Mick Goss - Summerhill CEO
Make your way into the grandstand and the panorama is timeless, fields and woods that’ve changed not at all in 300 years, and not a house in sight.
— Mick Goss / Summerhill CEO

One of the rare places left on my bucket list of famous racing venues was Goodwood, affectionately prefixed by the Brits with “Glorious” at this time of year. There are few places conducive to chilling out in the heat of England’s high summer, but Goodwood, with its relaxed charm of high-class action and its matchless setting atop the Downs, is one of them.

It has a centuries-old history of attracting racegoers from every spectrum of society, and one of its quaint eccentricities is the “free-entry” vantage point afforded by Trundle Hill, an Iron Age fort at the top of the straight. The coachloads come in their happy droves and everything about Goodwood conspires to celebrate the homely feel of that marvellous institution, the Great British Day Out.

My only former impression of the Earl of March’s great estate was the black and white television memory of a motor raceway that dates back to the days of Stirling Moss and Jack Brabham, and more recently of a quirky racecourse of ups-and-downs, switchbacks and loops and the undulations more reminiscent of a point-to-point venue than a testing ground for thoroughbreds.

Truth is, it’s all of that, and more, but importantly, it’s both staggeringly beautiful and what the purists would call a “bloody good” racecourse, where only the best riders are left standing when the five days of festivity are over. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a “pint and pork pie” man or operate at the loftier end, where Lanson and lobsters rule, because the view and the atmosphere come together with all prices. Make your way into the grandstand and the panorama is timeless, fields and woods that’ve changed not at all in 300 years, and not a house in sight. England as she was and, in rare spots like the Goodwood estate, England as she remains.

I must say, at first glance, my initial thought was, why can’t we do something like this at home, but the closest I came to an answer was that the only place that approaches similarity, is the summit of Spioenkop, with its eastern spur across a deep valley from whence General Botha’s men claimed several hundred British lives. While the cavalry in those days were built for a different purpose, Louis Botha had a keen sense of the value of good breeding, never more evident than in the horseback skirmishes that tarnished the peace of our neighbourhood in those far off days.

We came to the Downs on Wednesday to anoint a king, a joust between the miler champion of last year and the young pretender whose name betrayed his intentions. The forecast for the day was set fair, but there is always a cloud in the punter’s sky at Goodwood, because it can be a devil of a place to back a winner. Not that these fans were having any of that, hammering the 3 year old Kingman down to odds-on to beat the horse that had demolished Dawn Approach a year ago on the self-same track; remarkable considering Toronado had returned victorious just a month before in a Group One contest at Royal Ascot after 300 days off, revealing an astounding degree of physical maturity from three to four. If top-class racehorses owned nightclubs, the son of High Chaparral would be on the door.

Kingman, by contrast, delivered a performance at Ascot that was many a fan’s idea of the “top 20” of the past three decades, an injection of blitz tinged with a touch of the merciless, prompting his champion trainer, John Gosden, to offer: “He has the speed of Oasis Dream, with the stamina of a miler.” Only the brave would bet against that. Just four had the courage to face the starter, and as it always does in a contest like this, it turned into a crawl, the more the pity because the 30,000 had paid to see them go a mile, whereas they only “went” for 2½ furlongs.

Goodwood has always been the Hannon family’s happy hunting ground, and while there may be more champagne consumed at Ascot, Richard Hannon has never stopped trying to narrow the gap. With a furlong to run, it looked like Toronado’s race as the youngster strived for his feet, but once he’d found them, he had the wings of Pegasus. As easily as Toronado had wiped the floor with Dawn Approach in the Sussex a year ago, just as easily had Kingman ascended to this year’s throne. In the process, he elevated Gosden to the top of the trainers’ log ahead of Hannon, by a margin that’ll take an act of David to bring him back to the field.

Speaking of which, Gosden aspired to his first title several years back courtesy of a runner-up berth in a rich race at Newmarket, restricted to graduates of a particular sale. Like every other major racing jurisdiction of the world, British racing treats the accruals from these competitions with the same respect as any other race, as South Africa has always done. Until this year.

Whether the NHRA’s unilateral decision to disbar the prize money flowing from restricted events henceforth was prompted by regional politics that had its roots in a long-standing resentment of the Breeders’ premiums in KwaZulu-Natal, or the fact that a Zulu farm on our side of the Drakensberg had cobbled together 9 consecutive Breeders’ Premierships, or otherwise, the outcome, by any measure, is incomprehensible. That the board was led to its decision by the false suggestion that there was an inconsistency in the treatment of these stakes in other parts of the world, and that they saw fit to discriminate between owners, trainers and jockeys (who continue to get the credit) on one hand, and the breeders and stallions, on the other, is equally mystifying, particularly as they got there without consulting the worst affected parties.

With the swipe of a pen, they wrote off the accruals from a 120 year old institution, the KZN Breeders Stakes, which dates to four years before the first running of the Durban July, in the process disrespecting the rich history of excellent racehorses raised in our province for more than a century. Given that the products of most stud farms’ endeavours get to run about six times a year, and that any decent KZN-bred three year old might be a candidate for the Emperors Palace Ready To Run Cup and for the KZN Sales race on July day, as well as the Breeders Mile, effectively this dispensation arbitrarily cancels out as much as 33% of that horse’s potential earnings in the prime of its career, by mere “misfortune” of the location of its birth.

In an attempt at justifying their stance when the fallacy of the prevailing treatment in other countries was pointed out, it was suggested that South Africa’s restricted stakes were disproportionately high relative to other countries; subsequent research gives the lie to this myth, too. Countries such as America, Australia and Japan for example, have significantly higher percentages of restricted prize-money, and far from being seen as a “threat to the integrity of the Stud Book,” they are regarded as part of the scene and afforded the respect they’ve earned. The Stud Book, for what it’s worth, is the register of “births, deaths and marriages” in the thoroughbred population, and its integrity cannot be impaired by any “log” recording the money earned by a breeder, who happens to belong to another species, by the way!

What’s unfortunate about their decision, and politicizes it further, is that the antagonists are known to have approached Kenilworth racing following last year’s KZN Breeders raceday, to request the inauguration of a similar celebration for Cape breeders. The sad reality of their being turned down led to a petition to the NHRA to do what they did, whereas a positive response would’ve levelled the playing fields. And far from being the “laughing stock of the world,” as some have suggested, South Africa would’ve remained on consistent footing with every other self-respecting country of the racing world.

Now that’s off my chest, let me say this. Those that know us, know that we’ve always been generous in recognising the achievements of others, and we’ve never been shy of words of encouragement when it’s done.

In my sporting life, I was lucky to be on the winning side more often than not, but I’m happy to say that at Summerhill, we’ve taken winning and losing the same way. Nobody holds a monopoly on the Number One box, and it is as sure as night follows day, that you won’t be there forever. That Klawervlei would one day claim the championship is just as inevitable, the more so as excellent steeds Vercingetorix and Shea Shea were missing in action abroad. But knowing them and the sportsmen among their number, I’ve no doubt they would’ve preferred to win the title at “level weights”, without the contrivance of an arrangement at odds with the rest of the world.

Neither of us, nor anyone else with a respect for “fair play”, will feel completely fulfilled for as long as there remains a dispensation that favours one party above another. For the time being, they deserve our congratulations as the leaders of the new NHRA log, while we’ll take pride in topping the “all-comers” earnings table for the tenth consecutive season. We work with a helluva team, the likes of which you won’t find anywhere other than at an awards night. They deserve another bow.

summerhill stud, south africa

Enquiries :
Linda Norval 27 (0) 33 263 1081
or email linda@summerhill.co.za