(Photo : Racing South Africa)
“RARE TALENTS ARE RARELY FATHOMABLE”
Summerhill CEOI’m about to take a couple of days off at the game reserve, and whether you think I deserve it or not, I’m up for it! Certainly, with their half-term looming, my granddaughters Hannah and Zoe, not to mention their grandmother, Cheryl, are certainly going to enjoy it. Thanda Private Game Reserve is one of those intoxicating places that makes coming home to South Africa so irresistible when you’ve been travelling abroad, so it’s no surprise it is the brainchild of Christian and Dan Oloffson, Swedish entrepreneurs and owners of Episilon & Sigma AB, the IT and technology giants.
I did think of you, our readers, though, before my departure, and wondered what I could leave behind of topical interest in an attempt to retain your amusement. Those who keep their mares at Summerhill will know that the agonising process of deciding on their mares’ mates for the season ahead, is well underway. The “to-ing and fro-ing” between our matings panel and our customers, has to be seen to be believed: at least, it tells us that people take the business of “playing god” seriously, and that the outcome of their deliberations remains a vital manifestation of the old saying “hopespringseternal”.
For centuries, breeders of racehorses have been bombarded by a confusion of theories, some sound and some so far-fetched, it is bewildering how many people were taken in by them. Humbug attends arguments about horse breeding the way a crow dwells on a fly-blown sheep. Jet Master, unfashionably bred and stained yellow by the sun, rampaged through a host of South African racing summers. Inevitably, you go home and pour over his pedigree. You go back six generations, which means you are looking at 126 ancestors. No neon lights flash. There is no grand clue.
That’s alright. Racing would be as interesting as quantum physics if it were burdened with mathematical certainty. You are happy to conclude that Jet Master had something better than blood and conformation. Yes, he was a monster of a horse, but he also had “heart”: all the good ones do. In sport, that is enough. Rare talents are rarely fathomable.
“Nonsense,” says the breeding theorist, who bales you up at the races on Saturday. It is the usual confrontation: he is vaguely hysterical. You are vaguely disinterested, and pretend you need to go to the tote. The interrogation begins “Didn’t you see the Fair Trial in the pedigree? Three doses of it. Three!” You wipe the flecks of foam from your lapels. “Don’t you understand now?”
Well, yes, I do, but I’ve bred a filly with a lot of Fair Trial in her too, and the best she could manage was a maiden on a wet day in the Western Cape.
Where was the Fair Trial? “In the third and fourth generations, I think”. “Well, there you are. You need it once on top, twice below, like Jet Master. Must be balanced that way”.
Now, why didn’t he tell me this before Jet Master became famous? We could’ve cleaned up at long odds! It’s all rather tiresome. People who spend their lives with animals, be they horses, cows or kittens, are invariably leery of too much theory. I’m sure that when Pocket Power filled Mike Bass and Marsh Shirtliff’s eyes at the Cape regional yearling sale, the “master-class” hadn’t bothered to check the co-efficiency of the colt’s inbreeding.’They don’t assail you with dosage theories at Mike de Kock’s yard either, but he trains winners by the thousand. Here at Summerhill, we don’t discuss the successes of our runners in terms of the “international outcross” their pedigrees represent. We are, therefore, in favour of anyone who can offer serious thoughts about breeding without the humbug. Someone who knows about the caprices of nature as well as the laws of Mendel, someone who knows that nothing can make a fool of you more comprehensively than a thoroughbred. Which is why I’m greatly taken with a book I have read several times, and which to my amusement, I’ve just completed again. When it first appeared back in the 80s, Thoroughbred Breeding: Notes and Comments was published by J.A. Allen in London and selling then for a token R9.95, and it was authored by a great character of our local racing, Sir Mordaunt Milner, who cuts through humbug like a flail mulcher. Incidentally, I lost my earliest version of this heavenly script some years ago, and only just managed to find a copy on Amazon for the handsome price of R59.95 (you wonder what they’re going to do with the change?). You may recall my having quoted the “Bart” previously, though that was from scribbled notes on an old manuscript.
Sir Mordaunt failed at Leeds University because he went to the races instead of to lectures. He then emigrated to South Africa, where he was a stipendiary steward, a novelist and a breeder at his beautiful farm Natte Vallei, of classic winners and sales-topping yearlings. His greatest successes included the outrageously talented Man Of Property; the Mauritzfontein Stud foundation mare, Avila (a sales-topper) and the Oaks heroine, Serena. The memory of Serena distracts me for a minute, as my brother, Pat and I were the under-bidders for this striking daughter of Jan Ekels to none other than Gary Player, who not only won the S.A. Oaks with her, but then sent her abroad to be mated with the Breeders’ Cup Turf winner, Theatrical. This unique union produced a fellow named Broadway Flyer, a quality racehorse who found his way into the line-up for England’s most famous race, the Epsom Derby. In those days, Gary Player was a regular attendee at the Natal Broodmare Sales, and used to shack up with us at Hartford House, still our home at the time. The sale was held in late June, just a couple of weeks before the British Open, and Gary habitually rose before the dawn, completed his famous “sit-ups” and “press-ups” routines, then whacked a couple of balls between two stately gum trees into the darkness, as he prepared for a tournament he’d previously won three times, and as a senior, on three more occasions. Remember the adage “The harder I work, the luckier I get”?
He flew to England to watch Broadway Flyer take his place in the Derby, and a correspondent of one of England’s leading newspapers saw an opportunity to interview him. He asked Gary whether he would rather win the Derby or win the British Open, and his reply was “I’d rather win the Derby than three British Opens, and I’m the only man on earth who’s able to say that!”. Another sign of what the turf can do to “big” men.
To get back to Sir Mordaunt, the back dust-jacket of the book catches his breezy fatalism. He is shown bridling his riding hack. The caption says: “This filly was bought as a yearling a season before her full brother won the New Zealand Derby: what good luck! She never won a race; she never had a foal: what bad luck! That’s racing”.
Do not be misled, the book is a considerable piece of scholarship. It brings a fresh mind and a deft pen to all the usual things: nicks and crosses, potency, dosages, how to select a mare and how to find the right mate for her. It is never boring, never superficial. But you always have the feeling that here is a man who has read all the books and knows all the theory, but who has also stood in a paddock, looked at a sad little foal who was all wrong, and said to himself, there are times when theory is bunk. Here are a few of his sharpest lines:
- When a mare is offered for sale, one frequently reads the following sort of comment in the displayed pedigree. ‘The next dam is So and So, a daughter of Thingamabob tracing to Paraffin’. This means that the mare will have the famous Paraffin (1870) in the eighth or ninth generation and the influence will be as remote as an ancestor who came over on The Mayflower to his or her descendant in the Senate or in the Bowery… This sort of announcement is as meaningless as putting the family number after the name of the horse. It is… a lot of bull.
- At a poultry show, a young fancier asked what the difference was between inbreeding and line-breeding. An older one answered: ‘Well, son, it’s this way. If you keep on breeding with your own birds and you are successful, you speak of line-breeding, But, if your results are bad, you can blame it on inbreeding’.
- The commercial breeder has to breed a yearling that can walk well enough to satisfy the buyers; whether it can gallop as well, is then the buyer’s problem.
- If you are going back seven generations to support a theory, you might as well go back eight.
- There is no relationship between size and ability on the racecourse, but one thing is sure: there is a definite correlation between size and price at the yearling sales.
- How many mares do you need to start a stud and how do you choose them? Only one, provided you pick the right one. Both the Childwick Bury Stud and the Aga Khan would still have been known world-wide if the only mares they had started with had been Absurdity and Mumtaz Mahal.
As you can see, Milner is a pragmatist. But he pulls up well short of saying that breeding is all luck. His theme is that by sifting the evidence intelligently you can improve your luck. The words of American breeder John Gaines often seem close to the Milner approach. Gaines once said “It’s really the game of percentages, a game of getting many little things working for you. Every little plus, gives you a higher probability than someone else has”.
The passage I like best in the book belongs not to Milner, but to Phil Bull of Timeform. It goes thus: “Anyone who thinks that one can breed a champion by sitting down with a split-pedigree book to find an ideal mating based on inbreeding or crosses of this and that, just isn’t in touch with reality. Every ‘great’ horse is (by definition) a rarity whose superior genetic make-up is the result of a statistically improbable accident. You may hope for and solicit such accidents, nothing more’.
Which brings me back to Jet Master. I should have that quotation printed on a card. Next time the breeding theorist harasses me about Jet Master and Fair Trial, I can simply hand the card to him. On reflection, that probably won’t work either. He is probably likely to say that Phil Bull was notorious for his lack of knowledge about Fair Trial top and bottom!