Most people who’ve been around the sport of racing for long enough know that on its own, a pedigree is worth no more than the paper it’s written on. Successful trainers will tell you that to make a horse run, you have to feed him properly, and sometimes “the pedigree” won’t run no matter how much you feed it. So, you ask yourself what it was, from a catalogue of no fewer than 600 entries, that prompted one of our judges to put his hands on Willow Magic. Remember, there were five full brothers in Napoleon’s family, but there was only one “Napoleon”.
At the time, Willow Magic’s father, Dubawi, was an unknown quantity, the son of a largely disappointing Dubai Millennium. Nobody had the slightest inkling then that by 2015, Dubawi would be the fastest stallion on either side of the Atlantic to register 50 Group winners. Ever. Nobody knew that in the same year, he would top all-comers with fifteen Group One winners. In a single season. Nor that he would rank as the world’s number one commercial stallion. By a country mile. Besides, outside of his broodmare sire, who’d won a Golden Slipper, there was little “ink” on Willow Magic’s page to commend him. By the canons of fashion, the yearling had little blood and it was obvious the sale had come a touch too early for him. So we should remember too, that Mark Tarry the judge, had done this not once before, but several times, relying on his “gut feel” rather than the conventional reading of a pedigree which conventional students depend upon. Sometimes, he says, you just have to surrender to your instincts.
Anyone who’d bothered to ask him at National Sales time who’d win the South African Nursery (Gr.1) of 2013, would know that champion trainer, Sean Tarry, was already a “believer”. This in the face of a deep odds-on shot among the opposition. The withering sprint the Nursery demanded of anyone looking to take down the colours of a formidable favourite, revealed a fresh star on the juvenile firmament. In the process, Willow Magic would become the first Southern Hemisphere Group One winner for a stallion destined to launch a nation.
Rated with the best of his juvenile peers, much was expected of Willow Magic’s sophomore career. He did not disappoint. Racing is an emotional journey, and the racing public, a deserving lot it has to be said, are always yearning for a hero; on the 1st December 2013, it seemed their prayers had been answered.
It was Summer Cup day, and The Dingaans had attracted an assembly of the cream of the country’s three-year-olds. The bookmakers’ boards revealed a field at 15/1 and upwards, bar two. One of those two was Willow Magic. His victory in this time-honoured test signalled a golden moment: The Dingaans is supposed to be the supporting act for the Summer Cup. Not this time. Yorker duly won the Summer Cup, but Willow Magic won the hearts. His conquest of The Dingaans took him to the pinnacle of his class, and the world was at the feet of the son of Dubawi. We all know though, that when things seem too good to be true, they almost certainly are.
The cruel hand of fate, a comparatively rare entity among humans, is an unfortunate bed fellow in the realm of racehorses. Like Formula One, any game of high stakes and unbridled speed is bound to attract its misfortunes, and here it had singled out Willow Magic. In his plunder of The Dingaans field, he’d “done” a tendon, so severe that many trainers and most horses would’ve called it a day. Lest we forget though, we were dealing here with a son of Dubawi, and we were talking about Sean Tarry after all. They didn’t disappoint.
Determination, courage, heart are the hallmarks of every great racehorse; it’s a truism of the sport that without them, there’s no greatness. Patience, unyielding faith and an intuitive “knack” with horses, are the sine qua non of the great trainer. Fourteen months on from The Dingaans, Willow Magic returned to Turffontein over the minimum trip. If you were ever in any doubt about the merit of his performance here, just ask racecaller Alistair Cohen; he was beside himself to a degree that was notifiable. In the 150 year existence of Turffontein, only one horse had ever gone faster, by a mere 0.02 of a second.
The horse, the fans all thought, was back. But the reality is, it was as much a demonstration of the courage the world has come to expect of the Dubawis, it was an expression of his raw ability. Willow Magic had arrived on a suspect foreleg, and in his readiness to keep the show on the road, he’d managed to disguise what looked like a return to his best, with what was really a display of uncompromising bravery.
Not even a couple of “below pars” would deter his conditioner from the belief that he was worthy of a crack at the best milers in the land in the toughest mile the Champions’ Season could muster. Sean Tarry wasn’t about to swop a memory for a possibility; he was however, beginning to taste the possibility of a famous victory in the Gold Challenge (Gr.1), where he would have to down five former Group One aces to convert the dream. Again, they didn’t disappoint the horse’s closing shot in running Legislate to three-quarters of a length may have been his finest moment. For here was the old saying come true again; in racing, the line between triumph and disaster, between first and also-ran, can be as thin as the hair on your head. The one is crowned Horse Of The Year, the other, were it not for the “Dubawi” factor, slips into oblivion. But the fact is, Willow Magic is a son of Dubawi, and suddenly we remember the Nursery, and the memory of The Dingaans comes flooding back. Anyone with a semblance of understanding knows this is opportunity. With a capital “O”.
They know too, you see, that he’s the only Group One-winning son of the world’s number one stallion of 2015 in continental Africa. And the fellows up at the Summerhill stallion barn know that with his cosmopolitan, outcross pedigree, combining the pre-potency of Dubawi with a tough-as-teak Australian “mum”, it makes a lot of sense to place Willow Magic in the front row of their shop window for the forthcoming season.