(The following article was written by Keeneland’s Tom Thornbury and will be published in the December issue of Parade magazine in South Africa and has appeared on Paulick Report as well. Tom, one of Kentucky’s and Keeneland’s best ambassadors for horsemanship and good will, was kind enough to allow me to publish it here for US and international readers of this blog. Tom’s trip to South Africa to inspect yearlings follows a similar successful trip to Argentina this year.)
By Tom Thornbury
Recently, I was invited by the Thoroughbred Breeders Association / BloodStock South Africa to assist in the selection of yearlings proposed for the inaugural Cape Premier Sale to be held in Cape Town, South Africa, January 27-28, 2011. My trek began in Johannesburg and for two weeks I rode with the TBA inspection team for nearly 4,000 kilometers throughout the Karoo, the Western Cape, and the Eastern Cape. We looked at nearly 400 yearlings, targeting about 280 for the sale. I was astounded by the vast diversity of topography, the sometimes harsh conditions faced by breeders, and the extraordinary beauty of South Africa. There is something here for every taste; incredible horse farms, traditional racing, world-class wineries, and limitless outdoor adventures.
Due to a dry climate, hard ground, and abundant minerals in the soils and water, the South African horse has extremely durable bone, hardy feet, and solid structure. The horse husbandry is unmatched. The art and science of feeds and feeding is vital to growing a healthy horse, as grass can be sparse. Here, they take their horsemanship very seriously, because the profit margin can be razor-thin for the breeders.
At every turn, the horsemanship was exemplary, large farm or small. I was impressed by the feeding program and personal oversight by Carl de Vos at Varsfontein Stud. At John Koster’s Klawervlei Stud, the breeding shed was run as efficiently as a McDonald’s restaurant in the States. Bennie Marais at Klipdrif patiently figured out stall management for his remarkable charge, Jet Master, allowing the horse to relax and handle his breeding regimen with aplomb. John Slade at Main Chance and Mike Sharkey at Highlands oversee vast numbers of stock and personnel with military precision. Graeme Koster has chosen to raise particularly hardy stock at Rosedene, located at the top of a mountain in sometimes harsh conditions. Dr. Ashley Parker of Ascot Stud looks after a growing, very productive family farm, while serving a host of local clients as a practicing veterinarian. These are but a few examples of the quality horsemanship and facilities on offer in South Africa.
These South African horse people are determined and as rugged as the country that they farm, personified by golf great and successful breeder Gary Player, who was fiercely competitive at golf. He maintains a fitness regimen today that would exhaust a twenty year-old, and his passion and competitive nature have translated to breeding and racing in South Africa, which he doggedly promotes on his worldly travels.
To test the breeders’ resolve, they have watched as revered old racecourses have recently closed and the land sold to developers—a growing trend of contraction felt all over the world. More striking was the plight of breeders like James Armitage of Sandown Stud and the Doggrells, Carole and Martyn of Netherfield Stud, who each had extensive investments in farms and horses in neighboring Zimbabwe. The Mugabe regime came in, took their farms, and these folks were forced to start again from scratch in South Africa. This speaks volumes of the fierce determination and passion shared by South African breeders.
It is interesting to note the extraordinary number of women involved in South African breeding; strong women like Mary Slack of Wilgerbosdrift, Gaynor Rupert of Drakenstein, Veronica Foulkes of Normandy Stud, Rose Parker of Ascot Stud, Dr. Marianne Thomson of Ambiance Stud, Nina Robertson of Milkwood Stud, Pippa Mickleburg of Avontuur, Sally Jordan of Lammerskraal, Nicky Bartlett of Danika Stud, and Kentuckian Rachel Herrington of Gary Player Stud, who is overseeing a mare recently sent from Kentucky to the farm to be bred to Mauritzfontein’s Fort Wood on Northern Hemisphere time. These are women who, as John Kramer would say, “don’t stand back from any man.” It is also interesting to note that despite the flood of young, foreign stallions to the South African market, two of the leading sires, and most productive on all scores, are “home boys” Jet Master and Captain Al.
While at Main Chance, we enjoyed dinner and a long conversation with owner Andreas Jacobs, his wife, Natalie, and their three lovely children. Not only has Andreas made a substantial investment in the farm and the stock to fill it, he has dedicated his pride and joy, homebred Silvano, for stud duty exclusively in South Africa. This is the sire of recent Durban July Stakes (G1) winner Bold Silvano, who has since been named Equus Middle-Distance Champion. Jacobs is quietly determined to improve the lot of South African owners and breeders. He has committed his sports television broadcasting company to provide more mainstream television coverage for the sport of racing in South Africa, and with such passion and dedication to South Africa, Andreas Jacobs is taking up the mantle left behind by the racing greats that have gone before.
If I were to suggest a game-plan for a foreign investor interested in South African racing, it would be this: First, consider the remarkable value available in South African yearlings as compared to other international markets, along with a favorable currency exchange rate.
Next, consider the extraordinary low cost of training in South Africa as compared to racing in other countries.
Next, consider purchasing a yearling or two of serious, selected quality and maintaining them in South African racing. Should they excel, one may wish to introduce them to international racing, where South African horses have undeniably proven themselves competitive on the world stage, including in the US with several horses brought here recently by Team Valor.
Finally, considering all the money saved, along with the fact that you now have reason to travel to South Africa from time to time, you can incorporate an adventurous holiday in this exciting country, along with some stellar racing. From the beaches, magnificent coastlines, farms and renowned wineries of the Cape to the endless wilds of the Karoo, South Africa is filled with countless ways to make your visit unforgettable.
I would like to thank the breeders who so warmly welcomed me to their farms and homes. I was duly impressed by the beauty of the farms, but more by the quality of their yearlings. I would also like to thank the officers and directors of the Thoroughbred Breeders Association, and especially Caroline Simpson, who rides herd on everyone and considers the breeders “her people.” Thanks also to Adrian Todd, who suggested that I be enlisted to inspection duty for the Cape Premier Sale, and to Allen Roux, whose genuine interest in the future (and history) of South African racing made for endless, lively conversation. Finally, my sincere thanks to John Kramer for graciously allowing me to tag along. This is a true racing man, for whom everyone he meets has endearing love and admiration. He is steeped in knowledge of racing and breeding through a long lifetime of international involvement. Most enjoyable was the extensive knowledge shared of his country; the topography, the various regions, and the history. I will treasure the time spent with this remarkable gentleman.
If we have done a proper job in selecting for the inaugural Cape Premier Sale, buyers should find a lovely group of yearlings that would fit in any trainer’s stable – anywhere in the world. I wish the Thoroughbred Breeders Association / BloodStock South Africa and all the breeders the utmost success in this venture. It is fitting that these people have chosen to strike off into the unknown. That spirit is basic to the adventurous and tenacious nature that makes them South African, after all. I will long remember this extraordinary adventure. I now have a deeper appreciation for the sturdy South African racehorse and the equally hardy breeders who raise them. I have returned home with a copy of Jock of the Bushveld to keep the memories fresh, should the wonder ever begin to wane.