You know when it's "gallops" time at Summerhill: the first cherry blossoms in the vicinity of the stallion barn are already in profusion, and the early signs of spring are clothed in every hue of green imaginable. Much keener than we are in their response to these things, the horses have suddenly "come" in their coats, and from what we saw at the rehearsals at the sand track on Thursday, they're sprung for action.
There were a number of pillars on which we built modern history's longest unbroken run at the head of the nation's breeding affairs, none more so than the Ready To Run itself. Let it be said, few of our innovations have been the product of great boardroom decisions: most have been born out of a sense of desperation at times when, like the Springboks, our backs were against the wall and we had to find a means of boxing our way to viability. A novel approach to things was the differentiating factor, whether through our farming practices, our collaboration with nature, our nutrition or the radical upskilling of our staff, discovering the 5% and 10% increments that would elevate our work to new levels, was the fundamental key.
In the mid 1980s, we stumbled upon the "Ready To Run" concept over lunch with the O'Farrells in Florida, America, where for close on thirty years, stud masters in that neighbourhood had struggled to sell their horses against the Kentuckian overlords of Keeneland. Left with the miserable prospect of returning an unsold steed to their farms, they too, moved by the same desperation, invented the idea of selling them as educated racehorses off their farms. I was in the company of the late Chris Smith, doyen of local bloodstock agents, and we resolved there and then to make a sale out of the concept, and bring it home as the first of its kind in the southern hemisphere.
Besides providing a new angle by which prospective buyers could judge our horses, the most significant benefit lay in what we learnt from it. Racing is about running, not about walking, and the appreciation we gleaned from working with our horses virtually to the point of their first encounter with the starter, was one few studmen get the opportunity to experience. The insights were invaluable. Very soon we came to a more profound understanding of our equine families, how quickly they learnt, how resilient their minds were, how robust (or fragile) they were in body and limb, what their aptitudes would be, whether they were of the early or late-maturing type. Thoroughbred families are little different to those in the human genre', no less idiosyncratic than we are and no more peculiar; we all have our strengths and weaknesses, and horses are no different. Preparing a youngster for his career as a racehorse requires an intimate grasp of these things, and an instinctive connection with the traits of his forebears. That's why most good trainers prefer working with families they know.
The Ready To Run also gave us a glimpse of which horses were likely to make it, and those that weren't, which of the less "fashionable" individuals were worthy of attention, and which of the "in" bloodlines were not.
Nobody is closer to these secrets than the fellows who work with the horses and particularly those that ride them, and many are those among our customers who've seen an opportunity in this. The insights a good horseman offers into the talents of his charges is invaluable to a prospective investor, and there are countless examples of the "good steer" shared by a jockey or a groom with a curious "victim" seeking the inside track. The frenetic post-gallops activity we witness on our website at this time of the year, is the best evidence of the number of adherents who've unearthed the benefits of this mode of attack; most of them are aware that numbers of our team are not only naturally gifted in their own right, but they've done their time on the Ready To Run circuits of America and Europe as well, where their tips are just as eagerly appreciated.
There's an old saying at Summerhill, that the big plus with the Ready To Run is "you get what you see, not what you think you see." It is the original racehorse sale, where the ability to run is all that matters, and while pedigree buffs have a point in proclaiming "blood" as a prominent pointer to athletic competence, it remains just that: "a pointer", not a guarantee, so that once the racecourse test is applied, the wheat is quickly separated from the chaff. The history of the Ready To Run tells us there's nothing in science that precludes a less fashionably-bred animal from outperforming the one that ticks all the bloodline boxes, and this is where the courage of a horseman's convictions bears its fruit, as much as anything in the identification of decent prospects by as-yet unproven stallions. While it's not quite "twenty twenty", it's as close as you can get in this game; we shouldn't confuse brains with a bull market!
At the end of the day, like St. Peter said, you need to "fish where the fish are," and no statistic is more telling than the fact that of the 31 top-rated candidates for this year's R2.5million Emperors Palace Ready To Run Cup, no fewer than 29 galloped at Summerhill last year. It's been thus ever since the conception of the "Cup" nine years ago, so if you're looking for a runner for next year's R5milion in prizes, the likelihood is you'll find him or her at Summerhil on Wednesday 30th September. Starting at 9:00 am.