Last month, Independent Newspapers columnist, David Thiselton, alluded to the Summerhill tradition of flying six flags outside the stallion barn following a Graded Stakes winner, and he enquired over the weekend after Desert Links’  spectacular victory in Africa’s greatest staying race, the Canon Gold Cup (Gr.1), whether the flags were doing their stuff.

The answer is a resounding “yes”, as the whole place celebrates a Gold Cup winner with the same enthusiasm that we celebrate heroes of the J&B Met, the Gomma Gomma and the Durban July. There are those who will argue that the Gold Cup is not in the same league, but it has a tradition and a social history at least as long and prestigious as any of those events, and those of us who revere its place in the racing calendar, look forward to our runners in this marathon event with the same spirit and respect as the best races in the land.

Our cause is a good one as we’ve made a point of trying to inculcate in our stock, a balance of stamina, which the thoroughbred as a breed not only deserves but absolutely needs in order to maintain its integrity.

Some years ago we set out in a deliberate attempt to breed a Gold Cup winner, following a boiling cup of tea on a sweltering verandah in the 45º heat only a corrugated verandah in the Karoo can induce. Never was it more truly said that “mad dogs and Englishmen, go out in the midday sun” than here, as we languished over lunch in the vicinity of Oudtshoorn in the company of our great English mate, Alec Foster, a horse enthusiast if ever there was one, and a purist for the traditions associated with the thoroughbred. Our purpose was an assault on the few genuine Gold Cups left in the Durban Turf Club’s vaults, and we determined to send two mares to two horses of significant stamina in our attempt to achieve it. The granddam of Victory Moon, Wild Hyacinth was one of those selected for the purpose, and she was sent to Braashee, a two mile winner of the Yorkshire Cup in the UK. Another, a daughter of Northfields, was sent to the English  mile and a half record holder, Desert Team, with the same result in mind.

The following year we sent two Northern Guest sisters out of a stamina-laden daughter out of the great French Classic sire Luthier, to Jallad and Braashee, with the same strategic intent, and between the four of them these mares, produced a nine time winning miler (out of Wild Hyacinth,) a Gold Cup winner, Cereus, (from the Northfields mare), a Champion filly, Icy Air (out of the one Northern Guest mare) and Amphitheatre, who went down just a nose in the Gold Cup from the other Northern Guest mare. Which just goes to show, if you put your head down with a proper purpose in mind, these things are possible, even in a business as unpredictable as racehorse breeding. Unfortunately, for this story’s sake.

Saturday’s winner of the Gold Cup, Desert Links, was not bred with a Gold Cup in mind. He did however, represent a deviation from the norm in the breeding affairs of the late Sheikh Maktoum, insofar as his dam, Selborne Park, was sent to a “non-Gainsborough” stallion in Kahal, in the hope of breeding an animal of some size, as his dam, a Stakes winner in her own right had repeatedly produced small, light horses of limited ability.

On the credit side, Desert Links comes from a female line of considerable accomplishment in the hands of the best families in French breeding, including the Dupres, Marcel Boussac, the Aga Khan and latterly the Niarchoses. You could scarcely line up four more distinguished breeders in that country’s history and so this family, which includes the likes of the Champion Staying filly of her year in Europe, Dunette and her Gr.1 winning son of Sadler’s Wells, French Glory, was always likely to throw up a quality horse.

Following his impressive victory in the Cup Trial in June, Desert Links ran a “whopper” from the back of the field in the Vodacom Durban July a month ago, earning his position as joint favourite going into Saturday’s race. Though favourably drawn, he somehow managed to find himself three horses wide most of the way, as the field traversed the 3200m journey around Greyville racecourse’s spectacular circuit. It’s the only course in the world covering 3000m in extent, and it lies in the heart of the city (encircling the Royal Durban Golf Club) and despite running wide, Desert Links ran on manfully in the closing stages, exhibiting his class as he went away from one of the best line-ups in modern Gold Cup history.

Salutations to his breeders, Gainsbourgh Stud, his owners and old friends of the farm, Etienne Braun, Eban Bouwer, Paul Loomes and of course, Selwyn Marcus. And finally, and probably most of all, to his exceptional trainer, Basil Marcus, whose as old a friend of this farm as anyone. The horse was expertly handled for his preparations for this race by another stalwart supporter of the farm, Dennis Drier, who celebrated his second association with the Gold Cup winner, having produced Highland Night for Andre Macdonald to get up and beat our own Amphitheatre by a neck five seasons ago.

“Amazingly, this same Eban Bouwer used to put the ball under the bosses’ feet in the Western Province rugby scrum in the early 70’s, and while it might well have been the other way round, Mick has always contended that it was he that made Eban famous!”

(Photography courtesy of John Lewis)