The threads of life’s infamous tapestry have an odd way of ducking, diving and reappearing, adding a highlight here, an accent there and sometimes whole blocks of colour at a time.
Growing up on a small breeding and spelling facility, weekend visitors were something of the norm. The guest chair (which doubled as my dalmatian’s bed after hours) seemed to be permanently filled and in need of endless cups of coffee to refresh each new resident (all of whom unfailingly commented on the friendliness of my dog !).
One such visitor was Tommy Loftus. A quiet, smiling man who liked to come and talk horses with my dad. They met at the Cape Turf Club (Milnerton for those of you my age or younger!), where they both worked and their mutual love of the Thoroughbred forged a strong and enduring friendship.
Tommy really needs a book all to himself. He was a highly respected, all-round horseman in every sense of the word and a wonderful human being – he was a multi-talented and multi-faceted rider, excelling at show-jumping and polo, he bred and trained polo ponies, had a beautiful wife and family, and during office hours, he was the course manager at Milnerton (a job he took over from his father). The Milnerton job came with a manager’s house (just behind the old Milnerton admin buildings) and Tommy literally raised his family on the racecourse – alongside some of the appies of the day who were also housed there. With the aid of the late, great Abe Bloomberg, Tommy acquired and developed his own farm, Hawequa Stud outside Wellington and devoted every spare minute and resource to it in preparation for his retirement. Sadly he would not enjoy it for very long as shortly after they moved, his wife was diagnosed with Alzheimers and despite his best efforts, had to be hospitalised not too long after. A farm robbery was the final straw and Tommy decided to sell up and move to Robertson and join his son Johan, better known to everyone as ‘Lofty’.
Having literally grown up on the race track, surrounded by horses, jockeys and all the highs, lows and folklore of the racing industry, it was inevitable that the horsey gene would be passed down to the next generation. Young Loftus most certainly inherited his dad’s aptitude and tried his hand at everything horsey from riding work for Russell Laird, to Cape Hunt racing (alongside the likes of Jeff Steadman, Greg and Alan Botten, Mike Miller, Piet and Andries Steyn, Greg Dabbs and Chris Snaith) and of course he inherited his father’s love for show-jumping.
After his national service, Lofty served an apprenticeship with well-known local farrier, Gordon Meyer, married local equestrienne Susan Joyce and took a junior manager’s position at Varsfontein, under the watchful eye of senior stalwart, Hennie de Jager. A few years later, the young family swapped Agter-Paarl for Robertson and made their new home at The Alchemy.
It was at The Alchemy that I became reacquainted with Tommy and first met Lofty and his family. Jungle Rock was still in residence (which really gives away my age!) and the Loftus house was always busy, chaotic and utterly welcoming. Whether you were there for a week, a weekend or whole lot longer, nursing a hangover, a heartbreak or any other manner of other ills, you were accepted and integrated and there was always a bed, a plate of food and no questions asked. There were parrots, dogs, hordes of kids and always a troup of interesting and varied people when one visited. Lofty was also generous with his knowledge and people who learned from him include the likes of Spencer and Martine Cook and Steven Jell. The parties were legendary. Philip Kahan, with his cigar and cowboy boots, introduced me to Bundaberg Rum one fateful New Year’s Eve and I am possibly responsible for returning the favour to the next generation of Loftus’s (sorry guys!).
Local trainer Eric Sands likes to inspect yearlings on the farm and Lofty tells me that it was on one of these visits that he tried to talk Eric into a little, skew-legged chestnut filly by Golden Thatch. Eric appraised the filly and replied in his laconic way – ‘if it stands up to breaking in, I’ll train it’. The filly stood up and Lofty duly phoned Eric to remind him about his promise. The filly was Cash Gold. The friendship formed on the back of that little chestnut filly would lead to Foverflo and Flobayou – heady years indeed.
Years passed, we all grew up, grew older and went our separate ways and the next time I ran into Lofty was at the 2010 Cape Yearling Sale. Lofty was overseeing his usual beautifully prepared Alchemy consignment in their distinctive black and red livery and he had a glamorous brunette on his arm, named Mel. After that, we bumped into each other from time to time at other sales, race meetings and other gatherings, but it wasn’t until the Heartbreak Hill story that we had cause for a proper catch up.
It turned out that Lofty had left The Alchemy and was starting up a new venture. As is his habit, I was immediately issued an invitation to come and visit. But somehow life got in the way and I didn’t quite get round to it until a few weeks ago my phone rang – ‘Hi, it’s Mel Loftus. When are you coming to visit ?’ One doesn’t turn down that sort of request ! I enlisted the manservant and his camera and we set off.
The Cape was still in the last grips of winter and there was a respectable cap of snow covering the mountain tops. But the veld flowers were out in force and rolled out a colourful ribbon for us to follow to the foot of the Witzenberg and Winterhoek mountains. Tulbagh is a tourist’s dream, with beautiful olde worlde buildings and a real bohemian feel. Mel’s impeccable directions led us straight to their door where a horde of dogs and the previous night’s house guest greeted us. It is a measure of the Loftus hospitality that Andrew quite happily put the kettle on and settled us in for a chat over the kitchen counter before Lofty and Mel arrived. I felt right at home !
Lofty filled us in on the Witzenberg venture. Originally part of a larger fruit and wine farm (with some of the original orchards and old cement wine tanks still in situ), the 300ha property was subdivided and bought by Andre van der Merwe in early 2002. Andre grew up on Pierre Jean Stud (now Graham Beck Wines Madiba estate) in Robertson. His father sold up in around 1980, but Andre always dreamed of having his own stud again one day. Andre and Lofty have been mates for about 20 years and have always talked about doing something together. When Lofty decided that the time had come for a new challenge, it seemed an ideal opportunity and their joint venture was born.
Andre says that the farm had been a bit of a headache with the previous tenants and visits were an obligation rather than a pleasure, but Lofty has really got it under control and with things starting to take shape, Andre says these days he and the family can’t wait to go out and visit. And no surprise as Lofty has a lifetime’s worth of stud experience, is frequently called upon to assist with yearling sales inspections and is well regarded as one of the best horsemen around.
The first order of business was twofold – renovate the house and turn a fruit farm into a horse farm. Mel has done sterling work converting the interior of the old farmhouse into a warm, country-style home (although she says she still has unfinished business with the ‘mumps’ on the exterior !). Lofty has been hard at work building paddocks, converting buildings into stables and a serviceable medical block and getting everything prepared for the first Witzenberg foal. The strong, healthy Kildonan colt duly arrived on 21 August 2012 at 21:20 and has affectionately been nicknamed ‘Bob & Weave’.
It is lovely to see Lofty genuinely enthused and excited again and him and Mel give us the grand tour with obvious pride. Lofty has sourced a reliable staff of grooms who are hard at work on the stable block on the day we visit. There are already small maternity ‘units’ near the house, spacious paddocks for turnout and formal stable blocks are taking shape for yearling prep. There is plenty of good quality fresh water and excellent grazing and the views are absolutely unparalleled.
The initial focus will be a multi-purpose spelling facility, including boarding mares and prepping sale yearlings (of which there are already an impressive collection in the fields, including an eye-catching Captain Al colt), with a view to expanding as facilities develop.
Lofty is not one of life’s animated people – he is humble and quiet and prefers to keep his thoughts and opinions to himself. Superficial acquaintances can be forgiven for mistaking his approach as casual as Lofty never seems stressed or pressured and just seems to take things in his stride. Long-term friend Duncan Barry says ‘no matter whether Lofty has had 2 hours sleep, or 10, he’s always the same and he always looks the same too! He just takes everything in his stride. He sticks to the basics, while always looking for ways to improve. He loves what he does and is one of the most well-respected and well-liked people in the industry and an absolute magician at prepping yearlings. He is very attached to his horses.”
I comment that that is a wonderful endorsement from a friend and colleague, particularly one who understands the roller coaster of triumph and tragedy of stud management. Our stud masters are unsung heroes at the coalface of the industry who really see the best and worst of what the circle of life has to offer – sometimes all on the same day. Duncan reiterates “It’s part of the job. You take the rough with the smooth. You celebrate the good days and you don’t talk about the bad ones. He’s an old school horseman and is very attached to his horses”.
This is very much in evidence in the beautiful portrait of Flobayou that hangs above the new office desk (a gift from Lady Bellinger) It is also evidenced in the shy, but minutely detailed way that Lofty tells us about each individual on the farm, his theories on breeding and how to get the best out of a horse.
I think Duncan summed it up best for me with a story about a trip to the National Sales a few years back. It had been a long day at the sales, showing horses, entertaining clients and ensuring that everything was shipshape before leaving for the night. Somehow Lofty missed his lift and got left at the sales complex. Too polite to phone for someone to fetch him at that late hour, he decided he’d simply sleep on one of the couches in the hospitality area. The rest of the team arrived back early the following morning to find Lofty frozen to the bone. When Duncan admonished him and asked why he’d not simply taken a rug off one of the yearlings, Lofty answered simply ‘I couldn’t. I would have felt too sorry for them !’
We all know that breeding is a precarious business, but with the likes of Lofty on board, one can’t help but feel that Witzenberg has the odds stacked in its favour.
Witzenberg is open for business and will have their first yearling draft on show at the 2013 Cape Premier Sale. Any enquiries can be directed to Lofty (082 801 6069), Mel (084 653 0716) by phone or fax on 023 230 2230 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org