80 years of It-Tazza l-Kbira

By Matthew J. Brincat

The Tazza l-Kbira is 80 years old! Or 80 years young perhaps, because its appeal remains as strong as ever...! This trophy’s history reflects the fortunes and misfortunes of Maltese horse-racing over the last eight decades.

It is therefore fitting that this year, we should take a look at each Tazza l-Kbira final in the fourth year of every decade since back in 1934, when the first page in the glorious history of this Cup was written.

At the time, Malta was a British colony and although horse races had been organised in Malta for centuries before, the British put this sport on a solid organisational footing, mainly for the enjoyment of the many soldiers and sailors based in Malta.

Although the Malta Racing Club was founded in 1868, many old-timers consider the inter-war years to have been the heyday of Maltese horse-racing in the first century of the Club’s existence.

At the time, with the cold winds of war becoming increasingly felt in the 1930s, the island was flooded with British officers and servicemen whose major sports passion was horse-racing.

This produced a massive increase in both quantity and quality of racehorses as the British officers could afford to maintain horses for polo or racing, in turn resulting in increased prizes and amenities at the racecourse.

With flat racing being the mainstay of British horseracing, this was the key racing discipline even here. However, the late twenties/ early thirties are also significant for the increase in popularity and number of trot races – among the Maltese rather than the British. 

The first major trotting final is reputed to have been held on 24 June 1931. It was a national occasion, with people flocking to the racecourse from early morning, filling every nook and cranny in and around the racecourse, with people standing as far off as the part of the track near the Turkish Cemetery.

The race was a continuous challenge between pre-race favourites Vertinguile and Reve-e-Toi, with the race eventually being won by the former after a very close finish. After the race Vertinguile’s supporters invaded the track and that evening a big feast was held in Rabat, the owner’s village. The trophy was donated to St. Paul’s Parish Church.

The die had been cast, with this race fuelling Maltese race-goers’ dream for a trophy to crown the Maltese trotting champion from a final among Malta’s top class trotters. 

And so, exactly three years later, the date of Sunday 24 June 1934 remains carved in gold in Maltese racing history as that on which the first edition of the Tazza l-Kbira (then called the “Championship Trotting Challenge Cup”) was held. The race distance was a staggering two and a half miles (over 4,000 metres).

Participants were reported to have been bred in France and were handicapped with the intent of balancing the race and ensuring that no horse would dominate the trophy year in, year out.

The crowd on the day were not disappointed, as Mr P. Galea’s Frise Poulet ran a faultless race, went ahead in the final straight and beat runner-up Riffe to secure the first edition. His Excellency the Governor of Malta presented the prizes.

Thereafter this meeting became an annual event until 1940.

Then the Second World War introduced another characteristic to this trophy; the years in which it was not held. Indeed, the War wreaked havoc with horse-racing as it did with most other aspects of life in Malta.

The racecourse was ploughed and became a field producing a variety of vegetables for the hungry population, rendering racing impossible throughout the war years.

The Tazza l-Kbira returned in 1947, with the late forties and early 1950s heralding another horse-racing revival.

The Tazza l-Kbira 20th anniversary, was held against this backdrop on 4 April 1954 in front of another large crowd. Andrea Chenier and Manolette were the early leaders but the honours went to Brigantello, driven by owner P. Zerafa, which overcame its initial handicap and carved its name on this trophy in the 1.75 mile race. Dahna was runner-up and Vidocq M third.

But the post-War revival was short-lived as the British presence dwindled, particularly from the late 1950s. These were challenging years for Maltese horse-racing as, with the reduction of British servicemen, some doubted whether Malta had sufficient critical mass to sustain a horse-racing sport.

The trophy’s 30th anniversary edition fell a few months before Malta’s Independence Day. The early to mid-sixties are referred to as the Ike Williams C years, with this French trotter winning this trophy no less than four times between 1962 and 1966.

The final held on 10 May 1964 heralded an interruption of these wins. Aut Aut was in front as the horses entered the final straight but at this stage, Cerano driven by owner J Polidano, produced a fantastic sprint to take the lead and retain it till the end, repelling Ike Williams C’s challenge to win by a length and a half. Aut Aut was third.

Maltese horse-racing would survive the immediate post-colonial era with the end of the sixties/early seventies becoming years of opportunity, as new horse-owners entered the fray bringing a material increase in quantity, quality and particularly competitive spirit at the racecourse.

The handicapping system was scrapped in 1971 with the scratch system for all horses proving an immediate success.

The 40th anniversary of this trophy fell in another momentous period of Malta’s history, months prior to becoming a Republic. The final was held on 5 May 1974, again in front of a record crowd.

The front runners were Urbain L and two former winners, Un Reve Royal and Sam II. Favourite Ardent VI attacked with a kilometre to go but then broke leaving the road clear for Urbain L’s final sprint which led it to resist Ultra Son B’s (runner-up) and Un Reve Royal’s (third) late challenges and give supreme joy to Alfred Fenech and G Pace, driver and owner respectively. 

In the past Maltese sports was at times unfortunately characterised by bouts of violence, marring the beauty of the respective sports.

This would leave an effect even on the Tazza l-Kbira. In the meantime, horse-racing had migrated to a new racecourse in 1981, a 1,000 metres long oval track with the race distance now being 2,700m or 2,650m.

On 10 June 1984, the three Tazza l-Kbira (sponsored by Teachers Whisky) semi-finals were held under glorious summer sunshine and produced three winners, Ideal de Tracy, Jais de Beaumont and Kadet du Mont, plus six other qualifiers for the final.

However, after this meeting, a steward and his wife, were assaulted by some fans while driving back home. The steward had to be hospitalised. Stewards then resigned en bloc and the season came to an abrupt end, and the 50th anniversary final was never held.

Those dark days for Maltese horse-racing seemed to take their toll on the Tazza l-Kbira itself. It was first substituted by the Farsons championship and although it returned for a couple of years in the late eighties, it vanished nearly completely (except for one edition in 1999) until 2007.

Thus, no Tazza l-Kbira championships were held in 1994 (60th anniversary) and 2004 (70th anniversary), in part substituted by the various other championships held in those years, which seemed to have reduced the Tazza l-Kbira’s importance, perhaps because we had not yet come to appreciate enough its historical heritage and value. 

Since then the Marsa racecourse became a place for honest entertainment for all the family – a place where sports dreams may be realised in a safe environment.

And the Tazza l-Kbira did not die... it simply hibernated. In 2008 it was re-introduced as an annual appointment with all its pomp and splendour. In these six years it has regained all its prestige and winning it has become once more the dream of every horse owner and driver. 

Indeed the 2014 final signalled the 80th year since the first edition and it certainly did not disappoint! The Cup was won by Swedish 10 year old gelding Cloria Victis, driven by Charles Degiorgio, a team that dominated the race practically from start to finish.

And it was truly a year for firsts and anniversaries; the first time that this prestigious trophy was won by a Swedish trotter, the first time in precisely 50 years (the last occasion was in 1964) in which it was not won by a French trotter and also the first time in which Charles Degiorgio (fresh from various years of training and racing experience in Sweden) carved his name as a driver on this ultimate accolade of Maltese trot racing.

Even Bank of Valletta’s sponsorship marked an anniversary – the last time that a horseracing championship was sponsored by the Bank was exactly 20 years ago.

A truly fitting way to celebrate the 80th anniversary of this great Cup ... thus successfully making up for missing out on the 50th, 60th and 70th anniversaries!

Matthew Brincat is a horse-racing enthusiast and the Chairman of the Malta Racing Club.