“Every few decades, you find yourself in the midst of a golden collection,
where horses actually live up to their billing.”
So Gitiano finally did it. Alec Laird has always said he’s a good horse, and by that we understood him to mean a Group One horse. He’d already shown that in a series of “near misses” in the Gauteng Guineas, the S.A.Classic (Gr.1) and the KRA Guineas. That he went off at the generous odds of 8 to 1 in Sunday’s KZN Breeder’s Million Mile, was somewhat surprising in the light of his form, if it wasn’t a tribute to the talents of two Classic winners and a Classic-placed horse in the field. Remember this, Paul Lafferty was high on the hopes of Love Struck (despite his draw,) Festival Of Fire had come home “smoking” in the Fillies Guineas, and Corredor had run Vercingetorix and Capetown Noir to within a couple of lengths in the Colts’ Guineas. This was high class stuff, and it would take a high class horse to pull any of them down.
We’ve been saying this all season, but this particular crop of sophomores seems to be sheltering more improvement at this time of the year than your average lot, and as you’d expect from a son of Mullins Bay, Gitiano looks to be closing the gap between himself and the very best of his age, quicker than most right now. It’s an ominous thought for those who will oppose him next year, that, in the manner of his father, he’s likely to get better going forward. His exploits in Sunday’s twilight was another feather in the cap of one of the nation’s leading conditioners, Alec Laird, and for an owner who’s twice in a short space of time, thrust his hand into a rich seam of Summerhill treasure. His “first” touch was a R60,000 gamble on a colt with an “upside-down” neck and a sublime action, Pierre Jourdan, who netted him close to R5million, and in this new chapter, he entrusted the breeding and raising of Gitiano to the same old paddocks.
Every few decades, you find yourself in the midst of a golden collection, where horses actually live up to their billing. The noun becomes more than a label: it carries the whiff of an epic. The present generation of Summerhill three-year-olds has come somewhat sooner than we might’ve expected, given it’s just a few years since the previous bunch of luminaries passed out from here. In that era, the bulk of them came via the Ready To Run, where most of the work is done in the environs of the Up The Creek barn. Time has not ravaged the memories of those that walked down Charles Laird Lane six years back, and it’s much the same today. The musty aroma of the training yard, the chatter of the cleaners, the cheeky patois of the jockeys and, always, the sharp tang of fresh varnish applied to aging doors to keep the creeping tendrils of a sharp winter at bay. Here, you can smell the linament on the colt’s legs, and the clatter of hooves as the string departs is as old as the game itself.
The good ones don’t always let on that they’re going to be good: nobody but Gary Alexander saw the “good” in Pierre Jourdan: Igugu said she was decent, but betrayed very little of the Horse Of The Year she turned out to be; Paris Perfect was sent to a lesser centre to kick off a career that took him to the “money” in the Dubai World Cup; Hear The Drums was a trier, but 35 victories was unimaginable, though to be fair, no-one could’ve imagined 35 victories for any horse before he came along, because no other horse had ever been there before Imbongi and Hollywoodboulevard screamed “natural” from the day they set foot on the track, and while the one made almost a million, such is fashion in this game of ours, that it took the practised eye of a Ronnie Napier to spot Imbongi’s truth. And what about Guineas victress, Fisani, where Mike de Kock prevailed while others failed? It seems that when it comes to buying racehorses, a good eye is most times better than a big chequebook.
As for the class of 2011, Gitiano is far from feeling isolated. At the top of the sales tree is the Group One queen, Blueridge Mountain, a yearling who had the dubious distinction of being the most expensive female graduate of that year’s National Yearling Sale. We say “dubious”, because so often, the dreams and aspirations of those who reach deep into their pockets on occasions like these, are not unusually frustrated by the ups and downs of the game. Love Struck, who stood just three doors down from the filly at the sale, was a R240,000 bargain for Alesh Naidoo’s appropriately-named “Fire Trust”, which reached out at the following November’s Ready To Run for his second Classic winner this season in Dylan’s Promise.
At the same sale, Weiho Marwing secured the S.A.Derby (Gr.1) runner-up, Gothic, who lines up this Saturday as a live contender for the continent’s most famous horserace, the Vodacom Durban July. Cape racing fans will remember the blanket finish to the Investec Cape Derby (Gr.1) where Gavin Almanza’s Patriotic Rebel came within a length of upsetting their “darling” Capetown Noir: this R100,000 bargain is another that lines up on July day, albeit in the “consolation”.
In the same year we inaugurated the first of the Summer Ready To Run Sales on the farm. “Buffalo Bill” Burnard must’ve thought he’d got the “golden ticket” to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, when first he found the beaten-a-nose bob-of-the-head runner-up in the Daily News 2000 (Gr.1), No Worries in that sale; now “Buffalo” and his wife Yolanda ascend from one of 60 000 in the crowd to join 19 others in the owners’ pavilion at the July. At the same farm sale, he got those vast hands of his on the winner, Chili Pepper (R60 000) and the runner-up, Golden Dynasty of Sundays R200,000 KZN Breeders Fillies Stakes. No-one got luckier though, than Albert Rousett, who latched onto the Classic performer, Corredor; his R60,000 price tag grows ever smaller with his close-up third in the KRA Guineas and his R200,000 runner-up cheque in Sunday’s Million Mile.
When you’re in this game, and particularly on a farm like Summerhill, which is home to one of the bigger broodmare populations in the land, we’re always looking for that magical moment when a new sire of stature emerges. It takes tens of millions to establish a good stallion, considering the service fees and the keep charges broodmare owners incur in the support of a rising star, and when you find one, he can alter the course of your life. As we stand right now, our old “soldiers” have moved on, and we’re earnestly looking for the next “big thing”. Ever since his first foals arrived, our team have been convinced that Mullins Bay fits the mould, and the events of the past few weeks are beginning to frank their faith. In a game in which new history is being made every day, and the more precocious of a stallions’ contemporaries are getting winner after winner, it’s easy to become unhinged when one of your new sires, on whom you’ve banked your money, takes time to get out of the blocks; we quickly forget that in a horse like Mullins Bay, we could hardly have expected overnight returns. When they landed, his progeny were true to type, and it was only reasonable to expect that when they got to the racecourse, the same would apply to them as did for him. He took his time, and he didn’t debut until he was three.
But Investec Stallion Day at Summerhill comes around once a year, and when it approached last year, there was only one Mullins Bay winner on the board, and all sorts of questions were being asked. That he’s now rocketed to the head of a formidable generation of sires, including Stronghold, Trippi, Black Minnaloushe and King Of Kings, by the earnings of his individual runners, is a tribute to patience, to a colt that’s just a stride or two off the best of his year, and to a filly who remained unbeaten when she downed Blueridge Mountain from seven lengths back. But it’s from his second crop, now juveniles, that we’re getting our succour, with some heartening performances in the past month. In the past week alone, the first-timer Mount Hillaby came “up” on his connections when they least expected it, while Storm Incoming was a runaway galloper for long-time Summerhill stalwart, Albert Rapp. A week before that, Saturday’s Golden Slipper (Gr.1) aspirant, Dover Beach, made it two-in-a-row for Adriaan Van Vuuren and Michael Azzie with a three length lambasting of some of the Highveld’s better two-year-olds. And if the grapevine can be relied upon, it’s just the beginning.
They’re not alone of that generation though: we made our CTS Book One debut in 2012, and Glen Puller’s Strongman brought pride to the chests of those who’d “prepped” him on Saturday, when he remained unbeaten against a quality gathering of the Cape’s best two-year-olds. At the same meeting, Team Valor’s Highly Decorated put an end to the sombre music with a sound-shattering demolition of the ninth race assembly, soliciting a “looking-after-the-handicapper” remark from race-caller Jehan Malherbe, as she geared down from six clear.
Like Dover Beach, Admiral’s Eye (from Admire Main’s first crop) and Solskjaer’s remarkable Winter Star, make their first appearances in Group One company in the Golden Slipper; no-one here would be surprised to see them beat their breasts in front of the grandstand afterwards. Another Ready To Run galloper, Umgiyo, was a “hot” number in Sunday’s July Day television preview for a Juvenile event that witnessed the “stardom” launch of the great Politician.
Some of these youngsters made good money at the sales, others were relatively easy to come by. It’s an old adage here, that while sales averages give you bragging rights, the racecourse is the bottom line. If we’re to remain players for the National Breeders’ Championship in the years to come, it’s going to take horses of this quality to keep us in the “swim”. The competition have money in buckets, they’re world class at what they do, and what separates us all henceforward is going to be the 5% or 10% increments that come from what we do on the ground.
For the moment though, the performances of our two and three-year-olds of this season, remind us of what Bill Shakespeare had to say on the topic: “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat, and we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.”