Patrick Lee for February 1986 SA Racehorse
After a week in Cape Town among racing people, Patrick Lee felt aware that behind every remark was an apprehension concerning the future of racing. He visited the Goodwood Sales, stud farms, training establishments and the races looking for an interface somewhere between the love of horses and the tremendous cost of them.
On Met day, the last race was held at 7:45 pm on the perfect twilight. There were still thousands of race-goers around the picnic area, and an impromptu fillies sprint was arranged. The girls kicked off their shoes and hiked up their dresses and in a large, disorderly field, many dwelt at the start.
During the running there was boring and crossing, resulting in three runners being brought down. A blaze of blondes crossed the line in a bunch. The judges called for a photo and kept it. Soon afterwards the sky started to close down and everyone turned to look at the lightning forking in the citadel of cloud over the mountains like faulty wiring on a Chinese lantern. In the jostling gloom the jockeys in smart-casual were telling the owners in suits who were telling the trainers who were overheard by those with knowing ears, all the stories that never make the newspapers. The folklore of racing.
Then the horse boxes reversed in and loaded the tables and chairs and sticky champagne glasses and dried out smoked salmon, and we all went home. Big, boisterous Wild West had shown that in racing things can sometimes work out right, and all in all it had been the kind of day that reminded everyone why they race horses in the way they do.
For me it was the culmination of a week in Cape Town among racing people. An outsider on such a tour can hardly claim to gain insight, but I feel this: behind every remark or action as an apprehension: "Are we going to continue racing in this way?"
This apprehension has two parts - the external one: will racing survive in this form in the economy that South Africa will have in the medium term? and the internal one: are the inevitable forces of change within racing itself going to be for good or detriment?
So I went around the Cape trying to track down some ideas on this. You will notice that a lot of the comment is not sourced to the names of the speakers. Like you, I believe this to be shabby journalism, but I found it impossible to get anyone to say anything of consequence ?on the record'- a fact which in itself says something about the nature of the racing community at this time. Under the table everyone's kicking each other; on the surface the table is neatly, formally laid with the traditional cutlery.
One of the changes in racing is that not everyone is playing by the old rules anymore. And thus the first thing I heard when I arrived in Cape Town was about how Sydney Press had made the TBA jump through a hoop.
You know the background: having had only half his first draft of Northfields yearlings accepted for the Invitational Select Evening at the Germiston 1986 sales, Press threatened to go off and have a sale of his own. After some backwardsing and forwardsing, the result was that the select 80 became 99, naturally including virtually the entire draft from Press's Coromandel Stud.
To anyone who looks up the word "invitation" in the dictionary this may seem absurd, but to Sydney Press's bloodstock agent, Robin Bruss, it all makes perfect sense. He says: "When we saw that some of our top horses hadn't made select, I wasn't about to take it lying down. I went and showed the TBA that these horses had the pedigree to make it onto the top sales in the world - even Keeneland - and here they were being turned down for Germiston."
You have to admit it's an amusing picture: Robin Bruss patiently guiding the sages of the TBA through the pedigree book, and them saying, "Oh, of course !"
Needless to say, the Cape people didn't see it that way. The feeling about the TBA was that it had forgotten why it was what it was. Or, in the words of one of the new young breeders, a man who doesn't feel he has to tip his hat to the establishment: "The TBA has ceased to represent breeders. Like all bureaucracies, it serves only itself."
The topic was discussed the day I had lunch at Sir Mordaunt Milner's. I had been warned that Sir Mordaunt had a tendency to express himself, forcibly, but he seemed to accept the affair philosophically. The possibility of a cabal to bring about a new government in breeding administration was loosely discussed, but with no real intent.
On the stud near Stellenbosch, the Milners have the order they seek in life. New hardback releases come into the house with the airmail copy of the English Sunday Telegraph. It is an environment enriched by selected input, rather than one pounded by the noisome trivia that inevitably inflects lives closer to the centre of the action.
When the Milners walk you around the paddocks and show you the yearlings (a glowing, coquettish pair of Roland Gardens fillies stand out), your heartbeat slows and the perspective changes. This is the side of racing where the horses are referred to not by their own names, but by that of their sire, or less frequently, the dam. "This is the Averof," or "this is from that Contraband mare."
In breeding you are involved with long-term wave-lengths, a sense of the nature of dynasties, the branch-work of species. By comparison, the administration of the thoroughbred industry is rather tedious and pointless.
Nevertheless, money is at the base of it all, which no-one in racing, except perhaps the Arabs, can ignore. And in this connection it seems to me, as an outsider, that the most remarkable thing about the Press incident is that it shocked so many people.
Most of the people in racing have a lot of money, but Press has a lot more than most of them. It's uncouth to mention this, but it is an undeniable fact that he has used this money to come in at a level of activity in breeding which most other people have to achieve with work and patience and luck and a couple of decades.
The - shall we call them ?negotiations' - surrounding the select day entries is routine business for a man who made his money in the tough game of retailing, and has invested around R12-million in his new stud enterprise in three or four years.
This is part of survival. It's here that we see the game changing. People are walking over the protocol.
And the funny thing is that many of the onlookers are quite accustomed to this in the lives they came from: most of them have played hard and fast in commerce to earn the very money that pays for their racing. It is endearing, praiseworthy that they would like to keep their thoroughbred interest separate from this, that they want it to stay a "sport", where honourable conduct is expected.
But survival tactics are inevitable if the economy within and around racing is going to get tough. Racing in South Africa has grown phenomenally in the last 15-20 years, which in terms of economics, means that there has been room for the inefficient to get carried along in the slipstream. There has been security for less-than-optimal operations. But if we are now in for a period of rationalisation, the free ride is over and it will be the practical ones, who come out the other side.
At the Goodwood sales I spoke to a man who was planning to dispose of his entire string in training and a couple of dozen broodmares. He said: "I think we're going to have a record yearling sale at Germiston?then by June or July the whole thing will go bang. So I'm just getting out while I can."
He sees the worst-case scenario coming true - in the national economy as well as on the racing industry's balance sheet. He thinks this time next year people will have enough trouble feeding themselves, let along feeding horses that are running half way down the field in Maiden Plates. He spoke of owners getting further and further behind on their payments to their trainers, trainers getting further and further behind with feed merchants, etc.
And this scenario is getting frightening. The thing is, these days, it's sometimes the ones who look most secure that go down the quickest. We live in times when it's not outrageous for a man to be building a new R4-million office block and going bankrupt simultaneously. Dealing with such people requires special antennae - into my head comes an image of trainers combing the financial pages at night, trying to read the future of businesses in which their major patrons are involved. Playing the futures markets.
And racing is, in some ways, the ultimate futures market: as we were talking at the sales, my interview and I could hear the auctioneer knocking down yearling thoroughbreds for R500 and a thousand ? animals into which someone had put planning and effort and love. A very high percentage were returned unsold.
"They're crazy," said my interviewee. "They turn down a bid of R2000 here. Germiston is already full, so they have to keep the horses till the Natal sales. They have to feed them and cart them there. So in six months' time they have to get four and a half thousand for a horse they couldn't get R2000 for here. It's hopeless."
The newspaper reports would later headline the Goodwood sales as a "success" - based on the relatively high average price. But the "average" is a mathematical tool which doesn't tell the whole story.
It is assumed that "average" means the middle price is good, but this is not necessarily so. The good average was achieved by a small number of the best horses being sold for very good prices, and much of the low-quality stock going unsold, thus not dragging down the average.
The fact that the good stock goes for good prices doesn't say racing is in good shape - it rather reflects the nature of spending practice by the few people who have money - they want a few items of value. The same thing is being seen in the car market.
The exceptional yearling is rare, even for the biggest studs. What the breeding community really wants to know is whether the ordinary prices will hold up.
This message is not clear from the Goodwood Sale. What did seem to be clear is that no-one wants the horses at the bottom. If this thinking increases sales will become places where everyone will bid for the good stock, but they won't take home second best as a consolation.
It's bad news for the status quo, but many feel that the rationalisation that would result would not be without benefit. Said one buyer: "They're not breeding with commercial stock. They're not producing the right product for what is wanted. There is enough bad luck and casualty in breeding without making fundamental planning mistakes."
All in all, my interview at Goodwood had filled my head with morbid thoughts. He sketched an industry over-stocked with hopeless horses, suffocated not only by its own collapsing margins, but by the aridness of the economy around it.
To recover from this I went to Terrance Millard's stables, where the view of life is a lot more cheerful.
In Terrance Millard's stables, the A Team is housed away from the ordinary slouches. In a small, neat little courtyard of 12 stables, you find, amongst others: Ecurie, Sunera, Hawkins, Up The Creek, Potomac.
It reminded me what a loud red face had said to me over dinner the night before: "It's getting to the stage where they needn't bother to put (Arg) after the Argentinian horses from Millard's stable ? they can just put (Local) after the odd SA horse he sends out."
Millard has his own sand track ribboned through the dunes behind his house. It drinks 5 000 gallons of water a day. He has his own robot-controlled pedestrian crossing to the beach. He zooms about this estate on a three-wheeled dune buggie that looks like something out of Star Wars.
Terrance Millard probably isn't worrying about the security of his patrons with the same degree that, say, some of the Transvaal trainers might. Millard, being one of the best, tends to attract the big owners who spend big money. These tend to be the established, long-standing figures in racing, and the whole arrangement is impressive and encouraging.
But once again, one gets the feeling that one would have to look elsewhere for the precursors of change in racing, the regions from which the threats and opportunities will come.
There is, in racing, an "underground economy" - a system of practice which confounds the neat plans of those who administer it. Jules Horowitz, past chairman of SAROA, says: "A tremendous number of horses are actually owned by people not registered with the Jockey Club."
Surrogate or "front" ownership, to bypass the Jockey Club's system of vetting the financial and moral suitability of owners, is not the only issue in this. Form research done by the American management consultant, Bill Killingsworth, Horowitz also knows that in California, the average life of an owner is three years. Average! Meaning that for every owner who stays in the game for ten years there have to be a number who don't make it through a season.
These short-term owners can only be doing one thing: speculating. They are, in fact, playing the futures market in racing - putting out a relatively limited investment to see if they can hook into a bonanza.
We don't know whether the same is happening here, but some factors would point to it. The "underground" owners, who forgo the cache of having their names in the race card or on the Number One Box photograph, must therefore be playing very serious and very rickety money games.
Owning to gamble is common, if inconspicuous, practice on the Highveld, but even try and get a discussion of this going in Cape Town racing circles and they look at you like you didn't wipe your shoes when you came in.
So once again we have that interface: between the way things are arranged to be done, and the way they are being done. Three years ago, when I covered the ambitious SAROA conference in Sandton, I ran into the same scornful attitude to the gambling side of racing. ?Real' racing people seem to want to disassociate themselves from the source of the funds that propel racing. What they say is: "We would still have racing without gambling," which is obviously nonsense and to which the obvious retort is: "So why don't you go ahead and have it without gambling?" ? and at the end of the week we'll see how many big race sponsors you've got left.
The racing industry, for all its imperviousness to life beyond its own portals, actual and ceremonial, does operate within the SA economy and the SA culture, both of which are twisting excruciatingly. Racing's record on the critical aspects of race relations is pretty good, but the culture that throws up the underground owners, the gambling owners, the speculating owners, the trainers whose horses seem to dominate the jackpot legs, the people who want to bet from home via telephones, the etc, etc ? are all forces which are rapidly changing the central concept of racing.
One of the characteristics of the SA economy is the tendency of its capital and power to accumulate in a few powerful groups.
Thus is was that a man who is merely a stud manager said to me at the sales: "In a few years, the breeding industry is going to look just like the Johannesburg Stock Exchange - with 80% of the power concentrated in a few hands. Some of the names are obvious: Beck, Ratray, Jaffee, Press. The rest will fight for the remainder of the pie."
This tendency, combined with the rationalisation that a down turn in the economy and this industry, is another case where things could go well, or badly and everyone fears that no-one knows how to manage it for the good.
Rationalisation could mean concentration on fewer, better horses. Big, wealthy specialist studs could not mean the same thing. But not necessarily. What I think I heard behind the talk around Cape Town was: shouldn't we, breeders, be talking amongst ourselves to turn the changes to the good?
Super-business studs must surely be a good thing, but racing will not be well served if all the small breeders are driven to the wall, and some of the more personal touches are lost.
I was struck by this thought as we drove away after spending an afternoon at Broadlands Stud.
Broadlands is on the Somerset West road. You drive up between beautiful paddocks. "I just hope she's got the bloody parrots locked up," muttered my companion, "they sit in the trees and dive-bomb visitors."
This was my first inkling that I was in for a truly exotic experience.
I have thought long and hard for a good short description of Pat O'Neill, but the best I can come up with is an entirely inadequate "dynamic eccentric."
Starting at 19, some decades ago, as a race driver for Mercedes Benz, Pat has blazed a trail across most of Europe and Africa, here sleeping with lions in her bedroom, there breeding thoroughbreds. Settled in the Cape for the past 15 years, she has established a life-and-work style which cannot in any way be described as derivative.
Her home is an auctioneer's dream and an insurance company's nightmare. General artifacts and bric-a-brac form a permanent obstacle course around the house. A peacock sleeps in the canopy above Pat's fourposter bed, while a cat resides in a nearby antique light bowl.
This is the product of money, but there is a spirit here that money cannot buy. Pat O'Neill lives by prerogatives that jump the fences of essential business considerations ? and one of those is Royal Prerogative.
Not that the stallion isn't a money-spinner, indeed he's one of the best. But the key thing is Pat loves the boy, you can see it in the interchange between them as he nuzzles the sugar out of her hand.
And as her yearlings are led, one by one, out of their stables, to be viewed, you pick up in the words and way Pat describes each one, a commitment to this business which has nothing to do with business.
When all around me at the Goodwood sales I hear other people talking about the money and politics of racing, I hear Pat bemoaning "so may wormy, half-starved yearlings."
So I'm looking at an interface somewhere between the love of horses and the tremendous cost of them. The many people who do it for love are moonlighting - the essential financing of the thoroughbreds comes from outside - the biggest owners are captains of industry, the clubs are living on tote-percentages which come from people who never go near a horse. Even a lot of the top breeders have other income sources - sheep, wine, industry.
If you love horses and are good with them and you want to work with them, you're almost certainly going to end up working for someone who loves, and is good at ? money.
Thus there are very few people whose ?first life' is close to the horses themselves, and this schism is perpetuated in the modern presentation of racing to the public. More and more people are relting to racing through the media, through off course totes, through telephone betting accounts. This is not the fault of racing's organisation, it is a sociological drift which takes in all entertainment and lifestyle forms.
But it means that more and more of the people know less and less about what's happening on four hooves. For many punters today, the prime benefit of a walk to the paddock is the exercise - they couldn't tell a fit horse from a neurotic, let alone begin to see and understand the careful and not-so-careful planning of bloodlines that goes into the horseflesh in the ring.
Moreover, there is little hope for the newcomer to racing finding people who will give him this knowledge, unless he eschews the bars and restaurants and goes out of his way to seek out association with people who live and work close to the horses (and if he does this it will doubtless be assumed he is on the make for "information").
The afternoon before the Met, we were at Kenilworth watching Ricky Maingard walk his string. A newspaper reporter came up to ask if they could use one of his Met candidates to pose with Miss Sweden (or was it Switzerland?) for a picture.
The picture duly appeared in full colour the next day. No doubt it was considered a ?good promotion' for racing. The big day was hellish hot. There was a traditional coon band, but we were spared parachute jumps. In the paddock, Wild West could only have been more impressive if he had had jets of flame spurting from his nostrils, but he was still easy to back at 3-1. I thought of Fools Holme, who I had seen three days earlier languishing in his stable with a bandaged hock, and reflected on what kind of contest we may have had.
What racing will be lies somewhere within the triangle formed by the picture of Miss Sweden, the betting changes that arise from the announcement of a swollen hock and the sheer joy of watching Breyani nuzzle her first foal.
And racing's little triangle is just one of the chips in the big futures game in the country. And like the racing tipsters, we are all going to offer a thorough, considered prediction of what will happen, and then the imponderability of events will come in and produce a result, and we will all issue through, considered explanations of why it would obviously happen that way. Because there's nothing else we can do.
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