By Robyn Louw
Page 832 of Volume 75 of the South African Racing Calendar lists the last two races of the Bloemfontein card for 1 January 1978. While the results lie buried the mists of time, their significance to the South African industry – and the jockey ranks in particular – cannot be overestimated, because the name in the rider column is B.J. Leisher.
Bartie may not have had a very long racing career, but as they say ‘You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough’ and Bartie packed an incredible amount into his 23 years of race riding. In addition to his Springbok colours and his feature race triumphs, the accolade that belongs to him and to him alone is the fact that he is the first South African jockey to win a championship outside South Africa. His achievement served to put South Africa on the map and wedge the door to the world stage firmly open.
Trying to get hold of Bartie is something of a madcap adventure because one doesn’t simply get in touch with the Leishers, you join the family and brothers, nephews, girlfriends and more come part of the package. The story is told in overlapping shifts with contributions from all angles. However, it seems fitting for someone who is larger than life in so many ways.
Bartie was born on 25 January 1962, the youngest of the strict Catholic family’s nine children. His meticulously maintained journals reflect he joined the SA Jockey Academy on 29 December 1976. “For me it was a laugh. I was interested in going to work outside and learn about animals. When I got there, I thought I would see something like a big dog,” he giggles. “At 14, what do you know? When I saw it put its head out of the stable, it took me a while to go in!” he laughs. It took him two years to learn to ride, but he applied himself diligently. “If you want to get to the top, you’ve just got to work harder than everyone else. But the weight, that’s a different story,” he whistles.
After signing his papers in August 1978, Bartie’s first winner came in the 1700m Allanridge Handicap in Bloemfontein for owner-trainer J Agenbag. “The trainer gave me instructions in Afrikaans. I kept trying to say I didn’t understand, but he just kept speaking and I never understood a word he said. In the race, I jumped out, went to the front and followed the rails and we won by 7.5 lengths. The next race I rode, I won by a neck. So I thought ‘this is quite easy. You’ve got fences all around you, you just ride hard, and you ride winners. From there, it was just a matter of hard work and plenty more hard work.”
Bartie’s star was soon on the ascent., but along with success came offers to cheat, but Bartie says firmly, “I never did. My dad told me ‘if you do it once, you’ll always have to do it’, so I never did.” This fierce determination to always give his best earned him a huge following and a reputation as a jockey who always rode to win.
Bartie’s 1982 July ride, Sweet Wonder, had the connections so confident the victory party was arranged weeks in advance. They did go down in the history books, but not the way they expected. Sweet Wonder came from the clouds and victory looked certain, but Jamaican Rumba made one last lunge in the shadow of the post and Sweet Wonder turned to savage his rival, losing the race by his out-turned head. “Each horse has got stories, the big horses have got big stories,” Bartie says sagely.
In 1984 and aged 23, Bartie became the youngest SA jockey to be awarded his Springbok Colours, an honour he felt profoundly. He earned them again in 1985, the same year he won the Transvaal Championship with 173 wins, beating Gerald Turner’s long-standing record. And then came 1986 and the Rothmans July, when Bartie got the call up for Occult.
Bartie on his 1986 Rothmans July winner, Occult” (photo: Ken Wilkins)
“I got a phone call from Terrance Millard who said he had three horses entered for the July and if he ran all three, would I ride one? I said yes. He asked, ‘Can you ride the weight?’ I said yes. Meantime I didn’t even look at the weight,” he giggles. Occult was carded to carry 50,5kgs – “I had to weigh 47kgs stripped!” he exclaims
For a month, Bartie lived on half a slice of toast a day, with a punishing exercise regime. “I’d slip and fall from sweating right through my socks and takkies,” he remembers. Then he would run up 23 flights of stairs to his room in the Maharani, and wrap himself up in bed under 3 blankets. “That was my day. The worst part was knowing tomorrow you’ve got to do it again.” While Bartie waged war with the scales, Occult was not showing the same resolve. “From what I was feeling at work, I couldn’t win the July. My horse never won a gallop and that’s a fact. But I pray a lot and I asked God to help me win the race.”
With Mark Sutherland on Enchanted Garden and Felix Coetzee on Fools Holme each riding to strict instructions from Millard, Bartie rode his own race, skating Occult to the front to dictate the pace and sprinting for the finish. The horse that couldn’t catch his stablemates at home, won by the best part of a length, setting a new track record and cementing Millard’s legend as the first trainer to saddle the first three past the July post. “That’s history,” says Bartie proudly. “Winning a July is something jockeys and trainers work for all their life. Most of them never make it, so it’s a very special claim to fame. Once your name is up there, you’ve done it. And my name’s up there.”
Top of his game
On 6 September 1986, Bartie rode 6 winners (from 7 rides) – including Jungle Rock in the Champion stakes; four days later he rode 4 winners at the Vaal and on 13 September he rode another 4 winners at Turffontein – a staggering 14 wins in 8 days.
Bartie’s memory is pin sharp and he relives the events of 30 years ago like they are yesterday, painting a picture of a sparkling young talent having the time of his life.
In 1987, Bartie was offered a contract to ride in Hong Kong for Brian Kan. Kan came with a fierce reputation and Bartie relates, “You had to be at work at 4am every morning. Not 4:10, 4am. He told me straight, ‘You get 1 warning. Next time, you’ve got no job.’. One day it was raining badly. Here if it’s raining, you know nobody’s going to work, so I didn’t go to work. I found out the next day, that’s just a normal day there. That was my first warning. But I got away with that one,” he chuckles.
There wasn’t a second one and Bartie flourished in Hong Kong. The 1988 Championship race went down to the wire, with Bartie securing it by one race from the legendary Tony Cruz. At 26, he became the first South African jockey to win an international championship.
An instant hit with the Hong Kong racing public, Bartie was, in the words of his cousin, ‘more famous than the Beatles’. However, on 25 March 1989, comfortably en route to a second Hong Kong title and with the world at his feet, Bartie’s life changed in an instant when head injuries from a serious race riding accident left him fighting for his life. “We left it to God and the doctors,” says his brother Jacob. “We’ve always been strong Roman Catholics and the Lord and lady Mother Mary has kept us alive and healthy and our family together all these years.”
Bartie made a remarkable recovery and returned to South Africa several months later. He bought a farm and horses and established a training facility outside Johannesburg. His brother Tanse took out a trainers’ license and Bartie returned to race racing.
He was side-lined again, this time by a car accident, but fought his way back to the saddle a second time. At a race meeting at Gosforth Park on 17 January 1999, Bartie lost his colleague and childhood friend, Craig Magua in a racing accident. It affected Bartie deeply and in 2001 he retired from racing for good.
The star that once arced so high on the horizon is now tracing a gentle trajectory back to earth, but Bartie is happy. He attends church regularly and is surrounded by family and his girlfriend Lynne and focusses on his farm where he keeps cattle and grows organic vegetables.
Bartie with Lynne Venter” (photo: Bartie Leisher)
Racing is not very good at celebrating our heroes, but even so, it is staggering that the name Bartie Leisher is not honoured or commemorated in some way.
Jacob relates a chance encounter from Turffontein from many years ago. “Out of the blue, an old man on a bench stopped me, and said, “Hey, do you know the best jock South Africa has ever seen? I said who? He said, “Your brother, Bartie Leisher.’ At that stage, it didn’t seem important. I brushed it off, said thank you, sir and moved on. This was 35 years ago, maybe more. The man was in his 80’s and probably had an additional 40, 50 years more experience than I did in racing. It’s amazing that someone who’d seen our greats of the past would give Bartie such a compliment and recognition. God blesses someone with the ability to be a great sportsman. It’s a beautiful feeling to be remembered and to know you are not forgotten.”
Basil Marcus, Robbie Fradd, Douglas Whyte, Jeff Lloyd and Michael Roberts have all been crowned Champions on the international stage. But before any of them, there was Bartie Leisher.
Bartie on his 1986 Rothmans July winner, Occult” (photo: Ken Wilkins)
First printed in the October 2017 edition of Parade Magazine
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