Silvano / Maine Chance Farm (p)
“HOW GOOD IS SILVANO?”
Summerhill CEO Besides its natural wonders, the unspoilt beauty of which, in my book, is unsurpassed anywhere, there’s one thing I really enjoy about being at the Wild Coast. When you get up in the morning, you at least have a choice. Routinely at home, Cheryl and I leave our driveway as the clock strikes 6.25am, for the start of our daily management meetings, summer and winter. The next twelve hours are taken up in dealing with the opportunities and the challenges of the day, and given where we live and the folks we get to work with, we wouldn’t change it for the world.
The Wild Coast, on the other hand, is so remote, so untamed and so splendidly out-of-reach, not even the office can get hold of you. Unless of course, you’re willing to make the hour-and-a-half round trip to pick up a Vodacom signal on your cellphone, and risk the prospect that Amorette might detain you with a whole lot of diary items and the irresistible urge of one of the senior team to engage you on a topic that could well await your return. Whatever happened to the “succession plan”, I ask?!
So Kipling’s “unforgiving minute”, in Wild Coast terms at least, is not quite as unmerciful here as it is in the real world. There’s time in this paradise to hike, to surf, to fish, to read and at last, to think. Most mornings I head out in my running shoes in the direction of a magnificent headland which the maps call Goss’ Point, named thus ever since my grandfather, Pat, acquired the land in the early 1900s from a former Free Citizen of Durban, Sydney Turner. Between our fishing shack and the Mkweni River mouth, any number of the 200-odd floral species that are endemic to the Wild Coast, occur on this stretch of heaven, and as the space is virtually free of human intervention, it’s not difficult to get lost in your thoughts.
“How good is Silvano?” was the issue that occupied a good deal of this morning’s outing, and while to answer that question not only calls for an assessment of the reigning Champion sire in the context of his contemporaries, it inevitably leads to a comparison with the giants of recent history as well.
At this distance, I have no connection with the internet, and Karel Miedema is further away than ever, in Cape Town. Readers will understand then, that everything I have to say here, is more anecdotal than it is statistical, more sentimental perhaps, than factual.
Let me be upfront too, about age. I was born at the back end of 1950, yet one of the first things I remember about racing, sitting on a potty with my Duff’s Turf Guide as a budding three-year-old member of my Classic generation, was the name “Milesia Pride”. Not only for the fact that the 1949 hero of the Durban July had repeated the feat in 1950, but that in his second year, he’d defeated my father’s resident stallions Good Health and Matronic by the narrowest of margins. The real thing about Milesia Pride though, which forgive me, only dawned on me when I first joined the Sub “A” class at Lusikisiki Primary, was that he was the third winner of South Africa’s greatest horserace by the “failed” English sire, Montrose, the others, if memory serves here, being Monteith and Monasteravan. While it was perhaps not so surprising that the English were willing to part with Montrose, given his somewhat “spotty” record at home, it’s a strange quirk of nature that, after siring an unprecedented trio of July victors while still at stud in Britain, he was unable to produce anything of any particular moment after his importation to South Africa.
Montrose’s record in the “July” is matched only by one other stallion of otherwise modest achievement, Jamaico (by Prince Taj) who likewise got three winners, Jamaican Music, Gondolier and Jamaican Rumba, in what was probably a slightly more competitive era. Among the top South African stallions of the late 40s, early 50s were the two imported Cape Metropolitan aces Asbestos II (the Birch Bros’ Champion sire by Teddy’s celebrated son Asterus, bred by the greatest French breeder of the time, Marcel Boussac, who founded the Christian Dior organisation), and Sadri II, who stood at the Labistour’s Dagbreek Stud in Nottingham Road and produced both Gay Jane (1951) and C’est Si Bon (1954) to win the July, bracketing Hartford’s Mowgli (1952) in a celebratory triumph for Natal breeding.
The post war period witnessed a significant shift in the investment strategies of local breeders, most of whom were traditional farmers. Remembering that the early years in South African breeding were dominated by the Karoo farms of the “Randlords“ Sir Abe Bailey, Sir Richard Southey, Sir Alfred Beit, Cecil John Rhodes and the most successful of them all, Henry Nourse, the late 1950s and early 1960s were characterised by a time of comparative prosperity in the agricultural sector, and farmers had greater discretionary incomes to devote to the improvement of their bloodstock resources. Instead of acquiring the failed half brother to the English Classic winner or the relatively modest 4-time winning handicapper, the nation’s breeders were going for broke; if it wasn’t the Classic hero himself, it was his runner-up. Thus came Persian Gulf’s son Abadan II (2nd Irish 2000 Guineas) and Sybil’s Nephew (by Midas, 2nd English Derby) to these shores, accompanied by Mystery IX (Eclipse Stakes Gr.1); High Veldt (by Hyperion, 2nd to the “legend” Ribot in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II Stakes); the top English sprinter Drum Beat (Timeform 131); the well-performed Fairthorn (Timeform 120 and like Drum Beat, a son of Fair Trial); Royal Ascot’s Coventry Stakes star, Noble Chieftain (by Nearco) and the Champion British Two-Year-Old, Masham, who stood with Sybil’s Nephew at Hartford (now part of greater Summerhill).
This was a “golden” era in South African thoroughbred production, one which ushered in the all-conquering Eclipse award winning exploits in the United States of Hawaii and ColaradoKing, ironically both sons of the discredited stallions, Utrillo II and Grand Rapids respectively.
Speaking of irony, there’s an amusing story around the career of High Veldt. Raced by The Queen of England, the nuggety son of the Emperor of British stallions of the time, Hyperion, had run the unbeaten Tesio masterpiece, Ribot, to a gallant, albeit six-length second in the “King George”, and it was Her Majesty’s wish that High Veldt should grace the stud books of her colonies. Offered initially to Australia and New Zealand (and probably rejected for the same reasons as the British didn’t want him: “too small”), he eventually found a sympathetic soul in the charismatic “king” of Little Karoo breeders, Paulie de Wet, for the princely sum of £10,000. Little recalling that his own illustrious father, Hyperion, was himself no bigger than 15 hands, Mr de Wet rejected the horse the moment he set eyes on him at the docks on his arrival with the now-famous statement “Ek teel nie met ‘ponies’ nie!” (I don’t breed with ‘ponies’!). And so the son of the celebrated broodmare Open Country, a one-time resident of Lord Carnavon’s Highclere Castle (aka Downtown Abbey), became the fourth consecutive champion stallion to grace the fabled paddocks of Vogelvlei, the Birch Bros’ fortress of South African breeding, and the second son of Hyperion (after Deimos) to reach the Holy Grail.
I also recall Fairthorn with special fondness, for having sired the 1960 July winner Left Wing under the No. 13 saddlecloth. That same weekend, the Springbok Hennie Van Zyl, put the final nail in the All Blacks coffin at Ellis Park, with a wonderful solo try on the “left wing” in the “number 13” jersey. I was nine at the time.
The next stallion era was dominated by a pair of tough English handicappers, Persian Wonder (by Persian Gulf) and Royal Prerogative (by the “Derby” winner, Relko) as well as the South African Champion racehorse, Elevation (by High Veldt), another product of the Birch empire in Doodrecht. While it’s no reflection on Elevation, who as a racehorse excelled in the company of the standouts, Yataghan, Ocean City, Archangel and Sword Dancer, the “imports”, as good as they turned out to be, were not in the same league in their performances or the “fashion” of their bloodlines as those of their immediate predecessors. One thing Persian Wonder and Royal Prerogative did in earning their 118 and 117 Timeform ratings though, was establish a bottom line benchmark for sire success in this country. The former was another inspired selection on the part of Sir Mordaunt Milner, whose ramblings on bloodstock breeding have been the subject of amusement (and some common sense, no doubt), in these columns over the years, whilst both stallions reminded us of the wisdom of looking at the horse and what he represents in his own virtues, rather than relying on the irresistibility of fashion.
Nowhere else but in South Africa did Relko produce a stallion son of any repute beyond Royal Prerogative, and in Persian Wonder and Abadan II, we had the only two noteworthy sires by Persian Gulf anywhere on the planet. Truth is, nobody else wanted them, and these horses were selected entirely for their merit as racehorses and the elements in their bloodlines that only a genius of Sir Mordaunt’s class or the instincts of horse people of the ilk of Allan Robertson and Pat O’Neill, could conjure.
Persian Wonder was no easy “pick”. Firstly, by the time of his importation, Persian Gulf had proven beyond doubt, that he was an unlikely “sire-getter”. Secondly, despite being a horse of striking quality, he was a man of two parts. He had the most beautiful, chiselled head and eye, set on the most elegant neck and shoulders. A long way behind, he trailed a rather angular hindquarter on a straight hind leg. His stock were quite typical of their father, with a commendable never-say-die spirit; they earned him 5 championships and for the first time in some five decades, saw the Birch Bros surrender the mantle of the Breeders’ premiership to the emergent Highlands Farm.
By contrast, Royal Prerogative was the “flawless gem”. As a specimen, he was the embodiment of the point the thoroughbred had reached after more than 300 years of meticulous selection, and he got Group One performers from 1200 to 2400m. The only thing, I suspect, that prevented him from securing the number of titles that fell the way of Persian Wonder, was the “heated” temperament of so many of his progeny, and the perception that some tended to be on the “soft” side. Both his and the daughters of a subsequent sire of note, Jungle Cove, were to prove wonderful foils in the rise to stardom of our own champion progenitor, Northern Guest.
Enter the American epoch at this stage, and in particular, the influence of the multiple champion stallion of that part of the world, Bold Ruler. Straddling the sire’s titles of Persian Wonder and Royal Prerogative, were a pair of sons of Bold Ruler, who apart from the great Politician’s father Oligarchy, were the first “Americans” to make an impression on the South African Stud Book. Plum Bold, the last of the Birch’s champions, took a solitary premiership before his all-too-hasty repatriation to his homeland, while Jungle Cove made up for it in amassing six titles in quick time. Not that anyone would have been in any sort of hurry to take him “home”. He and the spectacularly successful New Zealand stallion, Sir Tristram, as well as our own Liloy, were the best adverts for the notion that “ornery” looks are no bar to sire success. Down, flat, on his unusually extended pasterns, puffy-jointed, plain-headed with splayed “Charlie Chaplin” front legs, Jungle Cove was a stallion phenomenon. It has to be said though, that while 6 championships is one helluva feat no matter who you’re up against, he did it at a time when local breeders had deserted the ideals that had brought South Africa such acclaim when the underlying standard was top class racing performance. There are no “walking races”, remember.
I recall the time when I was acting as the lawyer for the Birch Bros in negotiating the sale of Wolf Power to the United States. Bob Birch, always the font of memorable wisdom on the breeding game, disclosed to me that their criteria in selecting their stallions, was to choose the son of a “recognisable” sire, with a top class race record, while “giving” a little on the female side. The Birch Bros led the Breeders championship for a never-to-be-repeated sixty odd years; there’s no need to say much more.
The next period of significance involved our own legend, Northern Guest (by the daddy of them all, Northern Dancer), Foveros (son of Averof, who failed in England, was banished by the Australians and was no better than average in South Africa), Northfields (an internationally proven son of Northern Dancer), SecretProspector (the first of the successful Mr Prospectors here) and Rakeen (yet another “Northern Dancer”). One aspect of this line-up emphasises one thing: regional success in breeding is substantially dependant on the locality of the top stallions. Northfields aside (who surprisingly, was something of an “also-ran” in this company), this was an age of “Natal” dominance, with the local foursome, Northern Guest, Foveros, Secret Prospector and Rakeen, heading the sires logs for the best part of a decade.
Jehan Malherbe, as clued-up as they come and a member of that bastion of equine research, the Form Organisation, tells me that of all the stallions of the modern period, the one that stands out statistically, is Foveros, measured even by the lofty standards of Fort Wood, Western Winter and Jet Master.
It’s a tribute then, to Northern Guest, who poached a couple of championships off him, and whose real legacy lies in a modern world record of ten Broodmare Sire’s titles. What a privilege to have stood simultaneously two stallions of his and Liloy’s stature, who between them, produced an enviable 37 Group One winners, in the latter’s case, on four different continents. Bang on the back of the Foveros/Northern Guest dynasties, came a stallion I recall with great affection. Al Mufti, the massively appealing son of Roberto, brought his own glory to a part of the world which is close to my heart, the Eastern Cape, as well as to the storied Parker family, whose exploits on the “beach” in Port Elizabeth, remind us all that horsemanship, not money, trumps everything in this game.
Al Mufti was the exception in a decade marked by the overwhelming performance of the “Beck” stallions, Badger Land (by Codex), National Assembly (Danzig) and Jallad (Blushing Groom). While Badger Land was a competent Grade One racehorse (with rather unsightly hocks), Jallad was the enigma that gives the poorest among us hope, even if he was always the property of some of the world’s richest men. Bred and raced by Dubai’s deputy ruler, Sheikh Hamdan, from Laurie Jaffee’s champion racemare, Patrava, Jallad was in the Jungle Cove and Sir Tristram “league” when it came to his lack of physical appeal.
As a one-time winner more resembling an Angus bull than a blue-blooded racehorse, he fetched an unsurprising £6,000 when he was offered at the Tattersalls Horses In Training Sale. Again, as so often happens in the racing world, the hand of fate intervened; the Patrava story had come full circle, with Laurie Jaffee, the successful, but somewhat reluctant bidder. Unsure of the wisdom of his purchase, the former chairman of the industrial giant Premier Milling, sought the refuge of our biggest coalminer, as his partner. And the rest, as they say, is history. If ever you were looking for the “Midas touch” in a stallion venture, Graham Beck had to be your man. While he might not have been able to differentiate between the head and the tail of a horse, he had a nose for a stallion (or a “deal”, to be more precise), like no other man I’ve known. In a relatively short time, Beck assembled at his Maine Chance and Highland Farms all of Elevation, Harry Hotspur, Golden Thatch, Jungle Cove, Badger Land, Jallad and National Assembly, every one of them, at one time or another, a champion sire in one division or another. That’s a record that rivals the best of America’s “Bull” Hancock, England’s Lord Derby, Ireland’s John Magnier, Japan’s Yoshida family, or Australia’s John Messara, and explains the one-time hegemony of Maine Chance and Highlands in the annals of our Breeder’s Championships. Personally, I doubt that this stallion era would have matched strides with the current one though, admirable as these horses were.
Which brings us back to the opening question, just how good is Silvano? Having recently set a new all-time earnings record, the answer must surely be, “bloody” good, but to put it into context, he’s done it against what is arguably the “hottest” competition this country has known. We were all mesmerised when Sadler’s Wells’ Group One son, Fort Wood, first announced his arrival with the likes of Horse Chestnut and Fort Defiance; then the American Grade One performer, Western Winter stepped boldly into Fort Wood’s ample shoes, before the 8x’s Grade 1 hero Jet Master, came to eclipse them all. Yes, these fellows may be getting on (passed on, in some cases), but they are still well-represented at the races, yet Silvano has outshone them all.
It has to be said that Silvano was no “obvious” stallion either. He comes from a sireline that “reaked” of stamina, that survived in Europe only through the patronage of diehards who didn’t have to rely on the imperatives of commerce for a living, and he was given his chances by a family whose love of racing he’d served so admirably. Were it not for the sheer coincidence of life that had led to the acquisition of Maine Chance Farm, by the German breeder, Dr. Andreas Jacobs shortly before, Silvano, the son of Lomitas, would’ve been a damn good sire in Germany and, I suspect, a damn good sire only in Germany. Such are the slender threads in thoroughbred breeding, which make our stories possible, that this globe-trotting racehorse should’ve come to the Little Karoo, at a time when the South African champion Dynasty (by Fort Wood) first came to Highlands, and when the Prix de’l Abbaye (Gr.1) ace, Var, made his grand entrance at Avontuur in Somerset West.
To be a champion sire when Fort Wood, Western Winter and Jet Master are still prominent, when Dynasty, Var, Kahal and Captain Al all have their guns blazing, and to have broken all earnings records in the process, tells us just how good Silvano really is.