Opportunities Await in South Africa

By Robin Bruss
CEO, Cape Thoroughbred Sale Co.

When Wise Dan crossed the line to win the Breeder’ Cup Mile (gr. I) and endorse his status as the highest-rated horse in America, he did more than establish himself at the forefront of Horse of the Year honourshis victory was felt with a certain sense of pride by breeders in an unlikely part of the world—South Africa.

Wise Dan’s dam is by the South African-bred champion Wolf Power, whose 18 wins and Horse of the Year honours at home attracted the attention of John Gaines in the good old days when diversity was  seen as a strength, rather than a barrier to commercial markets.   Hybrid vigour through an international outcross was popularised by Bull Hancock and John Gaines, scouring the world for the exceptional, regardless of fashionability. Great horses, after all, can create their own desirability.

Bull Hancock fittingly played another part in the construction of Wise Dan’s South African connection too, as he stood South African-bred champion Hawaii at Claiborne following his election as champion turf male in the U.S. back in 1969. Hawaii became broodmare sire of Hennessy, grandsire of Wise Dan, giving South Africans a double dose of pride, albeit somewhat distant. After all, what is a decade or three in the development of a pedigree. 

What both stallions had in bucketloads was what South Africa prides itself on—toughness and soundness, for we are a country built on wide open spaces, plenty of sunshine, some of the most beautiful and some of the harshest territory imaginable—and a medication policy tougher than most jurisdiction, barring perhaps Germany.

South African yearlings are also cheap by international standards because we are marginalised, somewhat by geography, but moreso by logistics and regulations. We would love to send more of our horses to the U.S., but since 9/11, direct scheduled cargo flights were stopped and all cargo travels via Europe. As the Europeans require our horses to quarantine 40 days prior to export and America requires the horses to quarantine 60 days on arrival, it’s made the logistics somewhat tortuous. Currently we are exporting via the island of Mauritius, four hours by air into the Indian Ocean.

The answer to easier exports is to be found in a newly developed diagnostic test for African Horse Sickness, the PCR Assay, which provides conclusive diagnosis of freedom of this disease within a matter of hours. The PCR is undergoing international validation as I write this, and hopes are high that it will create a scenario for South Africa to readily enjoy greater freedom of movement, which we haven’t seen much of since the heady days of Hawaii and Wolf Power who were, in those days, shipped out at a few days notice and arrived in the U.S. Similarly, the current USDA protocol for South Africa needs updating for it was established in 1958, has served its time well, but everyone recognises that an update is overdue.

My hope is that the new PCR will permit reduction in quarantine from 60 days post arrival to perhaps 14 days, and that this will allow a whole range of constructive and dynamic possibilities that will allow our brand of the Thoroughbred to engage in other parts of the world.

It was intrepid out-of-the-box thinking that led Team Valor’s Barry Irwin a decade ago to start buying South African horses and shipping them through the tortuous gamut of red tape and quarantines in order to race internationally. I love a challenger to convention and love to see trailblazers get rewarded. Barry had some spectacular success with South African horses—winning grade I races in Dubai, Hong Kong, and the U.S. and selling some of his fillies in the millions of dollars.  Irwin also now retains a band of grade I-winning mares in South Africa, breeding them to the top sires. He sees South Africa as a true emerging market.

Wasn’t it John F. Kennedy who said that “we go to the moon not because it is easy, but because it is hard, and because it will test the best of our courage and resourcefulness.”  Well, we feel like that in South Africa, too. Contrary to some opinions, we aren’t on a different planet, but we like to think our horses have developed differently to convention because of our isolation and that we can offer something different, but at the same time, with a dose of good old fashioned value. Thirty years ago, the South African Rand and the U.S. dollar were on par. Today, given the tide of history, politics and economics, US$1 buys you R8.50 and makes South African horses incredibly cheap.

In 2011, South Africa’s major breeders set up the sales company that I run, Cape Thoroughbred Sales, specifically to operate an internationally advertised sale out of the world’s most beautiful city, Cape Town, in the international convention centre, in what is a unique constructed indoor sale. We host visitors from 15 countries; we showcase our horses and our nation and we do so with a measure of aplomb. 

Racing and selling, we think, is more than business, it’s about entering the unique world of the great game of racing, and we use our sales, to create a series of lifestyle events. For what is a sale without the parties, the cameraderie, and the champagne that goes with it. Think of it like Keeneland-on-Broadway, with golf in between. The Cape summer is also rather like Bermuda in glorious sunshine, blue skies, long warm days and party time at night.  Isn’t buying and owning horses meant to be fun?

Shiekh Hamdan probably epitomises our sale best, in that he bought Soft Falling Rain (by U.S.-bred National Assembly, a son of Danzig) from an imported Giant’s Causeway mare, at the 2011 sale, for R340,000 ($40,000) marginally below the sale average. The 300 horse sale has yielded three of the four winners of South Africa’s grade I juvenile races, and the best of these, Soft Falling Rain, became champion 2-year-old male. He is currently on his way to compete in the Dubai Carnival 2013 for the Sheikh and trainer Mike de Kock. 

Most foreign buyers leave their purchases in South Africa to race—training fees are less than $1,000 a month, a low-cost nursery, with a nice springboard—so owners have a good tax-deductible excuse to return, and for the smart and the lucky, the best of these youngsters will wend their way into international competition on the Barry Irwin pathway—with a dose of patience and perseverence through the quarantine process. It’s not easy, but as JFK observed, Americans are up to a challenge.

In January, Kip Elser and Terry Finley came to the sale, they bought a colt by American-bred grade I winner Var (by Forest Wildcat) for R600,000 as a pinhook, which is rare in our country. Re-offered at the Nov. 3 Ready to Run Sale, he sold for R1.6 million. A cool million profit. Americans, I realise, can teach us a trick or two. Ah, the intrepid and the brave. Here we go again.

I write to this inform and not to advertise. You’ll find us at www.capethoroughbredsales.co.za. View a video about the Cape Premier Yearling Sales, last week of January. We’d love you to come and visit, to allow yourself some South African hospitality and a chance to see how we do it in our corner of the globe.  

We’ll have bigger dreams in time to come, including shuttle sires, American partnerships, perhaps a Breeders’ Cup series, the building of all-weather tracks, structural changes to advance purses and easier trade routes. But that’s for another day.

Horses on the beach in picturesque Cape Town, South Africa.

Mike de Kock and Angus Gold receiving a champagne gift from Cape Thoroughbred Sales Co.

Zolani Mahola performs at the 2012 Cape Premiere Yearling Sale.

Inside the Cape Town International Convention Centre. Site of the Cape Premiere Yearling Sale.

Sale Preview location surrounded by the beautiful landscape of Cape Town , SA.

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