There's a ritual at Summerhill that dates back long before John Slade sketched the plans for the stallion barn on an exam pad. A Stakes victory is generally celebrated in the hoisting of four Summerhill flags and two national flags, but you always know when we have a Group One ace; there's nothing but "Summerhill" on the six flag poles, and you also know when we're in trouble; six national flags and no sign of Summerhill. The unbeaten Rabada made sure on Saturday that the six green jobs would decorate those poles in celebration of his triumph in the Premier's Champion Juvenile Stakes (Gr 1) for the next few weeks, but just as importantly, he signalled a new era in our racing fortunes.
While the world was celebrating history's seventh Champion breeding establishment last August, we had already planned our retaliation a couple of seasons before. Unlike rugby or football, you can't simply stock up with new players; ours is a long game, and new strategies take years to implement. Yes, we were short a couple of hundred thousand in earning ourselves another title, but following the Sporting Post's statistical summary of breeder's standings, without the postponement of the Gold Cup meeting, we'd have been within a squeak of winning it anyway. That we managed to lead the log for the first eleven months and remain alive to the death, suggests we're on the right track at least, and while the competition these days has too many guns, we'd hope that come next July, we'll still be part of the scrap. Meanwhile, besides lightning, the only things we fear are Klawervlei and Captain Al.
While you never want to crow too soon, the exploits of this year's juveniles tell us we're on the money. Rabada's victory was the cherry on the top of an extraordinary juvenile tour de force, where our sales graduates included Royal Pleasure (multiple Stakes and Group victrix), Somerset Stakes ace Tar Heel, Group One candidate Jet Air, Group Two performer Lala, first timers Top Form, Virtuality, Chisanyama, Harvest Queen, Bindaloo and Red Hot Poker, Dance On Air, Champagne Haze, Intergalactic, Faberge Style, King Of Chaos, Lady Of Scandal, Pure Blonde, Sobonana and Country Gent. We've certainly known years like this before, but we can't remember a more vibrant cocktail of aspirants for the R2.5million Emperors Palace Ready To Run Cup , which means we wouldn't want to be on the selection panel for the race come 31st October for all the tea in China. When money and men get going, you never know what kind of hell gets loose!
If you'll allow us a minute's nostalgia, Rabada owes his existence to a moment of indulgence at the 1978 National Yearling sale. There's an old saying that you should avoid an aging mare's progeny; listed in the catalogue that year was a daughter of that great racemare, Majorca, who by that time had already delivered yeoman service to her owners Wilfred Koster and Peter Wright. She'd run up against the colts in the Cape Guineas, the Cape Derby and the Queen's Plate, and every time, she'd come away with the money. As good as she was at the races, she may have been even better at stud, and acquiring a daughter had to be every sensible stud man's dream. Problem was, Majority Blue was a typical old mare's foal, spare of body and limb, elongated and not terribly tempting on the eye. While it doesn't always turn out that way, there's the eternal hope that "blood" will prevail, and in Majority Blue's case, it did. Her "page" today tells us she gave us three major race winners (including a Derby hero) and two Group performers, and now her great, great grandson, 37 years down the trail, has brought home the bacon. Rabada's next mission will be the "Emperors Palace", where on the face of the results so far, his foes look like being close on a dozen of his former paddock mates. Between now and then, he'll be testing the judges for the title of Champion Two Year Old at next Tuesday's Equus Awards.
There was talk in the aftermath of the race of how good the runner-up and the third placed horse are and that com November, Rabada would have to have his mits up. Incidentally, he was named for the young thunderbolt of South African fast-bowling, Kagiso Rabada, so perhaps his lightning shots will be the antidotes we've been looking for in countering Klawervlei's charge. The fact is though, that both Prospect Strike and Abashiri had their chances in the last furlong, when the commentator thought they'd headed him. Like so many young horses who are only just getting used to going to the races, our man was racing on his own on the inside rail, all the while testing his champion jockey's skills to the limit. As Anton Marcus struggled to maintain his momentum with four whip changes in a matter of a furlong, Rabada wobbled from left to right without the benefit of a steadying competitive influence on his inside. Young racehorses are born to run but are often inclined to look for company and the prospect of a duel alongside; without it, they can lose sight of the final intent. After all, with only a third run under his belt, who was he to know that victory is the human objective? His adversaries on the other side of the course were locked in a battle royal, which spurred them to grab the lead inside the closing stages. Only then did Marcus manage to cajole from Rabada the realisation that defeat was imminent; despite his ring-rustiness after 55 days off, in a matter of strides he surged three quarters of a length clear. It's worth remembering at times like this, that the winning post is racing's moment of truth, and nothing else in between matters.
If The Crown Fits...
While the custom at Summerhill is that the "Group One" flags flutter for a fortnight after the glory, they celebrate Championships with a month of festivity. I guess we might've expected it from him on the strength of the performances of his first progeny in the States, but that happened in Visionaire's own back yard on the dirt surfaces for which he was bred. The world's equine graveyard's are littered with stallions who made it in one environment and failed in another, and there was no guarantee that the transition from America to South Africa would signal a step up. On Friday evening, Visionaire became the fourth Champion Freshman sire to emerge from the shedrow of our stallion barn, eclipsing the most formidable assembly of first crop sires in our memory. They say we grow forgetful with the passing of the years, but in most cases of senility, we usually retain a measure of sharpness the further we go back; for the life of me, I can't remember a year in which the battle was contested by as many as seven Group One winners, which says something for the way South African breeding is developing.
Barry Irwin has made no secret of the fact that in committing Visionaire to South African breeders, at the same time he was indulging his own desire to breed his mares to a horse with the physique, the substance, the sound limbs and the aptitude that this man endows his stock with. He is known for his propensity in spotting a deal, and here again, Irwin's timing has been impeccable, but he also knows the statistical improbabilities against successful relocation. You need only look at the history of the shuttle between the northern and southern hemispheres to know that even giants like Sadler's Wells, Galileo, Montjeu and Giant's Causeway failed that test. It's early days of course, and Visionaire will have to repeat this act time and again before the world at large will be fully convinced. Meanwhile though, he's the darling of television presenters, and buyers love his stock. That'll do for now. They say success is relative; it's actually definitive.
Finally, last week we talked about our sports good fortune's in the trio of exceptional three year olds in Britain, Japan and America. While he still has to prove the truth of what we've been telling you by taking on his elders, American Pharoah could not have been more impressive in the Haskell Invitational on Saturday at Monmouth Park. Granted, he was beating his own contempories again, but this horse shows no signs of wilting in the midst of a torrid campaign, and he does it with the style that invites the extraordinary from the older generation before any of them can count on mention in the same breath.
Summerhill's Six Flags / Xpressions (p)