Dr Jim Antrobus, who describes himself as an equine neonatologist and gynaecologist, is – despite his protestations –one of the best-loved vets in the country. Reproductive vet extraordinaire, Highlands’ resident expert for many years, Jet Master’s personal physician and breeder of recent CTS Sales race winner (and Fillies Guineas 2nd) Safe Harbour. Jim Antrobus is, as one long-standing breeder stated firmly, ‘a treasure. An absolute treasure!’
James Herriot (or more correctly, Alf Wight), loosely styled himself on P.G. Wodehouse and one description runs, “the Herriot stories include sad and poignant passages, which you never find in Wodehouse – but both authors were writing nostalgically about a halcyon world that had long since disappeared.” Fortunately, the world from Dr Antrobus’ stories is still very current, mainly because he never fails to find the wonder – and the humour – in almost any situation.
Jim, or to give his full name, Ronald James, was born, bred and raised in Northern and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia). His father was an engineer who built bridges for the railways and Jim says he always naturally assumed he would follow in his father’s footsteps and study engineering. However, having started University in KZN, he was about two weeks in when he went to see his counsellor and said he wanted to change to veterinary. The reply was not very encouraging as he didn’t even have the correct subjects, but he managed to change and a year later was accepted into Onderstepoort. He was home in Bulawayo when they received a telegram confirming his acceptance. Unfortunately it was written in Afrikaans, so the family had to find an Afrikaans speaking neighbor before they could decipher what it said! However, the Engineering field’s loss was the veterinary profession’s gain.
With his usual eye for the humour in any situation, Jim arrived in Pretoria. At his first lecture the lecturer asked the class – in Afrikaans – whether anyone had trouble understanding the language. Blissfully unaware what was being asked, a fellow student had to nudge Jim to put his hand in the air (and then explain what for!).
It wasn’t the first time the language barrier would be a problem. After qualifying, the Zim bush war meant there was no veterinary work at home, so young Jim came back to South Africa and eventually found locum work and finally a permanent position at Wellington Animal Hospital – where he still works today. Being in an agricultural part of the Boland, his lack of Afrikaans again proved a challenge as some of the local cattle farmers did not want him working on their animals – and one particularly tetchy old gent insisted that the ‘Engelsman’ wait by the gate while his Afrikaans speaking colleague attended to the cows. But bit by bit he won them over. A few things also get lost in translation and Jim has hilarious stories including advising one hapless client seeking help with an ‘eekhoring’ to feed it worms. “Well, they said it fell out of a tree!” he laughs. Another incident included a muddle over the word ‘muis’ which while generally used to refer to a rodent, is also used for describing bovine reproductive anatomy, which caused the young vet much bemusement, but it is worth hearing him tell the stories to fully appreciate them. Although Wellington Animal Hospital is a general practice, he found himself doing a lot of work for ‘little studs’, many of which are now gone, but gradually the horse work built up.
George Faull was the go to horse vet of the day and left a huge void when he stopped practicing. Patricia O’Neill was looking for someone at Broadlands and was recommended ‘young Antrobus’. Pat had just had one of her good race fillies, Marisa, back to stud. When Dr Faull had put her in the crush for an exam, she had reputedly broken the crush. When he arrived, it was suggested that Jim examine her without the crush. Jim was understandably reluctant, but with assurances from Pat that the filly would be ‘absolutely fine’, Marisa was beautifully behaved and for the rest of her days happily accepted being examined in a stable. “And that was my introduction to Broadlands,” he chuckles. “Pat helped put me on the map.”
To this day, Jim says no-one in his family knows quite where ‘the horse thing’ comes from, but either way, he just seems to have a way with them. His first broodmare was named War Lover, which he bought from Broadlands. His second was a filly called Masai Mara, which Pat gave him as a gift on the condition that she could keep the mare for her racing career. By the time she retired, Masai Mara had amassed some very respectable bold black type and Jim protested that Pat should keep the mare for the Broadlands paddocks, but she was as good as her word and refused.
Jim explains that he chooses his stallions on temperament and fertility. Not too long after acquiring Masai Mara, Jim was asked to travel to Beaufort West to attend to the newly arrived Western Winter, who’d taken ill en route to the Cape. “We’d been to a wedding the night before and had to leave early as I had to leave for Beaufort West at about 3am. There was no-one around to help me and I had to tube and drip the horse all by myself – I remember sitting on the fence holding up the drip bag and he just stood quietly next to me. I ended up spending most of the day with him and was so impressed by what a super temperament he had that I just had to send him a mare.” Masai Mara was duly booked for a visit and the product was a horse called Natural Selection, who went on to dead heat for 4th with Pocket Power for the 2007 July and finish 2nd behind Strategic News in the 2007 Summer Cup. “Now THAT was really something,” smiles Jim. He still has a bit of the family via Masai Mara’s daughter, Something Of Value.
The story of how he acquired Safe Harbour’s dam, Saint Isidore is equally interesting. Jim was working at Lammerskraal at the time when they received a good offer from Australia for Kali Mist (a daughter of Fashing). They purchasers wanted a companion to travel with her and Mike Rattray offered St Isidore, who had been injured in training and was due to retire to the Lammerskraal broodmare band. One of the conditions of the deal was that both mares had to be in foal to Parade Leader. This was duly done, but when the pre-export bloods came back, Kali Mist had failed the piroplasmosis test and the deal was off. While Kali Mist would simply stay at the stud, Jim enquired what might happen to Saint Isidore. When Sally said they usually sold mares to a breeder in the Karoo for the equivalent of the cover fee Jim offered to buy her instead. Mike Rattray initially refused, but finally relented on the grounds that Jim is ‘old school’. “So that’s how I got Saint Isidore.”
The mating to Elusive Fort came about mainly because she had lost a foal by Dynasty and Elusive Fort was as close as he could get within a reasonable price range and in fact, Saint Isidore has had 3 foals by Elusive Fort and is currently in foal to him again.
Another of Jim’s claims to fame is that he was Highlands’ resident vet for many years. Most people who have worked for Graham Beck have colourful stories about him and Jim is no exception. One incident stands out particularly vividly. Surge Ahead, the dam of Crimson Waves and one of Beck’s favourite mares, suddenly went backward. She steadily lost weight and no amount of tests could produce a conclusive result. Jim eventually resigned himself to the inevitable and penned a letter informing Mr Beck to prepare himself for the worst. Of course, Surge Ahead promptly blossomed with good health and went on to produce a steady line of foals. At his next visit, Mr Beck summed Jim for a meeting, exclaiming ‘Professor! You write me a letter saying my mare is at death’s door and ever since she’d done nothing but do well and produce strong, healthy foals! I’m not sure what I’m paying you for!’ I later found out that Mr Beck only teased people he liked. He always called me ‘Professor’ after that,” he chuckles.
Although calling a vet is usually a stressful exercise for all concerned, in Jim’s case, it is a pleasure because you know the cavalry has arrived! Small, bespectacled and perennially good-tempered, Jim is one of the nicest people on the planet, with his quiet and gentle manner calming man and beast alike. He is so famously good-natured that one breeder was moved to comment, ‘I don’t think Jim knows how to get cross!’ So is there anything that rattles him at all ? “Clients being disorganised,” he confesses. With his hectic schedule, Jim has early starts, long hours on the road and a lot of farms and horses to see to, so clients and horses who aren’t prepared when he arrives take up precious time which in turn eats into the rest of the day’s appointments. How does he handle it? “Well, there’s no point getting worked up, because you just upset the horses,” he says philosophically. “One farm I visit regularly has a particularly difficult mare, but we’ve worked with her over the years and got her in a really good space, but if you turn up stressed or wound up, she picks it up immediately and gets difficult. So if I’m running late, I just take a deep breath and put her at the back of the queue. If you’re calm and in a good frame of mind, then everything goes much more smoothly.”
It is this soft touch that led to his association with the mighty Jet Master. The stallion had notoriously strong opinions about who was and was not allowed to work with him, but in Jim’s words “he took a shine to me” and they enjoyed a long and happy association until Jet Master’s untimely illness. Due to the hefty insurance contracts involved, Jim had to deal directly with Lloyds of London, taking instructions from them regarding the horse’s treatment, including the subsequent international team who were flown out to perform the surgery to his neck. There aren’t many people who can accept that amount of outside assistance with equanimity and asked how he managed Jim says, “A few years ago, I received a call from another vet who was called in to consult on a horse I was treating. He asked whether he might not be treading on my toes. I said absolutely not. Firstly, I have small feet! And secondly, why would I mind? The more the merrier and the more help and advice we can collect, the better for the horse. Which is what it’s all about, after all.”