Land Systems of the Hunter Valley Area / CSIRO (p)

Land Systems of the Hunter Valley Area / CSIRO (p)

You have to hand it to the Aussies. Their competiveness has made them a winning country at most things they’ve turned their hands to: resources, tourism, every conceivable sporting discipline, and in the community of nations, they stand their ground with the best. In short, for a country with a population of just over 22 million, they punch well above their weight.
— Mick Goss / Summerhill CEO
Mick Goss - Summerhill CEO

Cheryl and I are in the Hunter Valley, in their premier breeding jurisdiction as I write, on our occasional odyssey of some of their top stud farms. It’s six or seven years since we were last here, and it’s clear that whatever else the global financial calamity might have wrought on the breeding populations of the world’s leading thoroughbred producers, the Australian industry is in rude health. Billions of dollars have been plunged into the game since we were last here, a sign if it was needed at all, that confidence in racing’s future is at an all-time high. In the week just passed, a dozen mares sold for A$1million plus (R10million) with a sales-topper of A$2,3million (R23million). You could buy a string of farms in our valley for the cost of that one!

From a sporting perspective, the Melbourne Cup’s home state, Victoria, has for as long as I can remember, been the envy of Sydneysiders. While it remains a bastion of some of the continent’s most spectacular sport, that state’s hegemony faces a challenge from the fresh energy recently breathed into racing in New South Wales since John Messara took the chair. First step in the renewal process came from a resolution to the stand-off with their bookmakers over the cost of intellectual property (does that ring any bells for South Africans?) and the inauguration of the Racing Championships last month. The latter featured consecutive weekends of staggeringly-endowed and wonderfully competitive racing, bookending the Easter Yearling Sale, including 8 Group Ones for prize money exceeding $20 million (R200 million). It’s a well-known fact too, that New South Wales is the most heavily-burdened state (betting tax-wise) in the country, and you’d have to believe, given racing’s pre-eminent place in the broader Australian psyche as well as its job-creating capacities, that the state government would be mustard-keen to bring about a more equitable dispensation not only for racing’s operators, but also for local punters. Whatever concessions flow from this quarter will serve as another boost for their racing, which already boasts the planet’s most successful sporting model of its kind.

For those of us who ply the trade back home, we can only marvel at the embedded culture of Australian racing, with prize money rivalled only by Japan and Hong Kong, and at a breeding industry that thrives on the back of the prevailing prosperity. They are not without their challenges though, nor is the rest of the Aussie economy. Soaring minimum wage levels and a surging currency have mutilated large swathes of the manufacturing, agricultural and tourism sectors, to the degree that when I was previously here in March, the last man standing in the vehicle manufacturing business, Toyota (of all people) announced its own capitulation, on a day on which the national airline, Quantas, told the nation that they too, were desperately seeking a government lifeline, (since denied).

It’s a tragedy of our time that while talent is evenly dispersed across the world, opportunity is not, particularly when we know South Africa is home to creation’s most accomplished stockmen; given the chance and a supportive government, it’s within our reach not only to spawn a shoal of new jobs at home, but to populate those jurisdictions in which it’s no longer that “cool” being a jockey or a groom, with the gifts that’ve delivered up 22 of the last 23 jockeys’ titles in Hong Kong.

Home for us in the Hunter Valley has been the Messara’s Arrowfield guest house, surely the finest facility of its kind anywhere for anybody with an appreciation of the higher things in life. Perched aloft among the farm’s hillside paddocks on the far bank of the meandering Page’s River, with views across some of Australia’s finest “dirt”, you’d have to ask why the proprietor didn’t nab this spot for his personal abode. But then John Messara is nobody’s ordinary guy: he knows the meaning of “seduction” better than most people I know, and he knows too, the intoxication of this location.

The name Arrowfield has an association with racing in Australia stretching back to the Moses clan, who in addition to their association with Heroic, the champion racehorse and sire of the 1920s, earned their immortality in a later generation for the breed-changing influence of Star Kingdom in the 50s and 60s. Until the advent of the “shuttle”, this scion of the Hyperion dynasty cast a longer shadow over Australian breeding than any other stallion in history.

Latterly, on Messara’s watch, they signed up for one of the most remarkable successions of sire power the country has known, and they’ve done it in the full glare of the shuttle. It was the shuttle though, that gave modern day Arrowfield its first impetus with the acquisition of Danehill, arguably the most influential Australian stallion of all time. Thereafter, following a much-publicized severance of their co-ownership of the stallion, Messara went treasure-hunting for his best racing sons, and those energies tossed up a veritable trove in a trio of Champions; Redoute’s Choice (about as good as his dad), Flying Spur and Danzero. At the time of writing, Redoute’s Choice holds the reins to the Premiership for 2014 with, you guessed it, his own son and barnmate Snitzel, in pursuit. While such a line-up would ordinarily satisfy the aspirations of the most ambitious among us, I did mention earlier that Messara is no ordinary guy, and he already has in the slipstream the likes of Smart Missile (by Fastnet Rock,)It’s a Dundeel / Dundeel (champion son of High Chaparral) and the Kentucky Derby and World Cup supremo, Animal Kingdom (Leroidesanimaux).

While we’re on the topic of successors, it applies in the human realm as much as it does to the stallion barn, and three days at Arrowfield tells me “JM” can sleep easy. Son Paul, who famously took the flying filly, Ortensia to three Group One triumphs on 3 different continents in just his second year as a trainer, and daughter-in-law, Alice, are making a proper fist of it. Besides, daughter Suzanne’s time as a talk show host interviewing deities in the United States, has prepped her perfectly for her anchor role on racing’s Sky channel: she’s as sharp as a needle, and her mum’s good looks haven’t done her any harm either.

Down the road, just a few “ks” from the once-off Jerry’s Plains “diner”, sits one of the Hunter Valley’s icons, Coolmore, which in 2012 boasted not only Australia’s champion stallion Fastnet Rock, but also Europe’s (Galileo,) and America’s, (Giant’s Causeway). I’ve little doubt that when the earth’s early history was first scripted in the pages of Genesis, no-one contemplated any operation anywhere, owning the leading sires on three different continents. It’s a tribute to the foresight of the game’s greatest visionary, John Magnier, and to one of  the best teams of the age, that this is so, and it’s a story that still has decades of puff in it. Fastnet Rock is, simply said, the hottest stallion property in Australasia, ironically catapulted to the top of the pile by deposing his stable companion, Encosta da Lago. You suspect though, that if “Fastnet’s” principality is under any threat any time soon, it could come from the Sadler’s Wells direction in the form of High Chaparral, who sired 4 Group One winners first up Down Under, and followed up with the Triple Crown ace, It’s a Dundeel and the redoubtable Toronado (in Europe) in his second. To illustrate the depth of the Coolmore show though, you need only look at the “wings”, where they have High Chaparral’s best-performed son, So You Think, in waiting, together with the highest-ranked Australian juvenile in 37 years, Pierro.

It’s often said that the great breeding dynasties of the world seldom get beyond the third generation, and that longevity is heavily dependent on “pedigree”. When it comes to blood, the Magniers are about as “deep” as it gets: John Magnier hails from a lineage long-associated with champion stallions, while the “dam” of his three sons and two daughters, is no less than a daughter of the man dubbed ‘the greatest horseman of the last century’, Vincent O’Brien. I wrote last July that as far as Australia is concerned, Magnier has “no worries” for as long as Tom is at the helm, while “M.V.”, whom I met for the first time this week, is said to be a genius in the mould of his old man. They tell me “JP”, named for the Irish folklore hero, J.P. McManus, is also a young dynamo, so Coolmore’s future is “odds-on”.

There’s at least one outstanding exception to the “three generation” rule, as far as I know, and that rests with the Thompson family’s fabled property, Widden, the hauntingly beautiful spread at the toe-end of one of the continent’s most reverent Aboriginal shrines. Here they’ve been in the horse business for seven generations, and the enterprise of Anthony Thompson and wife Katie, has assured the farm’s future in the most competitive era in the traditions of our sport.

While the illustrious names of former progenitors in the farm’s equine cemetery serve as spiritual reminders, surely the farm’s greatest period before now came in the time of Vain, Bletchingly, Marscay and Lunchtime. You’ve often heard me say that to be associated with one champion sire in a studman’s career, is the blessing of a lifetime, so you’d have to think the Thompson’s had every Aboriginal ancestor on their side when, in a matter of twenty years, these fellows took them to the mountain top any number of times.

Yet the present chairman of Aushorse, Anthony Thompson, has not taken his seven generation heritage of dominance for granted. Despite the international onslaught from the likes of Darley and Coolmore, Widden has stood its ground manfully, with a roster of men like Stratum (a Golden Slipper ace with his own Golden Slipper ace in his first crop,) as well as the exceptional Sebring (also a Slipper “king” by More Than Ready) another who could just as easily go all the way. Champion sprinters Star Witness and Zoustar are the new kids on the Widden block, the latter a son of the ill-fated champion freshman, Northern Meteor (Encosta Da Lago). Nobody knows how good Northern Meteor might’ve been, but there are more than a few betting men who’d have had him at short odds to join the likes of Bletchingly, Marscay and Vain on the nation’s honours board. Sadly, his only memory now is the obituary on his tragic headstone among those fallen heroes in the cemetery.

At the risk of turning this report into a travelogue of the Hunter’s top farms, our visits to Darley and Vinery were unique for their own reasons. On that account, they deserve their separate pieces, which will follow once we’ve made safe landing at O.R. Tambo tomorrow evening. Meanwhile though, I’m comforted by a couple of things in the way we operate at Summerhill. We can’t box in the same ring with the money at the disposal of these behemoths, but we can certainly get up a little earlier in the mornings, and manage those aspects of our business we are able to control, as well as anyone. We have some phenomenal attributes at our disposal, a wonderfully reliable climate, some of the best land on the planet, as gifted a team as you’ll find, world class nutrition and cutting-edge agricultural practices. When you pop all of that into the pot with a bit of “get-up-and go”, you’ve got a pressure cooker on your hands.

At least we don’t have to deal with the one genuinely disheartening feature of our trip: the spectre of coalmines looming on the boundary fences of many a Hunter Valley stud. A dispensation that permits the exploitation of their land within a metre or so of the surface of some of nature’s most valuable horse country, is not only a threat to one of the world’s great breeding industries; it’s an indictment on the short-sightedness of a state government, that has allowed its own financial distress to prevail at the expense of one of Australia’s greatest cultural traditions.