“Senor Santa, Hear The Drums, Amphitheatre and Vangelis”
You don’t own their trust, you earn it, and we start that process here the moment they’re born. First impressions come from their mums as well as their handlers, and if you’re wanting sensible, uncomplicated racehorses, you’d better have sensible, uncomplicated staff. Problem is, gestation in the thoroughbred is an extended affair, and the next child needs everything the mother can give. At five months, it’s time for separation, for the mare to concentrate her resources on the foal she’s carrying, and for someone to take over as role-model. That’s where the “Old Timers” come in.
Without wishing to distract you, we should start with a confession. We’re victims of this disease for which there is no cure. For us, horses are not so much a way of making a living; they’re a way of life. We revere our champions, we admire our battlers, and they’re as heroic to us as Patrick Lambie is to the Sharks and Francois Hougaard is to the Bulls. For those that’ve upheld the name, that brought home the silver from the Championships, there’s a place in the heavens when their racing days are over. They come home to mentor the kids, they step up in place of the “mums” when the weaning takes place; they are the providers of wisdom and decorum, the pacifiers and the high priests, and just occasionally, they’ll show the youngsters what made them as good as they were.
To give you an idea of what they’re taking on, allow us to paint you a picture. Summerhill is home to some of the nation’s most celebrated broodmares, some of them famous racehorses, others exceptional producers, the odd one a bit of both. Some years back, at one time, our paddocks were populated by the only two Durban July-winning mares since Migraine in 1957. Besides Devon Air and Tecla Bluff, we housed the July hero, Royal Chalice’s mum, champions Up The Creek and En Avant, and Argentinean Horse of the Year, Tostada. They were used to people coming to visit; it happened every other day. There was no thought of knocking you over either, as some of them used to do at the races, when the commentators used to say “she just went whoosh”.
In early autumn, these Ladies of the Valley stand with their foals in rolling paddocks of yellowing grass that sways like an ocean swell, in the north westerly breezes that do their best to suck the last of the summer moisture out of the land. They nicker to their foals, one of whom, a colt, has been testing the towbar on the feeding van, and is trying to establish whether the windscreen wiper is bolted on. When he comes over to his mother for a drink, she nips him on the rump to tell him he’s being rough on her udder. She looks you over with a big glassy eye. No suspicion, no fear: she was brought up at Summerhill. Again, no thought of knocking you over: she’s a picture of motherhood and contentment, but the little beast at her side, love him as she does, is becoming a touch tiresome. It’s time for the “Old Timers”.
Senor Santa loves this place. His looks and his demeanour tell you so. He wanders up, brushing his creamy hooves through the clover, head down, his eyes soft and benign, to ask you what you want. Tony Rivalland will tell you he was always like that, even as a juvenile. He’s twenty-seven now, and as relaxed as the former sheep shearer up at the foreman’s house. We don’t know about you, but we don’t remember a faster racehorse in our lifetime. “The Senor” is here because he was the best son of the most famous resident Summerhill has known. We remember the day he “rolled” the pride of the nation in the Computaform. Perhaps we should say “days,” because he did it again, and again.
He was always the picture of composure, unfussed by the circus pressing on the parade ring fence. We remember him swinging his great hips so that the imprint of his hind foot would land about 30 centimetres ahead of that left by the front foot. Danehill did it like that, so did Sadler’s Wells, and those that do it this way usually have an unusually long stride at the gallop. But the truth about this game is that when horses win good races, they always look better to us watchers. We see things we didn’t when they were losing. We dismiss faults as trifling issues of cosmetics. There was so much to like about Senor Santa: he gave us many opportunities to see him this way.
When he’s not looking after the babies, he shares a meadow with some other old stalwarts. Hear The Drums won more races for Peter Fabricius than any other racehorse in history. To do that, he had to pass the record of Sentinel, another graduate of these historic pastures. Like The Senor, his forté was speed, buckets of it. Unlike The Senor, he hid it in spite of his engineering. But the sounds of his adoring fans are like distant drums these days: he now lives with greatness, where Senor Santa is the boss. The Senor suddenly bites him hard on the rump, leaving parallel marks like a railway line. “The Drummer” flinches, but he doesn’t retaliate. He lives with greatness, remember. And it comes with a price.
Alongside is Amphitheatre, an unwanted urchin of two sales rings. Nobody wanted him, even at R30,000. Under Charles Laird’s expert tuition, he earned a million and a half at a time when we needed it most. In 35 starts, he brought home 34 cheques, and the day he didn’t, he earned his place at Summerhill. Forever.
Across the way, head down and buried in the cocksfoot, is a younger, strikingly handsome pretender. At three weeks of age, Vangelis developed a lameness of chronic proportions. He was almost three before he showed any signs of being mounted, so he never knew the inside of the sales ring. At Summerhill, we don’t believe in the notion of the perfect specimen, but here is just about everything else we believe in when it comes to conformation: an intelligent head that speaks of a generous nature, the longest of reins, the big sloping shoulder, low knees and hocks, short cannons, a good length of body. It was these things that saved him, more than once, when his first trainer suggested he was fit only for the knackers’ yard. Gavin Smith did the rest.
In the end, he saved our racing budget, too, and in some respects, his millionaire status saved enough to buy us a chunk of a couple of stallions. That was enough to get him through the eye of the needle, into the “Kingdom of the Old Timers”.