Click above to view photos from our National Yearling Sales inspection / Ricardo Christian (p)
EMPERORS PALACE NATIONAL YEARLING SALE
27 & 28 April 2014
Summerhill CEO“Scrutiny”, says the Oxford Concise, means “critical observation or examination”, and that’s what happens at this time of year when we put our stock up for the inspection of the Yearling Sales panel. For a stud man, depending on how long you’ve been at it and how much faith (or lack of it) you have in your draft, this can be a moment of angst or insouciance. The outcomes wield an inordinate influence over your financial fortunes for the year ahead, they mould the expectations of buyers, they influence the mating plans of breeders for the future, and they can raise or destroy the hopes of those customers who keep their horses on our farms.
Time was when the legendary establishments of our many-times champion breeders, the Birch Bros, simply brought the horses in off the veld, pulled their manes and tails a bit, gave them a “spit” and a brush, and they were on parade, kicking and bollocking. It wasn’t much different anywhere else either, and it took a proper judge to separate a good horse from an ordinary one. Coats were fluffy, burs and blackjacks were everywhere, and the horses knew nothing about deportment. Remember, the racehorse is a flight animal, little different from a zebra, and in strange circumstances, his instinct is to run, and to do it like blazes. These days, the game is a little more sophisticated, though at Summerhill, we’ve never forgotten that horses are “horses”, not humans, and their preference is to live out, roaming the great plains of the continent, free as the wind. Here, within a fortnight or so of birth, our foals and their mothers leave the sanctuary of the Final Call Foalcare yard for the open country, and unless illness or injury intervenes, never to return until it’s time for the sales.
Just a few weeks ago, the candidates for this year’s National Yearling Sales were brought “in”, reluctantly I should add, to a routine so strange, so far removed from the liberty of their endless paddocks, and to a discipline more akin to the basic training of army recruits. “Prepping” is a bonding process, designed to grow their faith in their handlers, to slow down the tempo of their natural inclinations, to attune them to the confinement of an overnight stable, to bring order to a free and uninhibited mind, and to learn some basic manners. Thank God the horse is open to such domestication: otherwise, our histories would’ve been very different, for they were written on his back.
It’s time now for the judging to start, and our senior judge is a stalwart of 27 years, John Kramer, who ranks with the best anywhere. There’s not a farm in this country he hasn’t visited, not a yarn he hasn’t heard, and there’s not been a horse through a sales ring he hasn’t inspected. Alongside, Kerry Jack, who served her apprenticeship in the trade during her 13 years at Summerhill, is his assistant, and she counts many hours of doing exactly that right here. She learnt her trade well, and she brings a natural eye and a keen sense of commercial “nous” to the proceedings. Among the bystanders is a clutch of curious managers, and an American graduate of marketing in the equine field: they know it’s not only about the yearlings, it’s also about the first crops of our new stallions, which are as much under scrutiny as the yearlings themselves.
We’re lucky, as I’ve said so often, to live where we do: the climate is kind, the environment is good, and our people are gifted, so gifted there are a number of budding “Monty Robertses” among the team handling the yearlings. The process takes several hours, and for the most part, the youngsters are compliantly waiting their turn, the only sign of impatience a flick of the odd tail at an irritating fly. The trickle of running water in the rills somehow calms and cools at the same time, while the silent intent of business is apparent only in the eyes of the judges and the occasional scribble of their pens. Nothing ruffles the horses, not even the sight or the sound of the scanner, which confirms their heritage with a hiss of approval from the microchip implant.
This year, the grapevines have forewarned us there’s a big entry, the bar has been lifted and the rejections are plenty. There’s no time now for second-guessing though, and for the first of the “Visionaires” and the “Bankables”, it’s judgement day, with a capital “D”. The training yards are buzzing too, with expectations for Brave Tin Soldier’s first juveniles, though we like his second crop even better. We’ll have to see at the end of it all, whether our judges agree.
There are 45 in the draft, the show kicks off at 9am and by mid-day they’re all back in the kikuyu pens we know as the “BBs”. The judges comments are handed down, and we’re asked to sign them off. The verdict is in, and there’s nowhere to hide. It seems we were right though - this is a vintage crop, and we’re especially delighted by the vindication of the Visionaires, about whom we’ve been talking since the first one arrived. From a handful of runners in the United States, the stallion has already chalked up a Stakes winner and a Black type performer; they’ve been winning by daylight, and the hopes are high. The gods have been listening too, it seems: three Visionaires among the “nines” (which means “outstanding”). The Bankables have sparkled as well, with nothing less than an “eight”, and there are high-fives again for the Brave Tin Soldiers, who’ve weighed in with a fistful of big scores. The draft is deep, the horses look good, and the year ahead looks rosy. What else could a stud man want?