Sir Patrick Hogan
Sir Patrick Hogan

Sir Patrick Hogan

(Photo : Racing Victoria)

“Proving it’s better to be lucky than brilliant”

Alec Hogg Graceland Farm
Alec Hogg Graceland Farm

Alec Hogg

Graceland FarmWe’re in the process of building an equine library at Jeanette’s Graceland Gallery. With the gallery now specialising in equine art, it makes sense to also stock horse books. Good books about thoroughbreds are hard to find in South Africa, especially since the TBA cancelled its annual pre-National Yearling Sale book sale. Although, in truth, the library is more of an excuse for me to indulge two passions - reading and racing - while investing in my own education.

The idea of an equine library came from my pal Mick Goss, whose leadership has given the country its seven-time Champion Breeders, Summerhill Stud. Always one who believes actions speak louder than words, Mick followed up the library suggestion with a donation - a book about New Zealand’s master breeder Sir Patrick Hogan. Called Give A Man A Horse and written in conversational style by Kiwi journalist and biographer Dianne Haworth, the book’s an inspiration for anyone, not just those in the breeding game.

Haworth’s writing reinforces how life’s lessons come from different places. Reading about Sir Patrick often reminded me of Nassim Taleb’s argument in Fooled by Randomness, a book that changed the way I look at just about everything. Taleb’s classic uses many examples to show how success needs dedication and a passion for what you’re doing - but with the important rider that getting to the very top is dependent not on these everyday attributes, but on a huge dollop of luck.

In my other life as a financial journalist, three decades of observation proves the accuracy of Taleb’s thesis. Every big success story I’ve come across owes a great deal more to luck than good judgment. Where beneficiaries of such providence go wrong is when they believe some super-human talents are the real reason for the success. Appreciating this reality helps keep perspective in a world where society wants heroes, often putting personalities onto pedestals they cannot possibly retain, tumbling after getting caught up in the hype. For me, the difference between a great man and a lucky poser often begins with their realization - or not - of life’s randomness.

Warren Buffett, for instance, had the good fortune as a young man to meet his teacher Benjamin Graham and then lifetime business partner Charlie Munger. Without the influence of these two, Buffett would surely have done well. But without them it’s hard to believe he could have become the best in the world. Buffett acknowledges he was in the right place at the right time, calling himself fortunate to have been born in the USA when he was; and to have a brain “hard-wired for capitalism”. His strongest message to young people is that they realize we’re all knowledgeable and perhaps even talented in some areas; success comes from knowing where these sweet spots are and sticking to them.

Well known personalities in local horseracing provide more examples. Table topping owner Markus Jooste, for instance, owes much to being fractionally the lower bidder for SA Breweries’ furniture manufacturing assets at the absolute peak of the market in the late 1980s. The winning bidder, Pat Cornick, offered a mere 25c more a share (R19.50 versus R19.25), and ended up going bust because of overpaying. Had Jooste’s Steinhoff won the auction, it would surely have suffered a similar fate. Instead, Steinhoff was around to pick up the same assets from a bankrupt Pat Cornick at a fraction of what it had been prepared to pay just a year or so earlier. That was the enterprise making deal which created the low cost asset base from which Steinhoff’s global empire was built. Jooste was blessed with good fortune once more when he dipped his toe into the racing world. His first investment: a share in a yearling called National Emblem who became the country’s Champion racehorse and then a leading stallion.

Mick Goss tells a similar story. The mighty Summerhill Stud, he readily explains, was the result of two pieces of great fortune - the first, flight cancelling bad weather that put him together for an extended period with the country’s greatest tax and legal minds (from which tax-incentive breeding partnerships were created); the second, a chance bumping into Northern Guest when he and brother Pat were visiting Ireland to see a different horse. Every barn, stable and pasture at Summerhill, Goss reckons, owes its existence to Northern Guest, the unraced marvel who became South Africa’s multiple Champion stallion.

The benefit of good luck seeps right through the Hogan book. Feted around the world as a genius in the Tesio tradition, Sir Patrick’s talent might never have been recognised had it not been for a nasty natured, poorly conformed (“terrible hind quarters… shocking hind leg”) Irish racehorse who he was strongly advised against buying. That stallion was Sir Tristam who became the greatest producer of Group One winners worldwide, putting Sir Patrick’s Cambridge Stud and, indeed, New Zealand breeding onto the global map.

Hogan’s real talent - something shared in breeding by Goss and in business by Jooste and many others - was an ability to use his random good fortune as a base. He kicked on. Strongly. Doubling up through buying back one of Sir Tristam’s best sons, Zabeel, from Sheikh Hamdan. The Dubai Prince had bought the Cambridge-bred Group One winner as a yearling for $650,000. For reasons best known to the Sheikh and his advisors at Shadwell, he decided not to stand Zabeel as a stallion (or to send him, like Kahal and Muhtafal, to Goss’s Summerhill Stud - what a difference that would have made to South African racing). Instead, Hogan was invited to submit a bid in a private auction and prevailed by a mere $50,000. Over three dozen Gr1 winners later, Zabeel has proved that in racing, sometimes lightning does strike twice. What makes New Zealand’s most famous horseman so extraordinary, though, is how he appreciates this, never losing his humility or his humanity. It’s that part of the man, even more than his amazing breeding achievements, which is most inspiring.

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