Until 1929, Jockey Club rules prevented women from having an interest in racehorses. Women weren’t allowed to own or lease racehorses and were certainly not allowed to train or ride them. Fortunately things have changed a little over the years!
Mrs D. Rosenberg was the first lady owner to win a classic, when her filly Compliments won the SA Oaks at Turffontein on 2 January 1937. Hilda Knaupp became our first lady trainer in 1940 (saddling her first winner that same year), Joan Ruffel was the first female steward and Bridget Oppenheimer was the first female to grace the members quarters at Turffontein in the early 80’s. Affectionately dubbed ‘Mrs O’, she became one of the best loved characters in local racing and Mauritzontein Stud produced a great number of champions, not least of which was the mighty Horse Chestnut.
It is therefore not surprising that daughter Mary Slack has also indelibly carved her name into the racing and breeding landscape. Her name first appears in Volume 61 of the SA Racing Calendar, alongside E. de Rothschild and H. J. Joel, when the 2yo bay colt Henry Higgins won on debut over 1200m at Newmarket on 31 March 1965. Henry Higgins cantered down in the famous Joel silks – black body with a red cap – and Jim Joel eventually gave Mary the colours to use in South Africa. She has certainly done him proud.
The rub of the green
The daughter of Harry and Bridget Oppenheimer may have been born into a racing and breeding dynasty, but her interests mainly lay in the show-jumping arena and it was not until she gave up riding in the early 90’s that Mary turned her attention to breeding. She acquired a small number of mares which she boarded at Mauritzfontein. Blakes Affair, who most know as dam of sire sensation Dynasty, was an early purchase. “So much of horses is luck,” she muses in that wonderfully slow, measured voice. “I bought her for practically nothing on a funny little sale. Michael Clarke ran my stables in Johannesburg and I sent her to Michael to race a few times before sending her to Mauritzfontein.”
The idea to start her own farm came a few years later when her parents were downsizing Mauritzfontein. With the help of Derek Southey, she found a prospect just outside Piketberg. “Up to that point, I’d really only been looking at farms over the fence. This was the first one I went and looked at properly and thought it was 100% wonderful. Of course, that was in August when it was green and lovely. The next time I saw it was in December and it was a desert and about 1000 degrees! Everyone thought I was mad, but it’s all worked out.”
It has indeed. Initially purchased in 1997, the farm has slowly and meticulously been developed into a masterpiece. The original layout was planned by Mary, Derek Southey and architect Haydn Ellis. John Everett designed the American-style barns, featuring three different layers of ventilation to cope with the severe summer temperatures, as well as the shelters and sprinkler systems spread throughout the post-and-rail paddocks. Mary also credits Mike de Kock, Jehan Malherbe, Dr John McVeigh and daughter Jessica with valuable contributions on various fronts. It has a wonderfully quiet, almost timeless air about it and the horses all seem happy and content.
They have recently acquired additional land on which they are building two barns and more large paddocks, which should be completed later this year. “It’s terribly exciting and looks stunning,” she says, with a sincerity and enthusiasm that catches one by surprise. Hailing from one of South Africa’s most prominent families, one might expect someone of Mary’s position to take things, well, for granted really, but quite the opposite is true. A tour of her beautiful farm is a treat and as much as it – and the wonderful horses on it – are a feast for the eye – perhaps even more special is the personal guided tour. She knows all her mares on sight and her smile is at its broadest recounting their histories and the exploits of their progeny.
Her memory is encyclopaedic and razor sharp. The first time we chatted was ahead of the July a few years ago. She had a couple of runners and having discussed her horses and their chances, I nearly fell off my chair when she asked after a Right Approach gelding I owned. While much loved by me, his racing career could be described as modest at best, and I was amazed that Mary had even noticed him. However, noticing horses is simply something Mary does.
“The first person who influenced me was Tremayne Toms who managed Mauritzfontein for years and taught me the value of feed especially and odd bits of breeding lore. Then along came Jehan Malherbe who has taught me the importance of statistics and pedigrees and tries his best to temper my sentimentality about my horses.” However, the sentimentality does result in some fun stories.
The Thomas Crown Affair
Mary once described herself as a ‘riding loony’ and while one would be hard pressed to imagine her being frivolous, like most horse people, she has a good sense of humour and an optimist’s appetite for adventure and the slightly absurd. Mary sold a Rich Man’s Gold colt called Thomas Crown to Fieldspring Racing on the 2006 National Yearling Sales. Unfortunately his training career was plagued by bad luck and the Fieldspring team eventually called it a day and offered the colt, still entire, back to Mary. As the farm was in need of a teaser, she said yes. Thomas Crown was given a couple of mares in 2010, including the Shaamit mare, Love Of Grace. Mary picks up the story with a wry smile. “The mare was bought as a foster really. She was in foal to Qui Danzig at the time and ended up producing a colt that we named Rainier. He’s now with Muis Roberts and doing quite well.” In 2011, Love Of Grace produced a colt named Charles Lytton who is now with Snaith Racing and has four wins to his credit. Another pet project was a Right Approach colt called Limbo. Like his sire, he is an exceptionally good looking, well-balanced horse. However, he did not stand up well to early training and was duly retired for training up as a show prospect. Aidan Lithgow worked with the colt and saw such a terrific improvement that he talked Mary into putting him back in training. Limbo duly joined the Lucky Houdalakis yard and now has 3 wins under his belt. “So we have these two crazy stories,” she shrugs with a smile and one gets the sense that she enjoys these small victories every bit as much as the Grade Ones.
While she credits her early success to her parents’ generosity in giving her access to Fort Wood, the farm has long been earning its stripes on its own merit. “My number one aim is to breed classic horses. I want to win the Guineas and the other top three-year-old races and I really don’t care a damn about the handicaps.” But whether it’s handicaps or Classics, the results have come thick and fast. Wilgerbosdrift received an Equus Award as the country’s outstanding breeders in 2006 and have forged a formidable reputation for producing champions. “I sell all the colts unless one gets hurt, and I usually keep some fillies unless I’ve already got a full sister or whatever, but we really pride ourselves on the number of stallions we’ve produced.” These currently include Dynasty, Kildonan, Elusive Fort and Noordhoek Flyer. Of course they are also responsible for track stars such as Ilha Bela, Kavanagh, Summer Cup winner Wagner, Met winner Martial Eagle and Fillies Classic winner Athina.
Her first stud stallion was the son of Forty Niner, Rich Man’s Gold, who joined the farm in 2001 and stood just 6 seasons before succumbing to a heart attack in 2005. However, his South African progeny included Kildonan as well as Dubai World Cup runner Lucky Find, and he is also the broodmare sire of Wagner, Louis The King and Athina.
Next to join the stallion roster was Right Approach. Tiger Ridge joined in 2006 and was champion first season sire in 2010. His progeny include the likes of Kavanagh, Wagner, Maybe Yes and Triple Tiara heroine, Cherry On The Top. When Tiger Ridge passed on early last year, the search began for a replacement. “No-one wants Right Approach,” she says matter-of-factly. “Even though his progeny are winning all the time, he’s not really commercial, so I thought to myself, ‘get two.’” Her first acquisition was international sprint superstar, Soft Falling Rain who has a Timeform Rating of 129. “Lots of people said I must have speed to put to my really good classic mares. I approached Sheikh Hamdan who was pretty easy about it and that was it really. He’s a lovely horse and has a wonderful temperament. Jess tells me that while he was at Abington Place (her training base in Newmarket) he would always have a little rear as he was leaving the yard, as if to show everyone that he was king of the pack, but he’s settled in brilliantly and his book was full in about three seconds flat.”
Her second acquisition is the Distorted Humor horse, Flower Alley. While history focuses on big race winners, it is worth mentioning the 2005 Kentucky Derby. Flower Alley, who was trained by Todd Pletcher and had the services of Angel Cordero Jr. as his exercise rider, had catapulted from a maiden victory, to a Gr2 victory, to the starting gates of the Kentucky Derby. It proved a brutal contest, with front-running Spanish Chestnut setting blistering opening fractions. Flower Alley, sitting just off the pace throughout, was poised to strike when Spanish Chestnut suddenly dropped back, causing Flower Alley to check and costing him his run, if not his race. Some industry insiders still maintain that Flower Alley was robbed. However, he exacted revenge where it mattered most, proving 3 lengths superior in the Gr1 Travers Stakes, relentlessly pushing Saint Liam to the wire in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and was finally vindicated when son I’ll Have Another (now at stud in Japan) took home the roses in 2012.
Jehan Malherbe and his team selected the good looking chestnut and Mary relates “He’s a beautiful horse with a lovely temperament. The owner was dispersing his stock, so we got really lucky there. He has sired a Kentucky Derby winner as well as masses of stakes winners, so he’s very exciting. We’re told that he likes to be ridden around the farm, but none of us has had the guts yet.”
Not all gold glitters
“Gypsy gold does not clink and glitter. It gleams in the sun and neighs in the dark.” So reads one of the many pearls of equine wisdom that are inscribed around the farm buildings. Another, adorning a wall in the foaling barn, reads “The fountainhead of wealth is the mare who foals a filly.” Mary loves her stallions, but it is clear that her mares hold a very special place in her heart. Asked to name her favourites, she frowns, but counts off a few. “Berry Blaze is an absolute angel and the biggest carrot eater on the farm; Espumanti didn’t travel all that well, so she’s not in foal this year; Headstrong; Ilha of course is heaven on earth, although she ALWAYS foals three weeks overdue. And Velvet Green is my absolute best.” One suspects they’re all favourites though.
Is that the reason for her sponsorship of the Triple Tiara series? “Fillies don’t get the recognition they deserve. They supposedly offer lower stakes for fillies because they can contest colts races as well, but please!” she says with exasperation.
Another pearl of equine wisdom reads “The greatest of all blessings is an intelligent woman or a prolific mare.” At Wilgerbosdrift it seems you get the best of both.