locally trained.
Following the 1966 race, the sponsors called for a high-powered meeting to consider the future of the Castle Tankard. The race had by then established itself as one of Southern Africa’s premier races – a status that continues even to this day. There was a consensus that a definite distance should be fixed for the race. After consultation, it was decided to revert to the classic distance of 10 furlongs (2000m). The stake money was increased to £5000 and instead of being an invitational event, the race was open for anyone to enter.
On 29 April 1967, 18 horses went to the start after the handicapper had been inundated with nominations – some that could not even be weighted! The racing buzz centred on Doctor John set to carry top weight of 131lbs on his final race in a distinguished career. As the race developed however, Doctor John appeared to have little chance of winning but when turning into the straight his colours loomed up menacingly on the outside and slowly, stride by stride, he overtook the field to win by ¾ length from Melsetter, who after having been unruly at the start, came down the inside to hit the front 100m out and held on to beat the tied 3rd placed horses, Roman and Dark Majesty by 1¼ lengths. Doctor John was ridden by Trevor Lange and went off at 5/1 odds. Melsetter went off at 40/1 and was ridden by Jockey Vic Moore. The Totalisator turnover had reached the record figure of over £50000.
From 1968 onwards, the starting pens came into operation and the alteration of the starting position of the 10-furlong (2000m) at Borrowdale Park was completed making the Borrowdale racecourse one of the best and fairest courses in Southern Africa.
So the Castle Tankard can be said to have been conceived in 1959, born in 1960 and came of age in 1967. The race has proceeded from strength to strength and has never lost its glamour or appeal throughout its history.
The 2015 edition was won by the South African trained Yer-Maan while the 2016 event was won by the Gokhan Terzi trained Rock The Country. 2017’s honours went to Comanche Brave underneath jockey Evert Pheiffer.
Once again, the nation awaits to be captivated by the class of 2018. The proud tradition continues 56 years down the line and there is nothing that can quite compare to winning this prestigious spectacle. This year’s Castle Tankard will be no exception.