Betty and Colin Hayes
Betty and Colin Hayes

Betty and Colin Hayes

(Photo : Adelaide Now)

“Bred by a legend, consigned by a legend,

bought by a legend, to be trained by a legend.”

mick goss
mick goss

Mick Goss

Summerhill CEOThe turf’s literature is loaded with stories of famous stallions and their sweet ways. Hyperion liked to stop and look at birds. In his latter years, Nijinsky was struck with lymphangitis: his hind legs were swollen so that you could see the pink skin showing through the white hairs above his hooves, yet the light still burned brightly in his eyes; he refused to play the invalid. Northern Guest was a cripple, yet he commanded the attention of our management team on the stud office verandah whenever he passed in the mornings. “Legend” is an overplayed word in the sporting world today, but here was the real thing.

Sir Tristram didn’t belong to this band: he didn’t look the part. He looked like a 100 other horses you’d see and most of them were geldings. He didn’t act the part either, his only friend was an old cat. He was not the stuff of warm inner glow. When I saw him, his hooves had long ago given up, and his feet were being held together with Equilox. Sir Tristram was great not for what he was, but for what he could do. I knew that as soon as I left Cambridge, slightly bewildered, after my first visit in the late afternoon sun. Before long though, I remembered that most colts and fillies by Sir Tristram could outrun the car I was driving.

In 1988, Summerhill was an altogether different place. I was desperately trying to scramble a bit of cash together to buy my brother Pat, out of the operation; we hadn’t yet acquired Hartford, and the Maktoums were not yet aboard. The Berlin Wall divided Germany, the protestors hadn’t yet entered Tiananmen Square and the Ayatollah Khomeni was still alive. Nelson Mandela, remember, was still in jail. Ours was a very different world to the rest of the world, and we weren’t sure at first what the outcome would be. I guess, in retrospect, you’d say it was a helluva time in South Africa, and the only certainty was uncertainty. The one thing we had on our side though, was the energy of youth and an appetite for risk. In all fairness, it’s true we had little to lose. And we occasionally bet the farm.

Across the way in New Zealand, a tremor ran through the crowd at the Karaka Yearling sales when Zabeel, then simply Lot 280, the bay colt by Sir Tristram out of Lady Giselle, walked into the ring. The fabled Robert Sangster had bred him, but now the colt carried the brand of our good friends in Oz, the Arrowfield Group, and he was the talk of the sale for days. The tremor had little to do with his breeding; in a select sale like Karaka’s, most pedigrees have something going for them. It had everything to do with word-of-mouth. A grapevine develops at any yearling sale anywhere in the world. Only a handful of horses are pronounced perfect in the chassis as well as the pedigree page. These horses invariably top the sale.

You could tap into the grapevine at the bars in the region of the Sheraton Hotel in Auckland, which roared every night with the optimism of the rest of the world of the 80s. Trainers, businessmen, veterinarians, ex-jockeys, promoters of tax-avoidance schemes and bloodstock agents, were drinking it up, telling beguiling lies, arranging lines of credit and talking about the horses they’d inspected. Some of them, as you can imagine, knew not what they said. Next day, as is always the custom, most would go to the sale, take off their heads, replace them with pumpkins, and buy the wrong horses. Everyone liked Zabeel, particularly the vets. He made $650,000 to the bid of an old mate, Angus Gold, racing manager for Sheikh Hamdan of Dubai, buying him for another legend, Colin Hayes, who trained from his spectacular property, Lindsay Park, in South Australia. Bred by a legend, consigned by a legend, bought by a legend, to be trained by a legend, the blue-blooded colt seemed pre-destined.

Robert Sangster had sold Zabeel’s mother, Lady Giselle, to John Messara’s Arrowfield group in 1986. Messara, the dark-eyed enthusiast whose family had fled Nasser’s Egypt in the 1960s, is remembered for the importation of the great Danehill to Australia. He tells me he was pleased with the price for Zabeel, though as matters turned out, it was only for the time being. A few years later, Messara would lose control of Danehill after a dispute with Coolmore of Ireland. The $14million Danehill realised in the Dutch auction which followed, was scant compensation for a stud in its infancy.

Danehill would go on to reshape the course of Australasian breeding, and his blood courses through the veins of almost half the thoroughbred population of that part of the world these days. “That experience shattered me. It took me two years to get over it. I got very low”, confided Messara. He couldn’t have known it at the time, but Messara had just lost another sire phenomenon by selling Zabeel as a yearling. He must be just about the only man in the 300 year history of thoroughbred racing to have had his hands on two $50 million stallions, and lost them both. But Messara is no ordinary man, and no sooner than his bottom was on Ground Zero than he bounced back with Danzero, the “Slipper” winner who would become champion Juvenile Sire, Flying Spur who would dominate both the all-comers as well as the juvenile sires lists. Better still, Messara would claim the keys to Redoute’s Choice, who’s had his reign as the undisputed king of Australian breeding. And Messara still had Zabeel’s mother, Lady Giselle, who was handled by the Arrowfield staff like some ancient jug unearthed from the valley of the Nile. She lived on oxygen during her last pregnancy.

Colin Hayes and his son David trained Zabeel to win the Australian Guineas and three other good races. He was a sweet mover, described by Hayes as “poetry in motion”, all style and rhythm. And he was tough, he’d slug out a finish, yet he was never “box office”. He lived in the era of Better Loosen Up, Vo Rogue and Super Impose, and he didn’t enjoy their billing. A jarred leg led to his retirement, and the Sheikh put him up for private sale as a stallion amid the recession. Patrick Hogan had kept a beady eye on Zabeel’s career, with rising interest. He knew plenty about the horse anyway, and he knew that Zabeel should’ve been born in 1985, not 1986. Sangster sent Lady Giselle to Cambridge to be mated with Sir Tristram in 1984. She was a well-bred French mare by Northern Dancer’s son Nureyev. That’s what the piece of paper said. The physical reality was less grand. Lady Giselle was a twin, tiny, light-boned, faulty in the knees; a high-bred waif. When I first saw her at Arrowfield, I’d have to agree; I walked right past her, without noticing.

Hogan had decided to wait until Sir Tristram was 20 before standing one of his sons as a competitor. “Only then did I decide to give it a go. It would’ve been an insult not to have stood one of his sons, but I was leaving my run late. When the time comes, I might not be able to find the right one”. In Zabeel, Hogan liked what he saw, but he was reassured by insiders that when the time came for his retirement, he was bound to land up at Hayes’ Lindsay Park. When he won the Guineas at Flemington, Hogan just kept hanging in, he’d been earmarked by now, and he was the one. But there was a problem: Hogan didn’t want to offend Hayes. “I liked to model myself on him. We’re good friends”. We know the feeling: it was the same with National Emblem and Wilfred Koster.

In March 1991, Hogan was at the Gold Coast for a mare sale. Angus Gold was out from London and expressed his surprise that Hogan had shown little interest in Zabeel. “The boss is taking offers for him, so if you want a ticket in the sweep, we’ll be closing in the next couple of days”. Hogan submitted a formal offer of $750,000 through an agent. Next day, Gold confirmed the boss had accepted it. That was the easy part.

Hogan now had to speak with Hayes and express his embarrassment. Hayes shook his hand and said “He’s your horse”. He’d wanted Zabeel alright, and made an offer of $700,000. “They allowed me the opportunity of meeting Pat’s offer”, but Hayes was buying out his fellow investors at Lindsay Park at the time, and he didn’t feel he should go out on a limb. Hogan took Zabeel home and syndicated him into 42 shares of $23,000 each. He and his wife, Justine, kept 21. The Sir Tristram saga was in re-run mode, but without the dramas. The difference was, the son was a gentleman, the father was a man-eater. As I’ve mentioned, the only creature he tolerated was a black cat. Staff handling him wore padded hats, and crossed themselves a lot.

Those things apart, the parallels between father and son were uncanny. At his height, Sir Tristram came to be valued at $50 million, and Zabeel must have hit that plus in a more prosperous era. In common, they both commanded the earth in stud fees.

Beyond Sir Tristram’s vices, there was another difference in their produce. Sir Tristram gave his stock a prominent eye: otherwise they came in all shapes and colours. Zabeel’s foals looked alike, probably because of the influence of Lady Giselle’s father, Nureyev. All are bays, most have good heads, bright eyes, lots of rein, and long bodies. They don’t carry much flesh, run up light in the flanks and hum with nervous energy. They don’t fill out until they’re four, and they’re tough.

As you may have expected, Zabeel’s first crop sold well. Though he was immature, the black colt that would be named Octagonal, sold for $210,000. Soon however, trainers complained that the fillies were fizzy and the colts were difficult. Hogan says that when the second crop reached the ring, the word out there wasn’t that good. He says he didn’t worry, but you might remember me mentioning his dejection at the market for stallion prospects at the time. I had the feeling that Zabeel’s slow start at stud might have had something to do with it. Hogan expected Zabeel’s stock would do best at four, whatever else they might be. Later, he recalled the Melbourne Cup winners Might And Power and Jezabeel as yearlings. The former was a “wee little thing who paddled a leg: Jezabeel was light of flesh and ordinary”. Zabeel had the mark of a great stallion, he threw horses better than himself. So you ask the obvious. Is Zabeel better than Sir Tristram? “Don’t know” said Sir Patrick, “let history be the judge”.

Hogan’s history is like ours. Our forebears came to Africa in 1820 from Ireland: the first of the settlers, with whom I share my first name, Michael Goss, was a labourer who came here as a member of Captain Butler’s party on the good ship, Fanny. While Hogan’s family migrated later, they came from the same part of Ireland, and his father arrived in the land of the “silver cloud” as an 18 year old. He travelled the North island with two Clydesdale stallions, peddling their services before starting a dairy farm in the vicinity of the present Cambridge Stud. Hogan was one of 7 children, from a good Catholic family. “My father had a reputation as a good judge of stock. He raced the odd horse with the local priest”, says Patrick, who left school at 15 to milk cows and feed pigs. “I wasn’t academically inclined, except at arithmetic”. His blue eyes twinkle. “If you’re good at numbers, you’ve got a bit of cunning in you. That way you can think quickly and you have a bit of a chance”. His father’s acquisition of a share in the stallion, Blueskin, was what fired Patrick’s imagination. “My life has always been around animals and farming, and I just like tending and looking after them. Horses and dogs are a man’s best friends”.

He is competitive by nature and admits it. “I want to breed Group One winners, I want to top the yearling sales, I want to beat my competitors”. He’s done all three rather well. He’s sold the highest priced yearling for more than two decades at the New Zealand Yearling sales, and he’s matched that with the highest sales aggregate for as many years. He refused long ago to believe the thoroughbred game was about compulsive “loss-making”. When he bought Sir Tristram in 1976, he owed money on his farm, a lot of it, and it was only a quarter of its present size. He also owed for Sir Tristram. Several decades on, he and Justine might be worth ten figures, but the farmer is never too far away. Many will tell you he’s the best horse salesman the world has known.

Hogan has created a kingdom on 250 hectares of country so rich, it carries five cows to the hectare. It’s not unlike Summerhill: you could be in Tipperary. The black-railed paddocks are bordered with clipped hedges of hawthorn and barberry, and each has a willow and an eight-bar white gate. You approach the main stable block under the dappled light of century old oaks, encrusted with moss and teaming with cicadas.

The centrepiece of the place is Sir Tristram’s headstone, carved from marble Hogan imported from Italy and set in the garden. Pale green butterflies flutter over beds of petunias, violets, roses and begonias. Nearby is a collection of memorabilia. There’s Sir Tristram’s webbing head collar, frayed and encrusted with mud. Here are his mud-splattered shoes, worn and silvery, and there are his two bits, thin and severe. Sir Tristram needed both in his mouth; no-one could control him with one. You can see Hogan enjoys showing you these things: and then he walks back to the grave, because he likes being there even more. One day, that hole could be home to a second knight of the realm.

He has Zabeel these days, but he can’t forget Sir Tristram.