Dr T’s Royal Victory

A fascinating lady

When Royal Victory flashed past the post at 33/1 to win the richest Gr1 race in Johannesburg, the R5 million Betway Gr1 Summer Cup run over 2000m, it surprised a lot of people – but not the breeder Marianne Thomson, who owns Ambiance Stud in Worcester, Cape Province.

Robin Bruss writes that Marianne has long been a small breeder, whose horses tend to surprise, for she breeds warriors aimed at the racetrack, if not for the sales ring.

Dr. Marianne Thomson (Pic – Supplied)

How else would you term it, when her Ambiance Stud has bred at least 8 individual Gr1 winners, and yet if you look at her National Yearling Sales prices for the past four years, her stud sells its yearlings at around 35% below the average for the sale.

“I’m not setting out to be the breeder of cheap horses”, Marianne explains, “but when you are a small breeder, you unfortunately tend to escape the notice of the biggest buyers at the sales.”

“The only part of breeding horses that I absolutely dislike is the selling part. My stress levels  go wild when sales approach. I find it very hard to do sales talk. I put so much time and effort into planning the horse, raising them to be hard and sound and happy, and above all to have manners and to trust humans.”

“My focus has always been on raising athletic, sound, horses to win races, rather than predicting the commercial fashion of the day”, she says.

Summer Cup Gr1 Winner, Royal Victory (by Pathfork – Kailani by Kahal) was no exception at the 2021 National Yearling Sales.

He was sold as Lot 80 and made R90,000 to the astute bid of trainer Natie Kotzen in a sale which averaged R276,000, or three times what Royal Victory sold for, and the median price R200,000. The top priced of that sale was R2,8 million and that colt so far has 2 wins with a merit rating of 86.

Royal Victory wins the Betway Gr1 Summer Cup (Pic – JC Photos)

Royal Victory’s earnings tally of R3,636,260 so far is therefore a fine advert for the breeding policies of Marianne at her Ambiance Stud.

Consider that in the previous crop, she bred Alesian Chief (Vercingetorix – All in the Mind, by Var) who was not sold at the Sales and eventually sold privately to Corrie Lensley and won both the 2022 Golden Horse Sprint (Gr1) and the Johannesburg Merchants (Gr3) earning R905,000 for his happy owners.

Vercingetorix’ ill-fated son Alesian Chief  (Pic- JC Photos)

The global rule of thumb in the 65 countries that conduct racing is that a Gr1 win is achieved by one horse in approximately every 1000 horses, and therefore to breed a Gr1 winner is a rare and signal achievement, which most breeders only aspire to, but never attain.

Marianne has bred EIGHT individual Gr1 Winners.

In addition, she bred Almah (Al Mufti-Jazz Champion), the Equus Champion Female Stayer 2003, who would have been a Gr1 winner if South Africa staged a Gr1 championship race for older fillies and mares over more than 2000m.

Almah’s achievement saw her exported to Australia for stud, where she has 7 runners and 6 winners, including the Gr3 winner Sensible Lover.

The first of Marianne’s Gr1 winners were the two full brothers, both by Al Mufti (USA) out of the mare Jessamine, which she acquired from Jean Heming after she won the Gerald Rosenberg S (Gr2).

The first was The Sheik (R180,000 Yearling) who won the 2000 Cape Derby (Gr1) and the 2000 South African Guineas (Gr1) and earned his place as a stallion at Scott Bros in KZN.

His full brother was Al Nitak (R150,000 Yearling), who Mary Liley raced, and he was a total surprise – he didn’t win at 2, broke his maiden at 2000m at 3, and seemed a decidedly below average middle-distance horse.

Then, at Marianne’s suggestion, he was transferred to the genius sprint trainer, Buddy Maroun and Al Nitak was reinvented as a brilliant sprinter, winning 12 races including the Golden Horse Sprint (Gr1), the Johannesburg Merchants (Gr1), and the Tommy Hotspur S (Gr3). He was adjudged Equus Champion Sprinter 2002/03 and Marianne had bred her first Champion.

Jessamine deservedly won The Broodmare of the Year Trophy of 2003.

Marianne had acquired  Damascus Road (by Mecca Road), a smart filly who had won 8 races including the Tibouchina S, then a Listed Stakes. In sending her to Al Mufti, the resulting foal was Alastor (an R80,000 Yearling)  who proceeded to win 10 races for trainer Sean Tarry including the 2005 J&B Met (Gr1) and earn R1,9 million.

2005 J&B Met win with Alastor

Garth Puller and Sean Tarry celebrate 2005 J&B Met winner Alastor

In the same season, Cataloochee (Al Mufti – Lexington Love by Old Testament) a R180,000 Yearling became the fourth Gr1 for the stud, winning the double of the Computaform Sprint (Gr1) and the Golden Horse Sprint (Gr1), and another Equus Award of Champion Sprinter of South Africa 2004/05.

Sarabande (Goldmark- Blitz Polka by Truly Nureyev) was the fifth Gr1 Winner, winning the Fancourt Majorca Stakes (Gr1) 2004 over 1600m, beating a start studded field of five other Gr1 winners.

The grey filly didn’t make the cut for the National Sales and was sold at a regional Cape Sale.

Loved by her supporters and very successful as a foundation mare for Avontuur Stud, she produced three SW including Volta, 8-time winner and Listed SW, and later the dam of the 2023 Computaform Sprint (Gr1) winner Master ArchieSarabande has the distinction of having an Avontuur boutique wine named after her.

In 2005, the TBA honoured Marianne with the Equus Outstanding Breeder Award.

Number 6 was Bull Valley (Toreador- Star of Liberty by Saumarez) (R180,000 Yearling), son of a speed stallion and a stoutly bred mare, was another fireball sprinter for Ambiance. He won 6 races and R1,637,125  including the rare double of the Tsogo Sun Sprint (Gr1) and the Mercury Sprint (Gr1) in 2017.

Bull Valley – winner of the Golden Horse Sprint in 2017 and the Mercury Sprint the same year

Then, in recent years, number 7 and 8 are Alesian Chief and Royal Victory.

What is more remarkable than any racetrack achievement is Marianne herself.

She has been an equine vet her whole working life, and only started breeding horses in her forties, as an adjunct to her veterinary practice.

At age 83, Marianne packs more effort into her working week than people half her age.

She still services three outside farms, travelling to their studs on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to palpate mares and engage in routine veterinary work. Generally, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays are reserved for her own stud. Weekends are spent in her beloved garden where she is at her happiest.

She does regular surgery and is esteemed for her fountain of knowledge built on her hands-on practical experience of all things equine, and her intellect and drive which remains high and full of energy.

With 12 grandchildren and a family spread globally from Canada to China, Dr T, as many know her, leads a very full and active life.

Marianne also bred Lil’ Bacio (Windrush-Bacio) who didn’t get to race, and which she gifted to Wynand Nel. Lil Bacio produced for him the 2020 South African Derby (Gr1) winner Out of Your League and the Stakes Winner Zeus, who ran 4th in Royal Victory’s Summer Cup Gr1.

That her CV contains so much understated success will surely mean greater respect and recognition in the sales ring that her accomplishments deserve.

The Ambiance drafts at the Cape Yearling Sale in January 2024 and the National Sales in April 2024 include colts by Hawaam, Rafeef, Master of My Fate, and Elusive Fort, with perhaps the most intriguing being Summer Cup hero Royal Victory’s half-sister by Querari, going to Nationals.

I asked Marianne how she chooses her matings: “I am a practical hands-on person” she says, “ I know my mares very well and I am able to choose stallions that suit them on conformation and temperament”.

“I respect the pedigrees, but I find it more relevant to choose on complementary physical characteristics, I don’t set out to breed a sprinter or a stayer, I just aim to breed good sound, well balanced, good looking individuals that win races”.

“I own a share in Vercingetorix, and some shares in lesser stallions, but by and large I have to be more considered if I’m paying a stud fee”.

Pathfork, highest rated 2yo in Ireland

Pathfork wins the Gr1 National Stakes over 7f as a 2-year-old in Ireland

Pathfork (IRE), sire of Royal Victory, is a case in point.  He stands for R5,000 service fee and Marianne uses him every year.  What she has recognised, and perhaps other smart breeders will now realise, is that he is actually, a smart stallion, who sits way under the radar.

Below are his lifetime statistics:

Crop Foals Rnrs Wnrs Wins SH SW (GW) SWs(GWs) R
13/14 54 46 (85%) 31 108 3 2 (2) 2 (2) 8,673,175
14/15 57 51 (68%) 35 96 5 2 (1) 2 (1) 8,553,840
15/16 53 44 (68%) 30 111 7 4 (3) 10 (6) 11,305,877
16/17 57 45 (66%) 30 101 8 3 (1) 3 (1) 6,965,381
17/18 49 43 (63%) 27 81 3 1 (1) 2 (2) 6,342,297
18/19 27 24 (84%) 20 62 3 2 3 4,502,376
19/20 40 36 (64%) 23 47 3 2 (1) 3 (2) 7,380,522
20/21 14 10 (60%)  6 11 1 1 (1) 2 (2) 1,532,250
Totals 351 299 (68%)202 617 33 17 (10) 27 (16) 55,255,718

Statistics courtesy of Arion Pedigrees

He has 68% winners from runners, and has sired 17 SW, which is 5,6% SW to Runners, which is much higher than the national average; and yet Pathfork stands for one of the lowest advertised fees.

Amongst his 17 stakes winners are four outstanding horses: Mighty High (won the Allan Robertson Fillies Championship Gr1), Pearl of Asia (won the Mercury Sprint Gr1), Royal Victory (Summer Cup Gr1) and, probably the best of the lot, the star youngster Main Defender (currently the joint highest rated 3-year-old in South Africa).

Pathfork (Ire) (by Distorted Humour – Visions of Clarity by Sadlers Wells) was bred by the famed Niarchos family and was the Irish Champion Two Year Old of 2010 when he won the National S (Gr1) 7f and the Futurity S (Gr2). He finished a creditable 7th in the 2000 Guineas (Gr1) won by Frankel.

Originally well syndicated to stand at Ridgemont, confidence waned in his commercial appeal and he was transferred to James Armitage’s Sandown Stud in 2018 around the time Mighty High, born in his 3rd crop, won the Alan Robertson Fillies Championship.

According to James,  he is used now mostly by smaller breeders, who send him around 30 mares per year, although after Main Defender’s exploits this year, his book has swelled to 45.

He breeds a solid type, gets good colts and fillies, mostly with good size and sound correct limbs, and gets what you call a “trainer’s horse” – solid, dependable, sound, consistent runners.

In Mauritius, he has 21 winners from 24 runners; in Zimbabwe, its 7 winners from 9 runners and in Kenya, 1 runner, 1 winner. His consistency is well known. Whatever preconceptions or prejudices buyers in the commercial market might hold against him, it’s hard not to recognise FACTS.  He is a good stallion.

Given Royal Victory’s win in the R5m Summer Cup Gr1, it seems that, like Marianne Thomson’s Ambiance Stud, recognition and reward for Pathfork are going to be a lot higher going forward into the future.

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