The prospect of owning a good horse is what keeps most of us in the game. However, if an even greater satisfaction exists, it lies in producing a good horse yourself and statistics reflect that owner-breeders still enjoy remarkable success. On the South African racing calendar, races don’t come a lot bigger than the Vodacom Durban July and it has been won by owner-breeders a few times, with the Oppenheimers topping the log with five home-bred winners. Another set of owner-breeders enjoying remarkable success are Alec and Gillian Foster, who bred and own current July favourite, Black Arthur.
Both Alec and Gillian enjoy strong horsey backgrounds. Gillian is an accomplished rider and although Alec also knows his way around a saddle, his interest has always been more racing related. “Both my parents were good riders and my father in particular was an exceptional horseman. He was a good judge of a horse and rode very well across country – in fact, he was famous for it.”
“My maternal grandfather bred horses in England. He started in the 1920’s and went on until he died in 1963. He bred some very nice horses and won some good races, but that was before the pattern came out. I was always interested in racing – mainly from my grandfather – and my mother took me to the races to see some of his horses. He bred the 1923 Ascot Gold Vase winner, Maid Of Perth. I still have the vase,” he adds. “Our scarlet and gold racing colours are the same as my grandfather’s.”
The couple came to South Africa thanks to Alec’s other passion – cricket. “I came to South Africa on a cricket tour in 1977 and again in 1981 with a club I played for at the time. We stayed with various people around the country and with Denham Rodwell in Johannesburg. At the time Denham was a part owner of Wolf Power who was eventually sold to America. He had imported horses from England and asked me to help find him a horse that could race in South Africa with the prospect of becoming a stallion. I found him an agent and he bought Hot Touch. He won The Champions Cup at Clairwood. I was a shareholder in the horse and when he was syndicated as a stallion, Denham asked what mare I was sending him. I hadn’t got a mare and he said I’d better find one! That’s how it started really.”
“Mick Goss helped ‘find a mare,’ Mon Amie a daughter of Sun Monarch. I put her to Hot Touch and the first horse I bred won 4 races, trained by Michael Riley.” Inspired by this success, Alec laughs “I was standing on one leg – I had 1 broodmare and 1 share in a stallion!” However, their interests have grown and flourished. Mon Amie’s next foal was Natal Oaks winner, Steamy Window who was also trained by Michael Riley. Michael said ‘she has a chance here and we’ve got to have the best jockey we can.’ He managed to get Felix Coetzee and she led from start to finish. It was an unbelievable ride. Unfortunately she got sick after that and never raced again.”
“I was in Natal for 20 years with Mick Goss at Summerhill and increased my mares. I raced some and sold some in those days – we had success and enjoyment. After the cricket tours, we liked the country so much, we came out every year and eventually bought a property in Cape Town. It seemed the obvious decision to move our horses to the Cape, where we could see them and have access to the Cape stallions. I met John Freeman at the Goodwood sales and that was a very fortuitous moment – he has helped us enormously over the years and we could not have done it without him. He advises on matings and does all the admin, looking after us so extremely well.”
“When we came to the Cape, I realised I had too many mares spread across several studs, which involved a lot of travel, so in consultation with John we decided to narrow it down to 10. He also advised us to move the mares to one stud so you could see them as a group and recommended Varsfontein. John Kalmanson and Susan Rowett were very kind to take us and we’ve been there for nearly 10 years.”
“It’s been very enjoyable and we’ve had success. Not that we hadn’t in the past – we won the Gold Cup with Cereus with Alan Greeff in 2001 and Redcarpet Style who I purchased as a foal and couldn’t find a buyer so we raced him. I met Stanley Greeff thanks to Mick Goss at Summerhill and we got on well. I sent him some horses and he did very well with them and after he retired Alan took over and trained Cereus, who was his first Gr1 winner. Between his father and him, we’ve had some very good times. We also enjoyed success with Peter Kannemeyer and Dean. More recently we have horses with Vaughan Marshall” (who Alec befriended through a mutual enjoyment of cricket). However, “the majority are with Justin Snaith, which has been a great success; and he has Black Arthur. We’ve had a lot of fun and appreciate all the friends we have made through racing.”
“I like breeding horses and racing them. It’s the satisfaction of planning a long term strategy.
If you breed, in my view, one word that should be writ large is patience.
If you’re not patient, then it’s going to be more difficult to bring success to the table.”
Advantages of being an owner/breeder
“Owner breeders can do things they want more easily because they’re not selling. If I bred commercially, I would do it differently – it’s what the market wants.” Asked whether he aims for a specific type of horse or with a particular race in mind, he answers, “One hopes to breed horses with soundness. If they can’t stand up to the rigours of racing, it’s terribly depressing. One has to strive to have the good broodmares. You need speed, bone and soundness. Silvano, one of my favourite stallions, who I used early in his career, has horses that are running at 5, 6 and 7 and they’re sound. I have admired German breeding for a long time. Dynasty is a wonderful sire, probably better than his father. Captain Al’s are fast and tough.”
Any secrets to success?
“There was a famous and successful US investor, Shelby Davis, who specialised in insurance stocks. He was once asked the nature of his success and his reply was
‘It’s not the winners that I’ve owned, it’s the losers that I haven’t.’
I think of that every day as I go to work.”
“In business and breeding racehorses one has to be realistic – if you are not, you won’t last very long. I’ve been in the insurance and investment business all my life and breeding racehorses is much the same as owning shares. You should keep your winners and cut your losers.”
“We try and name our foals on the same theme, so that you can identify the families. Grace Me Guide has been our best mare and she’s the dam of Black Arthur. All her foals are named around Gillian’s family and home in Scotland.”
“Sometimes when you see a foal there is a special buzz. Everything is in the right place and you can see the potential of what might be. When we first saw Black Arthur – we thought ‘wow’. He’s a full brother to M’Lords Throat, with a lovely temperament as well as plenty of ability.”
Have they made any travel plans for July? “I usually come out for 10 days in winter to see the horses. The tickets are booked to Durban.”