They say every horse should be loved by a little girl at least once in its life and if you had to ask any horse girl what she wants, the answer is usually a stud farm full of wonderful horses. With a beautiful and historic stud farm outside Kimberley, two exceptionally promising young stallions, paddocks full of blue-blooded broodmares and her first homebred Gr1 winner in the bag, someone who is living that dream is Jessica Slack.
Mauritzfontein past and present
Mauritzfontein was originally purchased by Harry and Bridget Oppenheimer in 1943 with a view to becoming a stud farm as “a shared interest in marriage” and the farm repaid the enormous energy and enthusiasm they poured into by producing an honour roll of champions. While Mrs O’s passing in October 2013 may have signalled the end of one era, having Jessica at the helm has marked the start of a new one. Taking over the reins of a 70 year old operation that has produced six July winners, a plethora of Oaks champions, a Triple Tiara winner and the incomparable Horse Chestnut might prove daunting for some, but as the old saying goes, ‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them’ and Jessica falls firmly in the first category.
With her classical Audrey Hepburn looks topped off with her infectious enthusiasm and impeccable grace, the diminutive Jessica not only has a firm sense of personal style and fun, but is proving to have a very sure touch on the breeding and racing operation as well. Resisting the temptation to fiddle with what is clearly a winning formula, she has astutely kept the tried and tested recipe, choosing instead to bring it up to date with a few deft twists. The first significant change is that Mauritzfontein now operates as a commercial enterprise. Secondly, it has joined forces with her mum, Mary Slack’s Wilgerbosdrift. “Although the farms run and operate separately, we breed under one name: ‘Wilgerbosdrift and Mauritzfontein’”. As Mary Slack also leant heavily on Mauritzfontein when she started out, this is also continuing something of a family tradition and Jess agrees. “Mum and I own Mauritzfontein together, and I rely heavily on her for advice on many things. Mauritzfontein is also really excited about Soft Falling Rain and Flower Alley and we jumped at buying shares which incidentally sold like hotcakes!”
Mauritzfontein’s resident sire Ideal World is off the mark in no uncertain terms with first season produce Smart Call proving a startling flagbearer. Not only does she have multiple Gr1 wins to her credit, she is also standing on the threshold of an international campaign. In addition, Mauritzfontein’s other stallion barn resident is the exciting Byword whose first yearlings have gone on sale in 2016 to great acclaim and things are looking very rosy indeed. Jessica talks us through her first two years at the helm.
“Grandma passed away almost 2 1/2 years ago now. It’s pretty amazing what she and grandpa built and it’s a privilege to be part of it. All the staff are so wonderful and so kind – not only Guy Murdoch, but Nigel and Gail Page and everyone really, so at the moment I’m just learning from them. I am clever enough only to seek advice from experts. Guy, Mum, Jehan and Mike (de Kock) are all people I admire and respect. I rely on their advice and guidance.”
“It’s not a case of reinventing the wheel, although it’s obviously different with us now being commercial. We downsized initially – Grandma raced everything she bred and did not ever sell yearlings. Most, if not all the fillies returned to the farm after racing and so there were way too many mares. We also sold a lot of horses out of training too. Then we’ve slowly been trying to buy a couple of new fillies a year to try and get new blood back into the farm. That’s how Mauritzfontein started. My grandparents bought a few beautifully bred fillies in England and they became foundation mares, so we’re trying to get back to that winning formula.”
“We’ve currently got around 60-70 mares. We keep probably 6 or 7 fillies a year, everything else gets sold – if we can!” she laughs. “Our rule is that we sell every colt, so there’s never any fear that we’re keeping any of the best for ourselves and if you ever do see us racing a colt or a gelding, it’s generally because there was something wrong with it, or it was thrown off a sale or never made it onto one,” she says with refreshing honesty. “Jehan Malherbe has been unbelievably helpful and kind and has been a kind of ‘go to’ in terms of advice and sales and I have to give him a mention – he’s been amazing.”
Smart Call and winning the Met
“It’s kind of amazing. It was very special. Smart Call was the first horse that Grandma sent to Alec, who incidentally trained my first winner, which made it feel extra special. It still hasn’t sunk in to be completely honest. I thought it would be great if she could run a place. When I looked at all the horses in the parade ring before the race, I was in awe – they all looked amazing. It still feels like a dream and my sisters and I are sure that Grandma must have had something to do with it. She would have really loved that. The first call I got after the race was from Boetetjies, who is one of the amazing guys who work at the farm. They bred Smart Call, it was their victory and I just wish Smart Call knew how proud and happy she had made everyone.”
“I was sorry Weichong couldn’t ride her in the Met – he’s worked on Smart Call her whole career and really loves her. Weichong and JP were in contact before the race and I noticed that JP got on and patted her just the same way Weichong always does, so that made me smile. I think Weichong was probably just as excited as us when she won. I saw him last week and it seems he doesn’t have to have an op and he seems positive and optimistic about recovering, so that’s great. That’s not to take anything away from JP, who rode a perfect race. He was a star, and we were really lucky that he agreed to ride her at the last minute. I am so pleased that his first Group 1 win, was on Smart Call, it made the win even more wonderful.”
“We’ve had a discussion about it – I know it’s a serious slog, it’s a ridiculous route and the whole thing is a pain, but she is the perfect filly in terms of temperament and we feel if we don’t try, we’ll regret it. Alec’s going to spend as much time as he can with her. Steven (Jell) kindly said he’d help. Mike de Kock has trained many horses from Abington and has more experience than anyone with the travelling. He has been incredibly kind and helpful and so this is very much a “team effort”. We’ve been looking at every route we can. At the moment it looks like Mauritius is the only way out of here, so we’re waiting for them to get enough horses to ship. Alec’s always been very keen to take her to the Arc or possibly the Prix de l’Opera, but it may not be feasible if our timing gets too tight. We have to hope and pray that she travels well and gets there early enough. All being well, we’re still on track for the Breeders Cup. The fillies race is on turf over 2000m and if all goes well, we’ll definitely give it a go. Banks Hill won it in 2001 and it would be amazing if Smart Call could follow in her grandmother’s footsteps. At this stage, it’s a very big dream, but then I believe that’s what racing is all about.”
What it means for the farm
“It’s been amazing really. Ideal World had his biggest book of mares last year, so I think people have had faith and seen good things, and there have been a lot of bookings since the Paddock Stakes and the Met which is wonderful. We’re really, really lucky. I know there’s a mountain of choice, in terms of well-bred stallions and new kids on the block, so now we need to keep going and I hope that he has a Group winning colt sometime soon. Smart Call has put Ideal World in the spot light, and we are all over the moon with excitement. It’s hard to find a better bred stallion, and we have all had huge faith in him, but now it’s cast in stone and the morale on the farm could not be better. It is possible that Ideal World may be getting an over dose of celebratory carrots, but then he deserves them!”
“We’re very happy to keep his fee low – if he does go up, it will only be fractionally – we’re not going to make him an expensive stallion. For people to travel a mare all the way to Kimberley, we know they’re really committed and we don’t want to scare anyone off with a giant stud fee. Plus I want lots of people have Ideal World champions. Luckily he’s so easy and so lovely. Whether he covers one a day or a whole bunch – he just takes it in his stride. He is heaven.”
The Byword Bonus
The incentive which was recently launched is a R500,000 bonus to the best Byword Stakes winner at the end of their three year old career. It is applicable only to his first two crops and only to horses that have passed through the sales ring. There is R400k to the owner, R100k to the trainer and a free Byword service to the breeder. Jess explains, “With so many amazingly bred stallions on offer, The Byword Syndicate felt that for people to have faith in a freshman sire and ship horses all the way to Kimberley, we had to have something to catch their attention. Instead of paying dividends from his first two seasons, the syndicate decided to reinvest the money and offer a bonus to give people something extra to look forward to.”
Like his neighbour, Byword also has a good temperament. “He’s got a real presence about him,” says Jess. “Sometimes great horses have that way of looking off into the distance – he does that all the time – he’s a bit of a poser! By all accounts the Bywords are doing well and all the foals at the farm are beautifully put together. Even mares that usually produce very light foals are throwing very strong-looking Bywords, so we’re really thrilled. His mares list is improving and growing each year so I have no doubt that he is only going to get better and better.”
“We’re really lucky – both stallions are nice, relaxed, friendly types and only too happy to have their head rubbed or get a carrot. And both cover well, are very fertile and very gentlemanly. They are a pleasure to work with and Guy constantly reminds me how incredible lucky we are.”
“We’ve got 28 yearlings on Nationals, which is our biggest draft so far, but it’s only our third National sale. We’re delighted to be offering some really nice horses. We’ve got a full sister to Smart Call’s dam called Crown Office who has the most stunning Tiger Ridge colt I’ve ever seen. There’s a Dynasty colt out of Flirtation – she’s one of my favourites, so obviously I love him and I admit to being completely biased! His name is Big Parade. There’s a really nice Captain Al colt who is a spectacular roany colour. He’s called Captain Kangaroo and is one of Guy’s picks. We have a beautifully bred Silvano colt, whose looks match his pedigree. Those are some of my favourites, but I’m delighted with our draft as a whole, hopefully there is something for everyone and it’s definitely our best one so far.”
“I think I must be the luckiest person. I have been able to join an incredible team, and so I need to learn everything I can from them. We hope to constantly upgrade our stock and breed the best, fastest, toughest horses we can. I am not interested in numbers, just quality. Grandma and Grandpa set some pretty high standards, we want to live up to those and take the next steps – and to breed champions of course!”