Variety Club

South Africa’s best

Variety Club

Variety Club (photo:  Liesl King)

Thursday, 19 March 2015 saw the launch of Variety Club’s stud career at the Cavalli Saddler Stud and Wine Estate just outside Stellenbosch. Against a backdrop of one of those spectacular sunsets that the Western Cape is so good at providing, chef Henrico Grobbelaar in the kitchen and estate wines flowing, a host of local and international racing and breeding personalities gathered in elegant cocktail attire, for a glamorous evening out on the tiles – or in this case, out on the deck overlooking the vineyards.

The evening launched with a wonderful documentary on Variety Club’s career, including video highlights of some of his biggest wins and interviews with the people who had managed him along the way. Considering the long and illustrious list of achievements – dual South African Horse of the Year, Longines’ joint second best horse in the world, an international rating of 127 (the highest ever achieved by a South African bred horse), 17 wins from 23 career starts, including four Gr1’s in his home country and all the way through to his grand finale in the International Group 1 Hong Kong Champions Mile, there was quite a long list of people to thank.

2014 Hong Kong Champions Mile

Crowning glory.  Variety Club wins the 2014 Gr1 Hong Kong Champions Mile

Sometimes events that seem insignificant at the time only show their true impact in hindsight. However, one event that will have repercussions for many years to come is Variety Club’s win in the Hong Kong Champions Mile, pivotally right on the eve of the 2014 Asian Racing Conference. With the international audience he reached and the doors that he kicked down with that single, stupendous victory, it is quite possible that we will never know the true value of what he achieved for all of us that Sunday afternoon.

Different from the start

Shakespeare is credited with that wonderful quote that “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” In Variety Club’s case, he definitely seems to fall in the first category. He was quite simply different from the moment he was born and there has always been an air of otherness about him.

The story has almost entered urban legend status, but it is a well-known fact that breeder Anton Shepherd rang Pippa Mickleburgh as soon as the colt was born to say he had something special on his hands. The canny eye of Joey Ramsden picked him out at the now defunct Equimark Vintage Yearling Sale in 2010 and the big chestnut was the subject of fierce bidding before being knocked down to Markus Jooste’s Mayfair Speculators for R425 000.

No sleepless nights

Variety Club with Joey Ramsden and Malan du Toit

Variety Club with Joey Ramsden and Malan du Toit (photo: hamishNIVENPhotography)

While one might think that having a stable inmate of such quality would cause a certain amount of worry, conditioner Joey Ramsden jokes that Variety Club helped him sleep well at night. “He was the easiest horse I ever had the pleasure of training. I never had to worry. He was the soundest horse I’ve ever had, he’d eat everything you put in front of him and you always knew he’d give his very best.” As most racing folks would concur, being a trouble-free racehorse would be enough to elevate the colt to mythical status, but it seems that he was exceptional even in the mundanities of the day to day routine.

The colt famously had issues with the starting gates and Malan du Toit was an almost constant fixture in his early career to bridle that explosive temperament and ensure that things ran smoothly on race days. But run smoothly they certainly did, with something almost approaching monotonous regularity. When Variety Club entered a set of starting gates, one could put your money down that the rest of the field was running for place money.


I had a horse with Good Hope Racing at the time and was lucky enough to get up close and personal with Variety Club a few times. As a life-long horse fanatic, it’s impossible not to want to approach a horse and try and get a sense of who they are. If the cautionary notice on his stable door was not enough of a hint, Variety Club soon made it abundantly clear that one was only allowed into his space on his terms. And preferably carrying a carrot! While champions attract attention by default, it’s something Variety Club tolerated, but he was never a cuddly, affectionate horse. Even in his early career, he always seemed to be a ball of pent up, inwardly directed energy as though his mind was already on bigger things.

International recognition

variety club wins godolphin mile

Variety Club has flown the flag high

Someone who shares my view is Mark Player, the Chairman of International Thoroughbred Solutions and the man who is perhaps ultimately responsible for Variety Club’s real coming of age on the world stage. Mark worked as the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s Head of International Races, Sale and Development for many years, which essentially entails scouring the world for outstanding horses and recruiting them for Hong Kong’s international race days. Mark was the one who quietly noticed Variety Club and started charting his statistics. Mark also had the foresight and intuition to envision the horse behind those figures and incredible fractions and with clearing the way for Variety Club to become a legend.

Mark addressed Thursday’s assembly and I was fortunate enough to corner him for a quick chat afterwards. He related that Variety Club first appeared on his radar after his Cape Guineas win. Mark said what made Variety Club stand out for him was that he was a standout horse in an exceptional generation, bumping horses like Jackson and Gimmethegreenlight. Despite South Africa’s export difficulties, he’d tracked Variety Club’s career and seized his chance when the horse appeared in Dubai.

2014 Hong Kong Champions Mile presentation

Markus Jooste “like winning the rugby World Cup”

His story of their head regulatory vet, Peter Curl checking Variety Club over prior to his Champions Mile run perhaps sums it up best for me. Mark explained that all runners are given a once over to ensure that they are well and fit to run before any of their Hong Kong engagements. He joked that regulatory vets are a rather unfrivolous lot and that Peter was one of the best in the business. He’d joined Peter in inspecting somewhere over a hundred of the quarantine horses ahead of the Champions Mile, with Variety Club being the last on the list. When it came to his turn, Peter carried out the formalities and then announced, rather matter-of-factly ‘He’ll win’. Mark says Peter had never so much as ventured an opinion on a horse before, let alone predicting the result of a race and he asked Peter why he would suddenly change the habit of a lifetime. “He’s the soundest, healthiest horse I’ve ever seen,” was Peter’s blunt response and the veracity of his statement was borne out when Variety Club stepped out onto Sha Tin a few days later, bumping a field of the best the world could assemble and finding them wanting. Markus Jooste likened the victory to winning the rugby World Cup.

Longines Worlds Best Racehorse Rankings - Variety Club

Longines rated Variety Club 127

Variety Club’s greatest victory was, perhaps fittingly, his last performance and he closed out his career with accolades of the highest calibre. At the height of his powers he was rated 127 by the Longines panel and ranked 2nd in the world. At their glittering gala event in January 2015, Longines crowned Variety Club joint 3rd best racehorse in the world for 2014, alongside Able Friend, The Grey Gatsby, Kingman and Australia. Despite strong interest from a host of international studs, Markus Jooste has chosen to return Variety Club to South Africa, where he will be joining the stallion roster at his BAR Valley stud farm, Klawervlei Stud.

The T’s & C’s

Derek Brugman confirmed that Variety Club will remain the property of Mayfair Speculators and is not being syndicated, however his book is very much open to the public. Variety Club will stand for a total of R100k (R20k nomination and R80k live foal). Klawervlei Stud has earmarked 30 of their very best mares and Mayfair Speculators have invested in a number of hand-picked mares from America and Europe for him as well. Derek Brugman and John Koster can both be contacted for nominations and I’m told that he already has a number of Gr1 producing mares on his book.


Anton Shepherd, Joey Ramsden, Pippa Mickleburgh, Derek Brugman

Team Variety! Anton Shepherd, Joey Ramsden, Pippa Mickleburgh and Derek Brugman

Pippa Mickleburgh, who stands Variety Club’s sire Var, is extremely proud that Var has produced a son for stud. “He is very much in the mould of his dad physically and he’s a very masculine horse, which I always think is important in a stallion. I like the use of Storm Cat over the Mr Prospector line and I think people should mate him the same way as they did Var. No look, Variety Club was a proper racehorse and with the Klawervlei team behind him, he’ll have all the support and every chance.”

Proud breeder Anton Shepherd is a great big bear of a man with the huge hands and ruddy complexion of a second generation farmer. He has soil on his hands, the salt of the earth in his soul and a heart the size of his farm. The subject of his star colt never gets old and the mention of Variety Club never fails to light up his huge frame. The huge smile is usually accompanied by a shake of the head and a disbelieving shrug of the shoulders at the incredible journey he’s lived with this colt. Mostly he just throws his arm around you and has another sip of his drink. Of course, Variety Club is more than just a horse. He has not only been an endorsement of Anton’s credentials as a breeder, but has been the fulfilment of a lifetime’s ambition, for Variety Club has taken Anton by the hand and led him down the path trodden by his father when Harry produced the mighty Prince Florimund on his Knavesmire Stud. It is a pleasing symmetry to see life come full circle.

Although Variety Club wasn’t able to attend his grand launch in person, John Koster assures me that he will be available to view at the forthcoming Klawervlei stallion day on 2 August, so make sure that the date is pencilled firmly into the diary.

Will he make it?

There are many theories about sire lines, dam lines, breeding nicks and the hand of plain old Lady Luck in determining who will and won’t make it in the breeding shed. However, if I were put on the spot, I’d probably have to concur with Hong Kong’s Peter Curl and say I think ‘He’ll win.’

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