Favour Stud Logo
Home of Quality Thoroughbred Horses

News of Horse Chestnut’s death from heart failure last Thursday night awakened many treasured memories of one of the all-time greats of the South African turf.

Horse Chestnut - outstanding race horseWhether he was the best racehorse in this country’s history is a debate with no conclusive answer, as are all such debates. I reckon he probably was, but it’s of no account. What anybody who saw him race as a three-year-old will attest to is that he was an equine athlete in a million, an extraordinary racehorse who made the best of his time look ordinary.

And in a too-brief racing career that spanned some 24 months and comprised only 10 starts, he energised an industry that was wallowing following the introduction of other forms of gambling and a total restructure.

He captured the imagination of horseracing fans and the public at large. Bigger and bigger crowds came to watch him race as news of his athletic prowess spread. In the process he put horseracing back into the news and reminded many of what attracted us to the sport in the first instance.

Beyond all of that, he changed the course of Mike de Kock’s training career and that in turn was to bring South African horseracing international fame that nobody could have dreamed of.

I well remember speaking by phone to De Kock in America shortly after the horse he knew was his ticket to international success had shattered a cannon bone splint in a workout at Gulfstream Park in January 2000.

It was the end of Horse Chestnut’s racing career and also of De Kock’s dreams of winning the 2000 Dubai World Cup. Understandably, De Kock was devastated, but he was only down, not out. Horse Chestnut had opened new horizons for the trainer, who little more than three years later would win two races on Dubai World Cup night, the richest race meeting on the planet.

Horse Chestnut was not the finest example of a thoroughbred you could wish to see. In fact, he could look pretty ordinary in a parade ring. But when he cantered to the start there was no doubting you were watching a champion. His magic was in his action – he didn’t gallop, he glided on air.

His only defeat came in his second of three starts as a two-year-old. He finished third in the Grade 3 Morris Lipschitz over 1000m at Newmarket, a defeat that wasn’t overly surprising at the time but became ever-more inexplicable as time ticked by.

As a three-year-old Horse Chestnut was impossibly awesome. He won the Graham Beck Stakes, the Dingaans and the Cape Guineas by wide margins and with minimal effort. His chief victim on each occasion was Pablo Zeta, a horse trainer Tony Millard thought might prove as good as Empress Club, but whose enthusiasm for racing was wrecked by Horse Chestnut.

The son of Fort Wood then became the first three-year-old in 53 years to win the J&B Met. And he did more than win it – he was lengths clear 300m out and slammed Horse Of The Year Classic Flag by eight lengths.

He went on to win the inaugural Triple Crown, following his first-leg success in the Cape Guineas with easy successes in the SA Classic and the SA Derby. The winning margin in the Derby was 10 lengths and that was in spite of the splint that was to end his career troubling him.

It was his final race in South Africa and he then headed for the bright lights of the USA. Eight months later he had what proved his final race, skating home nearly six lengths in the Grade 3 Broward Handicap in his debut on dirt.

His exploits at stud, while significant, did not match his racecourse feats. But in fairness to this champion, who was bred at the late Harry and Bridget Oppenheimer’s Mauritzfontein Stud and raced in their famous black-and-yellow silks, he was always going to battle at stud in the USA. Dirt is king there and this turf champion might have had better prospects had he returned to South Africa after his injury.

Nevertheless, he did sire a Grade 1 winner in the USA and in 2009 was bought by the Horse Chestnut Syndicate to come home to stand at the Drakenstein Stud of Johan and Gaynor Rupert. He has sired some smart sorts here and it will be years before his contribution to the breed in this country can be properly measured.

And whatever that may be doesn’t really matter. Rest in peace Horse Chestnut, you were amazing and enriched horseracing and the lives of many.

The final words from De Kock on his website www.mikedekockracing.com: “The best I have trained by a distance! 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.”