Thoroughbred Farming in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands
Thoroughbred Farming in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands

Thoroughbred Farming in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands

(Image : Summerhill Stud)



It wasn’t that long ago that our district was the “in” place among investors in stud properties. Graham Beck, Cyril Hurwitz, John Ellis, Brian Jenks, Ronnie Rosen, Peter Moss, Bobby Jameson, Peter Koster, Guy Landon, Roy Meaker, Hilton Hall, Henry Khan, Ghait Schumacher, the Pappas family, they all threw in their dosh with the established entrepreneurs, the Scott Bros and George Rowles, in the plains between Mooi River and Fort Nottingham. The Oppenheimers and Gary Player were a hair’s breadth away from joining the rush for local farms, too.

While they were not in the same league in terms of resources, the young Goss brothers Pat and Mick, had just kicked off their endeavours at Summerhill, and their All-Black neighbour, Alan Sutherland and his Miss South Africa wife, Vera, secured the farm next door. It was a vibrant time in the Midlands, as it emerged from a thirty year slumber in horse breeding terms. There was a golden era in the 40s, 50s and 60s, when great farms like Hartford, the Labistours of Dagbreek, Joyce Tatham’sSpringfield, and Harry Barnett’sSpringvale took out half a dozen Durban Julys in a ten year stretch between 1946 and 1954, and threatened the supremacy of the all-conquering Birch Bros for the Breeder’s Championship.

Along with this investment, came a period of overwhelming prosperity in the horses emerging from these valleys. Success bred success, and the arrival of the stallion greats Northern Guest and Foveros, and right behind them Secret Prospector and Rakeen, witnessed the national sires’ log hosting four Nottingham Road, KwaZulu Natal-based horses in the top five for the first time ever. Then there were those like the Maktoum family of Dubai, who, whilst not landowners, established the most profitable horse division they’d ever owned at Summerhill, through the support of local breeders. The KZN Breeders Premium scheme, the only one of its species to survive in this country, was an obvious drawcard, though it wasn’t without howls of protest from other regions about its existence, and what it was doing in concentrating the resources of the country in one area. In a manner of speaking, KwaZulu Natal was exploding in the growth of its stud farms, though it’s fair to say, that while they were long on capital, we were relatively short on skills. That’s always the case when new businesses suddenly proliferate. The old centres of excellence, the Karoo and the Eastern Cape, whose economies were largely based on sheep farming, were suddenly battling, and were a shadow of their former selves, the product no doubt of the decline in demand for wool.

By contrast, the traditional bastion of breeding, the Western Cape, was farmed by old families with what the old people used to call old money, though the latter was in relatively short supply. While the dough was in KZN, the strength of the Cape lay in its traditions of horsemanship and the intimacy of its farmers with their land. This was Natal’s moment, when the advantages of a spectacular environment and a quartet of the best stallions on the continent converged, yet somehow we let it slip, by underpromoting the virtues of their land, their climate and by then, their horsemen, and crucially, their Breeders Premium scheme.

The pendulum swung west again, and an unprecedented scramble for Cape properties manifested itself among the wealthiest families in the land. Mary Slack, diamond and gold heiress; the greatest industrialists of our time, the Ruperts; Andreas Jacobs, heir to a family fortune in the coffee business; Sabine Plattner, whose husband Hasso had founded one of the giant IT companies of the world; Shirley Pfeiffer, whose cash cow was Rainbow Chickens; the Rattrays of Mala Mala fame; Markus Jooste, Bernard Kantor and Chris van Niekerk, furniture king, banker and builders merchant respectively; one of Africa’s greatest coal miners, Graham Beck, Tony Taberer, tobacconist extraordinaire; senior counsellor Altus Joubert, and a raft of others including Gold Circle chair, Ken Truter, all joined the rush for the rediscovered El Dorado, and once again established the Western Cape as the principal “provider”.

If there was a glimmer of hope for KwaZulu Natal, a thread by which it could be saved from a retreat to the forgotten land, it lay in the perseverance and the guts of those who had nowhere to go, and the rise to the mountaintop of Summerhill. The history of breeding in South Africa, is unique, in that it has been dominated by just a few farms over the centuries. In its infancy (and we speak of the early 1900s as opposed to the hitherto relatively small industry of prior centuries,) the champion producers were principally the Randlords, the fabously wealthy monopolists of the diamond and gold businesses. Sir Abe Bailey, Sir Alfred Beit, Cecil John Rhodes, Henry Nourse and the ex Governor of Griqualand West, Sir Richard Southey, all had their businesses (and hence most of their residences) in Johannesburg, while their diamond interests were in Kimberley. The Karoo was perfectly placed, bang in the middle and it made sense to visit their Karoo farms en route between the two. As the biggest breeder in the world at the time, Nourse was the undisputed “King Henry” of his era, and his throne was usurped after his death by the rise of the Birch Bros of Doordrecht (Eastern Cape) whose famous conglomerate counted several farms belonging to three brothers.

The official records date only as far as the early 1900s, but it’s a remarkable fact that since then, only a handful of farms (or family entities, such as the Birches and Kosters were), have aspired to the most tightly held premiership in the world. Highlands Farms, the Koster Bros, Maine Chance Farms and the Cohen’s Odessa were the main protagonists and challengers to the Birch supremacy, and each of them held the crown at one point or another. We know of course, that the Ellises of Hartford (now part of Summerhill) were their most ardent pursuers for two decades, but with fewer than 30 mares at any one stage, it was a pastime in vain.

They didn’t let up though, in KwaZulu Natal, and in 2005, Summerhill became the first farm this side of the Drakensberg, to inscribe its name in the history books. By the closure of the curtains on the 2011 season, they’d strung together a record for the most recent 50 years, of seven consecutive titles. That, and a tenacious reminder from several other farms in the area, told the world, they were still in business, and that we were here to stay. At last, the cock is crowing again across these verdant plains, and there are signs that Rip Van Winkle is coming back to life.

The boys at Backworth have one of the most beautiful properties in the province; Englishman Mike Smith has revived Aldora, one-time banker to the bankers, Koos de Klerk became our biggest landowner in a very short while, and Moneyweb’s Alec Hogg (founder of SA’s first tipping guide, Racing Digest) has become the celebrated neighbour at Summerhill.

He’s not alone in abutting with the champion breeders, though; on the ridge, they call Beverley Hills (more appropriately “heavily bills”!) is the man the country’s pinning its mining hopes on these days, Bernard Swanepoel and his lovely lady, Tracey, also looking down upon Summerhill.

And “looking up” from their fine spreads in the Mooi River valley, are ex CapetoniansWilliam and Claire Meyer (who’ve obviously woken up to the fact that there is life on this side of the Drakensberg) and “Group One” French breeders, Xavier and Natalie Bozo, who in celebrating landmark birthdays last week, are the best proof that it’s never too late to put down new roots. If you’ve any doubts about the sincerity of their intents, take a drive past, and check the activity.

summerhill stud, south africa
summerhill stud, south africa