Summerhill Stud CEOPedigree buff Sarah Whitelaw has just penned an article in the Sporting Post in which she asks the question whether horses, reputed for their savagery, are born that way, or whether man has made them that way. She cites the case of the Ribot tribe, where quirkiness, ill-temper and sheer bloody-mindedness prevailed through the generations, and in the case of our locally successful sire, Sportsworld, was a signature of this behaviour four removes from Ribot.
The legendary American trainer, Charlie Whittingham described champion sire Halo as a mean customer, and as the man who conditioned his best son, the great Sunday Silence, he witnessed first-hand the conduct for which Halo had become infamous. Sunday Silence’s Japanese handlers apparently always counted themselves fortunate in still being in one piece at the time of Sunday Silence’s death at 18 years, so its possible we’ve had a lucky let-off at Summerhill, in Admire Main’s wonderfully equable temperament. He has spirit, yes, but his “man” is Themba Zuma, and they’ve never had a row in their lives.
Then there’s Storm Cat, whose father Storm Bird, unusually for a son of Northern Dancer, was a bad tempered old bugger who passed his quirks on, to the degree that several of Storm Cat’s sons are not only on the “hot” side in general, but prone to self-emasculation. There are several cases of this in the States, while Mary Slack will tell you that Tiger Ridge will turn on himself occasionally, too. When he first arrived here, Brave Tin Soldier was a bit of a handful, and took his chances in his attempt to assert himself, but he has “masters” around him, and he’s the next best thing to a lamb these days.
Sarah speaks too, of the Nasrullahs, and the notoriety many of them earned themselves for their “obduracy”, no more apparent than in his top racehorses, Nashua and the nemesis of many an American stud man, Bold Bidder, sire of the several-times Argentinean champion, Liloy, who lived out his later days at Summerhill. Argentineans are renowned for their skills as horsemen, yet even they gave up on Liloy, despite his 21 Group One winners around the world, and despatched him to the famous Calumet Farm in Kentucky, where he stood alongside the “greats”, Affirmed and Alydar. When I went to inspect Liloy at Calumet before he was acquired for South Africa, his tobacco-chewing handler warned me never to go near the “son-of-a-bitch”, and certainly never to take his head collar off, as catching him with a rod and a hook was the only means he could be brought under control.
When Liloy arrived in South Africa, I forgot to impart this rather vital piece of information to the float driver, so the first thing he did when he released the horse into his box at the Durban quarantine, was remove his head collar. You can imagine my horror when I arrived at the quarantine for the first time with his groom, Mandla Zuma (whose family have populated our stallion barn for decades) to find Liloy’s goose-like neck protruding from his stall, minus head collar! Liloy’s menacing “white” eyes and flared nostrils did little to quell my anxiety. No trouble to Mandla, he simply walked in, picked up a piece of bedding off the floor, rubbed it down the horses back and neck, and told him quietly that if he respected him, Mandla in turn would do the same for Liloy. They were firm mates from that day onwards, and in his latter days, despite the most frightening reputation for savagery in the world, I recall taking my daughter on visits to his paddock when she was 7 or 8 years of age.
The one thing you wouldn’t want to do though, was get between Liloy and a mare, as that was his territory, and you daren’t invade it. John Slade, consummate stud man that he is, once made that mistake when Summerhill was his “show”, and Liloy hoisted him up by the back of his neck, and shook him like a rag doll before dispatching him out of the stallion barn. John was black and blue with the bruising for a few weeks, and nobody ever made the same mistake twice.
Another “lot” remembered for their squalid conduct, is the Roberto dynasty: Roberto, coincidentally, was another inmate of Darby Dan Farm in Kentucky, where Ribot earned his reputation, and there may be a thread in this story. Though local champion sire, Al Mufti never inherited his father’s wayward genes, Roberto did pass them onto some of his descendents, including the talented racehorse, Lear Fan, in turn sire of Labeeb, another who confounded the Americans with his meanness, and who ended up at Summerhill. Labeeb was an extraordinary talent as a racehorse, he could take on the best turf horses in the States at any distance from 6 to 10 furlongs, and he proved to be a more than adequate sire. However, like Liloy, he had to be caught with a rod in America. His temperament often sidelined him from formal showings of the stallions at his base Gainsborough Stud, until one of our scholarship recipients, Scotty Mnculwane, did his stint there during a Northern Hemisphere breeding season. Scotty was another member of our stallion handling team at Summerhill, and like all of his colleagues, he was not only fearless, he enjoyed a mutual respect with the stallions. In two weeks, he had tamed Labeeb, and that prompted Sheikh Maktoum to part with the horse and send him here.
There’ve been other reputed “savages” around the world, not the least of whom was the greatest New Zealand sire of all time, Sir Tristram, who had no antecedents who might’ve explained his behaviour. He had a special shute out the back of his box to his paddock, which saved the necessity of handling him.
Of the modern day “saints”, A.P. Indy has quite a “tough” history, and there are those who attribute it to a thread that runs through five generations from Nasrullah. Our own fellow, A.P. Arrow, can be a bit of a handful, something I noticed when I went to inspect him in Florida two years ago. His Mexican groom emerged from the shed as white as a sheet, desperately trying to avoid A.P. Arrow’s gnashing teeth from descending on his arms and shoulders as he lead him out. Here again, he’s under perfect control at Summerhill, provided he’s in the hands of a minder in whom he has the utmost faith.
Since there is no genetic explanation for this, it begs the question, where does it come from? Does the answer for these things lie in heredity, or does the responsibility rest in the inadequacies of poor handling? The most likely explanation, is that some stallions, like humans, are born temperamental, and since the alpha male is naturally prone to dominance in the horse world, this is manifested not only in their relationships with their mates, but also in a need to assert themselves over their handlers. It’s worth recalling that in the horse’s natural world, there are no handlers, so this is something of an artificial imposition, more a nuisance than an aid in the opinion of some horses. Human beings, particularly those with a “college” education, are aware of the force and the ferocity some stallions command, and they’re equally aware that if one gets hold of you, the consequences are not worth thinking about.
As a result, if we display too much caution, or any form of timidity, the stallion will instinctively exploit it, and you have the perfect storm for the birth of a demon. The bigger his reputation, the more people are frightened.
It’s a strange thing that at Summerhill, despite the reputations of the likes of Liloy and Labeeb, we’ve never had to grapple with these things in a serious way. That’s as much attributable to our Zulu handlers as anything, even though there was no history of horses in their lives until the last century and a half. It is so that their King Cetewayo, inflicted on the British army, then the best equipped and the best trained in the world, their most humiliating defeats at Isandlwana, Nkambule and Hlobane, where they put an end to the Napoleonic dynasty. While Generals Smuts and Botha, both scourges in their own rights of the British, had at their disposal and knew the value of cavalry, Cetewayo had no such thing among his regiments. What he did have though, was a tribe of men who knew no fear, with a history of association with animals for millennia. Among the finest stockmen anywhere, they’ve obviously converted their instincts with cattle to horses; I’ve never seen a Zulu abuse a horse, and I’ve never seen a horse abuse a Zulu. Mutual respect is evident from day one, and somehow, that expresses itself in a faith and a trust that settles all matters. I’ve said it so many times before, but we’re lucky to live where we do.
There’s an enchanting video clip under the title “Historic events: Nasrullah’s 1950 arrival at Claiborne” above. You have to see it - I believe it’s unique in the world.