Entrance to the Hartford Estate
(Photo : Leigh Willson)
Excerpt from the forthcoming Summerhill Sires brochure.
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Summerhill CEOCan you remember 1989? It was the year the Berlin Wall came down; the year of the Tiananmen Square massacre; the Ayatollah Khomeini died in 1989, signalling the start of the jihad wars, and the government, for the first time, was talking to Nelson Mandela. The age of the protest had arrived and the planet was in turmoil. The only certainty about South Africa, was uncertainty. As I’ve said before, I was lucky where I grew up. At a time when there was a touch of the “jitters” among people of European descent in general and local farmers in particular, it helped to know the customs, the aspirations and the languages of indigenous Africans.
My best pal during my formative years, was Sizamela Sigcau of the Pondo Royal household, who preferred playing cricket on our front lawn to the formalities of court life. Even if that meant, as it did in the social dispensation of the era, that as a young “white” boy, I did most of the batting, and he did the bowling. That’s just the way it was, and as a six-year-old, I never thought anything of it. In later years, I served as the family’s lawyer.
Sizamela was strongly connected, and an inspiration on the road ahead. Set as he was for high political office in the future government, in apartheid South Africa, we consulted clandestinely for fear of compromising his ambitions. It was at such a meeting, in the darkness of a deserted Pinetown parking lot in the winter of 1989, that he shared with me the ANC’s plans for the economy: no “Freedom Charter” nationalization of mines, banks or industries; we were all South Africans, and we could look forward to the reality of Nelson Mandela’s “non-sexist, non-racist” dream of opportunity-for-all. As our meeting concluded, I sought his reassurance that as a cabinet minister, he would not forsake his oldest friend, that things would remain as they’d always been. “You’re the best friend I’ve ever had” he patted me on the shoulder; “the only thing that will change is, if we ever play cricket again, you’re bowling”. The man had a sense of humour, and clearly he’d have preferred to bat a little longer in our infancies. That’s exactly how things are in South Africa nowadays: these guys are doing the batting, and we’re doing the bowling. Come to think of it though, I’m not sure much has changed down in the Eastern Cape. The national cricket team is replete with the names of world class Xhosa bowlers: Makahya Ntini, Monde Zondeki, Lonwabo Tsotsobe, and I suspect that at the Selborne, Queen’s and Dale Colleges, the “white” boys like Mark Boucher, are still wielding the willows.
Thanks to my old pal, I had a different view of the future. With nothing to lose but Summerhill itself (most of which belonged to Standard Bank and Northern Guest at the time,) I was happy to bet the little we had in the farm on the way things would turn out. Days after that meeting, I was asked to mediate in an acrimonious dispute between the training fraternity and the Durban Turf Club. Understand, in the context of the affairs of the province, it was said that the Provincial government ranked third, the banks were second, and the Turf Club stewards, the “A” list families of Durban, were the supreme power. This was the age of protest remember, and in what was arguably the best bet of the year, the mediation process “exploded” within half an hour. So we took a tea break: tea fixes most things in Anglophile communities, as you know. During the adjournment I answered nature’s call, winding up in the loo in the company of the financial director of Hartford, the farm next door to Summerhill.
I don’t know the rules in other realms, but urinals can be quite sociable places in South Africa, and Steve Lapin and I soon struck up a congenial conversation. He enquired half-mockingly, knowing there was no inheritance at Summerhill, when I was going to buy the neighbouring land.
My old khakis and the same pair of veldskoens I’d arrived with in 1979, betrayed my poverty. Unaware how desperately the Ellis family were to sell, I had nothing to offer but the exchange of our home near Durban. Steve didn’t even wash his hands; we did the deal right there. That was South Africa in 1989. Now the site of the equestrian estate, Kirtlington, our land had a total agricultural potential of 2 milking cows and four polo ponies; swapping it for the most famous private breeding and racing establishment of its era, for me, was the deal of a lifetime.
Now part of the greater Summerhill estate, Hartford has a long and distinguished history. As the home of the family of the former Prime Minister of the Colony, Sir Frederick Moor, it had hosted Winston Churchill and General Botha, prime ministers of another generation. In later life, the Ellises had bred, raised and trained on the property, the winners of every major race on the South African calendar. The paddock alongside the chapel bore the footprints of the legends Mowgli, Sentinel and Magic Mirror. And Cape Heath, Panjandrum, Alyssum, Magic Charm, Ajax and Salmon. The roll call is long, and proof of Sir Mordaunt Milner’s proclamation that the Ellis era remains unrivalled in its dominance to this day.
I remember the first time I entered the sandstone gates of Hartford. Along the drive, the old flower pots bearing the names of forty eight champions, talked of a fading history; things were quieter these days, but I knew I’d arrived in the racehorse valhallah. The Hartford horses had infused the Ellises with the divinity of a racing pope. Hidden away from the mortal world behind those great gates was the “great within”, as this imperial enclave was affectionately known. Raymond Ellis’ aura radiated outward with the mystery and power of any enthroned Holy Father.
He set records in racing the way Jacques Kallis has done in cricket. He changed the way horses were trained, as surely as Mohammed Ali changed the way men moved in a boxing ring. He even contrived to ruin a stereotype. Because of the man he was, he brought a wholesomeness to a game that suffered from an ancient occupational hazard: no man blames himself when he’s “done” the housekeeping cash on a horse. While other horsemen of the time occasionally won big races, they often seemed to be throwing a dice and praying a lot. Ellis on the other hand, always seemed to be working to some guaranteed quota.
The unheralded genius behind the breeding of these “giants”, was a silent man of god-given talents. Peet Norval was the horseman everyone wanted to know. From the time Mowgli rolled home in the 1952 “July”, he was simply “Peet”. Everyone, even if they didn’t read the sports pages, knew who Peet was. It was assumed he owned magical powers. He was the alchemist who turned base metals into gold; to Peet though, this was all moonshine. He was about commonsense rather than magic, craft rather than sorcery. Astonishingly good at what he did. But this wouldn’t do for a doting public; it wasn’t the stuff of mythology.
That moment at the urinal had left me with two daunting tasks; the first was to break the news of the house exchange to my wife, and the second was the responsibility of stepping into the shoes of the most successful bloodstock enterprise of our times. These days, I’m sure Cheryl won’t mind me confiding in you, that the former held greater fears for me than the latter: it took almost a month to do it. Kipling had often come to my rescue in moments like these, and that bit about making “a heap of all your winnings, and risking it all on one turn of pitch and toss,” was the balm that settled it all. That Hartford House today is a totem among the nation’s boutique hotels, is a sign that all is forgiven.
The greater “mountain” lay in the custodianship of an unprecedented legacy. The Moors had arrived in 1875, and besides their political influence, they built two icons of the business world. Since the outbreak of World War II, the Ellises had carried the mantle of greatness into other realms, none greater though, than the fortress they built around the stock of Sybil’s Nephew and Masham. There was a time, from the forties through the seventies, when a horse in the green and black on its way to post, was said to be better than money in the bank. I have to confess, I liked the poetry, but it only heightened my apprehension.
So here we were, the boy from Pondoland and the girl without a “school-leavers”, venturing into the unknown of 1989. Luckily, Hartford is more than great “dirt”: abundant valleys of gorgeous loam over sandstone and basalt, hundreds of massive blue gums and oaks telling you the country is kind, but not soft. With its chapel, its venerable homestead and its English gardens, Hartford is a national institution. When Graham Ellis handed me the keys to the house in the shadow of Verrocchio’s masterpiece, I had a sense of destiny. He was obviously moved, but that’s okay: he hid it behind his sunglasses. I promised we’d do all we could to honour the past, whatever that took. When the Summerhill team lined up for its eighth consecutive Breeders’ premiership in the spring of 2012, I sensed the old man was saying “mission accomplished”.