A fortnight ago, Cheryl and I were donning our glad rags, top hat and morning suit, hats (not fascinators!) and gloves, on our way to England's greatest horse race. A month before, the prospects for a quality renewal of the Investec Derby were looking bleak, as one big-name pretender after another fell by the wayside. Forged over more than 230 years of earnest competition, the Derby's roll call eclipses all others, none more so than in recent years when the likes of Galileo, High Chaparral and New Approach, stand-out stallions of the modern era, have graced its podium. No race is immune though, to the odd lapse in depth over a period of more than two centuries, and until Golden Horn etched his name alongside the third fastest performance in history, it seemed we might be staring down the barrel of a gun. Any lingering doubts as to Golden Horn's merits must surely have been obliterated on Saturday when his runner-up, Jack Hobbs, ran riot by five lengths in the Irish Derby (Gr.1), as emphatic an endorsement of his conqueror's talents as the Derby heroes' worshipers could've conjured ahead of his clash with the older brigade in Saturday's Eclipse.
That we happened to be there on that momentous day was one of those unexpected bonuses that elevates racing from the hum-drum of sports like running, Formula One and tennis, and which inspired the writings of Runyon, Kipling and Carlyon. Our purpose though, good Derby or otherwise, was not the race alone, nor was it solely a case of doffing our hats to the most famous sponsorship in our sport. We were there, as much as anything, to pay our respects to the chairmanship at Epsom racecourse of Anthony Cane, whose term at the top marks one of the most prosperous eras in the history of this extraordinary event.
While the name of Cecil John Rhodes has been in South African headlines for all the wrong reasons recently, there's no denying the largesse he left behind in his endowment of the Rhodes scholarships. His partner in the foundation of what became the world's greatest diamond mining empire, De Beers, was Barney Barnato, a 19th century fugitive of the desperate streets of London's East End, who came to South Africa to seek his fortune. Our connection with Epsom's chairman has its roots in the diamond fields of Kimberley, through an overtly kind man whose family fortune was forged in the "big hole" in the 1860s. Just a generation before him, Jim Joel's ancestors were battling street kids in the squalor of the East End. Driven by an "Oliver Twist" hunger to find a better life beyond the shores of England, his father Jack Barnato Joel and Jim's uncle Solly, worked their passage to South Africa to join their uncle, Barney Barnato's diggings at De Beer's farm on the outskirts of the provincial capital. We should not be distracted from the thrust of these notes, but since it's topical right now, its worth recalling that "uncle Solly" owned the 1921 Durban July ace, Longstop, who scooped the prize in South Africa's celebrity horse race as a one-time winning English import. How things have changed.
While Jim Joel directed his wealth to a good many causes, he never forgot his family's debt to South Africa, hence his foundation of the Childwick Trust, aimed at improving the lives of disadvantaged children under the age of 5 in this country. To bring the story full circle, among the Trust's modern day caretakers are Anthony Cane and the venerable John Wood, whose custodial pilgrimage to South Africa led them serendipitously to Hartford House a few years back. It is to the foresight of these two gentlemen that we owe the events of this past week: a fortuitous visit to our School Of Management Excellence persuaded them of the merits of an annual scholarship to the English National Stud for the school's top two students of the year, an inspired deviation from their founding purpose. More on this later.
Meanwhile, I'm sure my regular rant that South Africa is home to some of the planet's most gifted stockmen, has been greeted in some quarters with extravagant scepticism racing has taken me to most of the world's thoroughbred-producing countries, and while I've had the honour to meet some exceptional horsemen, I've yet to encounter a country with as deep a reservoir of skills as we have here. In a world in which the lure of the city has made carcass-carrying at abattoirs a preferred vocation ahead of a job in the "sticks", its no longer so "cool" to groom horses. Except in South Africa, where the natural affinity of our local people for life in the country and working with animals is thousands of years old, and manifests itself every day on the racecourses of the world in the feats of our champions.
As a racing man, Anthony Cane was quick to see the potential, and for the third time in the past four years, the English National Stud's graduation ceremony on Friday served to endorse his wisdom. Ten years ago, an engaging young Zulu abandoned his career as a paramedic to follow his dream in the world of racehorses. In 2012 Thabani Nzimande became the first recipient of the Childwick Trust's scholarship to the English National Stud, where, besides making his limousine-driven "top hat-and-tails" debut at Royal Ascot with his big mate, Matthew de Kock, he emerged as the top practical student of his year. Last July, another lad from the Summerhill ranks, John Motaung likewise demonstrated to the world that if you have any aspirations of "top dog" status in this competitive game, our School Of Management Excellence is not a bad place to start out. There's no manure like a hard-working farmer's footsteps, and he too, walked tall in Thabani's tracks, a salute in his case, to the only nation in Africa with its own breed of horse, the Basotho pony.
While Thabani now heads up a division encompassing some 250 yearlings, John's CV includes both an international scholarship to Becky Thomas' Stateside school of race riding, and an association with the gliterrati Igugu, No Worries, Ice Axe, Fanyana, Fisani and Art Of War. While most horsemen might settle for that on their obituaries, John still has other ideas, best evidenced in the immediate past in the likes of Rabada, Tar Heel and Top Form. Keep reading, there'll be more chapters on these fellows in the months to come.
While Motaung flitted his way to the English National Stud, there was little point in sending a lady who'd already been earmarked for big things in racing administration on another course in equine studies, when she'd already distinguished herself as a competent horsewoman in her own right. Courtesy of Andrew Harding, the man who's galvanized the Asian Racing Conference into the planet's greatest assembly of racing intellectuals, Hazel Kayiya's elevation to the ranks of Gold Circle's senior management hot on the heels of her scholarship to the Hong Kong Jockey Club, is a compliment to what four months at the world's best-run racing operator can do for lofty ambitions.
Which brings us back to Friday's graduation in the fair fields of Suffolk, where for a miraculous third year in four, Ashlee Hammond advertised the virtues of our School Of Management Excellence as the English National Stud's top Academic Student of the Year. Single-minded in her intent to attend our school, Ashlee dragged her parents every year from the time she made a teenager, from Polokwane to our sales complex in Jo'burg; in her determination to convert her academic endeavours into a lifetime profession with horses, she's been rewarded with a seasonal scholarship at Sir Patrick Hogan's second-to-none Cambridge Stud in New Zealand. At this moment, we can raise those hats once more, this time to the teaching acumen of a rare human being, Tabbi Smith, whose been the directress, mother confessor, organiser and inspiration to our students abroad.
All four of these bristling young specimens of the world of thoroughbred verve will be on show on Sunday at our Stallion Day, especially for those who have aspirations of working in the horse business. They;ll be there together with the rest of our student body and former graduates at our Winter Workshop on Monday 6th and Tuesday 7th July as well. If you're wanting to be acquainted, contact Leigh Adams on firstname.lastname@example.org or 033 263-1081.
The National Stud / Meadowview Artistry (p)