autumn morining at summerhill stud mooi river
autumn morining at summerhill stud mooi river

Autumn morning views over Summerhill…

(Photo : Nicholas Goss)


Alec Hogg has settled down beautifully at his KZN Midlands farm, a stretch of exquisite land neighbouring Summerhill Stud. He emerges from a spell of deep meditation to bring us a welcome edition of his Racingweb column, Impeccably Dashing.

alec hogg
alec hogg

Alec HoggMooi River - Investing has its Warren Buffett. Politics, Nelson Mandela. In the thoroughbred world, our giant is the one-time Italian cavalry officer Federico Tesio, who used his 85 years on this planet to re-shape the breed.

Someone who had nothing better to do with their time once worked out 80% of all thoroughbreds alive today have blood from a Tesio stallion. Incredible for someone who died only half a century back in a breed stretching back to the 1700’s. Best known are Tesio’s Super Sires, Nearco and Ribot, both European Champions who were never beaten. But there were a number of other important Tesio stallions, a group which together won an unprecedented 31 international Derbys, and dozens of pre-potent mares.

The genius of the fastidious “Wizard of Dormello” was a combination of extreme focus along with a large dollop of luck. Nearco, for instance, was the result of a sleight to the little Italian after Lord Derby dismissed his nomination to the great stallion Fairway because he claimed it arrived late. So an incensed Tesio sent the mare, instead, to Fairway’s lesser-performed full brother Pharos in France.

But luck can only take you part of the way. At no time did Tesio house more than 30 mares on his hilly 100-acre farm in Northern Italy. Yet he regularly topped the Italian Breeding Championship - one year his small stud produced no less than the top seven Italian juveniles. His example has encouraged hundreds of passionate amateurs who believe Tesio combination of hard work, intensive homework and an obsession to breed for the racetrack could bring them similar success.

I’m among those inspired by the brilliant Italian and his wife Lydia. Our version of the dream kicked off for real in February when Jet and I moved onto our newly acquired 50 acres in the heart of the beautiful KZN Midlands. Finding the appropriately named Graceland took time. But like most good things, it’s proving well worth the wait. It couldn’t be better positioned, sharing a boundary fence with my good friend Mick Goss peerless Summerhill Stud, SA’s Champion Breeders for the last six years running. We’re certainly in the right neighbourhood.

So how’s the city boy settling down in the country?

For one thing, he’s realized that it’s pretty easy to take the city out of the country boy who remains with anyone brought up in a small town. Hailing from a long line of farmers has also put something into the genes that lay dormant for years.

Maybe those are the reasons, for a lightness in the breast and the return of a spring to the step. The mountain air (Giant’s Castle is only 50km away) also seems to have sharpened the mind. Every morning feels like a new adventure. With our two foundation mares and the Silvano weanling a short walk away, I realize why Mick Goss often quotes Churchill’s famous comment that “There is nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse.

Graceland used to be home to dressage and show ponies, so the paddocks were small and a barn with stables fit for the most expensive stallion. Despite these plush surroundings, after three days under cover our newly relocated mares told us they wanted out. So down came the inter-leading fences, and our small band (joined by two Boerperd weanlings from the accommodating neighbour) now live, eat and sleep in large paddocks - Summerhill style.

Which is appropriate as our manager is Summerhill Scholarship Graduate (twice to Ireland) Robert Mbele, who, when he’s not busy with those dozens of things that make life better for our horses, is scoring goals for the SA Champion farm’s soccer team. Not sure who’s happier to have Robert back in the district, yours truly or the Summerhill XI.

The downside? We have a resident Crested Eagle whose cry terrifies the wife, who lives in fear that our Jack Russell puppy will be carried off.  And nobody told me that farm water can be so erratic - one day the borehole delivers stuff so sweet it could be from a spring at the top of the ‘Berg. Next day the tap spews out a “rotten eggs” smell that accompanies too much sulphur. Locals reckon we’ll get used to it. I’d rather save up and sink a deeper borehole.

On that score, there’s never enough capital to do what you’d like to. I now know why our regular market commentator Wayne McCurrie loves teasing me about how one makes a small fortune (”Start with a big one and go farming….”).

It’s easy enough to budget for basics like Vuma for the mares and weanlings, diesel for the hard-working bakkie, petrol and two stroke oil for brush-cutters, chainsaw, mower, mister, etc. But for a dreamer there’s always a case to be made for another mare; that piece of land next door; a more appropriate “first” car (Audi Cabriolets hate potholed country roads); must-have improvements to the dam wall; fences that need repairing and replacing; planting of an evergreen paddock; or getting a new tractor. Living here helps one understand why many explains farm houses seem unkempt - there are so many calls on resources that it becomes tempting to live with stuff city folk would replace in an instant.

Compared with the stresses of the city, though, any supposed negatives are minor. I walk about 400m to my office next to the barn. In shorts on most days. We sleep more peacefully than we’ve done in years. No alarms, barking dogs or, preserve us, bangs that could be fireworks or gunshots. Thanks to technology (and the superb support from Telkom) my nightly business broadcast feels and sounds like being in the Melrose Arch studio. And there’s an overwhelming feeling of old-fashioned “normality”.

Three other things have struck me about Mooi River.

There seem to be more churches per capita than any other small town I’ve visited. Whether you’re Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Full Gospel, NG, Moslem or Hindu, a place of worship exists - perhaps that’s why people here follow The Fisherman’s suggestion about doing unto others as we’d have them do to us. Whether they’re providing a service or just engaging, honesty seems to be built into the DNA of country folk.

Then there’s the culture. You won’t find any beggars or hawkers at Mooi River’s few traffic lights. None, zilch, lutó.  A refreshing change from being accosted at every imaginable intersection by the “no job, no food…” brigade up north. Locals tell me begging doesn’t sit well with the proud Zulu culture, something I grew up around, and am now privileged to live alongside. That doesn’t mean there’s no poverty - indeed, rarely a week goes by without an uninvited visitor hoping to secure any kind of work available, happy to bend their backs for the price of a hamburger and chips in Jozi. But the approach is very different. Very human.

And then there’s the racing. Like my neighbour, I’ve become a dedicated visitor to the local River Café which carries a good stock of the Sporting Post. After just a couple months, it’s now a mystery how I was able to manage some weeks without Karel Miedema’s excellent publication. It’s an irreplaceable window into the racing world, an encyclopedia of information which provides a real interest in every Tellytrack transmission. Even Flamingo Park becomes interesting when you see how many Brazilian and Australian imports together with R250,000-a-pop Fort Woods and Western Winters among the bush trackers. When selecting matings, it’s often better to know what not to do.

The race day interest escalates a great deal when one of our mares’ progeny gets onto TV. Last week we felt the pain when our Jallad mare’s first foal (by Strike Smartly) showed nothing in the wet. Hopefully her trainer’s got a plan because after five runs this young lady has yet to earn. But hope springs eternal - she seems to be moving up to her right distance now; and our mare looks a million bucks so you’ve just got to know the Jay Peg baby she has inside is going to be a beaut.

There was plenty more excitement on Saturday when our home-bred four year old Captain Butler came back to the course after a two month break for a B Division Handicap (MR 85 in modern parlance). The pre-race tension moves up when you’re on the farm. It’s almost better than actually being there. Captain did us proud, fighting off most of the field to earn a juicy second place cheque; a credit to the mastery of Ormond Ferraris who, like Tesio, is of Italian descent….there must be something in that.

I was amazed at the horse that actually beat him. If we had to run second to anything then Superfederation, co-owned by my pal Charl Pretorius, would have been the one in that field which I’d pick. But as the Captain proved 3.5 lengths superior both times they met before, to be beaten that distance at level weights was perplexing. Horses improve, but by seven lengths?

With Jozi’s distractions I’d have forgotten about it and moved on. But in KZN’s more leisurely pace, watching Tellytrack re-runs - where you actually get to hear the interviews, nudge, nudge Phumelela - is high on the list of priorities. So I was interested to hear Superfederation’s jockey Derreck David explain how he pinched the race by sprinting away from the dawdling bunch. Checking the run-ons proved the youngster wasn’t just talking to the handicapper: Had Superfederation run the same time in the race that followed ours - a MR 75 handicap a full division lower also over 1800m - he wouldn’t have made the first five.

We know our gutsy little fellow has plenty of stamina so wouldn’t have been suited by the race’s crawl-into-sprint action. And he’d been away from the course for a while and Ormond had been battling to get in enough work because of the rain. So we remain optimistic and look forward to fighting another day. The Gary Alexander-trained gelding has improved with blinkers. But I’ve got the feeling there’s less between them than Saturday suggested. Next time they meet it might even be worth motoring those five hours north to drown out Charl’s urgings as the two of them drive for the line. And win, lose or draw, bantering our way through the next couple hours. How can anyone not love this sport?

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