“I won’t be the only soccer supporter with a hoarse voice today I am sure. How can a game do this to a person? All that emotion, fire, hope, wonder, fear, dread and joy invested in what ought to be so trivial and unimportant. Ah well.” So tweeted Stephen Fry about the World Cup football. As most of the South African racing world is still recovering from the effects of July fever, it seemed an apt comparison.
We devote inordinate amount of time, money and effort into a pursuit that may well be judged by some to be similarly trivial and unimportant. So why do we do it?
“It’s how you define your place in History,” mused Robin Bruss when we interviewed him roughly a year ago. At the time his little stud of 6 mares was topping our Breeders Rankings on AEPR and his Northfields Stud breeding operation boasted two unbeaten runners – Billy Silver and the darkly attractive, Do It Again. Noting that the Snaiths had Derby aspirations for the son of Twice Over and that Do It Again looked destined for big things, Robin laughed and replied jauntily, ‘From your lips to God’s ears.’ It was an innocuous comment, but there was something about the colt, or perhaps the way Robin spoke about him, to make it stick in the memory. And there is something about winning the Gr1 Vodacom July that helps jog the old grey matter, so when Do It Again stormed to victory in the 122nd renewal, it seemed a good time to revisit that conversation.
A Remarkable Mare
The horse – and story – comes courtesy of a remarkable mare. The dam of Do It Again is a little – and by little, we mean 15.1 hand – chestnut mare by the name of Sweet Virginia, who really deserves a book all to herself.
By Casey Tibbs out of the Royal Prerogative mare, Millie Bovana, Sweet Virginia was bred by High Season Stud in the Hemel ‘n Aarde valley. Riaan van Reenen relates that she was purchased by George Naidoo of the Summerveld Trust for R160k for Dennis Drier. After a decidedly unprepossessing juvenile outing at Scottsville, she was sent to Glen Puller, who decided to spell the little filly at his Western Cape farm. “I was an assistant to Glen and later that year I took out my license and Mr Puller and Naidoo gave her to me as a present.”
Sweet Virginia proved herself the lion-hearted heroine of the 2005 Cape Winter Series, winning the 1800m Gr3 Winter Classic defeating the boys, including subsequent Gr1 winner, African Appeal and repeating in the 2400m Gr3 Winter Derby.
“She was good enough to be entered for the 2007 J&B Met,” remembers Riaan, “but the farrier pulled her shoes off and took a quarter of her heel with it. So she went lame and could not come sound enough to proceed with the plan. The horse she beat easily in the Winter Classic, African Appeal, ran 3rd in the Met. So it was very unlucky that she never got there.”
He continues, “She raced for me in my colours and after she did so well, I gave Mr Naidoo half back as a present.” She won the Gr3 Final Fling Stakes in the Summerveld silks, defeating subsequent Gr1 winner Saraband by 2 lengths and is fondly described by Riaan as the best and gamest horse he ever trained.
At season’s end, Sweet Virginia was sent to an Equimark sale, where Northfields Bloodstock protege, Kevin Sommerville, had been dispatched to look at broodmare prospects for clients. Kevin returned to the office with the news that he’d purchased his boss a mare and Robin picks up the story.
“We paid R200k for her, which was value for a mare that had three graded stakes wins, 40 lifetime starts and was as tough and sound as any horse could be – these are important factors in selection. But her small stature proved daunting for most commercial breeders. I couldn’t really afford another mare at the time, so I said to Kevin, ‘You should be in for half!’ So, it’s been a collaboration right from day one.”
Robin’s first big stallion deal as an agent was the champion sire Northfields (USA), imported for Sydney Press’s Coromandel Stud back in 1983, and he consequently named his company after the famous stallion. Northfields Stud, the breeding operation, has always comprised a core of half a dozen mares, initially all by Northfields.
The Vodacom July hero, Do It Again, is the 7th individual Grade 1 winner bred by Northfields, a statistical feat given that a Grade 1 winner is essentially one in every 1000 foals born. “If only 3% of races are Grade 1, 2 and 3, it follows that you have a 97% probability of failure if your aim is to breed Graded Stakes winners,” quips Robin.
“What we loved about Sweet Virginia was not so much her pedigree, but her traits and aptitude – she must have been very sound, durable and mentally tough and to stand training for so long and to retain her form throughout. In addition, Classic ability at 2400m requires both speed and stamina and demonstrates a good cardiovascular system. For this reason, I am a firm believer that stamina events must be protected and nurtured for the benefit of the breed as a whole,” he adds.
The Art of Selection
When you only have a handful of mares and limited resources, the art of selection becomes a critical factor – first in the selection of broodmare and secondly in the choice of mating. As collaborators in Sweet Virginia, Robin and Kevin were less determined to match bloodlines than to provide practical elements in the choice of matings. As a Gr3 winner, she already ranked in the top 3% and mating her to Gr1 winning stallions would increase the probability of consistently producing progeny in the top 3% or better. And so it came to be – with the notable exception of her first foal.
For her first mating, Sweet Virginia was dispatched to Daylami. “We’d just been agents in the importation of 7x Gr1 winning European Champion Daylami and had a free service. The match produced a filly named Sunday Morning, who looked good, but proved to be painfully slow, the only real fault that a racehorse can have! She did not win and ran a few places in Zimbabwe before being sold out of racing. She was last seen on the polo circuit, and is probably the most valuable polo pony in Africa – if she can ever be found again and returned to breeding!” Robin chuckles ruefully.
The following season, Sweet Virginia was sent to KZN to be mated to the 16.2 hand first crop miler Stronghold, selected for his strength, size, speed and the Danehill-Sadlers Wells nick. The resulting foal, Strongman, made R180,000 when sold at the 2012 Cape Premier Yearling Sale and won the 1000m Listed Sophomore Sprint at Kenilworth before being exported to Hong Kong. Renamed Horse Of Fortune, he has flown the SA flag with distinction and now is a winner of 9 races up to 1800m, including the HK$3m G3 Premier Plate, the HK$3m G3 SA Ladies Purse, the HK$2,4m Happy Valley Vase, and most recently finished 2nd in the 2018 $1million G1 Kranji Mile in Singapore. He has an international rating of 115, his earnings converted to Rands are a whopping R21,6 million and he is still going strong at 7 years old.
Mated to Kahal for strength and speed, Sweet Virginia produce a colt named Mighty Emperor. Sold privately to Pat Shaw to race in Singapore, he has won 7 races (1600-1800m) and his earnings so far total R3,3 million.
Sweet Virginia was then matched to the big American G1 winning sprinter, Visionaire and produced Vilakazi who won twice at Kenilworth before being nosed into 3rd in the Gr3 Winter Guineas behind future July winner Marinaresco and future Met winner Whisky Baron! Unsurprisingly, he was also sold to Hong Kong for big money, where he was re-named Sleep Education, and has been steadily improving, but not yet won. However, his total earnings are R1,035,000, making him the third millionaire for his dam.
Do It Again, with earnings of R3,307,500 is the fourth millionaire produced by Sweet Virginia, putting her in a special class, especially as all four are by different stallions and three of them were first season unproven sires.
“I want to pay tribute to Kevin,” says Robin firmly. “It was his idea to send Sweet Virginia to the Juddmonte bred four-time English Gr1 Winner Twice Over. After leaving Northfields, Kevin spent three years at Juddmonte, the world’s leading breeders, to hone his skills and he returned with detailed knowledge of their great families and policies. It was his recommendation that Sweet Virginia be mated to Twice Over – and I was happy to accede because here was a horse that was similar in aptitude. He is not a son of a fashionable sire, but he raced 33 times and won 12 races (including 9 Graded Stakes), racing until the age of 7 and was tough as teak.”
“Gaynor Rupert had shares in Twice Over, so we did a foal share deal and I bred Do It Again in collaboration with Drakenstein Stud, so really, it was all done for me,” he beams. “It’s the most beautiful farm in the country, with outstanding management and the best of care by Ross Fuller and his team. It might be my name on the page as the breeder, but it was a team effort – I consider myself the lucky recipient,” he acknowledges.
Do It Again was a R1,1 million National Sales purchase and was knocked down to John Freeman in 2016. “Of the seven Gr1 winners I have bred, he’s the only one that’s been sold for over R1 million as a yearling, which only shows how difficult it is to be successful in the sales ring as well as the racecourse. The others went through the ring at R40k (Basic Instinct), R38k (Circle of Life, buy back), R100k n/s (African Lion), R500k (Deo Juvente) and R600k (Zebra Crossing) whilst August Rush was rejected as below the cut for NYS and did not go to auction.
Eye On The July
As a small breeder, Robin says Northfields Stud has always strived to breed a Durban July winner. “It’s been the focal point since Tecla Bluff (Arg) won the 1983 July. I had bought her for Sydney Press and she was the first filly to win in 25 years. When Coromandel Stud closed, Press gave me Tecla Bluff’s only daughter, Teclafields as a gift. She wasn’t good enough to run in the July, but three of her foals did – Circle Of Life (3rd), African Lion (5th) and Zebra Crossing (5th). Along the way, Zebra Crossing won the 2006 Gr1 J&B Met and Deo Juvente (a son of Circle of Life) won the 2017 Gr1 Champions Challenge.
In order to repeat the construction, Robin bought a daughter of 1985 July and Gold Cup winner Devon Air in Zimbabwe, but by the unfashionable sire Huntingdale. Named Bushgirl, she was unraced and he sent her to quality G1 winning sprinter Var in his first crop on a free nomination, given for buying the stallion. The hope was to breed a 2000m star, but the plan went awry when the foal, August Rush, was ‘only’ a sprinter, but luckily good enough to win the 2011 Gr1 Mercury Sprint for Robin and partners and then campaign overseas, earning R1.8 million. His full sister, Miss October, another fine sprinter, won the Gr3 Tommy Hotspur against the colts.
“I realized from this that the secret to breeding good sprinters is the foil of traits that come from stamina mares”, concludes Robin.
Do It Again’s July victory gave Northfields a unique achievement as a small breeder – they have bred winners of South Africa’s three richest Gr1 events – the July in Durban, the Met in Cape Town and the Champions Challenge in Johannesburg. It may not stop here as Do It Again has been racing for less than a year and given the durability and late maturing character of his parents and siblings, he looks likely to keep improving and add substantially to his record.
“It was gratifying to achieve the goal of breeding a July winner,” says Robin, “and wonderful to see the elation of owners Bernard Kantor, Nic Jonsson and Jack Mitchell, plus being able to commend the Snaith brothers on their training feat of 1-2-3. I loved hearing jockey Anton Marcus say this was his favourite of of his record 5 July wins. It all adds to the colour and history of the race.”
Now that he has bred a July winner, the next lofty goal is to do it again, with the help of Duke of Marmalade and Erupt as his Classic stallions. However next time he aims to own the winner as well. “The Oppenheimers bred and owned five July winners – what a feat! – I have a long way to go!”
In the meantime, his place in history is secure.