You don’t often think of Africa as being a big horse racing destination, but in countries like South Africa, it has been taking place since the late 18th century.
While races like Australia’s Melbourne Cup and England’s Royal Ascot tend to get most of the world’s attention, here are some notable African horse racing destinations and their famous annual races to check out in-between going on safari.
Africa’s Best Horse Racing Destinations and Top Races to Visit
Horse Racing in Africa
While horse racing receives worldwide attention, Africa’s horse racing seems to get overlooked in favor of more popular horse racing destinations like the U.S., England, Dubai, France, Australia, Hong Kong, and Japan.
The sport seems to only be gaining momentum across the globe, with horse racing now recognized as the second-biggest spectator sport in the U.K.
It was actually the British who first brought horse racing to the African continent when they took control of the Cape Colony on the southern tip of the continent in the very late 1700s.
It didn’t take long for the first recorded horse race to take place in what is now South Africa, and what is now the oldest horse racing club in the southern hemisphere would be established just a little over a decade later on the island of Mauritius.
With the discovery of diamonds and gold in South Africa during the second half of the 19th century, more and more thoroughbreds would be brought into the country and the sport just kept growing.
Rich Europeans began moving to South Africa to mine and many ended up investing in the region’s horse racing. Flash forward to today, and South African land-based casinos and racecourses continue to lure royalty and wealthy travelers looking to place a wager.
Top Horse Racing Destinations in Africa
While you do find horse racing scattered throughout Africa in countries like Morocco and Kenya, most of the action and top notable races are focused in two regions, South Africa and Mauritius.
The domesticated racing thoroughbreds of Africa seem to be overlooked, however, for a certain other equine with stripes.
Yes, it seems like the Burchell’s and mountain zebras of South Africa catch the attention of tourists far more than the well-groomed thoroughbreds that race the nation’s tracks.
To shine more light on South Africa’s horse racing industry, let me introduce you to some of the country’s top tracks and annual races. I’ll also hop over to the island of Mauritius to showcase Africa’s number two horse racing destination.
Horse Racing in South Africa
Johannesburg: Summer Cup
Johannesburg’s oldest horse race takes place at the beginning of each summer, which is in late November being that it’s in the Southern Hemisphere.
The race takes place on one of South Africa’s oldest tracks, Turffontein, which always offers up some pretty thrilling finishes thanks to a steady climb from the 1200 meter mark. This feature makes it one of the country’s most difficult tracks which really tests the endurance of the competing horses.
While the race attracts the wealthy and famous, it’s also family-friendly. There’s a large carnival on the day complete with giant ferris wheel, rides, buskers, and face painting for kids.
Also unique is the Summer Cup’s big half-time show, where much like the Super Bowl, musicians, dancers, and a headlining local big-name act temporarily grab the spotlight away from the horses and jockeys.
The track, with its superb Johannesburg skyline views, also hosts the annual South African Derby for three-year-old Thoroughbred horses.
Cape Town: Sun Met
Known as Africa’s richest race thanks to offering up the largest purse in Africa, the Sun Met takes place in late January at the Kenilworth Race Course. Kenilworth is the oldest track in the country, dating back to 1883 when it was known as the Metropolitan Mile.
The event can draw as many as 50,000 spectators and combines a mix of racing, fashion, and entertainment. As for the horses, many of the race winners have gone on to achieve success internationally.
The track is also unique in that it features a 130-acre conservation area in its center, which provides critical habitat for a number of threatened plant species as well as birds and other animals.
Several weeks before the Sun Met takes place, Kenilworth hosts the L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate racing event which officially kicks of the racing season.
Smaller and more exclusive than the Sun Met, the event dates back to 1861 and asks that attendees dress in blue and white each year. The highlight comes on the Saturday of the event when the main race and a giant after party take place.
Image credit: South African Tourism (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr
Durban: Durban July Handicap
South Africa’s premier horse racing event, the Durban July Handicap is the country’s answer to Britain’s Royal Ascot. The race is held at the Greyville Racecourse and has been running since 1897, with Queen Elizabeth II (an avid horse lover herself) visiting the track on multiple occasions.
Needless to say, the event is held annually in July, with the anticipation each year reaching a feverish pitch at the start of the month. The pear-shaped Greyville Racecourse sits in the heart of Durban, enveloping a championship golf course inside its track.
Greyville is also notable for being the first South African track to install floodlights to allow for night-time racing.
A horse named Ipi Tombe who won the July Handicap one year went on to become the first Zimbabwe-bred horse to win a race at America’s famous Churchill Downs, home of course to the Kentucky Derby.
Horse Racing in Mauritius
Port Louis: Champ de Mars Racecourse
You may be surprised to learn that a rather small island nation off the southeast coast of Africa which was once home to the now extinct dodo bird houses the Southern Hemisphere’s oldest horse-racing club.
The Champ de Mars Racecourse is situated in the Mauritian capital of Port Louis, where it has been since 1812.
The Mauritius Turf Club is actually the second oldest active turf club in the world and the track hosts a number of notable races each year during the racing season which runs from roughly April-December.
Big name races include the Barbé Cup, Maiden Cup, Duchess of York Cup, and the Duke of York Cup. Though of course the most prestigious race in Mauritius is the Maiden Cup which itself dates back to 1843.
Horse racing has become the most important sport in the country, with the Maiden Cup becoming as much a cultural event as a sporting event. The track was actually used as a stage for celebrations when Mauritius gained its independence in 1968.
The Champ de Mars regularly attracts members of the British royal family, and its regular weekend races can see crowds in the tens of thousands. The record for attendance occurred at the 1984 Maiden Cup when over 100,000 people flocked to witness the races.
Many of the horses that you will observe racing in Mauritius are imported from South Africa, showcasing a connection between Africa’s top two horse racing destinations.