Who's the judge?
Colin Buckham, who died in Durban this week, was born into a racing dynasty and worked in the game for more than 50 years – as kit boy, tote clerk, handicapper and judge.
The Buckhams were jockeys and trainers, but Colin made his mark mainly as a handicapper. In “retirement”, he became one of the official judges at Gold Circle race meetings and was obliged to finally retire in 2015 due to South Africa’s labour laws.
“Racing is blessed with the most wonderful people and there is no greater sight than horses locked together, battling it out in a race for the line,” Buckham once said.
During his career, he was involved in two major controversies: the unilateral alteration of weights for a Durban July by unqualified stewards and the finish to the 2000 July when El Picha and Young Rake could barely be separated on the line.
Colin’s grandfather, James Buckham, came to South Africa from New Zealand in the 1890s to work on the Witwatersrand mines, before becoming a farrier and then a racehorse trainer in Durban and Port Elizabeth. He was known as “king of the ponies and galloways”.
James had three sons, Jimmy, Cyril and Pat, all of whom became jockeys. The most famous was Cyril “Bunky” Buckham, a multiple South African champion.
Both Bunky’s sons, Cyril and Earl, became jockeys. The former won two Julys – on Monasterevan in 1948 and Spey Bridge in 1956 – and was later master of the SA Jockey Academy at Summerveld.
As a jockey, Colin’s father Jimmy won three Woolavingtons in a row.
Colin Buckham was born in Durban in 1939 and was educated at Northlands, where he excelled in sport.
He was set for the traditional family career until the age of 14, having worked as a kit boy for cousins Cyril and Earl. “Then I grew six inches in three months and my father said, ‘That’s it, you’re staying at school; you’re too big to be a jockey’.”
Colin played first league cricket and took 50 wickets a season for more than a decade. He was also handy in club rugby and football.
While working as a clerk at Barclays Bank he married fiancée Annabell. Needing extra income for a young family, Colin worked over weekends as a “change clerk” in the tote at the races.
He moved to the jockey room to manage riding fees and eventually quit the bank in 1971 when offered a job as a handicapper at the Durban and Pietermaritzburg Turf Clubs.
He was instrumental in the handicapping evolution from class indicators, through race figures, to the merit rating system of today.
The low-point of Buckham’s handicapping career came with a Durban July. “I can’t remember which year it was, I’ve expunged the bad memory,” he laughed. It was actually 1998, when Classic Flag won.
After he’d calculated the weights, some trainers got together to petition the Durban Turf Club to make alterations. Without allowing Buckham a chance to put his case publicly, and without having any qualifications in handicapping, the club stewards caved in to the trainers’ demands and changed the weights – amid a huge public outcry.
“It was a slap in the face, a vote of no confidence. I gave serious thought to resigning, but some very influential racing people persuaded me to stay,” he recalled.
“I hold no grudges though. Racing is full of people with strong opinions – which is one of the things I love about it. And the July is a race everyone desperately wants to win.”
Buckham rated the Natal winter season of 1977 as his finest achievement, with the five major races all being decided by less than a neck in blanket finishes – indicating near-perfect handicapping.
“They gave me a framed picture of the race finishes. I’d have preferred the inscribed gold watch, but I suppose the club was short of cash that year.”
In 2000, the SA Jockey Club took over all handicapping in the country and Colin worked in the new set-up for five years before being “forcibly” retired in 2005, at 66.
He’d been working as a volunteer judge since the 1980s and continued in that role until 2015.
The 2008 July dead-heat between Pocket Power and Dancer’s Daughter was an obvious highlight, but the finish of 2000 between El Picha and Young Rake is his most memorable moment in the judge’s box.
“To this day some people, including Young Rake’s jockey Kevin Shea, say we should have declared a dead-heat as it took a while to separate the two horses.
“The decision took time because the photo-finish camera then wasn’t as sophisticated as those we had later. We had to position the line on the photo very carefully. With the July being so important, we had to get it right.”
Despite never gambling and having no desire to own a horse, Buckham maintained an avid interest in racing until his death. “I like to pick out a young horse and just follow its career. I find the game fascinating in all respects,” he said.
This is an edited version of a “Legend of the Turf” profile of Colin Buckham written by Mike Moon and published in Racing Express in 2011.