IN researching this article one word kept crossing my mind: Opportunity! There are those who argue that the right opportunity comes only once. Others will say that there are windows of opportunity which may present themselves more than once in a lifetime.
Importantly however, as leading inspirational coach Tom Peters once wrote, “If a window of opportunity appears, don't pull down the shade!”
By the time you get to read this, I am sure that plenty of daylight will be shining through the window of the South African thoroughbred bloodstock industry. Vibrant in its promise and the bountiful talents of its horsemen, here’s an industry that is truly ‘bubbling under’, much like a new smash hit about to enter the Top 10 on the song charts.
If I was a disk jockey, I’d be raving about its prospects and predicting a surge from relative obscurity to the coveted first spot. If I was an avid collector, I’d be buying all the band’s CD’s before they become prized collector’s items!
While the thoroughbred trade is patently more complicated in its essence, the principle of supply and demand is the same. With tremendous groundwork behind them and ongoing investments in first-class stallions and broodmares, South African breeders are now producing horses good enough to hold their own anywhere in the world.
Central to its exceptional product is this: SA bloodstock is cheap! Strangely, however - but for a few shrewd investors - mainstream thoroughbred buyers haven’t yet explored this vein of quality horseflesh.
Allow me now to support my lyrical waxing with some background and evidence.
Way back when, in 1907, a South African-bred sprinter named Camp Fire II won Royal Ascot’s King’s Stand Stakes. For several decades after this, it seems that participation abroad for South African horses becomes almost non-existent for reasons we don’t have the time or space to speculate about in this writing.
In 1961, however, appeared a champion called Colorado King, trained by Sydney Laird. He won ten races in South Africa including the Cape Derby and the Durban July Handicap. Sold to an American racing partnership led by William R. Hawn, he raced under the Poltex Stable banner in California.
There, under trainer Wally Dunn, Colorado King won six races in 1964 including the Hollywood Gold Cup in which he defeated Native Diver and the American Handicap that saw him equal the world record for nine furlongs.
In 1964 came Hawaii, another star colt owned by American Charles Engelhardt and a winner of 21 races in South Africa and the United States. He became US Grass Horse Of The Year in 1969 and his wins abroad included the Group 1 Man O’War Stables.
Raised on the plains of the dry Karoo region in the Northern Cape Province, to Hawaii belongs the distinction of being the only South African bred thoroughbred to breed a winner of a Northern Hemisphere Grade I Stakes.
At Claiborne Stud in Kentucky, Hawaii performed with great distinction. To the end of 1986 in 13 crops had yielded 382 foals, 284 winners, 195 winners (including 25 stakes winners) of 695 races and $8,2 million. His 7 graded stakes winners include Henbit (Epsom Derby 1980. TFR 130), Hawaiian Sound (Champion England 2nd Derby. TFR 129), Hanza Dancer. 3rd Derby. TFR 124) and Sun and Snow (Kentucky Oaks).
We skip three more decades to 1997, when in the month of April Sydney Laird’s trainer son, Alec, attempted to climb what appeared to be a mountain too high, but became a conqueror of note He saddled his South African champion London News in Hong Kong’s Queen Elizabeth II Cup and broke new ground when the son of Bush Telegraph (Jungle Cove), won in great style against most expectations. London News went on to finish third to star filly Boshra Sham in the Prince Of Wales’ Stakes at Ascot.
The real action starts at the end of the 1990s with the emergence of the mercurial Mike de Kock, South Africa’s trainer of trainers, and his SA Triple Crown winner, Horse Chestnut, Fort Wood (Sadler’s Wells).
A big, imposing horse with a massive stride, Horse Chestnut won 9 of 10 career starts and gave De Kock his first taste of overseas success when winning the Group 3 Broward Handicap at Gulfstream Park, Florida.
Insatiable in his international quests ever since, De Kock literally opened the floodgates by himself, setting up a satellite yard in Dubai from which he has trained 90 winners in the Dubai Carnival, including three Group 1s. He is currently see-sawing with the mighty Godolphin for the winning most trainer in the history of the highly competitive Dubai Racing Carnival.
Importantly De Kock has achieved much success abroad with South African-breds, including UAE Derby winner Victory Moon and other Group winners like Wolf Whistle, Surveyor, Yard-Arm, Crimson Palace (a Group winner in Europe and the US), Irridescence (a group winner in Hong Kong and the US), Grey’s Inn, Kapil, Grand Emporium, Imbongi.
During this year’s Carnival, De Kock has had much success with the unfashionably-bred Lizard’s Desire, by Lizard Island, and he commented recently: “South African-breds have proven themselves over and over in Dubai and elsewhere.They are flying the flag. They are sound and make good value buys. Buyers are paying astronomical amounts for horses bred elsewhere who are not making the grade. Horses in training from Argentina, for example, are unrealistically priced. Those sellers need to reconsider what they are doing, they are losing their value.”
He stressed the importance of these the Dubai wins for the SA breeding industry and said: “International buyers should start to get serious about South Africa now. Our breeds are tough and sound and have plenty of ability. If our breeders and owners stay realistic in their prices, the market will stay lively. I hope they keep their feet on the ground, because the overseas buyers will keep coming back for good deals.”
I’d like to say, ‘need I say more?’, but there is more!
As I write this, Lizard’s Desire and another South African-bred Mr Brock are about to take their places in the $US10 million Dubai World Cup, the world’s richest race.
De Kock’s exploits prompted other South Africans to venture abroad with their top horses. Mike Azzie took National Currency to Dubai for a win and to Hong Kong for a Group 1 place. Sean Tarry finished second in the 2008 Group 1 Nunthorpe Stakes with National Colour and David Ferraris and Tony Millard have had regular success with South African value buys in Hong Kong.
Herman Brown followed in De Kock’s footsteps with several Graded successes in Dubai with champion Linngari and in 2009 trained Bankable to an historic third place in the Melbourne Cup.
Meanwhile David Payne, a former South African Champion trainer, relocated to Sydney in 2001 and today counts among the most respected horsemen in Australia. Patrick Shaw moved to Singapore and recently saddled his 400th winner. David Ferraris and Tony Millard immigrated to Hong Kong, where both have trained a number of champions.
Not to be outdone, a host of South African jockeys are recognised to be among the very best of their profession in the world. Their pioneer was the legendary Michael Roberts, 11-times SA champion and also Champion Jockey of the UK in 1992; Bartie Leisher, Hong Kong Champion in 1987; Basil Marcus, five times Champion in Hong Kong; Douglas Whyte, nine times Champion in Hong Kong and other world-renowned names such as Felix Coetzee, Weichong Marwing, Jeff Lloyd, Robbie Fradd, Kevin Shea and Glyn Schofield.
Team Valor International President Barry Irwin of Lexington, Kentucky, has been pivotal in his support for South African-breds. He is on record as saying about the BloodStock SA National Yearling Sale: “This is the best value thoroughbred sale in the world. From my experience you would pay roughly twice the price for any foal at sales elsewhere in the world.
“The world hasn’t cottoned on to South African bloodstock yet, despite your great performances in Dubai. It takes courage to come here, but I enjoy myself thoroughly every year. The product is as close to pristine as you are going to get in the modern thoroughbred.’’
By their well-documented goals to improve bloodlines in South Africa, leading locally-based owners like Markus Jooste and Mary Slack have followed the likes of Graham Beck in buying the best available mares from Australia, Europe and the US. Jooste was the leading buyer at Australia’s Magic Millions Sale twice in the last five years.
They are supported by some of the most knowledgeable bloodstock agents on the globe including John Freeman, Robin Bruss and Jehan Malherbe, recently appointed bloodstock advisor to Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa Al Maktoum, who already uses South Africa as a “nursery” for his two-year-olds bought all over the world.
Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum has followed suit with several recent purchases from South African sales. Bloodstock guru’s like Peter Doyle, Angus Gold and Tom Goff are also regular visitors to these shores.
Overseas owners who have tasted success in South Africa or with South African-breds include Fieldspring racing, whose roll of humour includes a number of Grade 1 winners including Dynasty and Eyeofthetiger. Fieldspring a few years ago imported Tamburlaine (IRE) as a stallion prospect.
Other notable names intimately involved in South African breeding and racing include the Kalmanson family from Monaco, who own Varsfontein Stud Farm in the Western Cape. Lady Chris Laidlaw earlier this year won the BSA Cape Guineas with Noordhoek Flyer, a smashing chestnut by Pivotal named after her exclusive Cape residence. Dubai-based Jim Hay and German entrepreneur Rupert Plersch have led in winners in Dubai and South Africa.
Another German Andreas Jacobs, from the famous coffee and chocolate producing family, owns the hugely successful Maine Chance Stud Farm in the Western Cape, who imported world-renowned stallion Silvano, presently disputing the lead at the top of South Africa’s formidable sires list with Jet Master.
Western Winter, Fort Wood, Captain Al and Parade Leader are others in contention on the log among a group of stallions described by John Freeman as “arguably the best group of stallions at any one period f time ever in South Africa!”
The Champion Breeder of South Africa is Summerhill Stud of the Mooi River region in the KwaZulu-Natal province. Owned by internationally acclaimed horseman and entrepreneur Mick Goss, Summerhill is renowned for its exceptional facilities, an internationally trained workforce, and one of the finest stock-raising environments anywhere in the world.
Today, this farm is home to Africa’s most formidable band of young sire talent, and includes among its stallion owners the Rulers of Dubai, who have no fewer than fourteen horses on the roster.
Summerhill provides the most comprehensive client service in South Africa. Besides accommodating a sizeable proportion of the breeding stock of the 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, Monaco and Hong Kong.
Goss told an interviewer last year: “We need to broaden the base of our export markets. (Dubai) has been the conduit through which we’ve reached the world,… (but) we have to find other outlets for our horses…. including those connected to protocols and quarantine programmes.
The inspirational Goss has always aimed at attracting new investors, many of them from overseas, and so developed and built his principle of having partnerships in a vast majority of mares on his farm. “Today more than 300 horses on the farm are foreign-owned, and I doubt that there is any other property in the world housing such a large concentration of foreign-owned horses,” he says.
With high-quality racecourses and training facilities in all its major cities, featuring meetings seven days a week, South Africa is not only a place to visit for the average racing enthusiasts. It is arguably the best place for an owner to race!
If one considers that South Africa’s top trainers charge between R6,000 and R8,000 per month per horse (that equates at current exchange rates to about US$1000 or 600 pounds sterling per month per horse) and draw your correlations, you will be amazed to discover you can keep between five horses or more in training in South Africa at the cost of only a single horse in training in the US or Europe
‘Amazed’, yes, and ‘Pleasantly Surprised’, no doubt! Calculate your prospects of owning a band of thoroughbreds in one of the most beautiful countries in the world, and you’ll realise you’ll have more than enough left to visit them a few times a year whilst taking in plenty sun and surf at the same time!
Look over there, fellows, set your sights down South! There’s a window, opened wide, and rays of bright sun are shining through it, invitingly!