I was a trader by birth and a lawyer by profession, but I have to say, deep down I harboured a secret yearning to be a jockey, a pop star or a Springbok fly half. In that order. I was too big to be Michael Roberts, too gruff to be Neil Diamond and too slow to be Naas Botha. So here I am, a horseman by default.
That said, horses have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, and I’ve always said I wouldn’t change the script for anything. I’m the luckiest man on earth. Every day I look out from the bedroom window onto a World Heritage site. I wake up next to a girl who understands my obsession with horses, and covers my back when it comes to my shortcomings; I go to work with some of the world’s most gifted stockmen, and I get to work with the good Lord’s greatest creation.
The turf is an ongoing pageant of people and the outrageous fortunes that attend them. The straight and the shifty, horsemen with artistry in their hands, and camel drivers. The in-house cavalcade of toffs and nobs, jockeys with those lived-in, used-up faces somehow transplanted on young bodies. It’s about dreams rather than probabilities; it involves risk, physical and financial. And here, we’ve touched on part of its greatness, the reason for all the lore and the literature. All great sport involves some pain, the element of mortal chance and ritualized codes of conduct. That’s why racing, rugby and cricket have spawned such great writing; it’s why jogging has not, and remains a middle-class fad. Of course, racing and rugby are easier to promote than running. They appeal to tough-minded nations like Argentina, Australia and Ireland. It is not wise to offend citizens of these countries. To them, a scrum or a whip-cracking finish is just a pleasant interlude among like-mined countries. Cauliflower ears and a few welts on the bum are signs of a life well spent. Others might beat them, but not even the All Blacks can frighten them.
As the 1970s moved into the 80s however, the bloodstock world became much more than an elegant diversion. It became an international business with a currency of its own. Nothing would be the same again. For that reason, I have favoured the anecdotal over the statistical, on the grounds that stories tell us about character, while statistics can lead to drowsiness. Racing might not always build character, but it sure as hell produces plenty of characters.
There are racing stories insiders love to tell. They are the tales of being there when a great horse works for the first time and you think you’ve seen the galloping version of the Holy Grail. Such a horse is Await The Dawn, who first caught our attention with a crushing demolition of a Group class field on only his second visit to the races. They’ve obviously witnessed some big performances at the world’s most powerful racing stable, but nobody at Ballydoyle was ready for what occurred within seconds of the runners being dispatched over the same stretch of green which launched Nijinsky some forty years before.
His next outing at Chester resembled an Irish reprisal for the troubles they’d suffered at the hands of the English those many centuries ago. When his jockey encouraged him to take the race by the scruff of the neck, it was the invitation Await The Dawn had spent his young life waiting for. Buoyed no doubt by a shared penchant for revenge, a beret-clad Frenchman at the rail screamed “Incroyable”, an uncanny echo of General Pierre Bosquet’s words after watching the doomed Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War “C’est magnifique, but it is not war. It is madness.”
And so to Ascot. The “Royal” version, that is. The best sporting idea the English have ever had. Older than all the football clubs in Europe, older than Ashes cricket, older for that matter, than the nation of South Africa. They don’t come bigger than winning at Ascot, so best polish up the silver-tipped cane and dust off the spats. With a history dating to 1879, you should know, if you’re up for the Hardwicke Stakes, you’re stepping into big shoes. Rock Sand, Sceptre, Ormonde, Jeune and Doyen. Just the year before, the hero was Harbinger, the world’s highest-rated racehorse, bar none.
As you’d expect, the field was lousy with class: four Group One winners and some of the finest blood money could buy. He and Richard Hughes were tenth of the sixteen parading before Her Majesty and her 60,000 subjects in the stands. In a matter of minutes, Await The Dawn had rearranged the order completely. Brutally, clinically. The Queen had arrived in her horse-drawn carriage, and it was clear to the noble assembly that he’d still have won if he’d been pulling it.
By now, he was considered the best horse at Ballydoyle. The world’s best rating agency spoke of a Group One winner in waiting. Horses like this are ordinarily way beyond the reach of South African stud men. Yet it is one of the savage truths of life that when things appear to be too good to be true, they almost certainly are. All seemed well in the world. It only took one race and a life-threatening illness to change it. That Await The Dawn is here today, is a valedictory salute to a three decade relationship and the value of discretion. In our negotiations with Coolmore, he assumed the codename “Before The Sunrise”, as much a signal to local horsemen to get in before he gets away, as it is an expression of our cultural differences. South Africans love nicknames, Europeans prefer surnames, but when we speak of “Sunshine”, we’re talking about the same guy.
While Dynasty, Silvano and Fort Wood are the standard-bearers for those who seek to breed the Classic racehorse, South Africa’s pre-occupation with speed is upheld by the excellent stallions Var and Captain Al. The search among breeders for that elusive beast with speed, substance and superior genes, is never-ending, and as a top-of-the-sale, dual Group One winning son of Royal Academy, Ato was a paragon of swaggering brilliance.
A Group victory on his third lifetime start was notice of things to come, and his first win at the highest level in the aftermath, told us a bit about the jockey, a lot about the trainer and even more about the horse. In a glittering stud career, his father had already sired 170 Stakes winners, and Ato had just joined an elite band of 27 Group One aces. While his supremacy in the Patron’s Bowl elevated him to the ranks of the best Asian milers, taking on the world’s top sprinters in the Krisflyer International was like going to the Olympics.
But if you subscribe to the view that once they get good, there’s no knowing how good they’ll get, he wasn’t an impossible winner by any means. In the event, it was a non-event. Kieren Fallon’s elbow-pumping aboard Kryton Factor, hot off his own victory in the planet’s richest sprint, told us that he and the rest of the pack were already hung out to dry. Ato was quicker out of the gate, he was quicker on the bend and quicker to the finish line than Europe’s marquee speed merchant, and everything else they’d thrown at him. Quite simply, he was quicker.
This was the final act for a man whose tribe is celebrated in South Africa by the Champion sires Silvano and Dancing Champ, as well as the globe-trotting Black Caviar, whose name is toasted in bars and grandstands as far afield as England.
No matter what follows in his wake, Northern Guest will always be the benchmark by which Summerhill stallions are measured. For a generation of racing fans, his achievements were more than facts and figures: they were scripture. And for all the great names to have adorned our Sires’ premiership, Northern Guest suffered least for his art. At a time when our sense of public idols is complicated by information overload, there is a beautiful simplicity to his story: he churned out big race winners by the multitude. Simple as that. How good he must have felt, knowing he’d sent so many happy people to bed on a Saturday night. So here we are, a decade on since we laid him to rest, and we’re beginning to get that old familiar feeling again from the performances of the first runners by our emerging stars, Visionaire and Brave Tin Soldier. It’s early days yet, but Visionaire is the new king in the age of immediacy, where opinions are massed and the appetite for brilliance is met by technology. In many ways, he is the redefinition of the modern racehorse: he stirs our hearts with the performance of his first runners, he turns our heads with his class-leading numbers and he appeases our accountants with his auction results.
The one bloodline that is really imposing itself on our sport, is that of Storm Cat, at the height of his powers the most sought-after stallion on earth. Var, Black Minnaloushe, Tiger Ridge and Mogok tell us there’ve been no misses thus far, and now Brave Tin Soldier is singing from the same hymn sheet. Born, bred and built for a Classic campaign, “The Brave” excelled in the juvenile division: if that sounds a bit like Storm Cat himself, it’s no coincidence. His own exceptional talents as a Two Year Old are already in danger of being outdone by his first runners, and as the progeny of a one-time favourite for the French Guineas, they are displaying more than a smattering of je nais se quoi. By Storm Cat from a daughter of Mr Prospector, his pedigree spoke of Emperors and Excellence: right now, Brave Tin Soldier is doing precisely what it said on the “tin”.
He might’ve been second in Ireland’s biggest horserace, but on pedigree, Golden Sword was the runaway winner. He was bred to stay the trip, he was bred to handle the track and like Galileo, Montjeu and High Chaparral, he was bred to win the Derby. Indeed, in any other year, he might’ve won two Derbies. That he had the misfortune to be born in the same year as the superstars, Sea The Stars and Fame and Glory, only lends credence to his rating as the second best Northern hemisphere-bred son of his own remarkable sire, High Chaparral, and to the fact that in 19 years of World Cup history, his 2000 metre UAE record outdoes the performances of Cigar, Dubai Milenium and Street Cry.
The market doesn’t always get it right, but it seldom misses by far. Better judges than ourselves have dubbed the first Golden Swords the toast of last season’s crop. I still remember the dejection on Jehan Malherbe’s face at the thought that he wasn’t standing closer to home; it was the slightly sad look of a man who’d been burdened by being a Stormers’ fan for most of his life.
One thing that strikes you in Australia, is the reverence with which they greet speed sires, none more so than the talisman for the Halo male line, More Than Ready, the most successful dual hemisphere stallion of the current era. Undefeated at six furlongs as a juvenile, his son Traffic Guard, held his form across a five season campaign through a range of distances; on the road, he came within a stride or two of lowering the colours of the Three Year Old Champion, New Approach in a Group One. Horses like Traffic Guard are an inspiration. In the simplest way, they symbolise the highest of athletic virtues, rock solid mental strength and massive physical attributes. It is dangerous to get too anthropomorphic about horses, but there is always fun to be had with how such a tough character might fare when he moves to the sultan’s life at stud.
There is something about a racehorse that stimulates our juices more than any other sensation known to man, more so when they’re winning on the international stage. Journalists the world over now refer to the success of South African horses abroad as “racing’s worst kept secret,” and the exuberance of one of our business moguls, Brian Joffe at the business end of his triumph on World Cup night, reminds us how vulnerable we are to moments like these. For all South Africa’s successes over the years, the victories of the past twelve months surpass anything we’ve achieved before. Knowing that there has been a significant contraction in broodmare stocks across the globe, there has never been a more opportune time to capitalise on a supply and demand equation which is rapidly moving in favour of producers.
South Africa’s best endowed races are at 2000m and beyond, and if we want our names displayed in lights, that’s the kind of racehorse we should be trying to breed. Admire Main is justly applauded for getting a type: strongly-made, good moving youngsters that sell well and run with purpose. With three Stakes winners already from his first Japanese runners and a Group One performer at home, none of us were surprised to see his stock making four and five hundred thousand at November’s Ready To Run sale.
So you’re thinking… “Mullins Bay is an eye-catching specimen, he was a darn good racehorse, and he has five Black-type performers to his name this season, including the first-ever Triple Tiara heroine in Zimbabwe. Time to listen to my inner voice, maybe?” The same applies to A.P. Arrow, whose stock get better with age and better with distance. Yes, he won a big race in a fast time, beating top horses. But many a stallion prospect can say that. Yet, when he took out the time-honoured Clark Handicap at the home of the Kentucky Derby, his victims were five Group One winners. Only a few can say that. Four Black type competitors, three at the trip of the Derby and the Oaks, vindicates our mantra: they just get better.
When the early historians sat down to write the good book Genesis, they couldn’t have contemplated that a Zulu farm on this side of the Drakensberg would cobble together nine consecutive Breeder’s Championships in the most competitive era in history. God, or at least success, had at last come to Zululand; that’s if full-blooded Zulus would ever admit that Jehovah had ever existed anywhere else.
While ours does not speak of the money that’s been invested in grander establishments, we often wonder whether there is a more soulful place built in honour of the thoroughbred, than Summerhill. Racehorses are the core of our affections. They are central to a life where we don’t just live for our work; we are only alive because of it. We and our stallion brigade go into battle for winners, not to save the world. The lure of the magnificent youngster of infinite potential has a strength that is centuries old. It’s what’s best about the thoroughbred, the fastest weight-carrying creature the world has ever known, and Britain’s greatest gift to the animal kingdom. It is a lure that is strongest in these valleys, and for eight full decades, Summerhill has been its temple.
Who knows, one day our luck may run out, but one thing’s for sure, we’ll never stand accused of not having tried it. Every day, we are reminded that success is not final, failure is not fatal; it’s the courage to go on that matters.