The Closed Society
(Photo : Summerhill Stud)
“THE CLOSED SOCIETY”
Whenever we stage an event at Summerhill, we convene a debriefing session afterwards, a kind of post-mortem, on the ups-and-downs, the good and the not-so- good, the keeps and the discards. We won’t bother you with the details, but one thing is clear, our customers have voted with their feet. They love a Ready To Run sale, mainly because so many good horses have come from there, they cost substantially less to keep, and your prospects of finding a runner are so much better.
Yes, the venue for the “Summer” version was terrific, Hartford’s food and wine were excellent, the timing was perfect, and if we may say so, our marketing reached a good audience. There’s a fundamental basis though, to the success of the Ready To Run, and it lies in the education of the horses, the faith they have in their handlers and the lessons they’ve had, settling their temperaments and using their actions to best advantage. It takes years to assemble a quality team in any field of endeavour, and the horse business is no different. It’s especially exacting when it comes to recruiting young riders, people with the patience and the hands and the raw talent to take a racehorse through kindergarten. These guys come from a different world, the “chopper pilots” of the horse game, a breed of their own that lives on the edge.
At Summerhill, the Ready To Run youngsters are housed in three locations, little principalities of their own, places of hope and despair, depending on how this or that horse is going. The “jockeys”, as we know them, occupy a murky world which starts hours before dawn, in the pitch dark, when the night is so still, so windless, you can almost hear the branches talking to each other in the avenues of trees that demarcate these places from the rest of the farm. At that time of the morning, nothing is happening in little old Mooi River, just a few kilometres away, where people won’t start arriving for work for another three or four hours. Normal people work there.
Here at Summerhill, the members of the Closed Society are going through a routine that’s hundreds of years old, and is barely changed. The lights are on in the principalities. You hear the swish of brooms, the sounds of strappers talking softly to horses, of water buckets being filled, the thud of straw hitting concrete, the footfalls of horses on their way to the track. This side of town has a smell of its own: a cocktail of horse hair and of sweat on rugs and saddle blankets, of urine on straw, the bittersweet aroma of eragrostis hay.
As the first string departs the yard, the atmosphere is vibrant and alive. This is the essence of the kindergarten. What you see on race days doesn’t come quite as close to the soul you see out here, where there is no need for affectation, because everyone is an insider. The men on board are educators, not race riders, members of a private, patient profession, where bumps and spills are all part of a day’s work. If there’s a gambler in the Summerhill team, you’ll find him in the Closed Society Monday to Friday, and on weekends, he’ll be hanging around the Tote in town, trading his “insider” instincts for hard currency.
It’s in these principalities that you discover whether a horse is a trier or a mongrel, and where horses are taught the rules: follow the rail, no pig-rooting or u-turns, stretch out when clicked up, the routines and the rituals, cross-tying in the stalls and hosing down with cold water.
Here, in the half-light is an old sport, an old picture, an idiom heavy with gallows humour and rhyming slang, understood only by insiders. There is talk of toffs and “tea leaves”, gents and bludgers, flying machines and cockroaches and centipedes. Other sports aren’t like this; footballers and cricketers train in the bright light of day, the public can go along and watch what is going on. Conventional English is spoken.
In a few hours, the sun is up and the third string is on parade. In the clear light, parts of the original Summerhill take on the air of a lovely old farm “let go” by the fourth generation. It is loaded with history, but if you look closely, you will find spots where the paint is peeling. It’s not through neglect though, it’s to do with time. When the Ready To Run is on, there’s precious little of that, because the detail has been spared for the horses.
That’s the “closed society” for you, the people that carry the secrets to the athletes they sit on, that know and understand the mysteries that make a good racehorse. These are the people our customers go to these days for the inside track, for the stories that inspire their investments, and the legends that are the bedrock of our folklore. That’s where Igugu and Pierre Jourdan came from, and Imbongi, Paris Perfect, Fisani and Hear The Drums, among the makers of our modern history.