Few, if any, stud owners would grant journalists a lengthy interview at home an hour before their annual stallion parade, lunch and awards ceremony. Yet Mick Goss, of South Africa's Summerhill Stud in KwaZulu-Natal, fizzes with an energy that finds time for interrogation by a trio of journalists from the UK, USA and New Zealand before leaping in his car, racing to the farm and donning his master of ceremonies' hat. The guests numbering some 400, a few sheltering under parasols on an unseasonably hot winter's day, include not only King Letsie of Lesotho, but Zweli Mkhize, who is tipped to become South Africa's next president – friends in high places are a global commodity.
It is evident Goss loves the chance to show off his horses and is clearly very comfortable with a microphone – and on this occasion he has a new sire to parade. Capetown Noir, a son of the Gone West stallion Western Winter, is owned by Lady Christine Laidlaw, whose Power King had won the country's richest race, the R3.5m Gr.1 Durban July, 24 hours earlier. Not for the first time, Goss, a former lawyer who has been a stud owner for 30 years, has a new partnership with a player of growing importance.
Do the views of an upper-middle tier stallion master, from a farm in a corner of "the darkest continent" (he loves colonial history), matter to the outside world? South African racing and breeding goes about its daily business like a water buffalo with a lion's jaws clamped around its throat, a tourniquet of quarantine restrictions in the name of African horse sickness, hampering the movement of horses from the country.
Add in the weakness of the Rand against other currencies and the wandering rate of progress following the ending of white minority rule in 1994, and you have a country – and racing industry – hampered by financial constraints. Yet those of us visiting for the first time, at the invitation of Gold Circle, the promoters of Durban's big race day, found a magnetism that left you wanting more. So what is on offer?
"The cost of keeping horses here is a fraction of that overseas – it's a function of currency," says Goss. "The next point is we are on the cusp of a major breakthrough on the export side in regard to quarantine restrictions. UAE and Hong Kong are pushing hard for us to get back into the flow because they want our runners – but let me add that during the colonial wars we exported more than half a million horses from this country and didn't give African horse sickness to anyone." "We have to get our horses out. Sheikh Hamdan has agreed to build a receiving station in Dubai and South Africa is about to build a lock-down facility with the ability to test a horse and give you a result in 24 hours. We are never going to export horses in big numbers and, if we get 100 out a year we will be doing well, but it will change the game for everybody."
"There is money on the table and political will. Unless there is a blocking mechanism that is unforeseen I believe this time it is for real."
Mike De Kock has shown South African racehorses can be extricated from the quarantine maze, but it is a lengthy, some say debilitating, process that few of his trainer colleagues and their owners want to embrace. In addition, shuttle stallions will not be available to the country's mare owners while it takes six months to return home.
Goss can live with that situation, saying his country's top sires (who tend to stand in 'The Cape' at the southern end of the country) are adequate, adding: "Our money means we would stand shuttlers at the bottom of the pile in competition with South America, and I'm not sure I wouldn't rather breed to top local stallions like Dynasty, Silvano and Var. However, other breeders say they would like shuttle stallions here." "Don't forget we do bring fresh blood to the country, and South Africans have bought 130 horses in Australia this year."
"We are a developing country and just have to accept our lot and make a hell of a lot more of it, but we do offer advantages – and we have people like Gaynor Rupert, Mary Slack and Markus Jooste who spend a million dollars abroad happily, and that stock comes back here. That's great, and of the 850 horses on this farm, 300 belong to foreigners who enjoy South Africa."
"Due to historic ties, Britons come here in numbers, and Cape Town is awash with British owners at certain times of the year, but I don't think we have done enough to court Americans. We need to start travelling to the States, and we need to get our own politics in order."
Goss and his long-supporting wife Cheryl survey their estate from a fabulous home which combines African design – thatched roofs and round walls – with the best of colonial quality. Summerhill's recently-built School of Stud Management is of similar design and a beacon for youngsters with ambitions in the industry. Each year its two best students further their education at The National Stud in Newmarket, and frequently win awards.
Ask Goss about the challenge of starting a stud from scratch, and he lists a number of obstacles he negotiated, saying: "How were we going to compete against big, commercial studs owned by very rich people with major industries behind them? We had to set our clocks five minutes faster, get up while it was still dark and go to bed after dark, and deal with the things we could manage. "We started organic farming and improved our feeding regime – 20 years ago the average mass of our foals was 46 kilos, it's now 54 kilos. We started South Africa's first ready-to-run sale on the farm, which opened up new markets and taught us a lot about our stallions and mares, and how the progeny work."
"Then there was Northern Guest, who we gained from Coolmore Stud and who became the Sir Tristram of this part of the world. He was phenomenal, and won eleven breeders' titles. He really put us on the map. "Critically, we also surrounded ourselves with wealthy people – we couldn't afford to buy stallions to compete, so we ran stallions for them – and we realised we had to have the best team in the world. Zulus are astonishingly talented stockmen, but they had to learn the sophistication of the game, and so we sent them on scholarship exchanges. They came back with higher selfesteem and it raised the bar for the people who worked here on the farm."
Summerhill now stands 13 stallions – some with connection to such Goliaths as Coolmore and Shadai – but the bar gets higher. Goss says successful sires now have to be Gr.1 winners, and not just half-brothers to the stars, although he admits: "Under that criteria Northern Guest would never have stood here; he was an unraced brother to Try My Best and El Gran Senor, but the good Lord gave him the fertility they lacked."
We all need luck – although in Goss's case, an agile mind and hunger for success seem to have helped in its regeneration.
Extract from The European Bloodstock News / Carl Evans