Mick Goss on Summerhill Farm
Mick Goss on Summerhill Farm

Mick Goss inspects Summerhill’s Ready To Run draft

(Photo : Hamish Niven)

Sarah Whitelaw interviews Mick Goss

Summerhill Stud, South Africa

SARAH WHITELAW - Summerhill Stud are consistently the leading breeders in South Africa. They have been champion breeders, by money earned, for the past seven years, which is a staggering achievement.

This magnificent farm is based in Mooi River, in KwaZulu Natal, where they have churned out a host of top-class racehorses over the years. Summerhill, owned by Mick Goss and his family, is also home to an impressive band of stallions, which include proven sires Kahal and Muhtafal, and exciting young stallions A.P. Arrow, Visionaire, Mullins Bay, Ravishing and Bankable, to name but a few. Summerhill is also home to Admire Main, the only son of Sunday Silence in South Africa. Summerhill was also previously home to champion SA sire Northern Guest, a stallion who has since become a multiple champion broodmare sire, and whose daughters are much sought after.

Summerhill recently opened the Al Maktoum School of Management Excellence, a school aimed at introducing graduates to positions in management in the racing industry. Goss also came up with the concept of holding a Ready To Run Sale, where buyers buy some choicely bred 2-year-olds in November. This sale has proven to be very popular, and graduates of the sale include Igugu and Pierre Jourdan, the 1-2 finishers in the 2011 Vodacom Durban July, South Africa’s most famous race.

Tell us how you entered the breeding world and how difficult was it getting started?

I was born into breeding. My grandfather bred horses, mainly to race, in East Griqualand and started his venture in the early 1930s. I believe, as a family, we are among the oldest members of the TBA of SA, our membership going back to that time. He owned some decent horses, including St Pauls, who was the winner of the Durban July Handicap in 1946, and remains the smallest ever winner of the race. He was 14.2hh, and won several Pony and Galloway handicaps on his way there. My father continued the operation, but due to ill health, he had to choose between his career as a trader in Pondoland, and breeding horses. The trading business was profitable, while the horses weren’t, so the decision to give up breeding wasn’t difficult. Whilst I didn’t inherit their worldly goods, what I did get from my father and grandfather, was the “disease”. For as long as I can remember, horses were in my blood, and it developed into an obsession with me. I didn’t realise when I went into law, that I would ever own more than one mare, but here we are today with quite a menagerie.

My brother Pat and I owned one mare between us initially, but my involvement in Summerhill came about in 1979 through a professional connection, when I was consulted on the affairs of the farm, and I was involved in putting together a syndicate that eventually bought it. Gradually, my brother and I bought out the other partners, and in 1987 I ended up buying his interests as well. It was very difficult getting started, because I had no capital, but I did have a sympathetic bank manager, whose sons were in my dormitory at school, and who must have felt he owed me something! He lent me money he should never have lent me if normal banking principles had been applied, but he had some faith, and I think we’ve repaid it. 

What was the major turning point in your career?

I had 90% of my worth invested in Summerhill, and was giving it only 10% of my time, while I had 10% in my practice, and I was giving it 90% of my time. It wasn’t difficult to realise that I had to look after my interests in the farm, and since my emotions were more on the farm than they were in the practice, the next step was easy.

What has been the best professional decision you have made?

I don’t know about the best professional decision I ever made, but I do know that the realisation that there were many things I didn’t know, was one of the best discoveries I ever made. Most stud farms are quite complex, multi-faceted entities, involving a broad spectrum of disciplines, and few among us can be masters of them all. Having experts in each division not only grows your own capacity, as you can leave them to get on and do their work the way experts do, but it also enables you to let go of the responsibilities for those divisions, and concentrate on your own.

What has been your greatest disappointment?

I don’t know that I can remember too many disappointments. The racing and breeding of racehorses is a bit like life in the Balkans: it is a very challenging, competitive business, and it can bring out the best and the worst in us, but I can’t really say that the disappointments have mattered much. Most racing people are optimists by nature and we tend to put these things behind us, and get on with what matters, and that’s in front of us.

What do you consider your greatest breeding triumph?

An entity of Summerhill’s size and history could never hope to put its finger on any specific incident or aspect of our business, which would constitute our biggest triumph. Summerhill is a complex blend of so many things that have contributed to the little success we’ve celebrated, and I guess it’s as much a combination of these things that gives us some satisfaction, as does the rather unique model we have in place, and which has worked well for us. The old saying “different strokes for different blokes”, is as applicable though, to the breeding business as it is to any other, so we’re not saying that what we’ve done here should be applied by all people, but it has certainly kept us in business, and provided an environment in which people, young and old, can express themselves, and thrive in the process.

What has been your most satisfying day at the sales?

You might have thought that topping the National Sales in both the colt and filly categories would be the moment we would best remember, but again, that would be narrowing things down too much. I think that what Summerhill has done in growing the Ready To Run as a unique event in the marketing of racehorses in this country, has probably been the most satisfying, not only for us, but also for those on whose behalf we consign, and for those that shop at the Ready To Run. We have to thank our stakeholders Emperors Palace, BSA, Phumelela and Tellytrack for their contributions too, as well as people like our judging panel, for what they bring to this table.

What has been your proudest moment in racing?

There have been many moments which have provided us with a sense of unbridled pleasure, as only racing can, yet I think it would be difficult to single out any particular one as being the best of the lot. Clearly the big victories on the big days matter a lot, and so does the growth of the Emperors Palace Ready to Run Cup into a R2million event, but I think that of more lasting value, has been the impact our international endeavours have had in encouraging people from abroad to participate in our industry. Foreigners have the whole world to choose from, and they don’t have to invest here, yet at Summerhill, close to 400 of the horses on the property belong to people from overseas, and I think that’s quite unique anywhere. I can’t think of a farm in any country that has a greater concentration of foreign-owned horses on it, and especially covering countries across twenty-two time zones, from Japan to the United States. It’s a tribute to what South Africa has to offer, and if we can differentiate our offering from what others have, and keep doing so, we have much to look forward to as a racing nation.

Has there been anybody in the Industry who has had an impact on your career and you most admire?

The influences on our lives at Summerhill have been broad and varied. Quite early in my career in the game, I served bodies such as the Bookmakers’ Control committee, the Natal Owners and Trainers and the National Federation of Owners and Trainers, the trustees of the Racecourse Wagering and Development Board, the TBA Council, the KZN Breeders, the Equine Trade Council (which was initiated at Summerhill), the board of Gold Circle, sub-committees involving matters of taxation etc. There have been some remarkable people serving these bodies quite selflessly and with great wisdom, several of whom have had a significant impact on our thinking, as have some of our friends and customers. It’s been part of our philosophy here to attempt to help the industry ourselves, and we hope that we’ve had a positive impact on the way other people think as well. We believe our latest venture in education at the management level, to be one of the most worthwhile projects we’ve engaged in, yet it is only an extension of what we’ve been doing for a long time at Summerhill. We run three schools on the farm, a crèche, a junior school, an adult mentoring school (which prepares our staff for their international scholarships, some forty of which we have already completed) and now, of course, the School of Management Excellence, which is off to a wonderful start.

If you had the power to make one change in the Thoroughbred Industry, what would it be?

There is no single “silver bullet” for the thoroughbred industry. By its nature, it is a very complex business, representing many different interests and in that alone, there is merit in the unity we have. South Africa is as well positioned as any country in the world to build on its present model, and with just two racing operators, we don’t have to deal with the many factions other countries have to deal with. Nonetheless, we still have our challenges and our issues, and in the end, we all have to move in the same direction. This applies to breeders, racing operators, regulators, bookmakers, owners, trainers, jockeys and everyone else. The problem, and it’s not unique to racing, is that self-interest often makes these things difficult to achieve, and then we still have to deal with government with a united voice. In the end, racing deserves a better deal with government than it has, but to a degree, we must pick up our share of the blame for the fact that it isn’t so. We’ve tended to neglect the relationships with government to some extent, and we need to get that back on track as soon as possible, as we need the gambling authorities to understand that we are not as well treated as other sectors of their community, and what we need at the very least, is a level playing field. Another thing which the authorities appear to be lacking an understanding of, is that racing and breeding are the most intense job-creators of all the industries in the country, and that, besides wagering turnover, we are significant contributors to the welfare of the entertainment and hospitality industries. Stud farms are great magnets for tourists and horse lovers, (we know that ourselves at Summerhill), and there are literally billions of rands invested in breeding, in the properties we’ve developed and in the stock we hold. Equally, racing attracts big crowds to its biggest events, and it adds considerable value to the turnovers of hostelries, merchants, TV channels etc, and this is generally overlooked by government.

Again, we are at fault, as we have not worked hard enough in bringing this to the attention of the people that need to know.

Can you name a best horse bred or sold?

You’re only as good as your last race in this game, so it wouldn’t be reasonable to single out any particular horse as being the best we have bred or sold, even on the back of this year’s Vodacom Durban July, where Igugu beat Pierre Jourdan in what was a memorable day for us. There have been many terrific horses come off the property over the years, and you tend to remember the most recent ones in circumstances like these. Besides, nominating a favourite can only get you into trouble, so let’s move on!

What other aspirations would you like to achieve in the future?

Winning the Breeder’s Championship has been meaningful to us, and especially in the recognition it brings to the farm. However, it also brings responsibilities and its fair share of “wind”. You can’t stay there forever, and you have to develop other things by which to measure yourself, particularly with the Klawervlei “juggernaut” coming so ominously, and so quickly out of the blue!

Summerhill has always been inventive in the things by which we judge ourselves, and there is much on the farm already on which to concentrate for the future. We regularly identify new benchmarks against which to set our standards, and this we continue to do, as those are the things that will bring you encouragement when you are no longer the champion farm.

What is the best advice you can give a young breeder entering the industry?

As I said earlier, “different strokes for different blokes”, but I guess, with hindsight, the best thing to do would be to find ways of differentiating yourself. There are an awful lot of breeders in the country, and many of us are doing things the same way, which means we are simply competing with each other in exactly the same areas. That makes things for a start-up operator quite difficult, and unless you are much better than your neighbour in these circumstances, it takes a helluva long time and quite a lot of money, to get to a point where you can stand out. Summerhill was never endowed with much money, and as a result we needed to find ways and means of distinguishing ourselves from what we considered the “run of the mill” way we had started out. We looked at our management and administrative structures, and the need to develop specialists in different divisions, we looked at our agricultural practices, our nutrition, the education and selection of our staff, our breeding practices and our marketing strategies.

These were all things we had a measure of control over, and the 5% to 10% increments we got from refocusing ourselves, probably gave us the “best practice” standard for each of them. There are many things in life that you can’t control, or over which you have limited control, but all of these things were both measurable and to some degree or other, matters we could get our hands on and turn to our advantage, and that’s what we did. I’m sure there are many young people out there who have aspirations of breeding good horses, but just don’t know how to get started. All these things were fundamental to our lives here, as were our relationships with our suppliers, our bankers, and our customers; you can do what you like in life about the physical things at your disposal, but if you don’t manage your relationships properly, you make life awfully hard for yourself. Many of us in the horse game tend to be somewhat dysfunctional human beings (we like horses more than we like people!), so if we’re not too good in our personal relationships, we’d better get someone on board who is. The other thing about starting up in our sport, is that there are many generous people in it, who have paid the school fees and taken the bumps, and who will always find the time to share their experiences. Talking to them can be invaluable, just as much as the niche in which you position your business, is. I’m beginning to sound like one who knows it all, and that isn’t my purpose. However, for what it’s worth, we’ve always been willing to share our own experiences with those who are entering the industry, and to help wherever we can. It’s a matter of pride to us, to see how successful some of the people who’ve done time at Summerhill or who’ve engaged with us, have been in either their personal growth here, or in their own endeavours.

Extract from www.gavelhouse.com