Jan and Kate Peskens live on Spring Meadow Stud, an idyllic rural property outside Port Elizabeth surrounded by indigenous milkwood trees and a verdant ridge sheltering them from the Indian Ocean’s brisk winds.
Bushbuck stray down through the thickets into the back garden, whilst, upfront stands former Eastern Cape Horse of the Year, Blaze of Fire. He was owned by the Peskens and their charismatic Bushy Park neighbour – the big hearted, Hedley McGrath.
Mark van Deventer writes that Jan, a quantity surveyor by qualification, and owner of steel engineering firm, Algoa Structures, has put in his own hard labour and capital to establish Spring Meadow. It’s truly a “hobby” stud with only three mares that have produced seven foals to date. Breeding on such a small scale is not a commercial proposition, but a genuine act of devotion to raising a few happy and healthy thoroughbreds.
But, as anyone who deals with sentient beings knows, it can be a rollercoaster ride of occasional highs and many jarring lows.
The past week has been one such traumatic saga for the Peskens who lost their five- time winning mare, Vivalda under tragic circumstances.
Both visibly moved by the dramatic sweep of events, Jan and Kate recounted the story, starting Friday, 18th October.
“Everything up to this point had gone fine with the foal- carrying mare, but there had been load-shedding, so I went down at 18h30 to check on a faulty gate at the entrance to our farm. It was opportune to go to our stables nearby, where I was shocked to find Vivalda laying down in distress with her guts out, “ Jan recalls.
Neighbour Nicky Bartlett of Danika Stud got an alarmed call, and immediately abandoned the guests she was entertaining to dart across to Spring Meadow. With her swift intervention they managed to pull the foal out.
The PE racing fraternity may be small but rally around in times of pressing need. With no other vets immediately available, the race day vet in PE, Dr Charles Haywood came rushing through to try salvage the situation.
Unfortunately, the mare was too far gone and had to be shot.
Even though dead, she was then milked every 1 ½ hours with her essential colostrum supplied to the vulnerable foal. Calls were made to find a surrogate mother, and this is where the dreaded bureaucracy around African Horse Sickness regulations became a massive impediment to quickly doing the right thing – and saving a life.
Hemel ‘n Arde’s David Hepburn Brown kindly offered one of Marsh Shirtliff mares, Butterfly Girl, who had lost a foal, to take over surrogate duties. However, permission is required to move horses from different zones around the country by the Department of Agriculture and Veterinary Services (DAFF). With no government officials available on Friday night, another option to the Western Cape transfer suggestion had to be considered.
Enter the official, Danielle Pienaar, who tried her best within the rules, supporting the option to contact David Southey in Colesberg.
His Fort Wood mare, Wood Sprite had lost her foal that same day, so it was worth taking a chance. This triggered a stressful 12- hour road trip from Port Elizabeth to the Karoo town and back whereupon Jan, assisted by Kate, their daughter Jacqueline and Nicky Bartlett, tried to introduce the filly to the mare, who was doing poorly. It turned out that Wood Sprite had suffered internal injuries from foaling, requiring constant dripping and antibiotics to keep her going.
Working shifts through Sunday night, Jan, Kate and Jacqueline were relieved to see the struggling mare accept the filly as her own. However, Wood Sprite was declining fast and collapsed due to a failing heart rate. After consultation with David Southey, it was agreed that the mare would be euthanazed.
These staunch Eastern Cape horse lovers are a resilient bunch. Even with two deceased mares on the casualty list they were not going to be deterred from finding a solution to save the foal. Horse transporters are, in practice, rarely stopped for checks but breaking the law, whilst tempting when under duress, was not a serious option.
Hedley McGrath takes up the story, “These A.H.S. restrictions are maddening but all along we still wanted to play by the book. The foal desperately needed a surrogate mother and David Hepburn Brown had a suitable candidate. Bev Parker and Danielle Pienaar were grinding through the paperwork on Monday and a foal I.D. was still needed. By 14h00 we’d got that to D.A.F.F. and a permit for the road journey to Hermanus in the Cape was granted.”
With Nicky Bartlett’s head staff member, Michael assisting with driving responsibilities together with a mentally shattered Jan Peskens on the float, the bewildered foal was whisked off on yet another arduous journey.
Stopping every two hours for feeding, in conditions that were stormy and windy, it made for glacier- slow progress. The bedraggled mercy team only clocked in at 23h00 on the Hemel n Aarde farm.
After lurching from one tragic loss and setback to the next, things were to suddenly work out favourably.
Highly experienced stud man, David Hepburn Brown assumed a calming role, assuring Peskens that it would turn out fine. Indeed, as if by magic, the mare called the foal straight away, who started drinking immediately. Jan, who admits to being fearful that the mare would not accept the foal, recounts, “There was no need for a bottle. Butterfly Girl was instinctively caring, nudging the foal to sleep. It was a total adoption.”
Jan calculates the bid to save the foal involved slogging 2600km around South Africa. Sleep deprived and emotionally wrung out, he and Kate sat pensively on Friday at their regular table slot overlooking Fairview racecourse. They’d come to watch Nickelback, their Blaze of Fire homebred out of the mare they’d lost a few days before, Vivalda, having a second career start with ace trainer, Yvette Bremner.
An aside – racing, as we all know, is under serious threat.
Put in wider context, South Africa is going through an especially discouraging spell economically, and with divisive politics undermining any vision of a cohesive, prosperous nation. Phumelela, the operator, is in deep financial strife. On course attendances are dispiritingly low. Betting turnovers are shrinking as cash -strapped gamblers move to other less complicated forms of betting. The foal crop is down by 25% with most breeders finding it impossible to make ends meet given low prices at regional sales. And, owners, cruelly zapped by increasing costs and stakes reductions, are bailing out.
Champion Australian trainer Chris Waller humbly said, on accepting accolades after winning the inaugural running of The Everest with Yes Yes Yes at Randwick, “This is a great game and I’m proud to be a part of it.” Despite all the doom and gloom and given what they’d been through in the past week, perhaps that is how Jan and Kate Peskens felt when Nickelback came storming through up the centre of the sun- kissed Fairview turf to shed his Maiden on Friday.
The Pesken’s stoicism and “boer maak ‘n plan” pragmatism in the face of adversity is to be commended.
The resilience of all those committed horse people mentioned in this story is also admirable. Often times though it feels as if one is swimming against the tide. For example, it’s a crying shame that a self- interested lobby group invoking bizarre E.U. chicken restrictions can scupper long worked upon strategic plans to relax A.H.S. regulations and open export opportunities for SA racing, something which could help salvage an under siege thoroughbred industry.
People with a passion for racing persevere against all odds, hatching optimistic plans even when viable opportunities seem to be diminishing.
To illustrate, McGrath has firmly declared his support for Blaze of Fire, the only son of U.A.E. Horse of the Year, Victory Moon at stud in South Africa. “I’m going to send all my bold Black Type mares, Via Seattle, star sprinter Princess Rebel, Widows Lamp and others to him.”
Mainstream commercial breeders may scoff at such a show of local support for an unheralded stallion as being based on misguided loyalty. Yet there are no absolute rules in racing and breeding. In 2014 and 2016, arguably the best thorougbred in the world was California Chrome, sired by American horse, Lonely Pulpit who was dismissed as a failed stallion, and was standing then for a paltry two thousand dollars.
It will be interesting to see how the progeny of Blaze of Fire fare.
He has a very handsome foal (see below) out of the Silvano mare, Cotillion at foot.
The youngster will receive devoted care at Spring Meadows from the Pesken’s who intend racing him when he’s good and ready.
This breeding game is never dreary – literally, life and death dramas are constantly being played out.
It takes tough characters to ride this rollercoaster without weakening. The sound value of always doing the right thing even if it’s hard, and the dream of breeding a good horse is what keeps them soldiering on….