Northern Guest (Inset - as a foal)
(Photos : Summerhill Stud Archives)
NORTHERN GUEST (USA)
Northern Dancer (CAN) - Sex Appeal (USA)
Northern Guest’s 10th Broodmare Sire of the Year title was an outstanding achievement of the past racing season. It’s a modern-day world record, eclipsing even the nine titles of legendary USA broodmare sire Mr Prospector.
Northern Guest never set hoof on a racecourse, yet he made a titanic contribution to the racing game in South Africa.
He was well named for his role in life, being from the Northern Hemisphere and taking up residence in the South. But he was much more than a visitor. He founded a thoroughbred dynasty and his name will live on for decades, thanks to a happy knack of fathering superb daughters who, in their turn, produced champion horses. Golden Apple, the dam of 2012 Vodacom Durban July winner Pomodoro, is a daughter of Northern Guest. The great international sprinter JJ The Jet Plane is out of Mystery Guest, another of his daughters.
Not that the colts were bad - they include Angus, Senor Santa and Spook And Diesel, to name a few.
It’s often said that the performance of a stallion makes or breaks a stud farm and there is no disputing Northern Guest was the making of Summerhill Stud in the KZN Midlands.
Summerhill claimed an eighth successive Champion Stud trophy at the Equus Awards ceremony earlier this month. In the same 2011-12 season Northern Guest won an unprecedented 10th Broodmare Sire of the Year title.
Summerhill boss Mick Goss makes no bones about who he and his team have to thank for their bounty.
“Look around you at Summerhill… and you won’t find a windowpane, a pebble in the tarmac or a piece of roof sheeting that Northern Guest didn’t contribute to,” writes Goss on his website.
If Northern Guest built a farm, he also contributed large building blocks to the edifice that is South African racing today. His influence is everywhere in the game, his blood flowing in many of its protagonists.
Goss brought one of the great thoroughbred pedigrees of the world to South Africa, being a son of Northern Dancer - the world’s greatest sire of the 20th century - out of the blue hen Sex Appeal.
Other aspects of Northern Guest’s beginnings were auspicious. He was bred by EP Taylor, the Canadian who bred Northern Dancer himself. Businessman Taylor was recruited by Winston Churchill to co-ordinate Britain’s World War II supplies from North America. After the war he crafted a multi-faceted corporate empire and notably built Carling Black Label into the most ubiquitous beer brand in the world. An avid racing man, Taylor reshaped the game in Canada, consolidating small tracks in Ontario into a profitable industry focused on fewer venues and better horses. He stood Northern Dancer in the USA and top mare Sex Appeal was sent to him three times. She produced Try My Best, European champion two-year-old, Northern Guest and El Gran Senor, the highest-rated horse in the world in this three-year-old year.
Northern Guest grabbed headlines early when his blue blood saw him become the first horse to be sold for $1-million. He was just five weeks old. Ireland’s Coolmore team bought him and sent him to legendary trainer Vincent O’Brien. But Northern Guest would never be tested in a race. On the Ballydoyle gallops one day he crashed into a fence and a wood splinter skewered his foot. The wound healed badly and he limped for the rest of his life.
In the early 1980s brothers Mick and Pat Goss were trying to make a go of Summerhill, a small stud near Mooi River. Mick had given up a thriving legal practice in Durban to pursue his obsession, while Pat was keeping his hand in as an accountant.
Deciding they needed a top-class foundation mare, the Goss brothers spotted a likely candidate on the UK’s Newmarket December 1982 sale called Maroon and belonging to Queen Elizabeth II. Heavily in debt, the brothers borrowed more money to meet the £30,000 estimated price and jetted off to England.
Having bought Maroon, Mick and Pat took a trip to their ancestral homeland of Ireland, where they ended up visiting Coolmore’s Longfields farm. Stud master Tommy Stack, a former champion jumps jockey and pilot of Red Rum in his third Grand National victory, paraded before them Hello Gorgeous, a promising sire at the time.
“Out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of a horse being led past,” recalls Mick. “I turned and had a look, and he took my breath away! He had the look of eagles. Spectacular. Who the hell was this?” Stack replied: “Northern Guest. Not for sale.”
But the Goss brothers would not be denied. They secured him for £200,000 - money they did not have and had no further credit line for.
“I was worried, but my brother - the accountant, the conservative one - said, “Don’t worry, we’ll syndicate him on the plane home.”
The target group of South African breeders on the plane returning from the Newmarket sale didn’t bite. Despite the horse’s pedigree, they curiously didn’t see benefit.
The brothers were stuck with a R400,000 headache, the landed costs of an expensive stallion. In today’s money, it would be more than 10 times that amount.
The 12 weeks it took for exchange control permission bought time. They came up with Plan B, a black-tie dinner at Durban Country Club for all the moneyed people they knew. Tommy Stack volunteered to fly out to help secure the syndication - and delivered a compelling speech at the do. It worked. Northern Guest was over-subscribed; the deal was done.
But the solution brought its own problem. Many of the new owners were not established breeders or even racing people and bought Northern Guest many sub-standard mares. Nay-sayers began writing off the stallion and the farm. To save its investment Summerhill started buying shares whenever it could afford them and within two years had a 70% stake. But the prospects for the early crops were not good and negative perceptions for a stallion are a kiss of death. But few people reckoned on just how good Northern Guest was at his job.
He’d left behind two dozen foals in Ireland. He never stood there commercially, with Coolmore not wanting to compete with his brother Try My Best who had a stellar racing record to market. Northern Guest’s Irish offspring were the result of coverings for friends and employees, all with mares of little account. That Irish handful produced five stakes winners - at a world-class 20% strike rate.
The first South African crop was not earth-shattering, the star being the excellent Naval Guest, winner of the Champion Stakes. But the second crop was another story: Senor Santa, 15 wins and five Grade 1 titles; Northern Princess, nine wins including the November Handicap; Gentleman Jones, seven wins including the Administrator’s Handicap; Rip Curl, five wins, and Target Five, nine wins, saw their dad on his way to fame and glory.
Northern Guest secured three Champion Sire titles in the 1980s on the back of these and subsequent brilliant horses. There were also two Champion Two-Year-Old Sire gongs. When the first award was collected, a dying EP Taylor sent Mick a photograph of Northern Guest, taken on that day in 1977 when the foal went for a million.
Good horses kept coming - Gun Drift, Northern Flame, Unaware, Spook And Diesel, Levendi, Royal Thunder, Dangerous Donald and Dance Every Dance among them.
Travel North won the 1994 SA Derby, Imperious Sue the 1997 J&B Met and Angus the 2002 J&B Met.
Northern Guest’s legend was secured among racegoers with the famous match race on New Year’s Day 1989 between his daughter Northern Princess and his son Senor Santa. The Germiston contest followed a dispute over Senor Santa being eliminated from the 1600m November Handicap on the argument that he would not stay the distance. Great jockeyship from Michael Roberts saw Northern Princess narrowly prevail. A year later, Senor Santa won the FNB Stakes over the gruelling Turffontein 1600m.
Northern Guest was extremely fertile into his old age and was still successfully covering mares in his mid-20s.
Fatefully, both his illustrious full brothers, Try My Best and El Gran Senor, proved low on fertility.
Several big-money offers came from overseas for the champion but Summerhill was prevented from cashing in for various reasons - the farm profiting in stature rather than cash.
Mick recalls Northern Guest having a “wonderful, wonderful temperament, which became a hallmark of the tribe”.
Consistent quality was another stamp. The daughters were particularly striking, with notable femininity and fertility. Even smaller specimens had good carrying room as broodmares and all were caring mothers.
They produced Bold Ellinore, Emperor Napoleon, Icy Air, Art of War, Vangelis, Amphitheatre and hundreds more.
Mick is fond of telling the story of how Northern Guest, on his way from barn to paddock each day, would stop outside the stud office and survey the farm scenery. Management staff would adjourn their morning meeting to go out on to the balcony and pay homage to their great benefactor. “He’d never look at us, just gaze out at the paddocks. And we’d stand cap in hand.”
Mick believes the stallion gave the whole Mooi River district a boost. With scores of mares coming in to visit the champion, a number of boarding farms sprang up nearby, many of which have endured, providing much-needed employment.
Northern Guest died at Summerhill in 2002 at the age of 25.
“He was the stallion of a lifetime,” reflects Mick. “Every breeder is looking for the next outstanding sire, but perhaps us more so now that we’ve seen the top of the mountain.”