Zabeel Stallion
Zabeel Stallion

Zabeel - The Benchmark (2012)

(Image and Footage : Cambridge Stud)

“Most breeders never find the super-stallion.

Hogan, now in his mid 70s, has found two,

each time by following his own instincts.”

mick goss
mick goss

Mick Goss

Summerhill CEOIt’s been almost thirty years now since the New Zealander, Joe Walls, invited himself and a contingent of fellow breeders to Summerhill. As congenial a bunch as you’ve ever met, they included the now-legendary horsemen, Sir Patrick Hogan, Nelson Schick, Ron Chitty and Gary Chittick. The visit was a sort of “apology” to local breeders for the fact that they were taking so much of our custom away from local sales; in the end though, like us, they had a job to do and a living to make, and they did it well. Importantly, they bore the gentlemanly hallmark of most Kiwis, and like us, we had rugby in common. It was the beginning of a long and enduring friendship. Those relationships have been renewed many times since on a reciprocal basis, and more recently they arrived at Summerhill in tandem with a string of All Black captains who, at one time or another, had led teams to this country, right back to Fred Allen, who famously headed up the 1949 tour.

A fortnight ago, my regular tour guide when I’m “doing” the farms of Kentucky, Julia Rice, mailed to say she was driving Sir Patrickaround the “Bluegrass”, and we exchanged the usual niceties (and insults about rugby). As an aside, if you’re ever in Kentucky, Julia is the most professional, knowledgeable and charming lady, and she knows the navigation of what is not an uncomplicated grid of some of the world’s greatest farms.

If you were meeting him for the first time, it would be easy to misread Patrick. His stock-in-trade, it seems, is always the same; Les Carlyon tells it the same way. He strides into the office of his Cambridge Stud wearing pale-blue jeans, a cream polo shirt and sneakers, not a crease, not a smudge of farm dirt. He drives up in a black Range Rover with the numberplate “Sir T” (after Sir Tristram, the stallion who made him famous), and thus named before his owner became “Sir P”. The gold embossed plate on his desk says “The Boss”.

His hands, which he flourishes in conversation, offer the first clue to who he really is, and where he came from. They are puffy and scarred, like rings on the trunk of a tree, and they tell a story. It’s a tale of what happens when, as a kid, you poke cows around the dairy yard in the grey light before dawn, of the knocks you get when you handle too many feisty thoroughbreds; the thin gold chain peeping through the “v” of Hogan’s shirt, offers a second clue. It carries a St Christopher medal. Patricia, his late sister, had it blessed by the Pope. Hogan never takes it off. He also has a shamrock blessed by the Holy Father  “that gets a rub at the yearling sales and the races”, he says. “Superstition can take you along way. There’s a set of stairs at Karaka (the yearling sales venue outside Auckland) that I never walk under.”

And here’s a third clue. Hogan, flint-hard dealer in horseflesh, takes you outside to Sir Tristram’s grave, walking, as he always does, with the brisk authority of a sergeant-major. You feel that he wants to get out of the office anyway, that he is more comfortable here. He leans over the headstone, and it’s as though he isn’t really talking to you that much as reassuring himself that the old horse is at peace and properly cared for. “His head’s here, pointing this way, pointing to the sun, and his tail goes back that way”. He extends an arm to show the direction of the horse. When, nearly two years ago, Sir Tristram broke a shoulder and was put down at the age of 26, Hogan had him buried standing up. A friend told him that in some ancient civilizations, a great and noble person was always buried this way. Hogan liked the poetry. So a dozen men, some former workers at the stud, slid into the grave and somehow stood up the leaden body as earth was packed beneath it to hold it steady. Then a priest conducted a forty minute service for the horse they called “Paddy”.

Horses have made Hogan rich and turned him into the dominant figure in Australasian breeding - the best horse salesman in the world, some say - but he’s hardly changed. He’s first of all a farmer and an Irish mystic, a hard man and a soft man. A pragmatist and a romantic. “I don’t believe you can be successful in the horse business off a balance sheet” he says. “Money doesn’t buy the best horses. You’ve got to be a farmer”.

And then there are things no amount of money can buy. When his first crop were just four, Hogan was offered $14 million for the 12 year old Zabeel, who sired Octagonal and Jezabeel in his first crop, Might And Power and Bezeal in his second crop, Champagne and Zondo in the third, and Dignity Dancer and In A Flurry in his fourth. And from then on, Zabeel’s story is a copycat of his own sire; in fact, he’s as hot as Sir Tristram ever was. Hogan knocked back the $14 million and a later offer of $22 million. “Even if it were $100 million, I wouldn’t take it. The horse stays on my farm”. A truism to this day.

Might And Power won the Caulfield and Melborne Cups a few months after Sir Tristram died, and it was obvious that Hogan had replaced one super-sire with another. If another stud master had done this, he would’ve been called “lucky”. Not Hogan. He learned long ago how to shorten the odds in his favour. Don’t worry about the shamrocks and the superstitions: he plans it all like a chessmaster. A Kentucky breeder once said: “a good bull is half the herd, and a bad bull is all the herd”. What he meant was that one bad stallion can wipe out a stud, downgrade its mares and its names, and one great stallion, properly managed, can make ordinary mares look like champions, and set his owner up for life.

The trick is to get rid of a bad stallion quickly. The trick is also to never get rid of a great one, and if necessary, to buy back his best sons and daughters. As The Economist noted a few years ago, the thoroughbred industry is suspected of being based on “compulsive loss-making”. Most breeders never find the super-stallion. Hogan, now in his mid 70s, has found two, each time by following his own instincts. He bought Sir Tristram, a horse with faulty backlegs and a bad temper in 1976, after everyone had told him not to. In 1991, he bought Zabeel after stalking him for a year. Each time Hogan knew precisely why he wanted the horse. Zabeel, nicknamed “Barney”, has been busy throughout his life. He’s averaged more than 150 mares a season for more than a decade, and he’s done so at stud fees exceeding $100,000. Whilst it’s the common retort to say “only the good Lord knows what he’s done for the farm”, an accountant could tell you the outcome in a jiffy. When you visit Cambridge Stud, you instantly see the blessings two great stallions can confer upon a man in real estate terms.

These days, Zabeel stands in sweet-smelling straw, tied to the tethering ring, affecting boredom by clanking on the bit and swishing his tail while the groom polishes his dapples. He tries to nip the groom, but it’s just play. Unlike Sir Tristram, he’s kind: he lets you rub his forehead. Unlike Sir Tristram, he’s just about the perfect specimen, a dark bay, nearly black on the swelling crest of his neck, tall and long, long as a train, and with an eye Cormac McCarthy would call a “hot globe”. He brings his forelegs through in a swaggering motion that reminds you of Sir Tristram. Hogan runs his hand over the stallion’s neck, then down his shoulder and down his back. The touch is at once proprietorial and affectionate.