Apparently life’s about the journey, rather than the destination. But sometimes it is both as Drakenstein Stud Farm’s recent stallion day proved.
August is a magical time in the Western Cape. It’s that funny, in between time which is neither still winter, nor quite yet spring. Below the soil, the rains have worked their magic and with the solstice behind us and the days starting to stretch ahead towards summer, new life is shooting tiny fingers up towards the sun, colouring the landscape every shade of green. It is a brief, sweet hiatus before the frenzy of the summer months and with August signalling the start of the breeding season, it is also alive with optimism and expectation. It is a wonderful time for a drive and when your destination is Drakenstein Stud Farm, the destination truly is even better than the journey.
Arriving at the farm entrance, we sign the register and are waved through. As the day is by strict invitation, the outside world is left firmly outside the gate and it is bliss to feel its weight fade into oblivion the further one travels up the driveway.
Although a little early for the trademark agapanthus that line the avenue, the snowdrops were out in full bloom and there was no need for the speed limit sign as one naturally adjusts your pace to Drakenstein’s rhythm.
Under the gentle drizzle, liveried Motor Museum attendants deftly wrangled umbrellas to ensure we got to the tram in the dry and we chatted with our fellow travellers on the way to the stallion complex, catching up on news of new foals and the season to come. It’s still early enough in the breeding season for most to be fresh and in good humour, buoyed by baby joy before the long, hard nights and inevitable disappointments over the ones who don’t always finish the race.
While parched Cape residents gave thanks for the rain, it meant a bit more work for the Drakenstein staff. However, Bedouin tents were conjured up and erected outside the stallion barn and presto – we had an undercover viewing area.
Greeting us at the stallion barns was a welcome table with a choice of caps, both to ward off the cold as well as a keepsake and a vote for your favourite Drakenstein stallion. The coffee station did brisk business as people warmed their hands on the cups and chatted to friends between bites of the delicious baked sweets while we waited for the rest of the guests to arrive.
Parade of Champions
The inclement weather meant the stallions did not get their customary morning turnout before being brought out on parade and the stallion men did sterling work keeping their charges in hand. Futura was the first to be walked out and the 2015 Horse Of The Year has let down into a truly magnificent specimen. Perhaps more arresting than his physical proportions is his keen gaze, suggesting a lively and intelligent temperament. Futura has just celebrated the arrival of his first foal at Highlands Farms Stud and the son of Dynasty stands for a fee of R20k.
Kingsbarns, a Gr1 winning son of Galileo was up next and it was my first opportunity to appraise the Irish import at close quarters. He is a well-made horse, dense and compact and I liked him enormously. It is a well-advertised fact that Kingsbarns suffers fertility issues and Ross Fuller talked us through some of the initiatives in place to help matters along with refreshing candour. The efforts have been well rewarded. Kingsbarns produced a respectable first South African crop in 2016 and reports are that his foals are outstanding.
What A Winter
What A Winter improves year on year. His broad head and large jowls are topped off with large, beautiful eyes and his famous stolid temperament completes the package. Given his incredible sprinting speed, it was a puzzle that he retained the slightly lighter, lithe physique of a miler in training, but under the expert eye of Ross and the team, he has filled out into a magnificent specimen and becomes more powerful looking with every season. His first crop of 2yo’s hit our tracks with enthusiasm and their sire’s precocious speed, delivering three stakes winners from his first clutch of runners and landing him the title of South Africa’s Leading First Crop sire for 2016/17. What A Winter progeny have been warmly received in the sales ring, making his shrewd R50k cover fee something of a bargain and he is already fully booked.
Next out was Legislate. The 2014 Vodacom Durban July winner and Horse Of The Year looks a picture, but has also sadly suffered fertility issues. Again, these were openly discussed along with the initiatives to mitigate the worst of it and his first foals are anxiously awaited. His fee for 2017 is a very attractive R20k. His racing team of Justin and Jono Snaith as well as Richard Fourie were on hand for the occasion. Richard has always spoken very highly of Legislate and it was fun to reminisce about some of their career highlights later in the afternoon.
Asked to describe Duke Of Marmalade, Aidan O’Brien once said, “If horses were made of concrete and stone, he would be made of something harder”. He is another absolute standout. Instantly recognizable, ‘The Duke’ has a haughty, regal air about him and doesn’t walk into view so much as arrive. One feels there should be some kind of musical flourish to accompany him. He is the only South African based sire to produce an English Classic winner (Simple Verse) and one need look no further than his Ascot Gold Cup winner, Big Orange, to see that toughness comes as standard. His expression indicates that he knows it. The Duke’s fee for 2017 is R80k and his first South African runners will hit our tracks later this year.
Leather head collars are usually generously cut and there are few horses that genuinely fill them. Philanthropist is one. The imposing chestnut son of Kris S is billed as measuring 16’3hh, but seems taller in the flesh. He stands over a lot of ground and with a ‘leg at each corner’ has an engine to go with each. He may not be the most classically beautiful horse, but as I am often reminded, ‘this ain’t no beauty contest’ and his first crop include the likes of Singapore Sling, Sail and She’s A Giver. Philanthropist commands a R30k cover fee.
Saving the best for last, at 20 years old, 2015/16 Champion sire Trippi is the grand old man of Drakenstein Stud. Although he is now shod all round to help him stay sound and there is perhaps more purpose and less spring in his step than on previous visits, he nonetheless remains imperious and has a deep lustre to his coat, broadcasting his health and well-being. I notice that he is led out by Schedrick Oerson, who also used to handle his great friend, Horse Chestnut. Trippi’s feature ‘haul’ for last season includes the likes of Gold Standard, Trip To Heaven and Deo Juvente’s courageous President’s Champion’s Challenge victory. Having recently lost Captain Al at the age of 20, it is a jolt to realise that Silvano and Trippi are of a similar generation. It’s hard not to acknowledge that they are felling in that neck of the woods and that we should make the most of these wonderful horses while we still can.
With the formal viewing over, we were all invited to inspect the horses in their stables before a short tram ride back to the main buildings for lunch in front of a roaring log fire.
For those with an appreciation of art, the garden and buildings are a collection of treasures. It’s hard to pick a favourite favourite, but I always look forward to reacquainting myself with Bonheur’s exquisite horse and jockey.
However, with apologies to everyone for the wonderful food and company, my favourite part of the day was lingering in the stable area and joining Rennie Price and Eugene Freeman for a tour of the stables by Ross Fuller, who gave us a private audience with every stallion and some insights into their quirks and character traits. The temptation to touch them was just too much to resist. After all, it’s not often you get to pat two horses of the year on the same day, but at Drakenstein excellence comes as standard.
A huge thank you to Mrs Rupert, Ross Fuller, Kevin Somerville, Gavin Pickford, the stallion team and all the staff behind the scenes for yet another unforgettable visit.