MARY SLACK, in her own right, is a doyenne of the South African racing industry, a die-hard supporter of horseracing and thoroughbred breeding and someone with nothing but the interests of the industry at heart.
She lost her prized imported stallion, Rich Man’s Gold, who died of a heart attack at her farm, Wilgerbosdrift, in early November 2005, but nothing gets Mary down and just a few weeks after this loss her star filly, Ilha Da Vitoria, recorded a runaway win in the 2005 R2,5 million Summer Cup.
She’s had many superb winners since, also award-winning success, including a memorable night in August, 2006, when she was honoured as the Equus outstanding breeder of the year and owner of the year and received the ultimate accolade of Horse Of The Year, all within the space of one season.
In the last few years she’s managed to secure ultra promsing sires: Machavellian’s son Right Approach and Tiger Ridge, by Storm Cat, South Africa’s leading first-crop stallion in 20099/10.
For Wilgerbosdrift stallion information, click here.
Simply put, Mary is committed to breed the best racehorses in the country, to put her record-breaking stud farm at the top of the statistical logs and to keep it there.
“The goal is to breed horses that are good enough to go overseas and win,’’ she says. She’s tasted success in Dubai, the US and Europe and there is little doubt that many more runners from the Slack camp will find their way to the world’s top racetracks.
Mary and daughter Jessica with Ilha Da Vitoria (Kevin Shea up).
Mary is in most ways a racing purist, she is among a diminishing group of racing fanatics who understand and deeply appreciate the nobility of the sport and still enjoy its traditional aspects.
She commented in a 2006 interview: “The glamorous aspect of racing is fast disappearing here and as a result no one is going racing anymore. When we don’t have owners we won’t have racing. We need to bring the glamour and live excitement back to the sport. Racegoers who enjoy a good time may become owners.
“The social aspect of racing needs to be promoted and marketed as a matter of urgency. What we need to create is the social desirability of racing. We need to make racing more appealing to the younger crowd, or face the prospect of losing racing as we knew it.’’
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Here is an edited profile of Mary Slack, written by Nicci Garner for The Citizen’s Racing Express in March 2005, updated in parts.
Mary does it her way and hits jackpot with Wilgerbosdrift
WHEN Mary Slack gave up riding some 10 years ago everybody acquainted with her knew it would not take her long to find an interest that would both intrigue and enchant her, and that she would, in the words of a certain blue-eyed crooner, “do it her way’’. They were not wrong!
Slack did own a string of racehorses, some of who were quite talented (like Gold Vase winner Sequoia), but standing on the sidelines just watching was never going to be hands-on enough for her.
“I was always mad about horses and wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I didn’t have them around,’’ said the woman who still has several of her show jumpers boarded on a farm in KwaZulu-Natal because she just cannot bear to part with them.
Nobody was too surprised when, in the mid ’90s, she decided to start breeding racehorses: “I woke up one morning and decided it would be fantastic to have my own stud farm,’’ said the only daughter of Bridget and the late Harry Oppenheimer.
Wilgerbosdrift Stud (wilgerbosdrift.co.za)
The Oppenheimer’s, of course, had been enthusiastic racehorse owners since the 1940s and had bred many top horses on their Kimberley stud farm, Mauritzfontein, so Slack knew what was necessary to make a success of the venture.
Fired with enthusiasm, she searched for the ideal property in all the normal thoroughbred breeding areas at the Cape – Robertson, Wellington, Somerset West, Paarl and Ceres – “but none of the farms that were for sale appealed to me’’, she said.
Not disheartened, Slack widened the search and “then, quite by chance, about eight years ago I stumbled upon a farm near Piketberg in the Western Cape’’.
“The farm was virgin territory as far as horses were concerned. It had nothing on it, not a stable or paddock. Buying it was quite a gamble because the west coast is not generally considered the right country for breeding thoroughbreds.
“I was later told by Terrance Millard (now-retired former champion South African trainer) that historically, way back when breeding first started in this country, the best horses came from the west coast. But those horses, of course, were not thoroughbreds. They were transportation horses and remount horses bred for the English Army.’’
Slack’s gamble has paid off: “Wilgerbosdrift has turned out to be horse friendly, even though it gets terribly hot in summer – up to 42 degrees. The horses grow up strong and healthy.’’
The current manager of Wilgerbosdrift is John Everett. “He is hugely experienced – he worked for Laurence Allem for several years and then Lionel Cohen for seven or eight years before coming to Wilgerbosdrift. He also does not mind the heat and the results are speaking for themselves,’’ she said.
Construction started on the stables and paddocks and the handful of mares, weanlings and yearlings Slack boarded at her parent’s stud farm were taken south to become the founding stock at what is turning into one of the leading stud farms in South Africa.
“When I started the stud, it became an all-consuming interest and pleasure,’’ she said. “It is lovely to watch the mares, see the foals grow up and then (hopefully) do something on the track. So far we’ve done really well, which is the most exciting part of it all.
“One of the major reasons for our success is that I’ve been lucky enough to have access to Fort Wood (Mauritzfontein’s boom stallion).’’
Bridget Oppenheimer rarely sells the horses bred at Mauritzfontein, but Slack started out as she meant to go on – a competitor in the sales ring and on the racetrack.
“Apart from the ‘ginormous’ cost of setting up and running the stud farm, I think it’s important for everyone involved that we are measured in the marketplace and that we all share in the success,’’ she said.
And what a success this venture has been!
Incredibly – but probably unsurprisingly – given the commitment shown by Slack and her team – the stud bred a champion in only its third year. That champion, of course, was Fieldspring Racing’s Dynasty (Fort Wood-Blakes Affair and Sequoia’s full brother), who cost R475 000 at the 2001 National Yearling Sale.
As a three-year-old Dynasty won all but one start, including the nation’s most popular event, the Vodacom Durban July. He was named Horse of the Year and Champion Three-Year-Old Colt for the 2002-2003 racing season and is now a star stallion.
“Strangely I bought his dam, Blakes Affair, for practically nothing on a funny little sale. I sent her to Michael Clarke and raced her a few times before sending her to Mauritzfontein. She went down to the farm seven years ago and is still there.
“For me every winner is completely wonderful and nowadays I get as much pleasure from the Wilgerbosdrift-bred horses winning as I do my own. It is as though I own them anyway, so Dynasty’s successes were as thrilling for me as his owners,’’ she said. “And his July win was probably my most exciting moment in racing. He seemed to have no chance with his bad draw and the way he pulled. To win the way he did was astonishing.’’
That is saying something because Slack enjoyed an “incredible’’ double at the 2004 Dubai World Cup race meeting, part-owning UAE Derby winner Lundy’s Liability and Dubai Duty Free dead-heater Right Approach, who later retired as a stallion to Wilgerbosdrift. He had remarkable success from his first crop, who are now three-year-olds. (2010).
Slack keeps most of her homebred fillies and those in training generally race in the black-with-scarlet-cap silks given to her by the late Jim Joel, an important English owner and breeder.
“Jim Joel and I raced quite a few horses together,’’ she said. “The best was a wonderful colt called Lightning Path who was given to me by my parents. He won the (1969) SA Derby.’’
She also buys fillies locally and abroad with the aim of sending them to the Wilgerbosdrift breeding paddocks when they retire from the racetrack. Her success in this respect has been notable. In the last 18 months alone (Sept 2010 update) she’s had a fantastic run with the likes of Front House (winner of the Dubai City Of Gold), Mother Russia (Gr 1 Empress Club Stakes and Gr 1 Paddock Stakes), Milk and Honey (Gr 3 Acacia Handicap), Sweetie Pie (Gr 2 KZN Oaks) and the smart, up-and-coming Headstrong, a listed winner on Emerald Cup Day 2010, at the Vaal.
For a list of Wilgerbosdrift broodmare band, click here.
Slack leads a fairly nomadic life. She lives at Brenthurst, the Oppenheimer family mansion in Parktown, which houses the famous Brenthurst Library, a vast collection of Africana started by her grandfather Sir Ernest Oppenheimer at the turn of the last century.
Under the aegis of Harry the library expanded and developed into an internationally recognised institution, and the Brenthurst Press was established to publish limited editions on the history and natural history of southern Africa. Now in Slack’s care, both the library and press have continued to flourish.
She is also on the council of the Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association and chairs the Work Riders’ Committee, which oversees the Work Riders’ Training Programme run by trainer James Maree and the Racing Trust.
Slack has quietly helped young black riders, notably Louis Nhlapo and the late Petrus Ndhlovu, both of whom were licensed as apprentices after graduating from the Work Riders’ Training Programme and are now qualified jockeys.
“I’ve been involved with the work riders’ programme from the very beginning and it’s been a huge success,’’ she said. “These riders deserve everything they get. They ride beautifully and are great examples of what can happen to people with a little help and training.’’
Slack has also donated time and money to the Highveld Horse Care Unit, which rescues and rehabilitates all breeds of horses.
“If there’s anything I can do, I try to help,’’ she said. “because my main interest is the sport of racing, and the horses are my passion.’’