|Guest Column: Farewell To A Lady|
29 October, 2013
– Lisa Barrett
South Africa’s breeding and racing scene has been left all the poorer, with the passing of one of its greatest visionaries and most graceful advocates, Bridget Oppenheimer. Fondly known as “Mrs O”, Bridget Oppenheimer bred and raced some of this country’s greatest horses, including six Vodacom Durban July winners and two Triple Crown winners (Horse Chestnut & Cherry On Top), among the many great horses of a career spanning well over six decades.
Initially more famous for being the wife of one of the world’s richest men, the Anglo American magnate and philanthropist, Harry Oppenheimer, “Mrs O” as she was to be known in later years, got into racing when her husband Harry who had fought in the Second World War, decided to become a member of parliament in the Cape, and because he had to live in the constituency he was to stand for, the couple bought a former Boer War remount depot, and named it Mauritzfontein Stud.
Mrs O’s keen eye for a good horse would stand her in good stead over the years, Mauritzfontein’s foundation stallion was the ill-fated Hobo, who died of biliary prematurely before he could get the stud off the ground. French stallion Janus was the next major acquisition for the stud, who quickly got down to business by producing the stud’s first Durban July winner, Tiger Fish in 1959. However it was Wilwyn, a top European and American racer who produced the 1965 Durban July winner, King Willow, who really got the stud off the ground. By the late 80s, Mrs O realised that she needed to replenish her stud’s waning stallion band, and then stud manager Gavin Schafer was tasked with finding a suitable stallion.
Gavin cast his eye far and wide, and made what was to become of the best purchases for South African racing and breeding – a striking bay colt named Fort Wood. Son of the legendary Sadler’s Wells, Fort Wood was a highly respected middle-distance runner in France, where he won the Grand Prix de Paris (2000m) and the Prix Noailles (2200m) and was rated 117 by Timeform, before being picked by Schafer for stud duties at Mauritzfontein. His impact at stud was immediate and profound, from his first crop came Horse Chestnut, who would go on to become Fort Wood’s first major winner.
Horse Chestnut also became the first of two Triple Crown winners for Mrs O and Mauritzfontein Stud, going on to be crowned as South Africa’s first Triple Crown winner, winning 8 of his 9 starts including the J&B met (1999) and being crowned Horse Of The Year, before being sent to race in America. Horse Chestnut got off to a promising start with a 5 length victory in the Grade 3 Broward Handicap at Gulfstream Park in Florida. While he was preparing for an assault on the Grade 1 Donn Handicap, Horse Chestnut suffered a career-ending injury when he fractured piece of his splint bone on his near-foreleg, resulting in his premature retirement. Sent to stud at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky, Horse Chestnut, according to published reports was put into the same stall as the great Mr. Prospector, a portent for the future one wonders?
Out of his 14 crops at stud, Fort Wood has 14 individual Group One winners and 24 Group One wins to his name, and has produced some of this country’s greatest horses including multiple Vodacom Durban July winners: Celtic Grove (1997), Dynasty (1999) and Hunting Tower (2002). Fort Wood is also the dam sire of Triple Crown winner, Cherry On Top and the brilliant Capetown Noir, and with several of his outstanding daughters now at stud, he should continue to have a major influence on the racing and breeding scene for years to come.
Over the years, Mrs O became a regular and popular face at the racecourse, her unbounded enthusiasm and genuine love for racing and horses was apparent for all to see. Even when age finally caught up with her, she turned to a motorized wheelchair in order to ensure that she could keep up her regular attendance at the races.
Besides her horses, the other of the great legacies Mrs O has left behind, is her daughter Mary Slack, who is one of this country and racing’s greatest supporters, and is regarded, like her mother, as one of the doyens of South African racing. Mary was bitten hard by the racing bug, and in 1997 purchased Wilgersbosdrift Stud in the Cape in order to make her passion more of a commercial and profitable undertaking. Like her mother, Mary had an excellent eye for a good horse, and her stud’s results over the years have reflected that.
In 1999, the young stud farm acquired its first mares, and sent its first draft of yearlings to the prestigious National Yearling Sale. Among the horses in the first draft was the stakes-winning filly Sepia. In 2001, a smart young colt by Fort Wood aptly called Dynasty was sent to the National Yearling Sales, bought by well-known bloodstocker John Freeman for R475 000. Dynasty became to Mary, what Fort Wood and Horse Chestnut had become to Mrs O and Mauritzfontein, and take Wilgersbosdrift to new heights as one of the country’s pre-eminent breeding and racing establishments.
Like his great sire Fort Wood, Dynasty was an outstanding multiple Group winner, with 4 Group Ones (the Vodacom Durban July, Cape Derby, S.A.Guineas and the Daily News 2000) and 3 Group Twos (Green Point Stakes twice and Selangor Cup) to his credit, and like Fort Wood, he was also named Horse Of The Year. Dynasty continued to emulate his great sire by producing the brilliant Jackson, Irish Flame (another Horse Of The Year), Run For It, and by far one of the best mares to grace the racing tracks of South Africa, the KZN-trained Beach Beauty.
After the successes of Dynasty on the track and in the breeding shed, Mary’s Wilgersbosdrift Stud has not looked back, and has gone from strength to strength, being one of the few farms that could claim to have bred three consecutive winners of the important classic, the Kwa Zulu Natal Guineas (Dynasty, Heir Apparent, and Dunsinane). Rounding out the list of top horses bred by Mary is Wonder Lawn, who when he was sold for R3million as a yearling in 2005, was the highest priced yearling in South African history. Wonder Lawn went onto win the Peninsula Handicap (Gr.3) and raced with success internationally in Dubai. Over the years, Mary’s continuing and loyal support of South African racing and breeding, has seen her climb to the heights of success in a largely male dominated world. Her association with champion trainer Mike De Kock has been particularly successful, so much so that she has opened a satellite yard at Newmarket England, mainly to accommodate her growing band of international purchases.
2013 was to bring Mrs O great joy, when she had her second Triple Crown winning horse, with her filly Cherry On Top, out her daughter’s Wilgersbosdrift-based stallion, Tiger Ridge, won South Africa’s Triple Crown, becoming the second filly since the great Igugu to do so.
It’s hard to fully verbalize what made Mrs O so great, her horses and success and the racecourse were definitely a part of that, but she herself would probably tell you that she simply loved the sport of racing, and the manner in which it united peoples of all backgrounds for a common good, the love of the horse!
– Guest Writer
“Lisa Barrett”, her psuedonym, currently works at a stud farm in the KZN Midlands. She is absolutely and totally crazy about horses and every aspect of them. She is fascinated by every aspect of the racehorse business, especially pedigrees and would like to one day write a book on her favourite sire!