I love the N7. A road may sound like a strange thing to love, but my family are from the Cederberg, so to me the N7 still carries the expectation of endless summers, Christmas holidays and the nostalgia of childhood.
On Sunday, 3 September, Wilgerbosdrift chose one of the best days of one of the best times of the year to host a very special stallion day at their beautiful new facilities and I got to visit my favourite stretch of road.
The Cape was in the mood for showing off. Blue cranes posed delicately in wheat fields and red bishops rose in noisy flocks from pockets of reeds. Lemon yellow canola fields shot bolts of colour across the landscape. It’s a relatively straightforward drive, so you can settle your foot on the accelerator and take in the scenery as the landscape flattens out and the blue-green of the Boland wheat and oats gives way to windmills and blue gums and heat. Big sky country. The mercury kept pace with my odometer and by the time I reached Piketberg, the temperature had stretched to 25 degrees.
Enjoying the journey
There are two magical aspects to an event – first is the build-up where there is any amount of expectation and wonder at what might be to come – the other is the aftermath in which you can look back and reflect on what happened. C.M. Russel said spending many hours in the saddle gives a man plenty of time to think, which is why so many cowboys fancy themselves philosophers. Driving is similar, particularly when you are following the hypnotic trail of telegraph poles and neat barbed-wire fencing, accompanying the faded tarmac into infinity. The brilliant greens fade to shades of khaki and olive and in patches give up entirely allowing the red earth to show through. Finally, the gravel road turnoff with the welcome ‘Stallion Day’ sign to signal that you are close.
The gravel road to Wilgerbosdrift is not a gentle one – either on your vehicle or on your nerves – but it was a short trip this time as the event was staged at the new yearling barn complex. The beautiful entrance, elegantly created from local stone, is at once imposing as well as feeling like it has always been there and blends so comfortably in the landscape that one is in danger of driving straight past. I wound my way past the enviably full dam and spacious paddocks, to take my place at the end of a long line of cars, feeling smug that for once my car wasn’t the only one covered in dust.
Wilgerbosdrift is built around the definition that horses make a landscape look beautiful. The facility which had been a construction site on my last visit was quite transformed, with two rows of completed, occupied stables and a grassed courtyard / viewing area in the middle. Linking the two stable blocks is an entertainment area and the square is finished off with a low wall and the view stretching across the hills to the mountain overlooking the farm. All of Wilgerbos is painstakingly designed to sit gently in the landscape and the new additions manage to be grand as well as entirely functional and welcoming.
A Bedouin tent had been attached to the back of the building both for shade as well as to provide undercover seating for lunch. In the best South African hospitality style, there is no formal guest list or check at the door and in the close, comfortable manner that close friends wander into one another’s homes and families at will, one is invited to simply dive in and make yourself at home.
They say the essential joy of being with horses is that it brings us in contact with the rare elements of grace, beauty, spirit and fire. If it is logical to conclude that in spending our lives around these creatures, some of these characteristics rub off, then little wonder that the racing family is such an exceptional bunch. With some of South Africa’s most exciting young stallions on the afternoon’s bill, people came from far and wide. Gathered under the tent and spilling over onto the grass and stabling areas was a long list of favourites from across the country, all getting on with the serious business of catching up and exchanging news of the breeding season, new foals and the season ahead.
Rafeef had made the journey all the way from Robertson and The United States, released from quarantine just five days earlier, had made the short trip from Moutonshoek. Admiral Kitten was the only one who didn’t make it. As he had only arrived at Moutonshoek the day before, it was decided to give him a chance to settle into his new surroundings before moving him again, although a good number of folk took the opportunity of driving up the road to see him at home.
The stallions were distributed across the two barns, with the newly landed The United States holding court in the right hand barn for all his visitors. Having had his last start in the Audemars Piguet QEII Cup at the end of April, the white-faced son of Galileo is perhaps still a shade light from all his travelling, but is a beautiful specimen who is going to get more imposing as he lets down. He is a substantial and well-made horse with good bone and seemingly a good temperament to boot, posing very politely for visitors to admire him in his stable.
With Jehan Malherbe manning the microphone, first on show was Wilgerbosdrift resident, Flower Alley. I haven’t seen the liver chestnut son of Distorted Humor since shortly after his arrival at Wilgerbosdrift in 2015, but he is perhaps best described by a particularly impressed new member of his fan club that his photos just do not do him justice. Not to cast aspersions on any of the photographers who have tried, it’s just that it is impossible to capture his quality and presence adequately on anything as pedestrian as screen pixels.
The exceptionally high quality chestnut, conditioned during his career by Todd Pletcher, was famously denied an honest run in the 2005 Kentucky Derby, when the front-running Spanish Chestnut tired of his pace-setting tactics, dropping back and causing Flower Alley to check and re-direct, leaving Giacomo to take the laurels in one of the most bruising and heart-stopping renewals in the history of the race.
Some pundits still maintain that Flower Alley was robbed. However, he exacted his revenge in the Travers and karma was finally restored when his son, I’ll Have Another took home the Roses in 2012, following up with a win in the Preakness and looking a likely contender for Triple Crown glory before a training set-back forced his withdrawal from the Belmont Stakes. It makes Flower Alley the only sire of a Kentucky Derby winner to stand in South Africa.
His first local crop were born in 2016 and the Wilgerbosdrift staff thoughtfully had a group of yearlings assembled for viewing, including a very sociable colt out of Berry Blaze that I was very taken with. As beautiful as he was in the confines of the viewing area, Flower Alley was best appreciated out in the open en route to meeting his transport home. The more space he has, the more breath taking he seems to get. Manager Wynand Nel reports that Flower Alley upgrades his mares and that his correct conformation often overcomes minor flaws in his mates.
Next on show was Highlands Farms Stud’s new acquisition Rafeef, who had made the trip all the way from Robertson. He was something of a surprise for me. Taller and more elegant than his sprinting label might suggest, the son of Redoute’s Choice, out of South African race mare National Colour (recently honoured as NSW Champion Broodmare at the Thoroughbred Breeders Australia industry awards in Sydney) is still relatively fresh off his scintillating Computaform Sprint win and has not had much time to let down as yet, but seems to be settling into his new role beautifully. He stands over a surprising amount of ground and is possessed of a wonderful topline and length of rein. I also must make special mention of the Highlands staff who stood him up so well on parade.
Soft Falling Rain
Soft Falling Rain has somehow filled out even more since I last saw him, just prior to starting his first covering season. The globe-trotting Equus champion is the physical epitome of a sprinting powerhouse and where Flower Alley is all focus and intent, Soft Falling Rain still has a more youthful, playful air about him. Again his photographs simply do not do him justice. There was a group of his first crop available for viewing to testify to the fact that he is stamping his progeny. Included in the high quality group was his colt out of Alboran Sea, who drew a lot of admiring comments.
The United States
Last, but not least, Moutonshoek’s brand new purchase, the lovely The United States was walked out. By the mighty Galileo out of a Pivotal mare, this is the same cross that produced the KZN-based Flying The Flag. The United States was a Group 3 winner in Ireland for Aidan O’Brien at three and went on to win three group races for Australian trainer Robert Hickmott, including the 2016 G1 Ranvet Stakes.
Moutonshoek’s Bennie van der Merwe reports that Admiral Kitten, the first son of Kitten’s Joy to be imported to stud in South Africa, is settling in well. He has already made a start on his book of mares and is reportedly a consummate professional.
There was another chance to view all the stallions at close quarters in their stables as well as an opportunity to look over the Flower Alley and Soft Falling Rain yearlings before a sumptuous relaxed lunch. With rows of freshly made Pimms, the friendly bar staff were kept busy all afternoon and the band were given a helping hand by the musical stylings of our own Greg Ennion.
Too soon the sun was dipping on the horizon and guests reluctantly started making their way home. Without there being enough time to catch up with everyone during the course of the afternoon, there were still hellos and goodbyes being exchanged in the car park on the way out. A huge thank you to Mary and Jessica Slack for being such wonderful hosts, to Moutonshoek and Highlands for travelling your horses and making it such a spectacular event and to all the stud and farm staff who worked so hard behind the scenes to ensure it was a day to remember.
A trip to Wilgerbos is fun because it offers a long drive to build up the expectation and an equally long road home in which to reflect on the experience. Perhaps the best compliment is that it always takes forever to get there, but somehow the drive home passes in a flash.