Ask Paul Peter to name the best horses in his stable and he gets cagey. Understandably. As he points out, a racehorse trainer with many valued owners must be diplomatic and not put noses out of joint.
He adds, half-jokingly, “Also, there’s the horses themselves. They’ve got feelings, too.” Then, quite earnestly, “I firmly believe horses are much more aware than they get credit for. They pick up what’s going on.”
That’s why every one of the 190 horses in the Peter yard, even a lowly maiden, gets treated with respect and love. This approach is surely a major factor behind the affable Joburg man claiming his first South African champion trainer title.
Peter sealed the 2021/22 championship at the Gold Cup race meeting at Greyville on Saturday, winning the famous old marathon itself with four-year-old gelding Shangani (7-1) and pushing his prizemoney total up to R23.3-million for the season – just over R2-million more than closest rival and defending champ Justin Snaith.
In the process of amassing that winning aggregate, Peter notched up 221 winners – smashing Sean Tarry’s seasonal record of 215 in the process. That Snaith recorded only 165 wins, yet came so close, attests to how Peter won it with numbers not supreme quality.
It turns out that’s exactly how he strategised his campaign.
“At the start of the season, me and my team took a hard look at our stock and realised we maybe didn’t have the quality of the other big stables; we didn’t have many obvious Grade 1 candidates but had a lot of good horses, nonetheless.
“So, we went for winning as many races as we could, and if the championship came then all good. And, along the way, there were some Grade 1s,” said Peter this week as he prepared to ship his 24-strong KwaZulu-Natal winter string back to HQ at Turffontein.
Raiding KwaZulu-Natal was a key to the championship.
In his 11 years as a full-fledged trainer, Peter has focused attention on competing on the Highveld – which he describes as “the best place to race, in terms of courses and climate”. He might once have added cash rewards, too – but the region’s operator was forced to slash stakes earlier in 2022.
Peter realised, to maintain his challenge, he’d have to supplement earnings by regular travel to the East Coast. It was the masterstroke, as he plundered Greyville and Scottsville.
The Peter family was always besotted with racing and horses. But it was Paul who stepped back from helping run the family’s paint business, Hyperpaints, to get hands-on with the game. In his 30s, he became an assistant trainer to James Maree, a wise old hand revered in the industry.
In 2010, Peter went on his own, with boxes at the Vaal and then at Turffontein. From the outset, hard work, patience and love of the animals marked him out as a cut above.
His first patrons were his family, brothers Gerrard, Johnny and Dominic, and nephews Joel and Jade – a collective that remains the backbone of the yard. An inexpensive R65,000 purchase, Magico, became an omen of great things to come when he pulled the trainer’s first win out of a hat on Durban July day, no less.
From there it was a steady climb to the top. A major boost along the way was when veteran Turffontein trainer Ormond Ferraris retired and some of his best horses transferred to Peter – including super filly Summer Pudding, who went on to land the Triple Tiara and is unquestionably the best horse he has handled to date.
Ferraris was key to the Peter ascent in another way, spending a few years advising the operation and passing on his “incredible expertise in equine fitness”.
Indeed, the new champ credits Ferraris, Maree and KwaZulu-Natal trainer and good friend Dennis Bosch as the greatest influences on his success.
“We took the best of everything we learnt from those three and put it all together.”
He uses the word “we” all the time – referring to his extensive team, which includes his son Tony as an assistant alongside the very experienced and reputable John Vos.
They might have learnt the ropes from the old school, but the Peter team is keen to be at the cutting edge of training techniques – constantly studying world trends and using the very latest equipment. The likes of treadmills and walkers have been installed at Turffontein and special programmes developed to use them as effectively as possible.
It has all paid off. And if the horses really do sense what’s going on in the human world, they’ll know they’re part of a team of champions.