The welfare of the thoroughbred was in the hands of the British aristocracy for the first three centuries of its existence. They bred horses for the right reasons: it was all about the sport, about one nobleman beating another. What we see now is what they selected for then: grace, nobility, intelligence, courage, speed, stamina, mental toughness and physical durability. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’d have to concede that these grand aspirations are not in the forefront of the human make-up, that lust and money have been arch-contributors to the complicated condition of our species. That’s why the racehorse is creation’s greatest masterpiece.
“Breeding” is instructive; it’s the education we should all have received from our careers guidance officers at school. Yet I suspect that like mine, your tuition was somewhat puritan, where these conversations were taboo. I suspect too, that Trevor Bennison, the chap who had the task of teaching me the subject, may never have credited me with a sense of history. But it was always a fact, and just a shame that the characters and events from the past that he tried to enthuse me with, never quite got me going. Deep down, horses were in my DNA, and when aged ten, I bought my first book on racing, what grabbed me most about the sport, was its long history. It had been around for longer than my other boyhood passions, rugby and cricket, and the fact it had endured so long, had me in thrall. Yet for a young man so interested in the art of horsebreeding, for some reason my “talents” never quite got caught in the radar of our inspirational art teacher, Mr Rowe. Nevertheless, there were straws in the wind, the lessons learned from the sports I played, that prefaced something of where this story was headed.
At Summerhill, mating discussions are a favourite pastime. They put the truth on the table about the value of our mares, our stallions and our previous mistakes. Besides, there’s an element of adventure about it. I’ve always maintained that my life would not have been quite as fulfilled were it not for racing. When we started out in this game, I’d never been to America: racing took me there. I’d never been to Hong Kong: racing took me there. It took me to Japan, Australia, the UK and Europe, Singapore, Dubai, New Zealand and wherever else the sport has roots. It’s taken us to the mountain-top so many times, and it’s sat us down with the Queen Of England.
Among the characters we’ve known was the star of the movie epics, Dr Zhivago and Lawrence Of Arabia. There was an Oriental charm to Omar Shariff’s approach to the subject of breeding: “To select the mother and father” he used to say with a look that sent most of womanhood into meltdown, “it’s a bit like playing God.”
In 1908, a romantic Neapolitan, Chevalier Ginistrellii, became the first Italian to own a winner of the world’s greatest horserace of the time, the English Derby. Our eccentric had saddled Signorinetta to win both the Oaks and The Derby on consecutive days, a filly he’d bred from the vocally ardent but untalented stallion next door, relying not on the form book, but on the boundless laws of sympathy and love.
For us, a stallion must be top class as a racehorse, able to hold his own in the best international company. He should have a mystique to his pedigree and an aura around his ability. You have to believe in your stallions. Good stallions are game-changers. They not only direct your fortunes on the turf; they can alter the fortunes in your bank balance. A good bull is half the herd, the truism goes, and a good bull is better than an ATM.
Anyone who’s been associated with Summerhill over the years, knows Northern Guest. They know too, that there was a time when the farm owed its existence to him and Standard Bank. When he finally passed on, he was courting a mare in his 25th year in what is known as the “covering barn”. In human terms, he would’ve been at least 100 years old. Would it be a little naughty to say “what a way to go”?
There’s another story that differentiates us humans from the horse world. The celebrated playwright, George Bernard Shaw, teased the actress Patricia Campbell into admitting she’d share his bed for a million pounds. He then asked if she’d do the same for five pounds. “What do you think I am?” she demanded in outrage. “We’ve already established that, madam. We are merely haggling about the price”. Stallions have got it right. Unlike us, they get paid for their services.
A visit to the Final Call Yearling Preperation barn, reminds us that the success of our runners is a culmination of so many things, where often enough, you’re only as good as your last race. The question of what separates you from your neighbours, is encyclopaedic. When the foal hits the ground, all things are equal. Before and after, you are separated by your intuition, your horsemanship and your prayers. And how many hours you’ve spent in the “paddy fields”. So here we are, at the stone-clad yearling yard 18 months since their hour of birth, with these treasures that come from 35 years of practice. Their grooms are kneeling in straw at the altars of their straps and surcingles. A pigeon scrambles out, frightened from its wits by the stable cat. The horses are instantly taller, alert and mildly agitated. The grooms offer a fretful look. What lunacy is this? A fair question, too. But these youngsters are not that easily stirred. They have faith in the worshippers at their sides. They were bred for this day; it’s the Summerhill way.
Breeding racehorses is one of the refreshing imponderables of the game: you can be right, you can be wrong, but you can never be certain. It is the old saying come true again: in racing, the line between triumph and disaster, between a freak and an also-ran, is as thin as a cigarette paper. Second is nothing. The only way to change that, is practice. The harder you practise, the luckier you get.
Linda Norval 27 (0) 33 263 1081
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