The TmesThey dubbed Sentinel “The Iron Horse” because he was the toughest and most enduring of characters.
The statistics tell the story of resilience, bravery and versatility. From 56 starts, he recorded 29 wins - with 12 Grade 1s and 21 places.
Racing from two to seven years of age between 1971 and 1975, he travelled throughout the country and won at eight different racecourses from 1000m to 1600m. There has been no other South African horse with a record like that at the top level.
“He was a real toughie, that’s what I remember most about him. A phenomenally strong horse,” says Michael (Muis) Roberts, the jockey who partnered Sentinel to many of his successes. “He was massive, at least 17 hands, and weighed about 600kg.”
Sentinel was bred by the Ellis family on their Mooi River farm, Hartford, which is now part of the estate of South African champion stud Summerhill. Ray Ellis had started breeding and racing horses in 1940 and moved quickly into the top rank of the South African turf with horses like Cape Heath, Panjandrum, Ajax, Magic Mirror and the great Mowgli.
Much of this success was built on the stallions, Sybil’s Nephew and Masham. Well-bred USA stallion No Reprieve was intended as Hartford’s next in line to these titans, but didn’t quite live up to expectations - though he did throw a handful of stakes winners and forged himself a special place in thoroughbred history, thanks to a bay son with a white blaze called Sentinel.
Sentinel’s mother was Winter’s Eve, a two-time winner by the Oppenheimers’ standout stallion Wilwyn and from the same crop as King Willow, Smash And Grab, Rarin To Go and Tragallian.
When Sentinel went into training as a two-year-old in 1970, he joined another beginner in the game, a tiny apprentice jockey nicknamed Muis. The latter remembers riding the horse in work for Joe Joseph, trainer to Ray Ellis and his son Graham.
“He showed huge promise right from the beginning,” recalls Roberts. “But his first race, in which he was ridden by George Davies, was very poor and he finished way back. I galloped him a few days later and couldn’t believe this horse hadn’t won by miles. But it was a different story in his second race, and for a few years after that!”
As a juvenile, the colt shed his maiden tag over 1000m at Clairwood, then won the 1400m Natal Breeders Stakes and the 1200m African Breeders Plate. He finished second in the Grade 2 Smirnoff Plate at Scottsville and fourth in the Grade 1 Champion Nursery.
Davies was in the irons for all the early wins, but Roberts increasingly got the nod from Joseph as the young rider’s talents emerged. “Maybe Uncle Joe thought I wasn’t strong enough to start with. He was such a massive horse, I must have looked like a pimple on him,” says Muis.
The future South African and British champion jockey’s big chance came in 1972 after Sentinel turned three. Muis particularly remembers the Christmas Handicap at Clairwood, a prelude to a planned Cape Town campaign. “He was completely unextended. I never moved a muscle on him and he cruised in.”
Sentinel is often mentioned in the same breath as In Full Flight, for theirs was an epic rivalry that stirred the blood of racegoers in the 1972-73 season.
Their first encounter came in the 1600m Bull Brand Jockeys International at Scottsville, a contest that boasted some cracking three-year-olds. In a quagmire, In Full Flight won from Elevation and Sentinel.
In Cape Town for the summer season, In Full Flight prevailed over Sentinel by a short head in the 1400m Swazi Spa Stakes, setting the scene for a showdown that is still talked about today in awed tones.
The publication “Thoroughbred News” described the 1972 Cape Guineas: “The sharp Milnerton 1600m was the mile that suited Sentinel. In Full Flight came for him, and Sentinel was ready. They turned for home even, and they stayed that way. First the blaze was in front, then In Full Flight held a narrow advantage. Whips flashed, sides heaved, heads nodded, and neither great horse gave an inch. At the line no-one could separate them and the judges put up a dead heat.”
One of the few people not bowled over by this momentous result was Muis, who reckons his horse actually won. “Sentinel’s white blaze cost him the race. The line on the photo finish picture covered the very tip of his nose, which was ahead. That’s what I believe anyway!” he laughs.
There’s a reference to this great race in “The South African Racehorse” of July 1972: “Sentinel… was ridden by little apprentice Roberts, to the great credit of Graham Ellis, who refused to replace the youngster with a stronger boy though he had the chance.”
Next up was the Queen’s Plate over the Kenilworth 1600m, a trip that was to prove to be at Sentinel’s limit. In Full Flight stayed better to take it.
Back in Durban, Sentinel gave weight and a beating to Elevation in the 1200m Rupert Ellis Brown Memorial.
The next instalment in the on-going thriller was the Grade 1 SA Guineas at Greyville, with the betting showing that an enthralled public favoured In Full Flight to triumph again. But the Greyville 1600m was right up Sentinel’s street and, with Bertie Hayden up, he left Elevation and In Full Flight trailing with a blistering turn of speed.
It had become clear that Sentinel was the supreme sprinter-miler and his two great adversaries were more in the miler-stayer mould - confirmed by In Full Flight winning the Durban July before his premature death and Elevation landing a Holiday Inns (Summer Cup) treble.
As for Sentinel, he went on to dominate the shorter features year after year, eventually becoming the country’s leading stakes earner with the princely sum of R207,390.
As a three-year-old he won eight times in 15 starts, at four it was another eight wins, at five two wins, at six three wins and at seven five wins. No sprint in the country was safe. The Cape Flying Championship, the Drill Hall Stakes, the Newbury, the Concord and the Woolavington Cup were some of the titles he accumulated.
An adventurous entry into the 2000m Champion Stakes at Greyville in 1973 had the gladiator drawing on his class to run second to Force Ten - over a distance way beyond his comfort zone.
On his first trip to the Highveld, in November 1972, he tackled the tough Turffontein 1600m to take the Grade 1 Hawaii Stakes. The following year there was another brilliant effort over the same course and distance to claim the Transvaal Champion Stakes.
Gosforth Park was the scene of a popular 1000m victory over Pyrmont and Elevation in the 1974 Joseph Dorfman, and a month later a powerhouse display to beat the formidable Sun Monarch in the Grade 1 National Sprint.
Every year there was a jaunt to Cape Town - though the Queen’s Plate remained elusive. A second runners-up spot as a six-year-old was the best he could muster.
Joseph and the Ellis’ weren’t averse to trekking to unfashionable Port Elizabeth to plunder more honours. The July 1974 “The South African Racehorse” reported: “Never in the 117-year history of racing at Fairview has a single horse attracted so much money and so many people as did Sentinel in the R10,000 Fairview Stakes over 1600m. A field of 13 took on the champion but they had as much chance of beating Sentinel as a drop of water had of surviving a bush fire.”
The Iron Horse was unbothered by the thousands of miles of travelling.
John Ellis, son of Graham and Moira Ellis and a schoolboy in the time of Sentinel, recalls his parents often commenting on how relaxed and easy-going the big fellow was.
“Before a race he used to lie down and take a nap in his box,” says John. “When my mother first saw this she was alarmed and thought he was sick. But he obviously wasn’t, because he just woke up, went out and won again.”
Muis also remembers the equine professionalism. “He was as tough as nails, but not at all aggressive. He knew what he had to do and got on with the job. There was no fancy footwork with Sentinel. He was a real soldier and put heart and soul into his work.”
It wasn’t his swansong victory, but the 1975 Jack Stubbs Memorial over 1000m at Milnerton was a cherry atop a fabulous career. On a perfect Cape summer day, seven-year-old Sentinel whipped talented speedster Harry Hotspur, with two other precocious youngsters way back in third and fourth - Archangel and Yataghan. The “Thoroughbred News” picture of this finish was captioned, “The result that says it all”.
Sentinel was retired to stud at Hartford, but proved to be low on fertility. Seven of his progeny made it to the racecourse and only one failed to register a win. The best was the filly, Protectress, who ran second in the 1979 SA Oaks.
The Iron Horse lived out his days as a galloping companion and lead horse for the Hartford foals. Could a young horse have had a better mentor?
Extract from The Times
Editor’s note: These are powerful words from Joe Joseph, about Cosmonaut. He was an extraordinarily talented stayer who won the Ellises a third Durban Gold Cup, in those days one of the nation’s most prestigious races. That he could sprint a mile (as Joe suggests) and stay two miles better than anything else in the land, says volumes for this horse, but to be rated better than Sentinel in Joe’s eyes, is a telling statement. Sentinel must be one of the all-time great milers of the land, as you can judge from the remarks of Bernard van Cutsem, one of England’s best trainers of his era. Joe struggled with Cosmonaut’s soundness however, and his was a career of unfulfilled promise. When you think of the other extraordinary horses who came off the old Hartford property, Cape Heath, Mowgli, Panjandrum, Magic Mirror, Alyssum and many other Derby, Oaks, Guineas, Gilbey’s, and Smirnoff winners, to name a few of the big ones, you begin to get an inkling of why Sir Mordaunt Milner included the Ellises of Hartford alongside the Lord Derby and the Aga Khan, Marcel Boussac and Federico Tesio, Calumet and Claiborne in America among the world’s greatest owner/breeders of their eras.