In 1974 Tony Kalmanson established Varsfontein Stud just outside Paarl and the Kalmanson name has been a fixture on the local racing landscape ever since. The first yearling they ever sold was Kings Rhapsody. He went under the hammer to Laurie and Jean Jaffee and went on to win 10 races for them. Not a bad start. And the winners have kept coming.
Varsfontein has been the nursery behind such names as Marie Galante, Young Rake, Duchess Daba, Spook Express and Irridescence. They made international headlines when Perfect Promise became the first South African bred to win a Gr1 in Australia and again in 2010 with Breeder’s Cup Juvenile winner Pluck, who was out of Varsfontein bred dam, Secret Heart. Recent stud flag bearers include Covenant, Royal Bencher and War Horse.
The stallions they’ve stood include the likes of Mexico II, Fair Season and more recently Caesour, Judpot and new kid on the stallion block, Gimmethegreenlight. But there’s little flash or fanfare. Varsfontein have simply been getting on with the job of doing what they’re good at – producing quality horses – quietly and consistently for the last 30 years.
When Tony passed away in 1979, his widow Mette and children John, Susan and Monique jointly continued the breeding operation, although Monique has subsequently bowed out. The family still race under the Kalmanson name, but daughter Susan Rowett’s name has been popping up in the racing press with increasing regularity. She has recently succeeded Ian Robertson as Chairman of the TBA and took over from Vidrik Thurling as Chair of Racing South Africa last November.
One of my earliest memories is of a school holiday Pony Club excursion to Varsfontein Stud. I don’t remember much of the detail, but I do remember reverently being shown the great Mexico II (and being told that it was Mexico The Second, not Mexico Two!). And so it felt like a trip down memory lane to be invited to the Varsfontein open day to view Gimmethegreenlight’s stud launch last July. While there was a smart new entrance gate and a bit of polish applied here and there, the core foundations of history, tradition and old fashioned values remained. While we were spoilt with exceptional horseflesh, food and wine, the day was elegant and accomplished, without the slightest hint of ostentation. Much like our hostess.
I next bumped into Susan on the lawns at the Drakenstein stallion day and we got chatting about a new syndicate she was putting together called the Fabulous Fillies. “Just a bit of fun to introduce some ladies to racing,” she said self-deprecatingly.
I subsequently heard about her appointment to both the TBA and Racing South Africa. In an industry which seems to like its women anywhere but in charge, I was intrigued to see how she would get on. When I heard that she was doing a road show to meet and chat to TBA members, I put a firm note in my diary.
TBA Road Show
The meeting got underway a little after 5pm. Although it was intended to be an informal gathering, it was well attended by a good representation of Cape breeders there were some serious agenda items, not least of which were the company financials. The breeders were frank in their opinions and there were tough questions pertaining to settlement of sales proceeds, research funding, sales inspections, the promotion of new stallions and the utilisation of the sales complex.
It was clear that despite her relatively short time as Chair, Susan had already gained a firm handle on the TBA. Not only has she acknowledged the problems, she has given thorough consideration to ways to solving them.
She did not flinch away from the tough questions and it was clear that some unpopular decisions had already been made to curtail costs on the administrative side in conjunction with a strong commitment to marketing TBA sales in order to generate new revenue.
Susan was also very clear on the TBA’s remit to represent the interests of all breeders fairly and equally and remained adamant that it will continue to run on a one man, one vote basis, allowing every breeder, regardless of the size of the stud, equal representation.
She was direct, no-nonsense and pragmatic and remained unflinching at the enormity of the job she has taken on. It was an interesting and thought-provoking meeting.
The Fabulous Fillies
A week later I joined some of the Fabulous Fillies at Woodhill Racing to view their racing prospect, an attractive Judpot filly named Head of State. The syndicate includes Susan Rowett, Amanda de Vos, Jane de Vos, Di Venter, Vicki Robins, Debbie Redelinghuys, Michelle Saayman, Debbi Gorski, Emma Gray and Renee Goosen. A wonderfully fun and mischievous bunch, I felt like I’d landed in the middle of an episode of Ab Fab. Although Head of State had a bit of a head cold and wasn’t well enough to do any work, she posed exceptionally good-naturedly with her owners for some group photographs. There were lots of questions for Glen about her progress and then everyone descended on Glen and Kathi’s dining room table for a sumptuous breakfast. There was much laughter and speculation about the future and Amanda had me in stitches when she telling how excited everyone had been when Glen announced that there may be the prospect of travel should the filly turn out to be any good. Dreams of exotic destinations were quickly dashed when someone asked “Do you mean Dubai?” and Glen answered, “No, PE !”
Getting to know Susan
We were then treated to a tour of Varsfontein and a look at their sales draft for the forthcoming sales. Despite the babies still being in the early stages of sales prep, there were a number of eye-catching individuals. Having seen them ‘in the rough’ so to speak, it will be interesting to see the finished products at sale time.
Riding around on the back of the farm bakkie, I found out that Susan was a keen rider in her day and used to ride work at Terrance Millard’s Sea Lodge with the likes of Felix Coetzee and Mark Sutherland. She holds the singular honour of having galloped Royal Chalice, which immediately elevated her to new heights in my estimation.
When quizzing Susan on why she’s chosen to take on two such tricky Chairs at such a difficult time for our industry, she answers “I’m part of this industry like everyone else. I have some skills that I think might be useful and I’d like to make a difference”. When she says “some skills” Susan is being characteristically modest – she holds a degree in Jurisprudence from Oxford University, a Masters in Management from the Kellogg Graduate School of Business in the USA and having served as a director of a multi-national company for many years, brings some formidable fire power to the table.
While she acknowledges that the TBA now has to share the market with CTS, she says it’s not the first time. Over the years there’s been Chris Smith Bloodstock, Equimark, etc. Competition is good and offers breeders and buyers alike a wider spectrum of choice. However, while others may have come and gone, the TBA has endured. Being our national breed organisation, Susan feels that the TBA offers an attractive package – a national sales complex that all breeders can and should be proud of, unparalleled experience and staff expertise. “And we have provenance. We are tried, tested and trusted. No, we’re not perfect, but I hope that people will see that we are working hard to improve.”
The TBA has already implemented an upgrade to the internal accounts package, with better invoicing, a better reporting structure and a more streamlined overall approach. “We have explored the possibility of guaranteeing payments after sales, but this leaves us vulnerable to bad debt, so we’ve chosen not to go down that route. However, what we can do is to make things quicker, clearer and more efficient and we are working hard to achieve those goals.”
She also believes strongly in upholding the TBA ethos of being fair and independent and representing all corners of the industry equally. “All count, but none too much”, she smiles.
What are her goals for her term of office and what would she like to see changed in the industry? “Firstly, we need to sort out the finances and get things back on an even keel. But it has to be a team effort. We cannot do it without our breeders and we cannot do it without our buyers. So what I hope to do is foster confidence and commitment and encourage cooperation from all corners of the industry so that we can move forward cohesively”.
I am a big fan of local website Leader.co.za which ran an excellent article this week in which Toyota’s Brand Pretorius describes leadership skills as follows: “there is no short cut —one only gains influence over people by leading through the right example — one that is characterised by integrity, humility, consistency, competence, compassion and fairness. Reaching a high level of leadership competence involves the head, the heart and the hands. During the latter part of my career I discovered the most powerful source of inspiration — the desire to move from success to significance. Success is when you achieve for yourself; significance is when you achieve for others.”
There is no doubting the enormity of the task Susan is taking on, but equally, there can be no doubting her commitment and determination. More impressively, she puts her money where her mouth is and leads by example. She has invested heavily in the local breeding and racing community – one need look no further than Judpot’s impact with his freshman crop to see that her knowledge and expertise are paying dividends. She has already introduced 8 new people to horse ownership and is taking an active role in ensuring that they enjoy the process. Instead of sitting on the side lines and bemoaning the state of the industry, she is rolling up her sleeves, getting her hands dirty and trying to make a difference. With her willingness to tackle tough issues head on, I have no doubt that she will.