Lexington, Kentucky, USA
(Photo : Donamire Horse Farm)
“THE BLUEGRASS STATE”
MoneywebEver since Pride and Prejudice, I’ve tried to stop forming opinions from first impressions. But after nearly a week in The Bluegrass State, it’s pretty clear that I’m smitten. If we were ever to be forced to live outside our beloved KZN Midlands, it would be be here in the horse capital of the world.
Even without South Africa’s six time Champion Breeder Mick Goss as our host, the trip would have been marvelous. But being able to visit North America’s greatest horse farms in the reflected affection heaped on him by his peers has made this an adventure of a lifetime.
It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by a place where post and rail is standard. We saw tens of thousands of acres of rich Fescue pastures, the “bluegrass” that gives Kentucky its nickname, but not a strand of wire fencing. The buildings strike you as something out of an architectural digest - stallions are revered here, their barns styled like the farm stone and wooden homes and offices. Long avenues of leafy pin oaks, masterful horse art on the walls, statues of Seattle Slew, A.P. Indy, Secretariat… and stallion graveyards that beat any human version I’ve seen.
The place exudes old money. Certainly not the materialism you’d see from coarse, Wall Street speculation. This is a world where the long-term rules, where everything spent is judged by a return on investment measured over decades, not months. Each door latch, every head collar, seems to have been selected on the basis of getting stuff that lasts, never mind that it costs more.
So, too, the stars of Kentucky. Although they’re virtually finished the breeding season, every stallion we saw – and there were dozens – was in prime condition. No falling away after covering 150 mares. Their grooms are knowledgeable, engaging and devoted. For them, caring for their charges is a prized career, not a stopgap.
What are the lessons to take home?
Perhaps it’s that the biggest thing holding back South African racing is a collective mindset that while not exactly encouraging it, certainly enables comfortable mediocrity.
The Kentucky experience shows the horse business, like any other, thrives on high standards. The benefit of intense competition and the virtuous circle of long-term investment delivering superior products is evident everywhere. Long may the Darley vs Coolmore contest continue. Similarly the practice by US billionaires redirecting cash from their construction or self-storage empires into blue bloods. Ditto continued success by from-the-ground horsemen like the Taylors whose experience, skill and sheer hard work provides its own edge.
South Africa has its Oppenheimers, Ruperts, Scotts, Rattrays and Joostes. It must also replace the departed Becks and Jaffees. And the sector would do well to attract more rich foreign investors like the Plattners and Jacobs’, further developing the goodwill of friends like American heavyweight Barry Irwin. This business needs far-sighted, deep-pocketed people who love the breed. Not just to inject their cash, but to sharpen the competitive instincts of self-made horsemen like Summerhill’s Goss and the prolific Koster family.
Another big learning is that lightning strikes in the most unlikely places. There are no absolutes in this game. Time and again we were shown top stallions who had started their careers as low priced coverers in relative backwaters. Some who were moderate on the track have been unbelievable in the shed. The South African tradition of gelding males as a matter of course must surely be re-looked. It’s the racehorses who make bloodlines, not the other way around.
The other lasting impression is how big an advantage South Africa enjoys through its well-regulated, drug-free regime. Everywhere in American breeding one hears grumbles about the lax medication standards. Horsemen bemoan the legal and hence liberal use of Lasix which ensures the passing on of inherited weaknesses like bleeding. It also masks potent pain-killing medication that overcomes physical defects which would severe restrict a horse’s career in jurisdiction like SA. This opaque influence means the US stallion business carries the kind of unnecessary risk that any logical investor would love to eliminate.
Overall, I’ll be leaving Kentucky inspired and with renewed enthusiasm for this Sport of Kings. Confident that issues holding back the South African industry are not insurmountable. Indeed they are easily overcome in an atmosphere of trust, far-sightedness and collective will to do the right thing. We’ve given the world any number of great jockeys, Mike de Kock, Ipi Tombe, Jay Peg, Gypsy’s Warning and, indirectly, Pluck. But that should just be the start. How exciting to be part of an industry with such great potential.
Alec Hogg - Kentucky, USA