Mick Goss / Summerhill CEO
“Horses and humans both eat on Good Friday, Christmas Day and every other public holiday we know, more so in December, so we’re heads down here.”
December has always been an eventful month for the Goss family. My late Dad and younger brother were both Sagittarians, and so am I. Nelson Mandela touched us all with his burial last month, and Boxing Day marked the anniversary of the respects we paid to Cheryl’s Mum the year before. For most people I know, it’s a “down tools” month, but if your chosen profession is horses and hospitality, that’s a pipedream. Horses and humans both eat on Good Friday, Christmas Day and every other public holiday we know, more so in December, so we’re heads down here. Not that we’re complaining at all; Summerhill and Hartford seem to have a disarming effect on the grumpiest of politicians, banged-up bankers and stressed-out solicitors, and often enough, the soothing balm of a stud tour turns an unsuspecting hotel guest into a paying customer on the farm. It all helps the bottom line!
But of course, the memories of those that’ve passed on, inevitably induce some reflection. My old man was a trader by birth, an accountant by profession and a horseman at heart. Some of these things are mutually exclusive, if only because accountants generally think they have a handle on the economics of the horse game, and so you seldom find them among the “players”. But there’s another aspect to their in-built aversion to getting their feet wet, and that’s because accountants like to bring order and logic to their lives; horse racing is seldom ordered and is never logical. It’s an affair of the heart, and it appeals more to the adventurous among us, to beings of the creative spirit who believes you only live once, and to those with an appreciation of the higher things in life.
In that respect, my father was an unusual accountant: he loved the ponies, and so did his dad, Pat Goss, who chose the thick of the Great Depression to launch his stud farming ventures in faraway East Griqualand. “One horse is all it takes” Pat would confide to anyone who’d listen, and when his moment of glory came before the 100,000 who’d thronged the fastness of Greyville racecourse on the first Saturday of July 1946, there were more than a few in the crowd who took heart in the memory of that one-liner. I have to confess, that while my time only came later, the recollections of what St Pauls did that day, and what my granddad had often professed was as much a contributor to the existence of Summerhill as we know it today, as any others beyond the genetic predisposition towards horses that appears to infect the male line descendants of our family. We simply haven’t been able to find the antidote!
Most of us grow up wanting to please the “ancestors”, not only because in Zululand it’s a fundamental aspect of local religion, but I guess it’s because they all seem to harbour so many expectations of us. My Dad liked the idea that in my first life, I’d chosen the law as a means to a living, but I’ve often wondered what he’d have thought of my abandoning it for a stud farm. After all, this is not so much a way of making a living as it is a way of life, and I’ve often pulled the leg of my brother, Pat Jnr, that when I bought him out of Summerhill in the 1980s, I gave him his passport to the Sunday Times “Rich List”, while here I am still wearing the shoes I first arrived in!
Pat Snr and my Dad were both winners, and I suspect they would’ve applauded our nine consecutive Breeder’s Premierships, knowing the odds-against when you’re as remote from the mainstream as we are, and that it’s happened at a time when the contest has never been tougher. At the same time, as former champions themselves of the lot of the little guys, they would’ve lamented the demise among our colleagues of so many of the farming fraternity who’ve withered in the face of a wave of involvement from the “big money” in town. Yet horse breeding is not alone in this respect; agriculture in general as well as the dairy, plantations and crop farming sectors, have seen similar patterns gain traction in recent times.
Herein may lie opportunities for the former farmers to become the highly-rewarded managers in the new corporate scheme of things, free of the hazards that world prices, weak currencies and wet Wednesdays in the Western Cape winter might have held for their one-time enterprises. Pat and Dad would, I’m sure, have liked the idea of hosting the only world class hotel on a world class stud farm in the world, as well as its recent recognition by a senior critic of no less a publication than The Wall Street Journal, as one of the top three country restaurants on the planet.
As former studmen whose covering yards were gum-poled palisades out in the open, they’d have envied the shelter of the stallion barn, the countenance of which resembles the Moeder Kerk in Graaff Reinet’s main square. As a man who’d spent the entire proceeds of his “July” victory on a stallion son of Hyperion, granddad would’ve taken pride in the assembly of princely pedigrees and pulsating performances that populate the stallion precinct. They’d have applauded a team that replaced the arduous torture of yearling “prep” with the first automated “walker”, which does the work of ten men; and of the innovation which took the guesswork out of early pregnancy diagnosis with the nation’s first ultrasound scanner: which worked with the treasury to rewrite the most favourable tax dispensation in the world of racehorse production; that had the foresight to persuade our local custodians of the benefits of a breeder’s Premium Scheme which remains unique to those who ply their trade in these valleys: a team which gave fresh impetus to racehorse marketing through the engineering of the world’s first Ready To Run Sale almost 30 years ago, a concept which maintains its place as the world’s fastest growing tool in the turnover of horseflesh: that understood the imperatives of the trade in horses, and presided over the establishment of a national Trade Council which has overseen the export of more than a billion in bloodstock.
They’d have been in awe of a blog site which attracts the busiest traffic in thoroughbred breeding across the globe; and I’m sure they’d have marvelled at a farm just 10 kilometres outside the dustiest little dorp in the Midlands, (at the Southernmost tip of what the civilized people call the “Darkest Continent”,) whose “resident” customers stretch across 22 timezones, from Japan to the United States. They’d have been especially appreciative of the Southern Hemisphere’s only School of Management Excellence, whose governors count a former Judge of high repute and an eminent ex-chair of the Jockey Club of South Africa; of the fact that eight professors, local and foreign have given their time to teach our students in a theatre dedicated to their memory; and that our graduates have excelled in the company of representatives of all the major racing jurisdictions of the world.
Born where they were and raised the way they were, they’d have rejoiced in the skills of our people, in the presence of our other institutions of learning and especially, they’d have been comforted by the harmony that exists between the six hundred who call Summerhill “home” every night.
I’ve no doubt, they’d have delighted in my Mum’s and my brother’s unstinting commitment to our enterprise, and that in the celebration of her life, no fewer than two Kings and a Queen turned up to remember the “old girl”.
Finally, for a man like my Dad who belonged to another century but who loved “gadgets” nonetheless, I’m reminded every day as I enter the main gates of Summerhill, how tickled he’d have been at their mechanical activation. For all our Sunday school lessons, it remains a truism: the Devil is in the detail.