South African-bred international Group winner Soft Falling Rain has been secured for stud by Mary Slack’s Wilgerbosdrift Farm. The lightly-raced five-year-old will be returning to South Africa shortly to take up stallion duties. Mike de Kock said on Thursday that Soft Falling Rain will be syndicated and that his original owner, Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum of Dubai, will be retaining a share following a deal brokered by Jehan Malherbe of Form Bloodstock.
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South African Thoroughbred Breeding
Drakenstein Stud announced yesterday that Equus Champion Older Female and Horse Of The Year nominated Beach Beauty will visit European Champion Older Horse and current leading sire by 3rd crop stakes winners Duke Of Marmalade.
This weekend marks the last of the great racing festivals of the current season, but it serves as the farewell to a diminutive conveyance who could literally catch pigeons. Summerhill has been associated with some wonderful fillies over the decades, but even Igugu could not evoke the sentiment Beach Beauty conjured in the hearts of the racing public.
His pedigree spoke of Emperors and Excellence. Now, Brave Tin Soldier is doing exactly what it said on the “tin”.
There’s a reason we chose to pitch our tent in this neighbourhood. Summerhill is more than good real estate. Rolling hills and deep complex soils over sandstone and basalt, hundreds of trees and emerald green pastures speak of a bountiful countryside, generous but not soft. With their stately Prime Ministerial residences, their rich racing heritage and the old chapel basking in the lee of Giant’s Castle, Summerhill and Hartford are national treasures.
Racing South Africa CEO Peter Gibson reports back on the recent Export Strategy Workshop in Johannesburg and his presentation at the 2014 Asian Racing Conference in Hong Kong.
“For the past three years we’ve been ringing the South African alarm bells about the numbers of mares going out of production, reminding our readers that in the three or four major economic downturns we’ve known in our thirty-five years in business here, we’ve been ‘investors’ rather than ‘reducers’.”
Summerhill CEOA headline like this in this part of the world generally harks back to the Anglo-Zulu Wars; this is not about that, nor is it about the rather ignominious defeat the English cricketers succumbed to in their battle with the Netherlands in Bangladesh yesterday, though the measure of that has parallels in what happened in these parts at Isandlwana on the 22nd January, 1879. No, not at all: this is about the haemorrhage in British breeding.
The British Horse Racing Authority has just become aware of something we’ve been banging on about for years now. Their racehorse supply base is “in a critical state because of alarming reductions in the numbers of foals being produced”. The knock-on effect is the impact it will have on the United Kingdom’s racing fixtures, which in turn affects betting turnovers.
The British breeding industry is estimated to be worth £281million per annum (R5.5bilion), which contributes to the support of 86,000 jobs within in racing, most of which are located in rural communities, and is “in desperate need of fresh investment if it is to meet the needs of the existing programme,” according to a recent economic impact study conducted by PriceWaterhouseCoopers LLP.
There is nothing new in any of this for us, as followers of these columns will attest. For the past three years we’ve been ringing the South African alarm bells about the numbers of mares going out of production, reminding our readers that in the three or four major economic downturns we’ve known in our thirty-five years in business here, we’ve been “investors” rather than “reducers”. In each of these instances, we and our clients have been the substantial beneficiaries of having trading stock on hand when the cycle has turned. It’s a fact of economic life that markets tend to be undersupplied in good times, and oversupplied in tough times, more so the world of racing where a large proportion of the productive livestock (mares) are owned by “cheque-book” or “armchair” breeders who generally rely upon discretionary funds to acquire and maintain their breeding interests: when times are good, they get in, and when they’re tough, they bail. It’s little different in the stock markets, where instead of investing in down markets and either holding or selling in “bull” times, “trendy” investors follow the herds.
Breeding is a longer term investment, with relatively long leads and lags, and it invariably favours those who invest against the trend, not unlike our local farming colleagues who’ve prospered by planting soya beans when others are going wholesale into maize, for example, and have capitalized from the resulting shortages in those commodities when they materialize. There is a telescopic impact in horse breeding, because it takes years to turn around, and therefore the benefits endure for much longer.
There are more than a few similarities between ourselves and British breeding, which is becoming increasingly dependent on exports from Ireland and France to fulfil its day-to-day requirements, not that those countries haven’t also witnessed similar reductions in numbers: the whole world has. What sets horse breeding apart from most industries, and even that of conventional crop farming, is the “lead” time. There’s a space of between 36 and 48 months between its conception and a racehorse getting to the races, which means that the discovery of an over-or-under supply situation only becomes apparent to the casual bystander much later. That means that addressing either of these maladies, takes much longer, and therein resides the opportunity.
According to Prof. Martin Schulman, and the fellows from the Equine Research Centre, (responsible for the micro-chipping, identification and DNA’ing of foals) the current yearling crop numbers just over 2000. Even allowing for a few late-comers, measured against historic, foal crops of 5000-odd and more recently, of the order of 3500, South African racing faces a substantial shortfall in the numbers of animals necessary for the sustainability of viable betting fields.
As an industry, we face a massive challenge in rebuilding our inventories, as breeding stocks take years to turn around, and short of supplementing the ranks with large numbers of imports (financially unlikely given the Rands weakness), it’s a matter of finding ways of encouraging, and (possibly incentivising) breeders to considerably supplement their herds.
In all of this, we see opportunity rather than foreboding, and we’ve been encouraged by the fresh investors who’ve come forward recently and taken advantage of the soft market in broodmares. How long it will last is anybody’s guess, but we’d think the time-frame will be shorter than you’d expect. The market has been down for several years now, and as soon as we see the benefits of undersupply for producers in sharply rising prices, you can bet on it, the buyers will be back; even then, it’ll be five or six years before we even reach an equilibrium.
South Africa has its own unique problem however, and that rests in the fact that on a growing basis we’re seeing smaller breeders marginalised by the build-up in the scale and stock of establishments belonging to the mega-rich. While most of these latter farms will one day hope to make a profit, that is not necessarily the imperative. The South African breeding landscape is increasingly populated by the “who’s who” of the business world, many of whom make the Sunday Times “rich list” most years, and these farms are more in the nature of trophies than business enterprises. It was thus all the way back to the days of Sir Henry Nourse, Sir Abe Bailey, Sir Richard Southey, Sir Alfred Beit and Cecil John Rhodes who first began breeding in earnest in the Karoo in the mid 1800s, and thereafter the Oppenheimers, the Ellises, the Hurwitzes, Labistours, Tathams and Barnetts. The difference was they bred to race, not to sell, whereas every large breeder in South Africa today (with the notable exception of Sabine Plattner) produces horses for the sales ring. Wealth means that the new generation of big money breeders are able to patronise the “sexiest” and most expensive stallions, and hence they’ve taken up the commercial space traditionally occupied by “farmer” breeders, who often enough, simply can’t afford to compete.
Apart from those armchair breeders who can afford to keep their mares under the umbrellas of high profile commercial farms, and are able to dispose of their stock that way, there is scant protection for the little guys. Whichever way you look at it, the parable tells us this: if you like racehorses, get in now. Otherwise, acquire the means of making them.
Silvano / Maine Chance Farm (p)
“HOW GOOD IS SILVANO?”
Summerhill CEO Besides its natural wonders, the unspoilt beauty of which, in my book, is unsurpassed anywhere, there’s one thing I really enjoy about being at the Wild Coast. When you get up in the morning, you at least have a choice. Routinely at home, Cheryl and I leave our driveway as the clock strikes 6.25am, for the start of our daily management meetings, summer and winter. The next twelve hours are taken up in dealing with the opportunities and the challenges of the day, and given where we live and the folks we get to work with, we wouldn’t change it for the world.
The Wild Coast, on the other hand, is so remote, so untamed and so splendidly out-of-reach, not even the office can get hold of you. Unless of course, you’re willing to make the hour-and-a-half round trip to pick up a Vodacom signal on your cellphone, and risk the prospect that Amorette might detain you with a whole lot of diary items and the irresistible urge of one of the senior team to engage you on a topic that could well await your return. Whatever happened to the “succession plan”, I ask?!
So Kipling’s “unforgiving minute”, in Wild Coast terms at least, is not quite as unmerciful here as it is in the real world. There’s time in this paradise to hike, to surf, to fish, to read and at last, to think. Most mornings I head out in my running shoes in the direction of a magnificent headland which the maps call Goss’ Point, named thus ever since my grandfather, Pat, acquired the land in the early 1900s from a former Free Citizen of Durban, Sydney Turner. Between our fishing shack and the Mkweni River mouth, any number of the 200-odd floral species that are endemic to the Wild Coast, occur on this stretch of heaven, and as the space is virtually free of human intervention, it’s not difficult to get lost in your thoughts.
“How good is Silvano?” was the issue that occupied a good deal of this morning’s outing, and while to answer that question not only calls for an assessment of the reigning Champion sire in the context of his contemporaries, it inevitably leads to a comparison with the giants of recent history as well.
At this distance, I have no connection with the internet, and Karel Miedema is further away than ever, in Cape Town. Readers will understand then, that everything I have to say here, is more anecdotal than it is statistical, more sentimental perhaps, than factual.
Let me be upfront too, about age. I was born at the back end of 1950, yet one of the first things I remember about racing, sitting on a potty with my Duff’s Turf Guide as a budding three-year-old member of my Classic generation, was the name “Milesia Pride”. Not only for the fact that the 1949 hero of the Durban July had repeated the feat in 1950, but that in his second year, he’d defeated my father’s resident stallions Good Health and Matronic by the narrowest of margins. The real thing about Milesia Pride though, which forgive me, only dawned on me when I first joined the Sub “A” class at Lusikisiki Primary, was that he was the third winner of South Africa’s greatest horserace by the “failed” English sire, Montrose, the others, if memory serves here, being Monteith and Monasteravan. While it was perhaps not so surprising that the English were willing to part with Montrose, given his somewhat “spotty” record at home, it’s a strange quirk of nature that, after siring an unprecedented trio of July victors while still at stud in Britain, he was unable to produce anything of any particular moment after his importation to South Africa.
Montrose’s record in the “July” is matched only by one other stallion of otherwise modest achievement, Jamaico (by Prince Taj) who likewise got three winners, Jamaican Music, Gondolier and Jamaican Rumba, in what was probably a slightly more competitive era. Among the top South African stallions of the late 40s, early 50s were the two imported Cape Metropolitan aces Asbestos II (the Birch Bros’ Champion sire by Teddy’s celebrated son Asterus, bred by the greatest French breeder of the time, Marcel Boussac, who founded the Christian Dior organisation), and Sadri II, who stood at the Labistour’s Dagbreek Stud in Nottingham Road and produced both Gay Jane (1951) and C’est Si Bon (1954) to win the July, bracketing Hartford’s Mowgli (1952) in a celebratory triumph for Natal breeding.
The post war period witnessed a significant shift in the investment strategies of local breeders, most of whom were traditional farmers. Remembering that the early years in South African breeding were dominated by the Karoo farms of the “Randlords“ Sir Abe Bailey, Sir Richard Southey, Sir Alfred Beit, Cecil John Rhodes and the most successful of them all, Henry Nourse, the late 1950s and early 1960s were characterised by a time of comparative prosperity in the agricultural sector, and farmers had greater discretionary incomes to devote to the improvement of their bloodstock resources. Instead of acquiring the failed half brother to the English Classic winner or the relatively modest 4-time winning handicapper, the nation’s breeders were going for broke; if it wasn’t the Classic hero himself, it was his runner-up. Thus came Persian Gulf’s son Abadan II (2nd Irish 2000 Guineas) and Sybil’s Nephew (by Midas, 2nd English Derby) to these shores, accompanied by Mystery IX (Eclipse Stakes Gr.1); High Veldt (by Hyperion, 2nd to the “legend” Ribot in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II Stakes); the top English sprinter Drum Beat (Timeform 131); the well-performed Fairthorn (Timeform 120 and like Drum Beat, a son of Fair Trial); Royal Ascot’s Coventry Stakes star, Noble Chieftain (by Nearco) and the Champion British Two-Year-Old, Masham, who stood with Sybil’s Nephew at Hartford (now part of greater Summerhill).
This was a “golden” era in South African thoroughbred production, one which ushered in the all-conquering Eclipse award winning exploits in the United States of Hawaii and ColaradoKing, ironically both sons of the discredited stallions, Utrillo II and Grand Rapids respectively.
Speaking of irony, there’s an amusing story around the career of High Veldt. Raced by The Queen of England, the nuggety son of the Emperor of British stallions of the time, Hyperion, had run the unbeaten Tesio masterpiece, Ribot, to a gallant, albeit six-length second in the “King George”, and it was Her Majesty’s wish that High Veldt should grace the stud books of her colonies. Offered initially to Australia and New Zealand (and probably rejected for the same reasons as the British didn’t want him: “too small”), he eventually found a sympathetic soul in the charismatic “king” of Little Karoo breeders, Paulie de Wet, for the princely sum of £10,000. Little recalling that his own illustrious father, Hyperion, was himself no bigger than 15 hands, Mr de Wet rejected the horse the moment he set eyes on him at the docks on his arrival with the now-famous statement “Ek teel nie met ‘ponies’ nie!” (I don’t breed with ‘ponies’!). And so the son of the celebrated broodmare Open Country, a one-time resident of Lord Carnavon’s Highclere Castle (aka Downtown Abbey), became the fourth consecutive champion stallion to grace the fabled paddocks of Vogelvlei, the Birch Bros’ fortress of South African breeding, and the second son of Hyperion (after Deimos) to reach the Holy Grail.
I also recall Fairthorn with special fondness, for having sired the 1960 July winner Left Wing under the No. 13 saddlecloth. That same weekend, the Springbok Hennie Van Zyl, put the final nail in the All Blacks coffin at Ellis Park, with a wonderful solo try on the “left wing” in the “number 13” jersey. I was nine at the time.
The next stallion era was dominated by a pair of tough English handicappers, Persian Wonder (by Persian Gulf) and Royal Prerogative (by the “Derby” winner, Relko) as well as the South African Champion racehorse, Elevation (by High Veldt), another product of the Birch empire in Doodrecht. While it’s no reflection on Elevation, who as a racehorse excelled in the company of the standouts, Yataghan, Ocean City, Archangel and Sword Dancer, the “imports”, as good as they turned out to be, were not in the same league in their performances or the “fashion” of their bloodlines as those of their immediate predecessors. One thing Persian Wonder and Royal Prerogative did in earning their 118 and 117 Timeform ratings though, was establish a bottom line benchmark for sire success in this country. The former was another inspired selection on the part of Sir Mordaunt Milner, whose ramblings on bloodstock breeding have been the subject of amusement (and some common sense, no doubt), in these columns over the years, whilst both stallions reminded us of the wisdom of looking at the horse and what he represents in his own virtues, rather than relying on the irresistibility of fashion.
Nowhere else but in South Africa did Relko produce a stallion son of any repute beyond Royal Prerogative, and in Persian Wonder and Abadan II, we had the only two noteworthy sires by Persian Gulf anywhere on the planet. Truth is, nobody else wanted them, and these horses were selected entirely for their merit as racehorses and the elements in their bloodlines that only a genius of Sir Mordaunt’s class or the instincts of horse people of the ilk of Allan Robertson and Pat O’Neill, could conjure.
Persian Wonder was no easy “pick”. Firstly, by the time of his importation, Persian Gulf had proven beyond doubt, that he was an unlikely “sire-getter”. Secondly, despite being a horse of striking quality, he was a man of two parts. He had the most beautiful, chiselled head and eye, set on the most elegant neck and shoulders. A long way behind, he trailed a rather angular hindquarter on a straight hind leg. His stock were quite typical of their father, with a commendable never-say-die spirit; they earned him 5 championships and for the first time in some five decades, saw the Birch Bros surrender the mantle of the Breeders’ premiership to the emergent Highlands Farm.
By contrast, Royal Prerogative was the “flawless gem”. As a specimen, he was the embodiment of the point the thoroughbred had reached after more than 300 years of meticulous selection, and he got Group One performers from 1200 to 2400m. The only thing, I suspect, that prevented him from securing the number of titles that fell the way of Persian Wonder, was the “heated” temperament of so many of his progeny, and the perception that some tended to be on the “soft” side. Both his and the daughters of a subsequent sire of note, Jungle Cove, were to prove wonderful foils in the rise to stardom of our own champion progenitor, Northern Guest.
Enter the American epoch at this stage, and in particular, the influence of the multiple champion stallion of that part of the world, Bold Ruler. Straddling the sire’s titles of Persian Wonder and Royal Prerogative, were a pair of sons of Bold Ruler, who apart from the great Politician’s father Oligarchy, were the first “Americans” to make an impression on the South African Stud Book. Plum Bold, the last of the Birch’s champions, took a solitary premiership before his all-too-hasty repatriation to his homeland, while Jungle Cove made up for it in amassing six titles in quick time. Not that anyone would have been in any sort of hurry to take him “home”. He and the spectacularly successful New Zealand stallion, Sir Tristram, as well as our own Liloy, were the best adverts for the notion that “ornery” looks are no bar to sire success. Down, flat, on his unusually extended pasterns, puffy-jointed, plain-headed with splayed “Charlie Chaplin” front legs, Jungle Cove was a stallion phenomenon. It has to be said though, that while 6 championships is one helluva feat no matter who you’re up against, he did it at a time when local breeders had deserted the ideals that had brought South Africa such acclaim when the underlying standard was top class racing performance. There are no “walking races”, remember.
I recall the time when I was acting as the lawyer for the Birch Bros in negotiating the sale of Wolf Power to the United States. Bob Birch, always the font of memorable wisdom on the breeding game, disclosed to me that their criteria in selecting their stallions, was to choose the son of a “recognisable” sire, with a top class race record, while “giving” a little on the female side. The Birch Bros led the Breeders championship for a never-to-be-repeated sixty odd years; there’s no need to say much more.
The next period of significance involved our own legend, Northern Guest (by the daddy of them all, Northern Dancer), Foveros (son of Averof, who failed in England, was banished by the Australians and was no better than average in South Africa), Northfields (an internationally proven son of Northern Dancer), SecretProspector (the first of the successful Mr Prospectors here) and Rakeen (yet another “Northern Dancer”). One aspect of this line-up emphasises one thing: regional success in breeding is substantially dependant on the locality of the top stallions. Northfields aside (who surprisingly, was something of an “also-ran” in this company), this was an age of “Natal” dominance, with the local foursome, Northern Guest, Foveros, Secret Prospector and Rakeen, heading the sires logs for the best part of a decade.
Jehan Malherbe, as clued-up as they come and a member of that bastion of equine research, the Form Organisation, tells me that of all the stallions of the modern period, the one that stands out statistically, is Foveros, measured even by the lofty standards of Fort Wood, Western Winter and Jet Master.
It’s a tribute then, to Northern Guest, who poached a couple of championships off him, and whose real legacy lies in a modern world record of ten Broodmare Sire’s titles. What a privilege to have stood simultaneously two stallions of his and Liloy’s stature, who between them, produced an enviable 37 Group One winners, in the latter’s case, on four different continents. Bang on the back of the Foveros/Northern Guest dynasties, came a stallion I recall with great affection. Al Mufti, the massively appealing son of Roberto, brought his own glory to a part of the world which is close to my heart, the Eastern Cape, as well as to the storied Parker family, whose exploits on the “beach” in Port Elizabeth, remind us all that horsemanship, not money, trumps everything in this game.
Al Mufti was the exception in a decade marked by the overwhelming performance of the “Beck” stallions, Badger Land (by Codex), National Assembly (Danzig) and Jallad (Blushing Groom). While Badger Land was a competent Grade One racehorse (with rather unsightly hocks), Jallad was the enigma that gives the poorest among us hope, even if he was always the property of some of the world’s richest men. Bred and raced by Dubai’s deputy ruler, Sheikh Hamdan, from Laurie Jaffee’s champion racemare, Patrava, Jallad was in the Jungle Cove and Sir Tristram “league” when it came to his lack of physical appeal.
As a one-time winner more resembling an Angus bull than a blue-blooded racehorse, he fetched an unsurprising £6,000 when he was offered at the Tattersalls Horses In Training Sale. Again, as so often happens in the racing world, the hand of fate intervened; the Patrava story had come full circle, with Laurie Jaffee, the successful, but somewhat reluctant bidder. Unsure of the wisdom of his purchase, the former chairman of the industrial giant Premier Milling, sought the refuge of our biggest coalminer, as his partner. And the rest, as they say, is history. If ever you were looking for the “Midas touch” in a stallion venture, Graham Beck had to be your man. While he might not have been able to differentiate between the head and the tail of a horse, he had a nose for a stallion (or a “deal”, to be more precise), like no other man I’ve known. In a relatively short time, Beck assembled at his Maine Chance and Highland Farms all of Elevation, Harry Hotspur, Golden Thatch, Jungle Cove, Badger Land, Jallad and National Assembly, every one of them, at one time or another, a champion sire in one division or another. That’s a record that rivals the best of America’s “Bull” Hancock, England’s Lord Derby, Ireland’s John Magnier, Japan’s Yoshida family, or Australia’s John Messara, and explains the one-time hegemony of Maine Chance and Highlands in the annals of our Breeder’s Championships. Personally, I doubt that this stallion era would have matched strides with the current one though, admirable as these horses were.
Which brings us back to the opening question, just how good is Silvano? Having recently set a new all-time earnings record, the answer must surely be, “bloody” good, but to put it into context, he’s done it against what is arguably the “hottest” competition this country has known. We were all mesmerised when Sadler’s Wells’ Group One son, Fort Wood, first announced his arrival with the likes of Horse Chestnut and Fort Defiance; then the American Grade One performer, Western Winter stepped boldly into Fort Wood’s ample shoes, before the 8x’s Grade 1 hero Jet Master, came to eclipse them all. Yes, these fellows may be getting on (passed on, in some cases), but they are still well-represented at the races, yet Silvano has outshone them all.
It has to be said that Silvano was no “obvious” stallion either. He comes from a sireline that “reaked” of stamina, that survived in Europe only through the patronage of diehards who didn’t have to rely on the imperatives of commerce for a living, and he was given his chances by a family whose love of racing he’d served so admirably. Were it not for the sheer coincidence of life that had led to the acquisition of Maine Chance Farm, by the German breeder, Dr. Andreas Jacobs shortly before, Silvano, the son of Lomitas, would’ve been a damn good sire in Germany and, I suspect, a damn good sire only in Germany. Such are the slender threads in thoroughbred breeding, which make our stories possible, that this globe-trotting racehorse should’ve come to the Little Karoo, at a time when the South African champion Dynasty (by Fort Wood) first came to Highlands, and when the Prix de’l Abbaye (Gr.1) ace, Var, made his grand entrance at Avontuur in Somerset West.
To be a champion sire when Fort Wood, Western Winter and Jet Master are still prominent, when Dynasty, Var, Kahal and Captain Al all have their guns blazing, and to have broken all earnings records in the process, tells us just how good Silvano really is.
Betty and Colin Hayes
(Photo : Adelaide Now)
“Bred by a legend, consigned by a legend,
bought by a legend, to be trained by a legend.”
Summerhill CEOThe turf’s literature is loaded with stories of famous stallions and their sweet ways. Hyperion liked to stop and look at birds. In his latter years, Nijinsky was struck with lymphangitis: his hind legs were swollen so that you could see the pink skin showing through the white hairs above his hooves, yet the light still burned brightly in his eyes; he refused to play the invalid. Northern Guest was a cripple, yet he commanded the attention of our management team on the stud office verandah whenever he passed in the mornings. “Legend” is an overplayed word in the sporting world today, but here was the real thing.
Sir Tristram didn’t belong to this band: he didn’t look the part. He looked like a 100 other horses you’d see and most of them were geldings. He didn’t act the part either, his only friend was an old cat. He was not the stuff of warm inner glow. When I saw him, his hooves had long ago given up, and his feet were being held together with Equilox. Sir Tristram was great not for what he was, but for what he could do. I knew that as soon as I left Cambridge, slightly bewildered, after my first visit in the late afternoon sun. Before long though, I remembered that most colts and fillies by Sir Tristram could outrun the car I was driving.
In 1988, Summerhill was an altogether different place. I was desperately trying to scramble a bit of cash together to buy my brother Pat, out of the operation; we hadn’t yet acquired Hartford, and the Maktoums were not yet aboard. The Berlin Wall divided Germany, the protestors hadn’t yet entered Tiananmen Square and the Ayatollah Khomeni was still alive. Nelson Mandela, remember, was still in jail. Ours was a very different world to the rest of the world, and we weren’t sure at first what the outcome would be. I guess, in retrospect, you’d say it was a helluva time in South Africa, and the only certainty was uncertainty. The one thing we had on our side though, was the energy of youth and an appetite for risk. In all fairness, it’s true we had little to lose. And we occasionally bet the farm.
Across the way in New Zealand, a tremor ran through the crowd at the Karaka Yearling sales when Zabeel, then simply Lot 280, the bay colt by Sir Tristram out of Lady Giselle, walked into the ring. The fabled Robert Sangster had bred him, but now the colt carried the brand of our good friends in Oz, the Arrowfield Group, and he was the talk of the sale for days. The tremor had little to do with his breeding; in a select sale like Karaka’s, most pedigrees have something going for them. It had everything to do with word-of-mouth. A grapevine develops at any yearling sale anywhere in the world. Only a handful of horses are pronounced perfect in the chassis as well as the pedigree page. These horses invariably top the sale.
You could tap into the grapevine at the bars in the region of the Sheraton Hotel in Auckland, which roared every night with the optimism of the rest of the world of the 80s. Trainers, businessmen, veterinarians, ex-jockeys, promoters of tax-avoidance schemes and bloodstock agents, were drinking it up, telling beguiling lies, arranging lines of credit and talking about the horses they’d inspected. Some of them, as you can imagine, knew not what they said. Next day, as is always the custom, most would go to the sale, take off their heads, replace them with pumpkins, and buy the wrong horses. Everyone liked Zabeel, particularly the vets. He made $650,000 to the bid of an old mate, Angus Gold, racing manager for Sheikh Hamdan of Dubai, buying him for another legend, Colin Hayes, who trained from his spectacular property, Lindsay Park, in South Australia. Bred by a legend, consigned by a legend, bought by a legend, to be trained by a legend, the blue-blooded colt seemed pre-destined.
Robert Sangster had sold Zabeel’s mother, Lady Giselle, to John Messara’s Arrowfield group in 1986. Messara, the dark-eyed enthusiast whose family had fled Nasser’s Egypt in the 1960s, is remembered for the importation of the great Danehill to Australia. He tells me he was pleased with the price for Zabeel, though as matters turned out, it was only for the time being. A few years later, Messara would lose control of Danehill after a dispute with Coolmore of Ireland. The $14million Danehill realised in the Dutch auction which followed, was scant compensation for a stud in its infancy.
Danehill would go on to reshape the course of Australasian breeding, and his blood courses through the veins of almost half the thoroughbred population of that part of the world these days. “That experience shattered me. It took me two years to get over it. I got very low”, confided Messara. He couldn’t have known it at the time, but Messara had just lost another sire phenomenon by selling Zabeel as a yearling. He must be just about the only man in the 300 year history of thoroughbred racing to have had his hands on two $50 million stallions, and lost them both. But Messara is no ordinary man, and no sooner than his bottom was on Ground Zero than he bounced back with Danzero, the “Slipper” winner who would become champion Juvenile Sire, Flying Spur who would dominate both the all-comers as well as the juvenile sires lists. Better still, Messara would claim the keys to Redoute’s Choice, who’s had his reign as the undisputed king of Australian breeding. And Messara still had Zabeel’s mother, Lady Giselle, who was handled by the Arrowfield staff like some ancient jug unearthed from the valley of the Nile. She lived on oxygen during her last pregnancy.
Colin Hayes and his son David trained Zabeel to win the Australian Guineas and three other good races. He was a sweet mover, described by Hayes as “poetry in motion”, all style and rhythm. And he was tough, he’d slug out a finish, yet he was never “box office”. He lived in the era of Better Loosen Up, Vo Rogue and Super Impose, and he didn’t enjoy their billing. A jarred leg led to his retirement, and the Sheikh put him up for private sale as a stallion amid the recession. Patrick Hogan had kept a beady eye on Zabeel’s career, with rising interest. He knew plenty about the horse anyway, and he knew that Zabeel should’ve been born in 1985, not 1986. Sangster sent Lady Giselle to Cambridge to be mated with Sir Tristram in 1984. She was a well-bred French mare by Northern Dancer’s son Nureyev. That’s what the piece of paper said. The physical reality was less grand. Lady Giselle was a twin, tiny, light-boned, faulty in the knees; a high-bred waif. When I first saw her at Arrowfield, I’d have to agree; I walked right past her, without noticing.
Hogan had decided to wait until Sir Tristram was 20 before standing one of his sons as a competitor. “Only then did I decide to give it a go. It would’ve been an insult not to have stood one of his sons, but I was leaving my run late. When the time comes, I might not be able to find the right one”. In Zabeel, Hogan liked what he saw, but he was reassured by insiders that when the time came for his retirement, he was bound to land up at Hayes’ Lindsay Park. When he won the Guineas at Flemington, Hogan just kept hanging in, he’d been earmarked by now, and he was the one. But there was a problem: Hogan didn’t want to offend Hayes. “I liked to model myself on him. We’re good friends”. We know the feeling: it was the same with National Emblem and Wilfred Koster.
In March 1991, Hogan was at the Gold Coast for a mare sale. Angus Gold was out from London and expressed his surprise that Hogan had shown little interest in Zabeel. “The boss is taking offers for him, so if you want a ticket in the sweep, we’ll be closing in the next couple of days”. Hogan submitted a formal offer of $750,000 through an agent. Next day, Gold confirmed the boss had accepted it. That was the easy part.
Hogan now had to speak with Hayes and express his embarrassment. Hayes shook his hand and said “He’s your horse”. He’d wanted Zabeel alright, and made an offer of $700,000. “They allowed me the opportunity of meeting Pat’s offer”, but Hayes was buying out his fellow investors at Lindsay Park at the time, and he didn’t feel he should go out on a limb. Hogan took Zabeel home and syndicated him into 42 shares of $23,000 each. He and his wife, Justine, kept 21. The Sir Tristram saga was in re-run mode, but without the dramas. The difference was, the son was a gentleman, the father was a man-eater. As I’ve mentioned, the only creature he tolerated was a black cat. Staff handling him wore padded hats, and crossed themselves a lot.
Those things apart, the parallels between father and son were uncanny. At his height, Sir Tristram came to be valued at $50 million, and Zabeel must have hit that plus in a more prosperous era. In common, they both commanded the earth in stud fees.
Beyond Sir Tristram’s vices, there was another difference in their produce. Sir Tristram gave his stock a prominent eye: otherwise they came in all shapes and colours. Zabeel’s foals looked alike, probably because of the influence of Lady Giselle’s father, Nureyev. All are bays, most have good heads, bright eyes, lots of rein, and long bodies. They don’t carry much flesh, run up light in the flanks and hum with nervous energy. They don’t fill out until they’re four, and they’re tough.
As you may have expected, Zabeel’s first crop sold well. Though he was immature, the black colt that would be named Octagonal, sold for $210,000. Soon however, trainers complained that the fillies were fizzy and the colts were difficult. Hogan says that when the second crop reached the ring, the word out there wasn’t that good. He says he didn’t worry, but you might remember me mentioning his dejection at the market for stallion prospects at the time. I had the feeling that Zabeel’s slow start at stud might have had something to do with it. Hogan expected Zabeel’s stock would do best at four, whatever else they might be. Later, he recalled the Melbourne Cup winners Might And Power and Jezabeel as yearlings. The former was a “wee little thing who paddled a leg: Jezabeel was light of flesh and ordinary”. Zabeel had the mark of a great stallion, he threw horses better than himself. So you ask the obvious. Is Zabeel better than Sir Tristram? “Don’t know” said Sir Patrick, “let history be the judge”.
Hogan’s history is like ours. Our forebears came to Africa in 1820 from Ireland: the first of the settlers, with whom I share my first name, Michael Goss, was a labourer who came here as a member of Captain Butler’s party on the good ship, Fanny. While Hogan’s family migrated later, they came from the same part of Ireland, and his father arrived in the land of the “silver cloud” as an 18 year old. He travelled the North island with two Clydesdale stallions, peddling their services before starting a dairy farm in the vicinity of the present Cambridge Stud. Hogan was one of 7 children, from a good Catholic family. “My father had a reputation as a good judge of stock. He raced the odd horse with the local priest”, says Patrick, who left school at 15 to milk cows and feed pigs. “I wasn’t academically inclined, except at arithmetic”. His blue eyes twinkle. “If you’re good at numbers, you’ve got a bit of cunning in you. That way you can think quickly and you have a bit of a chance”. His father’s acquisition of a share in the stallion, Blueskin, was what fired Patrick’s imagination. “My life has always been around animals and farming, and I just like tending and looking after them. Horses and dogs are a man’s best friends”.
He is competitive by nature and admits it. “I want to breed Group One winners, I want to top the yearling sales, I want to beat my competitors”. He’s done all three rather well. He’s sold the highest priced yearling for more than two decades at the New Zealand Yearling sales, and he’s matched that with the highest sales aggregate for as many years. He refused long ago to believe the thoroughbred game was about compulsive “loss-making”. When he bought Sir Tristram in 1976, he owed money on his farm, a lot of it, and it was only a quarter of its present size. He also owed for Sir Tristram. Several decades on, he and Justine might be worth ten figures, but the farmer is never too far away. Many will tell you he’s the best horse salesman the world has known.
Hogan has created a kingdom on 250 hectares of country so rich, it carries five cows to the hectare. It’s not unlike Summerhill: you could be in Tipperary. The black-railed paddocks are bordered with clipped hedges of hawthorn and barberry, and each has a willow and an eight-bar white gate. You approach the main stable block under the dappled light of century old oaks, encrusted with moss and teaming with cicadas.
The centrepiece of the place is Sir Tristram’s headstone, carved from marble Hogan imported from Italy and set in the garden. Pale green butterflies flutter over beds of petunias, violets, roses and begonias. Nearby is a collection of memorabilia. There’s Sir Tristram’s webbing head collar, frayed and encrusted with mud. Here are his mud-splattered shoes, worn and silvery, and there are his two bits, thin and severe. Sir Tristram needed both in his mouth; no-one could control him with one. You can see Hogan enjoys showing you these things: and then he walks back to the grave, because he likes being there even more. One day, that hole could be home to a second knight of the realm.
He has Zabeel these days, but he can’t forget Sir Tristram.