THE death of Horse Chestnut on Thursday, 19 February, has brought deep sadness to the South African racing community. It contains, however, the same remarkability that sealed his distinguished career.
The thoroughbred considered arguably the best ever to set foot on a South African racetrack was born on the 19th of August 1995. His breeder Harry Oppenheimer, part-owner with his wife Bridget, died on 19 August 2000. Horse Chestnut died on the 19th, aged 19.
In Numerology, the number 19 is said to bring everything into focus while winding up old accounts to start afresh. It represents endings and new beginnings and promises success, fame and travelling to unusual places.
Life is a reality show, but in time the legend that is Horse Chestnut may well transcend to the realms of the mystical. The son of Fort Wood and the mare London Wall was an extraordinary racehorse, an equine celebrity, a multi-millionaire, a crowd-puller and a tear-jerker all in one. He emerged as a stabilising icon at a tumultuous juncture for racing. He died as one at yet another period of division and in-fighting.
Horse Chestnut’s fame and fortune created much of the same for others; around him families were brought together, rifts were settled and life-long friendships were formed. His talent stunned experts in his home country and abroad; his exploits were bewildering, made of dreams. He opened eyes to new horizons and fulfilled many more dreams. He was an Idol and an Idolmaker.
In the foreword to Horse Chestnut: The Story Of A Legend, published in 2000, Mike de Kock writes what are now prophetic words: “The global racing industry awaits us with open arms. We have under-rated ourselves for too long. I have glimpsed several future possibilities while training Horse Chestnut overseas. African racing is fascinating to the international racing supporter. We need to see our racing within a more international context. We should look at the opportunities for promoting international competition. We have much to learn and much to contribute. Horse Chestnut has opened the door. He is one of our gifts to the world…”
Echoed acclaimed writer Sarah Britten: “For once we are seeing a horse which could have put the Sea Cottages, Colorado Kings and Hawaiis of South Africa’s golden era of racing, the 1960s, in their place. This animal is very, very special. The great Secretariat was voted US Sportsman of the Year in 1973; our own ‘Big Red’ deserves to be nominated at the very least. How many cricketers and sport stars, after all, can claim to have injected new life into an entire industry – and happiness into the hearts of million? There’s nothing like a superb champion to restore your faith in life.”
Horse Chestnut smashed records as he blazed a trail of victories across South Africa and won his only start in the USA before sustaining a career-threatening injury. In all, he won nine of 10 starts, earning R10,2-million in stakes.
Charles Faull wrote at the time: “At full throttle Horse Chestnut galloped his rivals into submission. The crushing manner of his victories had to be seen to be appreciated. He made good horses look ordinary – the hallmark of a great racehorse. In his only start as a grown horse, the Gr3 Broward Handicap at Gulfstream Park, he wasn’t tight. Yet, despite racing wide, he beat a smart pair of in-form American challengers by a playful 5.5-lengths.
“In rating Horse Chestnut against some of the standards of greatness in our, and international modern (post 1950) racing history, we have assumed that he would only have improved as much as the WFA scale indicates he should, i.e. that a WFA projected merit assessment of his superiority over the J&B Met field was the fullest measure of his greatness. It probably wasn’t, but that’s only conjecture.”
Retired to Claiborne Farm in Kentucky, USA. Horse Chestnut produced G1 winner Lucifer’s Stone and G2 winner Spanish Chestnut. He was subsequently purchased by the Horse Chestnut Syndicate and brought back to South Africa in 2009 to stand at Drakenstein Stud.
In South Africa his progeny have included G3 winners Chestnut’s Rocket and Banbury, as well as G1 Daily News 2000 runner-up Rake’s Chestnut from relatively small crops. Horse Chestnut ended the 2014 season as the Leading 2nd Crop Sire in South Africa by AEPR. Horse Chestnut will likely also leave a legacy on the breed as a broodmare sire having already produced talented filly Smart Call in South Africa and likely 2015 G1 Kentucky Derby contender Ocho Ocho Ocho.
Drakenstein Stud owner Gaynor Rupert said, “It was a privilege to stand such a horse of tremendous importance in South African racing history. He was a gentleman and loved by all the staff at Drakenstein. As one of the first two stallions of the farm it was something special for all at the stud to watch the friendship and bond develop between him and Trippi over the years. He will be sorely missed.”
Stud manager Ross Fuller added, “He was always a lovely horse to work with and one who it is an honour to have been associated.”
Mike de Kock, speaking from Dubai on Friday, paid his last tributes to the horse he described, again, as “the best I have trained, by a distance!” He commented: “Horse Chestnut defined my career and set it on a different path. Working with him was a life-altering experience. It changed the course of my own and my family’s lives. Our memories of him are fond and they will always remain.”
One academic described the term “Legend” as “… a symbolic representation of folk belief and collective experiences (that serves) as a reaffirmation of commonly held values of the group to whose tradition it belongs.”*
How do you say goodbye to a horse, a legendary one at that? Will anybody frown, mock or sneer?
Most probably, not. After all, the emotions experienced feel pretty much the same as they do when humans pass away.
Goodbye to a One-Of-A-Kind, a True Legend…
Rest in Glory, Horse Chestnut!
-Tribute by Charl Pretorius, with acknowledgements to:
-Mike de Kock
-Dr Sarah Britten
-Drakenstein Stud, www.drakensteinstud.co.za
-Gordon Allport, The Psychology of Rumor (New York: Holt, Rinehart 1947)*