As we approached the nineties, the then Finance Minister in the South African government, Barend du Plessis, contacted Mick Goss and asked whether he could convene a meeting of racing’s most influential personalities, as he had an important message to share with them. We didn’t know the Minister at that time, nor did we have much sympathy for the policies of his government, but if this was to be in the interests of South African racing, and indeed, those of us that made up its individual entities, any contact with government would be worthwhile. And so it was that a gathering of the likes of the late Harry Oppenheimer, Arnold Galombile, Laurie Jaffee, Graham Beck etc was convened together with those responsible for the administration and funding of racing, and the Minister duly shared his views with us.
Among the things he told us was that the country had suffered another blow in the withdrawal of the last of its international borrowing facilities in the United States, and apart from what remained in the way of access to foreign funding in the UK and Europe, the country was on a “cash” basis, meaning it was technically bankrupt. The Minister warned of the toughest times ahead, and suggested that racing, which was an important factor in the finances of the fiscus, should reposition itself as far as it could in order to maintain its viability, and of course, its all-important contribution to the nation’s taxes.
For us the alarm bells rang as loudly as you could imagine, as we were among the few dedicated horse breeding operations in the country, with no belts or braces, insofar as we had no another business to provide us with reserve funding. Around the table that day were some of the most eminent breeders of the era, yet they had behind them diamond mines, milling empires, coal mines, chocolate factories, shoe manufacturing businesses, game reserves etc, and we had nothing but our connectivity with our horses to cling to.
If the bottom fell out of our world, it would be like the world falling out of our bottom, and there would be very little place to hide. Remember, we were operating at the top end of the luxury goods market, and while people might still be able to invest in an antique or an artwork for what it cost, that was a mere deposit on a racehorse. We realized that if discretionary income in this country was to shrink to the levels the Minister was suggesting, we could be in dire straits.
There is an old saying that necessity is the mother of invention, yet in our case it’s most times been a question of desperation, rather than bare necessity. There were at least 20 farms of the ilk of Summerhill at the time, and to illustrate the extent of the fallout, we should recall that the ravages accounted for all but five or six of these in the aftermath of one of the most testing economic times in the nation’s history.
Summerhill’s response was a quick call to the Chairman of the TBA, and the outcome was a delegation to Europe with the intention of meeting with the leading owners and personalities in English racing. One hundred and fifty people were invited to attend a reception at the Jockey Club rooms at racing’s headquarters in Newmarket. In the event, the timing could not have been better. Michael Roberts, our Champion jockey, had just taught the English how to ride, and there was great anticipation around the possible release of Nelson Mandela. Two hundred and fifty people turned up.
In his address, Mick Goss reminded the gathering of the sacrifice of millions of South African lives in the Empire’s cause, and that 600 000 horses had left our shores in support of King and country, never to return. We needed help, and we knew we could call on our friends in England.
Besides, the Rand had gotten out of bed against the Pound and was trading at 8-1 (now 14-1!). The result was a saving on the cost of keeping two horses in training in England against two in South Africa, of close to R500 000, (we speak of the saving alone,) which at that time would purchase a man and his wife a Club class return ticket, accommodation at Hartford House for nine months, a hire care and a periodic game of golf, and a return to England to consult the stockbroker, attend the test at Lords, the tennis at Wimbledon and the English Derby, and return to South Africa, with change in one’s pocket! It was all too irresistible.
The next morning Mick received calls from Sheikh Maktoum’s advisor Michael Goodbody, meetings were hastily convened, and the rest is history. They’ve been with us 18 years. Not long after, our old mate Angus Gold, adviser to Sheikh Hamdan, called with the same purpose, and they’ve been with us 18 years. This was really a case of help yourself.
Today, more than 400 of the horses on Summerhill have foreigners among their owners, and these people stretch across seven international time zones. There is probably no greater concentration of foreign owners on any one farm anywhere in the world, and it goes to show what you can do with will and a way.
Posted by Mick Goss