Synopsis: “Legends of the Turf” is a 17-episode documentary series about the greatest South African racehorses to have graced the South African turf from 1960 to 1980, a period known as “The Golden Age” of racing.
Hawaii was bought by trainer George Azzie on behalf of his chief patron, American tycoon Charles Engelhard, and showed his awesome ability from the moment he stepped onto the racecourse as a two year old. In an 800 meter scurry, he was slow away by four lengths, but had opened up a lead of twelve lengths by the time he crossed the line. It was an indication of things to come. To this day, Hawaii remains the only horse in South African turf history to have won all three Guineas. However, when it came to Greyville racecourse in Durban, with it’s short straight and buzzy atmosphere, Hawaii was never at his best, and in 1968, shouldering a big weight as a three year old, he did not see out the July distance. Charles Engelhard decided to export the superstar colt to America. After a three month quarantine period that took a heavy toll, Hawaii was nursed back to health to become the champion grass horse in America in 1969.
It is perhaps ironic that a Karoo-bred son of a failed stallion, should for no particular reason be named after one of the American States, only to be bought by an American, and then go on to become an American equine champion… or perhaps it was just fate.
Growing up in a family steeped in racing tradition, my grandfather and mother used to tell me the stories about the great racehorses of the past. One of my most vivid memories is of me sitting on my grandfather’s bed as he told me the story of Sea Cottage. As time marches on, one forgets, but a few years back I came across a scrapbook filled with clippings about the great Sea Cottage and suddenly all my childhood memories came flooding back. It was then that I decided to tell the stories of the great South African equine racing legends in a way that brought them back to life and immortalized them for all time.
The goal was to create a series that appeals not only to the racing fan, but also to the layman. I have tried to identify each champion’s unique character and story and tell it in such away that it becomes personal. Through interviews with some of the great trainers, owners, breeders and jockeys of the past, together with archive footage, newspaper clippings and the occasional dramatisation, we get a deeper insight into the world of thoroughbred racing during the 60’s and 70’s. Some stories are about heroes, some about scoundrels, some about human conflict, some about thrilling rivalries, others about the great bonds that exist between man and beast, and many are about triumph in the face of adversity.
Legends of the Turf has been a journey of some nine years. I have had to take on multiple roles as producer, director, writer, researcher, interviewer and voice over artist. I am the living proof that where there is a will there is a way and thus the whole production has been a very personal experience for me. The ghosts of the past greats are living through me, through the stories that I am telling and I consider it a privilege to have become their voice.
Aidan Lithgow studied at AFDA and has a degree in film directing and screen writing. “Legends Of The Turf” is Aidan’s first long form project. Aidan is also an accomplished show jumper and regularly commentates at showjumping events in South Africa.
Aidan is the son of the late Tellytrack supremo Jimmy Lithgow and Elaine Lithgow (nee Rathbone) and recounts that as a child, instead of being regaled with fairy tales at bedtime, grandfather Les Rathbone (who trained Summer Cup winner Casbah), used to send him to sleep with stories of the great horses and characters of the South African turf. Coming from such a dyed in the wool racing family as well as inheriting Jimmy’s prodigious talent for acting and broadcasting, the fuses of racing and storytelling were laid very early on. They just needed a tiny spark to kick them into life.