The following was written by Keeneland‘s Associate Director of Sales Development Tom Thornbury, chronicling a recent trip to South Africa.
Like much of the world today, South Africa is experiencing challenging times. Politics, socio-economic effects, and as always, climate-related problems, such as the major drought that grips most of the country, make for a tough environment. And yet, those who operate farms, who breed and race horses in South Africa are “cracking on”. This is a country of real men and strong women. They have, for generations, been steadfastly taming a seemingly untamable country. Their investment in heart, soul, blood, sweat, time and money has made South Africa the envy of all other countries on the continent.
Newsworthy of late, has been the exposure of governmental corruption and misuse of government funds. Even the political party of the current President is increasingly dissatisfied with his antics and self-serving policies. The populace is now demanding credible accounting of all governmental expenditures. Recent unrest involving student demonstrators seeking free college education has created difficulties for other students intent on sitting for exams in order to complete the semester. The government has responded that free college education is not in the cards anytime soon, and the disruption of classes is being actively policed, as many prospective graduates have signed contracts for jobs pending their graduation. These issues have had a tangible effect on the value of the South African Rand. Against the U.S. Dollar, at the time of this writing, the Rand is at 14-1. The government spending is under severe scrutiny, and an accounting will come about. South Africa has survived far worse difficulties, and those who have built this country are not about to throw in the towel.
What a visitor will immediately find in South Africa is immense natural beauty. The drives along the shore are spectacular; second to none, anywhere in the world. The port city of Cape Town nestles between the sea and the iconic and magnificent Table Mountain. You must take-in the wharf, the beaches, the old and new districts of the city, any of the multitude of fabulous restaurants; and of course, you will need to go racing at Kenilworth, a lovely, world-class race track located in the heart of Cape Town. The mountains begin at the sea, and seemingly rise up in range after range into the heart of South Africa. Roads take you over passes from one lovely, productive valley to the next. It is in these valleys where the farming takes place. Horses, cattle, sheep, grain, fruits, vegetables, grapes, and olives are alternately quilted across the landscape. No matter where you are in South Africa, it seems there is always a magnificent backdrop of rugged mountains. The farming communities are warm and welcoming, and the tranquility found at the Guest Houses (B & Bs) is extraordinary. You will find that you hear nothing but the call of the “laughing dove” in the morning, and at night the stars are so plentiful and bright, it seems you could reach out and touch them.
I have just returned from two weeks of yearling inspections throughout South Africa for the 2017 January Cape Premier Sale. They will again have a sale of roughly 300 exceptional individuals by established, revered stallions and by a host of new, exciting, “young guns” looking to make their mark. They have spiced things up with a few by FRANKEL, too. The South African breeder produces a solid, hardy horse, with excellent bone and feet. They are not pampered; instead, they are raised outside on hard ground that rests atop a deep limestone base. These horses have proven themselves over the centuries, and the modern South African Thoroughbred has earned a place on the world stage of racing. Hamstrung by tedious export protocol, these horses have been able to show only an inkling of the ability that they possess at international racing venues. Once the impediments to international travel are relieved, I believe international racing “ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”
The Cape Thoroughbred Sales Company, established in 2012, was initiated by a group of influential breeders with the goal of creating a more transparent sales process, along with guaranteed payment to consignors within 30 days. The CTS has gone much farther, becoming an international marketing arm for the breeders and owners of South Africa. The creation of two (USD)$500,000 races for graduates of CTS sales was the company’s first way of generating excitement. Since then, the CTS has underwritten plans to restore and renovate the turf track at Durbanville, just outside Cape Town; and the CTS will also underwrite the renovation of the grandstands at Kenilworth in downtown Cape Town. During the recent CTS “Ready to Run” Sale, officials of CTS announced a new R1,000,000 race at Kenilworth, underwritten in association with co-sponsor KUDA Insurance. This new race is to be run in conjunction with their two $500,000 sales races on “Sun Met” day, January 28; one week after the 2-day Cape Premier Sale. The CTS is making every effort to enhance the value of those horses sold, and to incentivize buyers of these horses. At a time when others are “pulling in their horns”, these folks are creating fresh ideas and putting real money into the game.
Your opportunity to visit this extraordinary country should coincide with the Cape Premier Sale, to be held at the Cape Town International Convention Centre, January 21 & 22, 2017. Pick out an exceptional individual to race, or form a partnership with one of the “home boys”. Either way, with conversion rates as they are, you will feel as though you have stolen something! Stay through the week, make the races at Kenilworth the following weekend, and tour through the many wine producers in the Western Cape. Chances are, like Avontuur Estates, Highlands Stud, Drakenstein Stud, and several others, both horses and wine are properly produced. I counted over 50 recognized wineries in the communities of Paarl, Durbanville, Franschoek, Stellenbosch, Robertson, and Bonnievale. All of these towns are within easy reach of Cape Town, and some of the Western Cape’s most prestigious breeding farms are located there, as well. You will find a multitude of “Guest Houses” (B&Bs) at which to stay. There, you will be greeted as family. Drive the coast roads from Cape Town, along the “Garden Route” to Port Elizabeth. You won’t be disappointed. And, if you want a safari experience, viewing African wildlife, you can readily find it. For the best on offer, plan a trip to Kruger National Park. It means a bit more travel, but there you will find the Africa of books and movies. On your way there, stop at Durban in KwaZulu-Natal and find your way to nearby Mooi River, where you must visit the Summerhill Stud and Hartford House of Mr. & Mrs. Mick Goss. The Midlands there have the look and feel of Kentucky, and these folks will most certainly help make you feel at home.
In the Western Cape, breeding farms that are a must-do, include Avontuur in Somerset West, managed by Pippa Mickleburgh, where prominent stallions VAR and ORATORIO stand; Drakenstein in Simondium, owned by Mr. and Mrs. Johan Rupert, where they stand Champion sire TRIPPI, DUKE OF MARMALADE and PHILANTHROPIST; Highlands in Robertson, owned by the Beck family, where you will find top sire DYNASTY; Maine Chance, also in Robertson, owned by Andreas Jacobs, who stands another leading sire SILVANO; Klawervlei in Bonnievale, owned by John Koster, who stands perennial Champion sire CAPTAIN AL and new star COUP DE GRACE; Varsfontein in Paarl, managed by Carl de Vos, where they have JUDPOT and GIMMETHEGREENLIGHT. In nearby Ceres, you will find Lammerskraal Stud, managed by Sally Jordaan, where they stand GO DEPUTY and VISIONAIRE. Over in the Eastern Cape, seek out the Ascot Stud of the Parker family, where they have stallions BOLD SILVANO and GLOBAL VIEW. If you have the opportunity to drive into the Karoo, a near-desert area in the Northern Cape, you must find the farm of Gary Player in Colesberg, internationally known golf star and dedicated horseman. If you are lucky, you may find him there, which will lead to some inspirational conversation, for sure. There are many more farms, which I have had the opportunity to visit. The people and the horses there are exceptional. You will find that no matter how much of this exciting, beautiful country that you see, it won’t be enough. You will return home, already planning you next trip, and that won’t be enough, either.