You’ve got to give it to the Ready To Run judging panel: it was the collective experience of more than three hundred years in the game that identified the Strongholds and Mullins Bays as South Africa’s “second coming”. While you wouldn’t expect the progeny of a classic horse like Mullins Bay to be precocious two year olds, in general terms, you might have thought it of the grandchildren of Danehill. Yet Stronghold himself never ran at 2, and he was even a little late in arriving at three. Anything that turned up for him in the first three or four months of 2012 then, had to be a belated Christmas bonus. And so it has been.
January was still in full swing, when Stronghold’s Tealion put a bit of daylight between himself and his pursuers on only his second visit to the races. A week later, Joey Ramsden sent She’s Got It out against an odds on daughter of Trippi, and at the 200 metre mark, our recollections of her as a bit of a latish, somewhat spare individual, were looking like being confirmed. Something must have reminded her she was a daughter of a European champion, and she took off like she’d been shocked by a cattle prodder. By then the exacta had gotten away, but she closed in a manner that suggested there’d be no next time for the first two, and that she’d be the even money chalk (or better) when she faced the starter again.
The juvenile season in Gauteng is hotting up now, as we approach their big autumn two year old contests, and there was plenty of interest in the line-ups for the two “baby” races on Tuesday evening. While there were better fancied candidates when the starter called the fillies’ roll, notably Mike de Kock’s 3-10 shot (by Captain Al), the biggest market-mover was number 5, a first-timer by you guessed, Stronghold. From the Muhtafal mare Perfect Lady, Qui Bonita (“pretty girl”) was a R110 000 purchase by Ivan Snyman from the Summerhill draft at the November version of the Ready To Run. Let it be said, she was on Jehan Malherbe’s shortlist at the gallops; just shows what 25 years of racecalling has done to sharpen the wits of a man who’s recognised today as the best judge of an aspirant racehorse in Africa.
Qui Bonita ran like she knew she had nine paternal siblings in next Wednesday’s Mark 2 version of the Ready To Run sale at Summerhill, and she understood her responsibilities. At the favourite’s throat from the jump, she quickened away in stunning style while wobbling to and fro’ across the track, a clear signal to the market that the farm’s adage “get a grip, before they get away,” has weight attached.
She’s Got It goes back to post at Kenilworth on Saturday, and as we predicted, she’s short odds to make it three from three for Stronghold. He’s now the horse they’re tipping for line honours for the freshman sires’ title in 2012.
Talking of judges, we remember a visit to the rolling gallops of Manton in the south of England some years back. John Gosden is nothing if he’s not one of the world’s top trainers, and a night with him, his wife Rachel and the rest of their household can be educational, not that it’s ever short of a bit of life. Sheikh Hamdan had asked if we’d take a Group One-winning son of Kingmambo for the forthcoming season, and it was for the inspection of Malhub that we repaired to the gallops in the lifting mist. There’s always a touch of style to a string of Gosden horses wherever you find them, and there’s no finer setting than the backdrop of Manton. If you’re wanting to show off the virtues of a racehorse, toss him up amidst all that history, and put him at the head of a Gosden “first lot”.
That’s where Angus Gold and I met Stronghold, right at the head of affairs. We had no clue of his ancestory, but there he was, as strapping a two year old as you’d laid your eyes upon. A giant already among his elders. “Presence” is an indefinable attribute. It’s not just a matter of good looks; it’s to do with attitude, class and the “X” factor. I wasn’t the only one that reached for his notebook.
Two years later, I was in England as part of a Trade Council delegation for a meeting at Newmarket. It’s an arguable proposition that the best seven furlong race in the Queen’s realm, is the Challenge Stakes (Gr.2) at that meeting. By now, they knew how good Stronghold was, and you could see it in the bookmakers’ quotes. I made my way to the parade, when I noticed the bloodhounds from Northfields Bloodstock, Robin Bruss and Kevin Sommerville, sniffing the same path. I knew instantly that we were on the same beat, and they knew it of me.
The rest is a long story, but it’s probably fair to say that as one of the best remaining sons of Danehill in world racing, he’d have been impossible to buy were it not for a career-ending injury suffered in the Challenge. It wasn’t only career-ending, it was life-threatening, and that made studmasters in the northern hemisphere nervous. Indeed, it made everyone nervous. That was the signal to strike.
In the end, we were beaten too, but not before he’d left a second book of mares securely in foal. There’s an old saying in racing that “they have to die to make sure they’re good,” and the prophesy looks like being fulfilled again.
Losing a man like Stronghold so early in life is a mortal blow to any stud, so we have to find the consolations. On the evidence so far, it looks like we have them. “Get a grip, before they get away”.