Summerhill Jockeys helmet
(Photo : Gareth du Plessis)
“It’s a long, long way to Tipperary”
So the saying goes, but we’d rather be where we are on the National Breeders log than anywhere else right now. They’ll also tell you that “all good things come to an end”, but for us it’s a case of “how we wish they’d never end”. Truth is, the breeding game in this country has never been more competitive, and that’s some statement given the fact that only six farms have ever subscribed their names on the Championship roll in all of recorded history. Only yesterday, the arrival of Syd Birch, a third generation member of the fabled Birch Brothers visited Summerhill to have his mare served, just how pale our six consecutive championships are by comparison with the 60-odd the Birch’s hinged together in the early parts of the last century. No breeding entity anywhere in the world has so completely dominated the affairs of a nation to the degree of the Birch Brothers, and while the level of competition was different in those days, it’s nonetheless one helluva story.
It’s a compliment to the ecumenical nature of our sport that while the competition is tough, we remain the firmest of friends, strange for any business but with a ring of truth in this country. As an illustration of just how competitive it is, an analysis of ‘who’s who” makes interesting reading. A new frontrunner comes in the shape of an old name in game, Klawervlei Stud, which whilst slightly differently spelt, nevertheless harks back to the grandfather of the present incumbent John Koster, who has joined forces with, among others, the biggest owner of racehorses this country’s ever known. Markus Jooste is the founder and CEO of what is now known as the Steinhoff group, the world’s largest “uncle in the furniture business” and as Markus has so often reminded us, he’s got a “heat-seeker right up our asses”.
Highlands Farm Stud is the famous property of the late and much-lamented Graham Beck, Africa’s biggest coal-miner, while Maine Chance farm belongs to the German family Jacobs, renowned for their association with the Jacobs coffee empire and Toblerone chocolate. The biggest diamond and gold miners of their era, the Oppenheimers are double-fisted with the legendary Mauritzfontein Stud and through daughter, Mary Slack, with the enterprising Wilgersbosdrift up the Cape West Coast.
Another formidable challenger is the Lammerskraal Stud of the game reserve king, Mala Mala’s Mike Rattray, who has at his disposal this year one of the strongest sophomore hands they’ve known. While big Port Elizabeth landowners, the Parker family own Ascot Stud, joint winners last season of the breeding achievement award.
If you’re looking for a common factor, you’ll find it in enormous reserves of relatively untapped wealth, and the capacity to mobilize whatever resources it takes to acquire the best in genetics. In many respects, herein lies one of the keys to South Africa’s emergence as a producer of world-class thoroughbreds. We’ve always had the environment, and we’ve always possessed the skills of husbandry, but what has really changed our breeding landscape dramatically, has been the importation of a gene pool vastly superior to anything this country’s ever known. There will of course be those who might question this statement, given the history stretching back to the 50’s of the likes of Drum Beat, Highveldt, Abadan II and Fairthorn, all commanding Timeform ratings of 120 and above, but it’s the sheer numbers of performers at this level that’s made the difference.
It’s also fair to say that the compilers of the world’s most famous rating publication, Timeform were more liberal in the points they awarded to racehorses in those days, which is to say that modernly you really have to earn your stripes. At Summerhill we pretty much benchmarked our stallions on a Timeform rating of 120 plus, as this games about running, and the best way to get there is to use proper runners.
One emerging stud which is still too young to make the top ten, but which is our tip for the next “emerging giant”, is the Rupert family’s Drakenstein Stud, surely the most beautiful property in thoroughbred breeding anywhere in the world. For many years, the Oppenheimers and the Ruperts vied for the title of South Africa’s wealthiest family, one the bastion of Afrikaanerdom, the other the old money of England, and it’s just conceivable that the financial rivalry could witness a second coming on the racecourses of South Africa.
That’s not to say that Summerhill is about to capitulate its spot at the top of the nation’s breeding affairs. While there is an inevitability to the end of every reign, there’s wind in these sails yet, and we still find it in ourselves to leap out of bed before the cock crows every morning in our attempts to keep our pals at bay. By contrast with our colleagues, resources at Summerhill have always been a rather scarce commodity, so we’ve had to rely on whatever other skills and instincts we’ve had at our disposal to give ourselves the edge. As we said yesterday, the wisdom of the experienced and the energy of our youth is behind the splendid storm, and we’ve still got a few shots to fire.
TOP 10 SOUTH AFRICAN BREEDERS
26 November - 28 November 2010
D COHEN & SONS
GARY PLAYER STUD