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Article published in BREEDING&RACING
Issue 103, March/April 2012
Author Gary Knowles
On a recent trip to South Africa, Breeding&Racing editor-in-chief Gary Knowles visited Africa’s leading thoroughbred property, Summerhill, one of the world’s great stud farms.
It would be nice to write about this African equine landmark by employing the standard reporting approach of who, what, when, how and why, but that’s just not possible.
Entering Summerhill - founded in 1879 by the one-time Deputy Prime Minister of the Old Colony of Natal - there is a flooding of emotions, an unsettling sense of ‘sliding doors’, of never having been here, but never having left.
It is the fall of light, shadows on the nearby Drakensburg mountain ranges, the birdsong and the smells; listening to the linguistic clicks of Zulu men as they handle mares and foals combine to shake me from my reverie that 21 years in Australia have rendered me a non-African. I might have affected a lilt and twang to my accent but, like it or not, roots are roots.
And, besides, this journey is a homecoming in more ways than one.
Nearly 30 years ago Summerhill’s principals Mick and Cheryl Goss patiently bore the brunt of a young man’s unbridled enthusiasm about all things thoroughbred, providing encouragement and a seat outside their stables at sales. It was a vantage point from which I enviously ogled their battalions of year-old horses.
The reference to battalions is apt, because KwaZulu-Natal is scattered with the remnants of some astonishing military history, including mighty battles between the British and the Zulus, and then - in the lead-up to apartheid’s fall - when virtual black-on-black civil war ebbed and flowed in the valleys dotted with African villages.
With sufficient means and global connections to have made a handsome life anywhere in the world, the Goss family chose to stay in South Africa.
“Embracing the African National Congress was easy,” reveals Goss of what was then a looming change to black majority rule. “We grew up in their heartland and we knew which way they were going to go; that’s what gave us our faith in the future.”
It appears on the surface to have been a prescient decision. Mick Goss is no Johnny-come-lately white farmer with a patrician attitude. Although trained as a lawyer, he grew up in far-flung trading posts of Transkei’s Wild Coast, running barefoot with little Zulu umfaans as his playmates, one of who, serendipitously, became one of South Africa’s future rulers.
In a country where most whites struggle to get by with a smattering of pidgin English when conversing with black Africans, it is astonishing to listen to Goss chatter away in Zulu as though it were his mother tongue. In many ways it is. It clearly makes an enormous difference that to the vast majority of his staff he is not some outsider, but a fellow African with a deep affection for their culture and the land they all share.
“They are without question the greatest horsemen I have ever seen,” declares Goss of the Zulus. “I don’t know what it is about the relationship they share with horses, but I can tell you I have never seen a horse try to hurt a Zulu, and neither have I ever seen a Zulu mistreat a horse.”
Situated at Mooi River, just over two hours to the west of Durban on South Africa’s east coast, Summerhill lies in a region that is atypical of most people’s perception of Africa. It is a green canvas with pockets that appear very English, blanketed in lush, verdant pastures, and home to the pukka landed gentry whose young sons play polo still.
Summerhill skirts the northern reaches of the majestic ‘Midlands Meander’ a leisurely drive that starts near Howick’s famous falls and wends its way through myriad little towns’ restaurants, organic stalls, colonial book-shops, bric-a-brac stores and shabby-chic hideaways.
Long known as the ‘last bastion of the British Empire’ due to its very English history, this part of the former Natal colony is famous for two of the African continent’s finest schools: Hilton College and Michaelhouse. Fierce rugby rivals, their derbies attract cult-like followings where running rugby is the norm, and where students are as likely to be from London or Lagos as they are from a farm near the Limpopo.
Here, apparently, breeding is everything. And it’s catching.
Summerhill Stud was recently crowned Champion South African Breeder - its 7th consecutive championship following record-breaking feats in previous seasons. In 2005 the record books were re-written as the stud claimed the Breeder’s Premiership by a record margin. In 2006 their previous record was eclipsed five weeks before the season’s close, and this was followed by record-breaking margins in 2007, 2008 and 2009. In 2010, Summerhill’s record earnings for the Championship were more than double its closest rival.
The property consists of over 3,000 acres of fully fenced secure paddocks, where all pastures and cropland is maintained on strictly organic principles. In addition, there is a carefully monitored complementary grazing program to control parasites, and paddocks are sewn with a mixture of 11 grass species selected for optimal equine nutrition and growth.
Boasting internationally trained staff across separate divisions that include foaling, yearling, ready to race, stallion and broodmares, Summerhill has 320 stables and a yearling and stallion walker. There are also two 1400m turf gallops, two 1600m sand tracks and a 2400m turf track.
With round-the-clock supervision, Summerhill is a registered quarantine facility, with on-site veterinary care, a foaling unit and a surgery unit.
Mick Goss’ family have had a life-long love affair with racing, his grandfather having owned St Pauls, winner of the 1946 Durban July Handicap, South Africa’s most famous race, run over 2200m at Greyville in Durban.
Although his father also enjoyed the industry, business interests had to come first. As a result it was left to genetics to ensure that Mick and his brother Pat would resume the family’s love affair with the turf. Initially involved in 1979 as a legal advisor to the syndicate that purchased the original property (Hartford House was just a neighbour at that point), the Goss boys took the bit by their teeth and gradually increased their shareholding in Summerhill to the point they became majority owners. In the late 80s Mick Goss assumed total control by buying his brother out.
Despite its African setting, Summerhill Stud has a surprisingly international clientele… besides playing host to a sizeable proportion of the breeding stock of its own nation’s top owners, more than a third of the farm’s resident horse population belong to customers in the United Kingdom, the USA, the UAE, Australia, France, Japan, Germany, Ireland and Hong Kong.
For a man who has achieved so much in his own back yard, it is ironic that Mick Goss had to travel halfway across the world to find perhaps his best buy.
Goss is a frequent visitor to Australia’s sales, with his regular team of Annet Becker and Tarryn Liebenberg, in search of prospects for Summerhill’s Ready To Run operation. And it was at Inglis’ 2009 Melbourne Premier Sale that a Galileo filly caught their eye from the Kia Ora Stud draft.
Picked up for the relatively modest sum of $65,000, Igugu’s victory in last January’s Gr1 J&B Met at Kenilworth in Cape Town was the icing on the cake. Along the way the 4 year old mare took her record to 10 wins. These included 2011’s Gr1 Vodacom Durban July over 2200m and Gr1 Woolavington 2000 over 2000m (both at Greyville in Durban), Gr1 SA Fillies Classic over 1800m, Gr2 South African Oaks over 2450m at Turffonetin, Gr2 Ipi Tombe Challenge over 1600m, Gr2 Gauteng Fillies Guineas over 1600m, and 2010’s Gr3 Johannesburg Spring Challenge over 1450m (all at Turffontein in Johannesburg) and 2 runners-up (including 2010’s Gr1 Cape Fillies Guineas over 1600m at Kenilworth) from 12 starts.
Igugu’s Horse of the Year title and her place at the top of the earnings table for 2011 (in excess of R5 million) follow on the heels of 2010’s biggest earner, Pierre Jourdan, and Imbongi’s status in the same year as the earnings Victor Ludorum at Dubai’s Racing Carnival.
It is deeply satisfying for Goss that Igugu was on-sold at the annual Ready To Run Sale, whose 2012 Summer edition was recently held at Summerhill’s Centre Of Management Excellence. With the support of other industry bodies, Summerhill has continued to champion the Ready To Run and they, along with a strong and diverse South African buying bench, were again very active at last month’s Inglis Melbourne Premier Sale despite facing an exchange rate where every dollar cost the equivalent of eight rand in South African currency.
Al Maktoum School Of Management Excellence
As part of Summerhill’s “ongoing commitment to education and training”, the stud recently completed their 40th International Scholarship with the return of two of their young Zulu staff from the USA and the UK.
The doors of the on-site Al Maktoum School of Management Excellence opened at Summerhill in May 2011. It is already regarded by many as the finest educational facility of its kind in the world.
At 2011’s Melbourne Premier, Goss excitedly shared the news on the upcoming opening with Breeding&Racing. It sounded, in theory, like a fine idea, however it’s not until one has experienced this faculty in the flesh that one can appreciate the extent of the vision that lies behind it.
Housed in a very special building with majestic views of the farm, the school may be brand new, yet it exudes a presence of ingrained gravitas, its lecture hall’s leather-bound airline seats a curiously satisfying addition to this acoustically designed African setting.
“Africa demands that you give something back,” exclaims an infectiously enthusiastic Goss about this local undertaking which has gone globally viral, and which attracts the crème of the world thoroughbred fraternity as guest lecturers.
Summerhill’s farm is home to arguably Africa’s most formidable band of young sire talent, and includes among its stallion owners the leading studs in Australia, Japan, the United States, Dubai and South Africa.
Great stallions make great farms, and Summerhill was blessed in its early days to have stood Northern Guest, an impeccably bred son of Northern Dancer out of the celebrated blue hen Sex Appeal.
His imposing list of progeny, whose earnings eclipsed R50 million, included the Gr1 winners Senor Santa, Travel North, Spook And Diesel, Northern Princess, Imperious Sue, Unaware, Angus and Mystery Guest. And, with the benefit of hindsight, why wouldn’t he have scaled breeding’s Everest, given he’s a full-brother to champion duo El Gran Senor and Try My Best?
Goss, with complete understatement says: “We owe it all to him. Northern Guest lies behind everything you see here today.”
Of course, since those halcyon days Summerhill has been associated with many, many outstanding stallions, and their current line-up is no exception.
Following the sad loss of exciting young Medicean sire-son Bankable earlier this year, Summerhill currently has 11 stallions on its books. Reflecting a nice cross-section of sirelines, but with an inevitable nod to the ubiquitous Northern Dancer and Mr Prospector lines, they include: Admire Man (Sunday Silence), A.P. Arrow (A.P. Indy), Brave Tin Soldier (Storm Cat), Kahal (Machiavellian), Malhub (Kingmambo), Muhtafal (Mr Prospector), Mullins Bay (Machiavellian), Ravishing (Jet Master), Solskjaer (Danehill), Visionaire (Grand Slam) and Way West (Danehill).
It’s a collection of sire-power that annually attracts many of the crème of South Africa’s mare crop.
Mick Goss is a showman. Beyond the open smile and charisma, though, lies awareness that that while this game is about horses, it’s the people who own them that influence outcomes.
In what is almost an antithesis to the quip that claims accountants know the cost of everything and the value of nothing, Goss has this to say: “We started out on a handshake, and that’s still the way we do business. We’ve never forgotten, transactions build turnovers, but relationships build value.”
In reading this you may be tempted to shrug this off as ‘just another stud farm’, but that’d be a million miles from the truth. Summerhill Stud is actually a combination of Summerhill and Hartford Studs, the latter an adjoining property with one of the most beautiful houses in the Province.
Timelessly elegant and graceful, Hartford House has quickly risen to become one of South Africa’s leading boutique hotels, following extensive renovations and the continued epicurean rise of its award-winning restaurant.
A member of Chaine des Rotisseurs, one would naturally expect that Hartford House would have fine dining, yet it’s a surprise to discover that its restaurant is now among South Africa’s Top 10 under the tutelage and watchful eye of young chef Jackie Cameron. Summerhill is almost certainly the only stud farm anywhere on earth with a restaurant of this calibre.
For anyone who’s ever watched Out Of Africa, and wondered at Karen Blixen’s opening words: “I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills”, Hartford House evokes a sense of the ‘old Africa’ nostalgia.
In any event, what’s not to like about an evening Pimms on the sandstone balcony listening to the whinny of a nearby colt-foal and the snort of his dam?
Hartford House’s own expressed raison d’etre captures its nuance best:
“[It is] The journey’s exclamation point, a retreat from the hubbub where you make sense of a fast life and its senseless details. This is where we learn to redress ourselves on a first name basis.
There are too many luxury hotels in the world offering the same: a chocolate on the pillow, canned romance, and cuisine called “haut” because it’s spelled in French. Hartford stands apart for its integrity. Its architecture, views, dining, sounds, smells, its racehorses and its people are all exhilarating surprises, unique to this Zululand, this culture, to Africa. Yes, you come here to be pampered, but at Hartford luxury is the journey, not the destination.
The truth is, Hartford just happened. A home, and a grand one at that, which grew into a hotel. A community looks to it as its watering hole, its nexus of entertainment, its fountain of gossip. In so many ways, it’s gained and regained inspiration from the cultures it celebrates. It is life’s exception, a place at the same time comfortable beyond dreams, yet innocent of pretence.”