Mike Bass took out his trainers licence in 1976 and the winners have been arriving steadily ever since, bringing with them group 1 success, trainer’s titles and turf champions. After falling seriously ill in August last year, Mike announced his retirement at the end of the current season and eLan Gold Cup Day 2016 will bring down the curtain of 40 years of training.
He talks to us about his career, his retirement and saddling second-placed July finisher Marinaresco for his own race, the Gr1 Mike and Carol Bass Champions Cup.
Beryl Markham once said “A lovely horse is always an experience…. It is an emotional experience of the kind that is spoiled by words” and a visit to Mike Bass Racing is very similar. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes it so special, but one always leaves feeling better than when you arrived.
To start with, it is easy to spot Block T3, Koeberg Road – you simply look for the yard with all the cars parked outside it. Through the doors it is much the same – Carol’s mum occupies her seat in the corner, wrapped up against the wintery morning, Candice’s dogs mill around, admin staff answer phones and tap away at computers in the back office and a steady stream of jockeys and visitors made their way in, through and out again, exchanging banter as they go. It is a happy, busy place that naturally draws people to it. And perhaps that’s been the key to their success over the years.
That little bit extra
They say the only difference between ordinary and extraordinary is a little bit extra, but in examining extraordinary people or achievements, there is a tendency to look for imagined exotic and magical explanations for their success. In Mike’s case, the opposite is true.
There are no fireworks, secret recipes or fancy gadgets – just patience, experience and good old-fashioned horsemanship.
Real magic, the stuff that happens out in plain sight: hard work and the art of repeatedly doing things well. Just in their case, a little bit extra. If those are qualities one admires, then Block T3 is one of the best places in the world to be. Perhaps that’s why it’s always so hard to leave.
The other critical factor is teamwork. Mike has always had a strong support base in his family – wife Carol, daughter Candice and son Mark – as well as a close-knit team. There is not a huge staff turnover – those that arrive tend to stay and they all work together with an easy familiarity. As they say, good people make good horses.
While Mike’s illness may have had life-changing consequences, a visit to the stables finds the routine much the same as always. After watching the strings, we retreat to the office to escape the winter chill. Coffees are offered all round and Mike easily recalls how I take mine.
“We have a very close family and are very lucky in that respect. My son Mark brings me to work every day because I’m not quite ready to drive yet. My daughter Candice was always going to take over at some stage, but with this (he gestures at his leg) she was wonderful and took over straightaway. She’s got natural talent too, she’s a good judge and has a good eye for a horse and that’s really what you need.”
“It’s a matter of looking at a horse and deciding whether it needs more work or less – that’s where the judgement comes in and she has that.”
The words are more than just paternal pride, there is a genuine professional respect too.
We warm our hands on our coffee mugs while Mike has his breakfast of Marmite toast and discusses July bombshell and Champions Cup hopeful, Marinaresco. “He was small, but a quality individual and he was my pick of the sale that year. I first saw him on the farm at Mauritzfontein. I knew his dam – Stephen Page had her in Cape Town and I thought she was quite a good filly and probably a bit better than her record reflected, so it was a combination of things – liking the horse and liking the individual. He went for R1,2 million, but he’s by Silvano out of a Fort Wood mare and that’s what they go for these days, but I couldn’t find anything much better. I’m lucky to have patrons with that sort of money. It’s always a bit of a worry when they’re small, but he’s turned out alright.”
In finishing second in this year’s July, Marinaresco stamped himself one of the most exciting 3yo’s of his generation. It’s unusual for Mike to run a 3yo in the July and asked what prompted the decision, he answers, “I’ve never sent many 3yo’s to Durban as it’s hard on them when they’re so young. It was a gamble whether to stay in Cape Town for the 3rd leg of the winter series and the R250k bonus or try for the July, but at the weights we were fairly confident he was in with a chance. I think it worked out OK.”
Behind every great man…
Carol arrives and gets strong-armed onto the sofa. Mike smiles fondly, “Carol has been an absolute rock for me in the stable and she’s been to just about every race meeting. She’s the big boss of the jockeys and the one that moans at them all the time,” he teases. “Carol doesn’t work in the yard as such, but does the books and so on.”
If the dictionary was illustrated there would probably be a picture of Carol next to the entry for ‘diplomatic’. Carol is the consummate trainer’s wife, always ready with a reassuring smile or a kind word although she protests that she’s by far the more emotional of the two. “I have improved over the years though, one has to. That’s the nature of racing – it’s adapt or die! But we’ve always been best friends – we’ve been lucky in that respect.”
After Pocket Power, the second most famous Bass legend is the purchase of their first Met winner, Bunter Barlow. Carol tells the story. “I’d had quite a good night at the casino on the slot machines. I won’t tell you how much I won – it’s crazy where it’s all gone,” she throws up her hands in mock despair. “They put it all in bags and when I got home with all this money, I put it on the table and asked Mike what we should do with it. Mike said that Jimmy Rentzke wanted to sell Bunter Barlow and was asking R75k for a half share, so I said, ‘Let’s buy him!’ Mike rang up and that was that. It was six weeks before the race, so that worked out really well for us.”
Bunter Barlow obligingly finished 3rd in the Premier’s Stakes and qualified for the 2001 J&B Met. Carol continues, “Trademark was the more fancied of our runners and we actually didn’t see Bunter Barlow coming. Because Bunter’s colours were similar to El Picha, we thought Woodruff’s horse had won. We were so disappointed that Trademark had been beaten on the line and then everyone started congratulating us and telling us we’d won. It was quite amazing, really.”
Even more amazing was when the second placed Trademark went on to land their first July a few months later. “They were both bought from the Spier sale,” remembers Mike. “Trademark came from Lionel Cohen and cost R115k and Bunter Barlow was from Daytona and went for R80k. We were quite nervous bidding on Trademark – it was a lot of money and we had no Marsh Shirtliffs at that stage,” he jokes. “They eventually sold him to Dubai for quite a lot and he’s retired out there now on one of the Sheikh’s farms. Paul Devlin’s wife works there and sends us news from time to time. Bunter Barlow was sold to the UK as a hurdle horse, but he was never any good. He’s now retired to a lovely home in France.”
Asked to name the greatest triumph of his career, Carol chips in, “Robert Bloomberg always says getting Dunford to win the July was Mike’s greatest achievement. Robert bought him in training as a 1-time winner.”
“He looked like a Basuto pony,” grins Mike. “But he was gutsy and he had ability and he came into the race at the right weight, you know? He’s retired with Grenville Wilson and we’ve got his brother in the yard at the moment.
“But if I had to name a highlight, it’s hard to look past four Queen’s Plates with Pocket Power.”
While it would be incorrect to only associate Mike with Pocket Power, it is also impossible to mention one without the other. Mike has 6 Queen’s Plates, 5 Mets and 3 Julys to his credit and of those, 4 Queen’s Plates, 3 Mets and 1 July came courtesy of Pocket. The sparky bay’s winning photos occupy a large portion of the office walls and his plaque ‘Pocket Power Lived Here’ still proudly adorns the entrance to the yard. “Marsh (Shirtliff) had been racing for a few years by then, but I didn’t know him,” continues Mike. “He came up to me at the Durbanville sale one year and said ‘My girlfriend wants a horse with you’. I didn’t like the horse he chose, but we ended up buying Tobe Or Nottobe and it was the start of a wonderful relationship.”
Gr1 Mike & Carol Bass Champions Cup
We were amazed to have the race named after us,” says Mike. “Throughout my illness we had fantastic support from so many people. Really, we continue to be amazed.”
Marinaresco carries the Bass flag in ‘their race’ on Sunday and Mike confirms that the horse is doing very well, but admits they will need some luck in the running from their draw.
Asked what his feelings are about his impending retirement, Mike shrugs, “Nothing will change. I’ll still be here every day, but more in an advisory capacity, as I have been in the last couple of months.” As the old expression goes, true horsemen never really retire and Mike is already looking ahead to next season. Mark chips in, “One of the things that Dad deserves credit for is his success with first season sires. We’ve got huge faith in What A Winter and we’ve gone all in at the sales.” Asked what he thinks What A Winter might produce, Mike looks thoughtful, “They’re strong and racy – they look like they’ll win races.”
While it’s unthinkable to imagine SA racing without Mike Bass, it’s farewell, rather than goodbye and comforting to know that he will be back at his post come 1 August. Adding that little bit extra.