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James Armitage – Cleared For Takeoff

The Armitage Factor

James Armitage

James Armitage (photo: hamishNIVENPhotography)

There are plenty of quotes about learning from past mistakes to build future success. Oddly, other than ‘success breeds success’ there seem to be fewer about success in the past leading to future glory.

Success is difficult to measure and different people see success in different ways. However, doing something that leads to a desired result is generally an affirmation that you are doing something right. People who measure this sort of thing find that people doing something that leads to success will most likely continue doing it. But I don’t think you need a research degree to work that out.

Generally speaking, most of us have to gain experience from the school of hard knocks and do our own learning from making our own mistakes. Smart people learn from other people’s mistakes. Really smart people learn from others’ success.

With the vagaries of genetics, breeding horses is something of a dark art. Achieving success once might be considered lucky. Considering consistent success therefore is either the realm of great fantasy, or great skill.

Someone who has had a pretty solid schooling in the science of breeding success, is Sandown Stud’s James Armitage, who has recently become the third generation of the Armitage breeding dynasty to produce a Gr1 winner.

A bit of background

The Armitage family has been involved in horse-racing since Jim Armitage was established Rathvale Stud just outside Standerton in the Eastern Transvaal in 1935. He had two sons, Geoff (father of James), followed 14 years later by the late Trevor Armitage, of Beach Beauty fame. Geoff reminisces, “My Father started breeding Thoroughbreds in about 1935. He had been breeding purebred Hereford bulls. At about that time he took five bulls to the Rand Easter Show to sell. It was the time of the Depression and he refused Five Pounds each for them, trucked them back to the farm at Standerton and sold them for Three Pounds each. So ended purebred Hereford breeding! A local Thoroughbred breeder called Hadley was selling his good South African-bred mares and buying imported mares from England. Jim had an old stallion named Pietrie who had been in the betting for the English Derby, bought some mares from Hadley and started breeding Thoroughbreds.” R.J. (Jim) Armitage’s all-red racing colours, first registered in 1946, are now in the name of grandson, James.

After Pietrie, other stallions to stand at Rathvale included Michaelmas who was “a reasonable success”; Bobo, a rig out of a sister to the Derby winning Blue Peter; and Davy Gordon by Mr. Jinks, many of whose progeny were trained by Jack Butler. Then came Pent House II, purchased from the Cape. Geoff continues, “He had had six runners of which five had won, one had won six races and Pent House was being used as a teaser.” In Jim’s hands, Pent House proved a huge success and was named Champion Stallion for the 1968/69 season. He sired horses such as Bridesman (1965 SA Derby), Sky Line (1965 Cape Guineas, 1965 Cape Derby), Appointment (1966 SA Derby, 1967 Cape Derby), Wave Crest, Storm Signal and Nile Guard, but perhaps greatest amongst them was the mighty Home Guard. Trained by Henry Eatwell, Home Guard set (and still holds) the South Africa record for winning his first 11 starts, of which 9 were feature races including the SA Nursery Plate (by 7.5 lengths), Benoni Guineas (by 5 lengths) and the SA Derby. Home Guard’s winning streak ended in the 1969 July Handicap when, as the hot favourite, he was beaten 0.75 of a length by Naval Escort to who he was conceding 9lbs. He would go on to add the 1970 Summer Handicap, the 1971 Hawaii Stakes and the 1971 Woolavington Stakes to his resume, before ending off his career with a 2nd to Mazarin in the 1971 Champion Stakes.

A few years later, Brigadier Scott, who was the head of the BBA and a family friend, suggested the Crepello horse, Kirsch Flambee, who needs little introduction as the sire of Shelter (1975 Allan Robertson), Sun Tonic (1978 Woolavington), and the unforgettable Gatecrasher. The rangy chestnut was famously unbeaten on left handed courses, winning the 1974 Cape Guineas, 1975 Benson & Hedges Metropolitan Stakes, 1975 Chairmans Stakes, 1975 Champion Stakes and lost the 1975 Rothmans July on objection.

Second Generation

The Late Trevor Armitage and his wife Minou

The late Trevor Armitage and his wife Minou

Trevor Armitage remained on the family farm to assist his father in running the stud and the farm and took over Rathvale Stud when Jim retired. Trevor subsequently moved to Volksrust where, from only a handful of mares, he bred many good horses in his own right, including 1993 Natal Oaks winner Summer Line; Premier’s Juvenile Championship, Sharp Electronics Cup winner and champion 2yo Gold Tax, and the incomparable Beach Beauty.

Geoff Armitage moved to Rhodesia in 1972 and started farming about an hour’s drive from Salisbury. With four mares from Standerton, he founded Sandown Stud. It was the halcyon period of Zimbabwean breeding and racing, producing horses of the ilk of Ipi Tombe, Zimbabwean Triple Crown winner Match Winner, Battle Maiden, Honour The Guest, Dupa Dice, Bluff, Gypsy Silk (grandam of French Navy), Rusedski and Gold Merchant.

Geoff & Ann Armitage

Geoff & Ann Armitage

Geoff’s policy of offering all the colts for sale as yearlings and racing the fillies so that the best could be returned to stud proved a sound one and Sandown was the country’s leading breeder for 24 years. They stood stallions such as Royal Wink (loaned from Jim for a season), Quintipor, Nissr and Pochard, before Alistair Brown helped them procure Goldkeeper. There are no Gr1 races in Zimbabwe, so Geoff had to wait until 2003 for his first Gr1 winner, when the Neil Bruss-trained Battle Maiden snatched the Garden Province Stakes by a nose from Ilha Da Vitoria.

With the writing increasingly clearly on the wall for Zimbabwe, Geoff wisely decided to relocate Goldkeeper to Wilfred Koster’s Cheveley Stud in Ceres in addition to a small band of mares who were consigned into the care of Mike Barnard at Daytona Stud.

Handing over the reins

James studied at Pietermaritzburg University and before joining his father, decided to travel extensively to learn about the breeding industry. He worked for James De La Hooke on his Adstock Manor Stud, as well as joining Guy Harwood and De La Hooke doing the sales circuit in America and England. It was during the height of the era of Dancing Brave, who had been selected by De La Hooke and trained by Harwood and James says “It was a wonderful time as they were both at the top of their game.”

James returned to Zimbabwe in 1992, taking over the neighbouring farm in his own right to grow tobacco, maize, Rhodes grass seed and chilies for export, ostriches and cattle. He continued assisting Geoff until he retired in 2003 and then took over the running of Sandown.

With the Zimbabwean situation becoming increasingly difficult, the final straw came when skyrocketing inflation made the value of their yearling proceeds fall by two-thirds in the 18 days between the annual sale and the cheques being issued. When their farms were expropriated, James and his wife Joy moved to South Africa in 2006. They managed to bring 14 mares with them and with Goldkeeper and the handful of mares that had come to South Africa with him a couple of years earlier, they set about rebuilding. “We’re farmers, you know? I think farming is a pretty tough lifestyle anyway, so we’re used to making a plan. It’s what we do,” James says philosophically. James and Joy initially settled on a portion of Daytona Stud, before making a home for themselves at their current location just outside Stellenbosch.

Henry Ford once said that when everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it. At the outset, James stated that his ambition was to “buy fresh land, build up a decent broodmare band, get a nice stallion and produce horses good enough for export.” In the past 8 years, the broodmare numbers have swelled to 60+, they briefly stood Rabah for two seasons (producing champion WC 2yo Firebolt as well as the very useful Rabattache), before the royally bred Ashaawes joined the stallion roster in 2008. Sandown has been churning out a steady stream of big race contenders, both locally and abroad. Cerise Cherry (Goldkeeper – Cherry Girl) finished 4th in the 2013 International Gr1 Longines Sprint in Hong Kong finishing second in the same race the following year; Golden Music (who finished less than half a length 3rd to Seventh Rock and Argonaut in the Gold Medallion), Secret Life, Imperial Gold, Royal Extravagance and Priceless Jewel are Gr1 placed; Tribal Dance, Royal Exit, Golden Ivory, Gold Site, Francois Bernardus, Reim and Runaway Man are Gr3 winners and on 28 March, James became the 3rd generation Armitage to produce a Gr1 winner, when French Navy stormed home in the SA Classic.

Generation Next

I first met James at Kenilworth ahead of the 2012 CTS Book 2 sale. It was early evening and with the viewings and sales activities done for the day, the stabling complex was all but deserted. I was taking advantage of the peace and quiet to re-look at a few sale lots and found James methodically going down the shed row, checking his babies over one last time and thoughtfully appraising each one as he went along. I teased him about working late when everyone else had gone to join the sales revelries and he replied shyly “the more you look at your horses, the faster they run.”

But it’s not only speed that counts and James is particularly proud of continuing the Armitage legacy of producing tough, durable horses. Cerise Cherry raced both locally and abroad until the age of 9, Inquest also raced until the age of 9, notching a career total of 92 starts and another to race until the age of 9 was Vital Match, who raced a total of 100 times.

If the present defines the future and the future builds on the foundation of the past, then it seems the Armitage legacy rests in safe hands. James offers a draft of four at the forthcoming TBA National Yearling Sale.

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