We all know that travel is good for the soul, and while most of my international forays involve the business of racing, I never cease to be fascinated by the revelations it throws up. When Cheryl and I were in the UK recently as the guests of Investec and the Stewards of the English Jockey Club, I couldn't help but be intrigued by the parallels and the divergences between their models and ours. Golden Horn's stirling victory in the Investec Derby was a week old already when I was out on a jog across the racecourse side of Newmarket's gallops; the approach to the course is down an endless avenue adorned with the names of the heroes and heroines of the Two Thousand and One Thousand Guineas, and as I entered the final furlong, an armada of Range Rovers, Jaguars and luxury coaches swept down upon me. I've always fancied myself as a bit of a runner, but I never imagined attracting a crowd like this so early in the morning.
As the television crews and newspaper men spewed forth from the buses, I noticed out of the corner of my eye another jogger passing down the grassed verge of the road on the opposite side, a big, breezy chestnut sporting a white blaze and a jockey altogether different in his attire from those I'd seen astride the strings I'd encountered en-route. It was a week before the commencement of Royal Ascot and the horse was last year's Kentucky Derby ace, California Chrome, who'd attracted more than a couple of hundred media persona for a routine gallop at 6.30 in the morning. My thoughts turned immediately to the benefits of internationalising your sport, and what a contrast this sight represented for a country like ours where the constraints of protocols have consigned racing to a state of relative parochialism, even if it's contested quite regularly by horses of genuine world class.
Next week, I am joining a number of my countrymen around a table in Johannesburg to discuss a final strategy for the opening of our equine export borders to the world, and nothing makes that more critical than what I saw that morning on the Downs of Newmarket. Getting horses in and out of a country affects every aspect of the sport, not just its spectator appeal, not alone its betting turnovers, but it extends right down to the roots of the game, the breeding of racehorses. As a breeder, being genuinely competitive in the international sense, means knowing that your product can compete with the best anywhere, and while it's apparent since the de Kock caravan first decamped for its pioneering pillage of the riches of Dubai, that our horses can take on some of the best anywhere, the only test of the depth of our endeavours is for our horses to compete locally and abroad in numbers against international opposition.
While the pendulum of genetic power has swung to and fro' across the Atlantic for much of the past century, the reality is that its concentration is now largely in the hands of wealthy producers in England and Ireland, and to the extent that its influence has reached the southern hemisphere, Australians have been the arch beneficiaries. I have said for some time that the stallion battalion in South Africa has never been stronger, brought about by a sense that racing is about running, not walking, and that the most likely progenitors of the best horses , are those that could run faster than most. A glance at our stallion logs of the current time is the best endorsement of this philosophy; there's no exception to the "Group One" rule among Captain Al, Dynasty, Silvano, Trippi and Var, and if you're looking to the future, the season's Freshman Champion, Visionaire, is another in this elite category.
British racing right now is at the apex of all class in the sport, and if you're wanting to make a stallion in that part of the world, you'd remain at home to contest their best races through the spring and the summer, venturing abroad only in the autumn for events like the Arc meeting in France, the Breeders' Cup in America, the Japan Cup and Australia's Cox Plate. For the adventurous, there is the World Cup meeting in Dubai before the big spring Classics kick off in Europe. For tax reasons, the French stallion pantry has been raided for decades now by the big money elsewhere in the world, to the degree that the French denied themselves the extraordinary services of the likes of Blushing Groom, Lyphard, Nureyev, Riverman, Irish River, Green Dancer etc. at a time when the American dollar ruled the world. Imagine the French breeding industry today if that hadn't happened.
Eighty percent of racing across the globe is on turf, and it's an undeniable fact that if you want to establish a horse at the top end of the stallion echelon in Europe, you have to contest the best races in Britain; there's no reaching the top of the mountain otherwise, and there's no place for ducking and diving elsewhere for the "Group Ones" by name but the "Group Twos" by quality. Hosting the best stallions in any region serves the self-fulfilling prophecy: it's a fact of life that the best mares will go where the best stallions are located, best illustrated by Japan, where in the past month their annual sales attracted investors from across the world. No family has done more to promote the interests of racing and breeding in the east than the Yoshidas of Shadai and Northern Farms, whose pioneering patriarch, Zenya Yoshida, was the first to recognise the value of importing the best blood his money could buy. His "no compromise" approach was quick to identify Northern Dancer as the supreme king of breeding; at a time when Japanese attendees at the Keeneland sales ring were about as rare as pork pies in a synagogue, he made his splash by acquiring Northern Taste, the eventual winner of France's best Group One sprint, the Prix de la Forêt on Arc day. A somewhat ghostly splash of white blaze which embraced more than his eyes across the broad brow of his head was no deterrent to this game-changing sire, whose tenure at Shadai stallion station laid the foundations for the meteoric rise in Japanese breeding fortunes.
While you'd normally associate the resurgence of Japan more with its industrial and technological explosions in the wake of World War II, its emergence as a dominant player in the thoroughbred breeding world has been no less dramatic. At a time when the left brain inclinations of its engineers, its mathematicians and its scientists fostered one of history's great economic comebacks, the right brain genius of Zenya Yoshida presided over the development of a breeding enterprise of unprecedented proportions, leading ultimately to a reshaping of the international breed through the lineage of the legendary stallion, Sunday Silence and now through his just-as-exceptional son, Deep Impact. Europeans have for some time lived by the belief that their gene pool is overly-endowed with the blood of Northern Dancer, yet nothing is more illustrative of the fact that nothing is forever in this game than the breakout which this bloodline represents. With racehorses, we're dealing in flesh and blood, and that's as much the beauty of the sport as anything; it means, in essence, that nothing and nobody can ever dominate completely. If money could buy the best at every turn, there would be grave implications for the gene pool, and the emergence of the Japanese as a breeding nation and of their strains in the genetic sphere, is the final reassurance that in racing there is still a place for everyone who would play the game. Nature has repeated itself too many times for it to be otherwise.
South Africans regularly lament the factionalism that bedevils our local industry, but it seems with its wide diversity of interests, it's a phenomenon that plagues the game the world over. The operators in South Africa have long battled one another, and now they are battling the bookmakers. In Britain, the struggle with the bookmakers has raged for decades, and now they are facing a new demon in internet betting, which locates itself anywhere on the planet except in Britain, where it avoids the taxes and the returns that are the lifeblood of racing's funding. These challenges of course, are not confined to British racing, they are the problems which beset every jurisdiction in the world, and for as long as factionalism exists, as it does in every state in the United States, the forces opposing it will continue to thrive and to find avenues by which to beat it. To bring it all home, South Africa has to find its own means of combating the realities of the new world, which means that the sooner we set aside our differences in the sales arena, in our provincialism and in our battles with one another in the betting world, the sooner we can get to grips with the more serious confrontations we face.
I can't close this commentary without dwelling on the things that get me out of bed in the mornings, and especially the spectre of arriving at work, as I did this glorious spring morning, to a batch of new foals at the Home Guard yard. Which takes me back to my European sortie, and my observations of what we can do to recreate the mystique and the wonder which only racehorses can bring to a sport. If you want the spectacle of a wonderful day's racing on a beautiful track in the midst of one of the world's most beautiful cities, it's difficult to beat Longchamp in Paris' Bois du Bolougne in the autumn. Paris is an endlessly fascinating city of museums and art galleries, and right there in the nearby vicinity of the Seine, you have seven Group Ones in the lee of one of the great stadiums of the game in the first weekend in October. Longchamp is also one of the world's most difficult tracks to ride, mainly because the changes in pace of their races creates a rhythm unique to French racing.
Nothing though, beats the Royal meeting at Ascot for the class of the competition. It comes at the height of the British summer, along with the Derby, Wimbledon and the Lords' Test, and it attracts the throngs from every corner of the globe. It's time to get out the garb, the morning suits, the spats and the silver-topped walking sticks, the gloves and the hats. While this is a throwback to a forgotten era, somehow it has an indescribably magnetic charm, unparalleled anywhere. All of these things are capable of being matched by our own domestic programmes. At the end of the day, our horses are as gracious, as competitive and as willing as any in the world, our racecourses can be as picturesque with a little more effort and as atmospheric as the best. And none of them anywhere can beat our weather.