Maine Chance farm is having the time of its life, with big race winner after big race winner, week in and week out. It happens to coincide with the early retirement of their talisman, John Slade, whose crowning distinction in his final months at Maine Chance was to breed the first three past the post in Africa’s greatest horserace, the Vodacom Durban July.

While certain racing stables such as Coolmore have seen their colours flash up in the first three in several Group Ones over the years, it’s unlikely any one breeder has ever had the distinction of achieving what Maine Chance and John Slade did on the first Saturday of July.

Of course, those with long-serving memories will recall that John served as the General Manager of Summerhill for close on 9 years during our formative years, and his footprint is written large in the soils of this farm. Those that know him will also know that while he walks softly, John’s impact here is appropriately, given our proximity to Giant’s Castle, of the same variety.

In a sense, John’s physical home since he, Liz, David and Catherine returned from their sojourn in New Zealand, has been Maine Chance and for the past seven or eight years, Liz has “manfully” taken on the herculean task of turning a bushveld spread in the Steynsburg precinct of the Karoo into a working cattle ranch. For all that, it would probably be fair to say that one of John’s “spiritual” homes has always been Summerhill, and that he’s never quite got it out of his system, to the point that while there are only a handful of years separating them, he still refers to Mick Goss as “Dad”.

Ten years into our time here, Summerhill was crying out for loving care. The fundamentals had been laboriously hacked into place, but now it was looking for an artist, and that man was John Slade, a frustrated schoolmaster who had found a refuge for his talents in horses. His passion was the dynamic that lifted the breeding of racehorses from a physical chore into a spiritual inspiration.

He planted trees, he re-routed roads, built buildings and laid fences in a fashion that pleased people, nurtured horses and protected wildlife, all at the same time. These are the piano notes of a good stud man’s life, and they’re best played from feel than from any existing song sheet. Passion is the key word: it is what underlies all great works, and breeding racehorses is one of the most captivating. It has found its promised land right here in the valley of the “Giant”, thanks to the geography, its climate and its incomparable soils. In truth, everything is at its aesthetic prime here, for has there ever been a more beautiful country?

John Slade’s quiet departure from Maine Chance a year ahead of its time, couldn’t have been better timed for Summerhill. While he has his own preoccupations alongside Liz at Steynsburg, he is in a manner of saying, “back” in the Summerhill fold.

Those who keep their horses here and especially those who remember his heavenly gifts with them when he was part of the show at Summerhill, will delight in knowing that he will be joining us for some time shortly with a view not only to leading the team that recommends the mating of the mares, but in dispensing the fruits of his wealth in husbandry. Yes, we may have led the Breeders’ Championship nine times during his absence, but we must never forget that the foundations for those achievements were solidly laid under his tenure, and from our perspective, the time for picking up the baton again couldn’t have been better. Having him on board is a “coup” of incalculable value, and having him and Liz in our company once again, a balm of equal measure.

One story Mick Goss used to revel in during the early years of the Ready To Run when it found its genesis at Summerhill in Slade’s time, is what country kids used to face when they were first introduced to horse riding. Not the compliant Welsh pony that taught generations of town kids at city riding schools, but rather the seasoned, tough-mouthed stock horse who could be relied upon to give the country “bumpkin” a proper lesson in the art of bush riding first time out.

Graduates of this school included most kids who grew up in the country, and at the Goss “academy”, one who went on to no end of fame was the author Wilbur Smith, whose family home in what was then Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) meant he took many of his holidays from Michaelhouse with the Gosses in faraway Pondoland. At the foot of the hill on which the Goss’ trading business was founded by Pat snr in 1916, was a line of stables from whence the youngsters were “broken”, where an exhausted Wilbur was regularly found deep in slumber in a manger after a riding lesson. The mentor was a seasoned old stock-horse called “Blackie”, best known for his own mind and his own way.

The “theatre” was alongside the stable yard, an aged cattle byre (or “kraal”, as most of us know them) built many decades before from the twisted branches of local hardwoods. The timber was ancient, petrified into shapes, almost rocklike, the palisades deeply supported by cow dung laid in layers for generations. There is a reverence to places like this, as there is in any cattle kraal among the Pondos, a fragrant silence when the herd is at pasture, a sense of community and ease when they return in the evening light. This is where the ancestral shades gather, where the cows are milked, where the herd is brought at night, where the drongo calls in praise of the cattle from a vantage near the kraal as the dusk deepens into night. John Slade would know this scene as well as any Pondo or Zulu stockman, as would Liz these days.

It is in the shadow of such places that something of spiritual and aesthetic significance of the cattle of the Pondo and Zulu people becomes evident. And in the talk of men, proud to discuss their animals, their strength, virility, productivity, calving ability, quirks, their humours and dispositions, there is a subject of never-ending nuance and meaning. Where traditions still hold sway, as it does in these parts of the world, cattle and horses are companions in every respect of daily life. Patient intermediaries between the living and the dead. This symbiotic relationship has made man’s connectivity with the beast as intimate as it gets, affectionate and reverent.

Throughout the ages, the well-being of the Nguni herd and the well-being of men, have been so closely connected that their cattle and their animals have become a part of the spiritual lives of whole communities. This perception of their cattle in particular has given rise to a poetic and complex naming process. Yet, it is only in experiencing the calling of the names of the cattle that this rich tradition, taken from the colours and appearances of each, is fully appreciated: this beast is “the eggs of the toppie”; (“maqanda wekwebhula”); that one “mafukufuku” (“the golden mole”); here is “amafa” (the clouds of heaven) and that dusty dun is “impofu” (“the eland”). To watch a parade of such animals, in all their variety of colour and horn shape, is to share the wellspring of admiration that has moved generation after generation of herders throughout Africa.

We talk of these things, because sometimes we sense that in the modern world, there are those out there that suspect the “animalian” in many of us who live for our animals, and in certain respects, they are right: we’ve been known to remark that horse people are as often than not, dysfunctional human beings who prefer the company of their horses more than they do their own kind. The roots are deep, and it’s an affliction bordering on illness. For which, as you’ve also heard us say before, there is no known vaccine.

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