Battle Of Isandlwana / SA History (p)
“Agility” is the name of the game today, speed off the mark and athleticism are what make the world go round, and if they come with size, they’re your passport to international sporting pleasure.
Summerhill CEONext month, we celebrate thirty-five years of involvement at Summerhill. When we first arrived, there were just six on the staff, and I had a mop of blonde hair. They say if you want to save on the hairdresser, get into horses or hospitality. I did. Both.
At the time, the average birthweight of our foals was less than 40 kgs. I guess you could say we were living in the time-warp in which the British army found itself in 1879, when the average height of their soldiers at the Battle of Isandlwana, was 5 foot 4 inches. No wonder the Zulus won. From what I can make out, little happened in the evolution of man in the space between then and the 1937 Springbok tour of New Zealand. Our manager in the Western Province President’s XV when I was a young man, was “Oom” Boy Louw, the tighthead prop in Danie Craven’s touring party, and one of only a handful in that team who tipped the scale at more than 100kgs. Today, in a Springbok party of 30, you’d battle to find a half dozen who’d not make more than that.
In short, the world has changed, not only in the manly pursuits of rugby, cricket, athletics and the “beautiful game”, but in the world of racing, too. Pick up a stallion directory in Australia, the United States or Japan, and you’ll find the bulk of them measure 16 hands and beyond, and if they don’t, they’ll still try to persuade you they do! “Whatever happened to Northern Dancer?” I used to ask, recalling that history’s most famous sire stood just over 15 hands.
“Agility” is the name of the game today, speed off the mark and athleticism are what make the world go round, and if they come with size, they’re your passport to international sporting pleasure. Ask Heineke Meyer. And for good measure, remember Jet Master. That’s what happened to Northern Dancer.
There were many things that made our Breeders titles a reality, small increments of 5% here, 10% there, and an obsessive concentration on the wood beyond the trees. On the way, our thoughts and our lives were influenced by the things we saw and the people we met. We’ve talked often in the past about nutrition, our stewardship of the land, the advancement of our people, and the clients we surrounded ourselves with, but observation and interaction counted for just as much.
I was lucky in my student days to know the late Paulie de Wet. If ever you were seeking a definition of the “master horseman”, look no further. Race days honed his competitive juices, they brought out his sartorial graces, and the old “clothes horse” spoke of the Thoroughbreds he so clearly adored, with an appealing mix of sentiment and intuition.
Ten years into our time here, Summerhill was crying out for some “loving care”. The fundamentals were in place, but it was looking for an artist. Such a man was John Slade, the frustrated schoolmaster who’d found a refuge for his talents in horses. His passion was the dynamic that lifted the breeding of racehorses from a physical chore to a spiritual inspiration. There are few geniuses in the world, and even fewer of them call tell you what made them geniuses. The day a “genius” attempts an explanation, he’s probably not one: they live in a world of gifts, of intuition and in the matter of horses, they plumb the rich veins of mystery that pervade our sport, without knowing why or how.
These are the piano notes of the great stud man’s life, and they are best played by feel than from any existing song sheet. John Slade planted trees, he rerouted roads, built buildings and re-laid fences in a spirit that pleased people, nurtured horses and protected wild creatures, all at the same time. Passion is the keyword. It is what underlies all great works, and breeding racehorses is one of the most captivating. It has found its “promised land” right here in the valley of The Giant, thanks to its geography, its climate and its incomparable soils. In truth, everything is at its aesthetic prime, for has there ever been a more beautiful country? While ours does not speak of the money that’s been invested in much grander establishments, I often wonder whether there are more soulful places built in honour of the Thoroughbred?
Passion is also the footnote to everything we do. It’s been our creed to play “open cards”, and we’ve always shared with our friends what we thought had taken us to the mountain top. Our most recent adventure is to take the equine equivalents of the men who fought at Isandlwana and transform them into the giants that made World Cup heroes of the 2003 England rugby squad. That means more inches and more bulk, and it involves the guts to live by your convictions. Few things of value have come about without the smell of risk in the air and the pain of disappointment. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” they say, and these are the watchwords of our work.
We’re told that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and speed and size are not always the best bedfellows in a racehorse. The infrastructure has to match the superstructure, otherwise we’re raising a beautiful invalid. The table at the foot of this piece plots the course of our progression in the arena of our “latest” project, birthweights, commencing in the year following our first premiership, up to and including the ninth. The racing statistics tell us our runners are more robust these days, they’re tougher and they run more often than most. The fulfilment of our endeavours in the breeding business though, is a matter of decades rather than days, so hindsight should not impose too much grandeur on what is still something of a fledgling experiment.
Who knows, one day our luck my run out, but one thing’s for sure: we’ll never stand accused of not having tried it. If you should choose to make this journey with us, I assure you, your visit will win you over. You will not stay immune from this story.
Percentage of crop