Summerhill Stud in Mooi River has won six consecutive South African champion breeders’ titles - but this remarkable achievement hasn’t made the Summerhill enterprise at all complacent. That much is made quite clear by farm boss Mick Goss.
— Mike Moon / The Citizen

Mick and his team built Summerhill up from small beginnings with limited resources. So he knows the importance of ongoing hard work and innovation in maintaining vitality and viability in a business.

He also knows the importance of humility. This might come as a surprise to those who know of Mick Goss’s notable “gift of the gab” and marketing spiel, but anyone who hears him reflect on his success will know he’s rooted in reality and has a keen sense of the value of things he deals in - namely horses, people and money.

Mick and Summerhill take centre stage on Sunday as leading vendors on the Emperors Palace Ready To Run Sale at Gosforth Park. Mick grew up in Lusikisiki in Pondoland, the son of a farmer and trading station proprietor and the sixth generation of his family in South Africa. A forebear, also Michael Goss, came to these shores as part of an 1820 Settler Irish contingent.

As farmers, the Gosses have always lived with horses. Great-grandfather Edward was a noted horseman. Grandfather Pat bred thoroughbreds near Cedarville to feed his love of racing, and owned 1946 Durban July winner St Pauls.

Mick’s father Bryan took the reins of family farm and trading businesses, but a cardiac condition forced him to choose between farming and shop-keeping. He opted to sell the farm and move the family to a trading station at Lusikisiki.

This didn’t extinguish son Mick’s love of horses and racing.

“I knew all the racehorses in the country and their pedigrees. I knew the names of all July winners from the ’40s onwards. I was addicted to Duff’s Turf Guide,” recalls Mick. “It was my obsession.”

Mick went to Durban High School, where he excelled academically and at sport. He captained Natal Schools at rugby and won a rugby scholarship to Stellenbosch. While at varsity he represented Western Province under-20s and under-25s.

Graduating in law, he completed articles in Maritzburg, worked as an attorney and an advocate in Durban and established his own practice.

Then, after 17 years, he gave up law for racing and breeding.

His explanation for this decision? “Those of us in this game have a disease, that’s all there is to it. There were many times in the next 12 years when I wondered what I’d got myself into.”

The involvement started small. Mick and brother Pat decided to breed horses part-time. Their first mare purchase was Cosy Rosy in 1977.

Mick and Pat’s father had bequeathed them an unraced horse called Heliotriope, who won his second start in 1978.

“At that time I’d just won a scholarship to the USA. At the interview confirming this, I was asked, ‘Is this the best day of your life’. I had to answer, ‘No, that was yesterday when I had my first winner on the racecourse’.”

His next purchase was the filly Pagoda, who became a seven-time winner. “If I wasn’t hooked on racing by then, that was tickets and tax,” he chuckles.

Each year in the early 1980s, Mick and Pat bought two fillies to race, then breed. Of their first eight, five produced stakes winners.

Among these foundation mares were Coconut Ice, who got the useful Bianconi; and Final Wonder, who got Bloodline Million winner Last Watch.

The early horses still have family at Summerhill to this day.

“This history tells you that this game isn’t Russian Roulette,” says Mick. “If you work hard at selecting well and have an end game in mind, you can achieve it.” A guiding principle of Summerhill has been the building of family bloodlines. “I hear plaintive cries from my managers to get rid of certain mares. I reply that we are family-building. One year I was advised to sell two mares. I refused and they went on to give us Icy Air and Amphitheatre - both national champions.”

This is not to say Summerhill doesn’t closely monitor what mares throw and prunes poor genes where necessary.

The Goss name was first tied to that of Summerhill when the brothers sent broodmares to board at the then small Midlands stud farm. It was adjacent to Hartford, the Ellis family’s illustrious stud from whence had emerged the great Mowgli, Cape Heath and Magic Mirror.

Mick and his wife Cheryl first moved on to Summerhill in 1979. A syndicate was formed to buy the property and Mick got a 6.25% share in lieu of his transfer legal work.

Thereafter, he and Pat gradually bought out the partners. In 1987 Mick bought out Pat, who was launching a store chain.

Next-door Hartford was acquired in a swap - Mick’s old Hillcrest home for the legendary estate - after latter Ellis generations decided farming wasn’t for them.

In 1983 Summerhill received its greatest blessing in the form of stallion Northern Guest.

Mick and Pat had gone to England to buy a mare from Queen Elizabeth. “We didn’t bugger around” - and tagged on a trip to Ireland, land of their ancestors, to find a service for the acquisition. Mick spotted “the most charismatic animal I’d set eyes on”.

The brothers bought Northern Guest for a whopping R400,000, way beyond their means, persuading themselves they would syndicate the animal back home.

No such luck. Fellow breeders snubbed them, maybe in an attempt at competitive sabotage. Eventually they sold shares to invited rich individuals, but bought back whenever they could afford it.

Northern Guest became champion sire of South Africa in 1985 and again the following year - groundbreaking for a Natal-based stallion at the time. He was twice champion juvenile sire and champion broodmare sire nine times.

“There is not a pebble in the road at Summerhill, that Northern Guest didn’t contribute to,” says Mick. “When he’d walk past the office on his way to his paddock, the management team would stand on the verandah and pay respect to him.”

When the Gosses arrived on Summerhill there were six staff members, with no skills. Unemployment in the district was 80%.

Thirty years later, 370 people work there. Plus there is the up-market Hartford House hotel and award-winning restaurant, a horse-feed factory, a new school of equine management and a “deep social responsibility commitment”.

The Summerhill website is the most visited in the thoroughbred breeding world, with three times more visitors than other offerings in the industry worldwide.

While clearly proud of all this, Mick is also modest.

“It came from sheer desperation,” he explains.

Unlike most studs, Summerhill isn’t owned by a rich patron, so cash flow worries were constant in the formative years. This was starkly apparent in 1989, when Nationalist finance minister Barend du Plessis got Mick to assemble influential figures in racing, then proceeded to ask them to help bail out an economy about to go into tailspin due to sovereign debt default.

Alarmed at the implications for racing, Mick and the Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association launched a bid to attract foreigners to come and race in South Africa - to keep cash flowing and perhaps save the game from extinction.

In a speech to racing folk in Newmarket in the UK, Mick reminded Brits that more than 2 million South African lives had been lost in Britain’s Empire wars, and half a million horses had left the country in the same cause, never to return. It was now time to return the favour.

He also pointed out what a good deal horse owners got in South Africa - racing at a 10th of the cost for stakes five-times more rewarding than in the UK.

They came in numbers - and still do. About 25% by value of racehorses in Cape Town belong to Brits today. More than 40% of the horses at Summerhill are foreign-owned.

That Newmarket meeting also brought Mick into contact with the Maktoum family, rulers of Dubai and racing aficionados. Their help for South African racing came via stallions standing at Summerhill. The first was Braashee, and Kahal and Muhtafal subsequently became standard bearers.

To remedy perceived stallion equity weakness, Summerhill now buys more of its own sires, like new arrivals Admire Main and Brave Tin Soldier.

Apart from “sheer desperation”, to what does Mick ascribe championship success?

Top of his list he puts his management team. He explains how a flattened management structure placed experts in their field at the head of divisions like farming, administration and estate maintenance, rather than pure horsemen trying to cope with the demands of these areas.

Another key factor was improved nutrition for the horses.

“We made a real breakthrough when we realised we had to improve husbandry methods, and this included the feed.”

Twenty years ago, Mick linked up with Australian animal feed experts and reckons nutrition technology introduced then was decades in advance of conventional wisdom.

A third factor was staff education. Nearly 40 staffers have travelled overseas on learnerships at great stud farms. “These guys bring a world-view of what it takes to be good.”

Next year, the Al Maktoum School of Management Excellence opens at Summerhill. “We want to make it a centre of equine excellence equivalent to anything in the world.”

A fourth factor: tie-ups with international partners, “which gave us the ability to spread risk and allow us to compete”.

Fifth factor: a radical change in farming methods. “We started to use bio-farming and organic techniques 15 years ago and it made a huge difference to immune systems, strength and birth weights.”

In conclusion, Mick mentions the Ready To Run Sale. He instigated the sale 24 years ago and nurtured it to its current status as a highlight on the racing calendar. He did this simply to sell horses, after battling on other sales in competition with leading stud farms of the time. 

“This game is all about perceptions. This sale has taught us more about our stock and stallions than we would otherwise ever have known. We learnt about temperament, how quickly horses learn and how much work they can take - and got insight into how to improve these things in mating. It’s an advantage few farms have.”

What of the future?

“The one inevitability about winning a championship is that you are going to lose it. We must prepare for life after the dream. One thing we do is identify areas in which we can continue to excel.”

With Mick Goss at the helm, Summerhill will remain a beacon of industry and excellence. He’s a man of great charm and persuasive talents. “But we must keep reminding ourselves about humility, the greatest human attribute,” he declares. “We promote ourselves hard, but veldskoens and khaki are alive and well in Mooi River. We live modestly and are not carried away with what’s been achieved. The moment you become arrogant you prepare yourself for a cropper.”

Extract from The Citizen