An Audience with Ashaawes

I love horses. I love all kinds of horses and I love them for all kinds of reasons. Often the reasons are pretty sane and practical and based on good common sense – a good looker, good performer, etc. But other times I just take a fancy to a horse for no discernible good reason at all.

It can happen when they’re standing right in front of me at a sale or a training yard, watching them race, seeing their progeny, or sometimes right off a catalogue page or computer screen. I don’t know how or why, but some horses just ‘speak’ to me, as the old saying goes.

If I don’t get that feeling for a horse, then I find it mighty difficult to get genuinely excited about them and there have been some jolly big horses that I must confess I didn’t like very much at all, no matter how much I admired their athletic ability or racing achievements. It’s just one of those things. But then, to borrow a quote from Bennie van der Merwe, ‘we don’t all like blondes!’

Paper, scissors, stone

Anyway, whenever I come across a horse that particularly appeals on paper, I then face the dilemma of whether I want to see them in the flesh and risk being disappointed.

Which is entirely stupid as one then risks missing the chance of meeting them at all, but of course I’m female and one has to make allowances for my special brand of logic! One such horse that I’ve been wanting to meet, but avoiding for some time is Sandown Stud’s Ashaawes and poor James Armitage must have lost count of the number of times I’ve threatened to come and visit.

Toughness built in

James and his wife Joy are truly one of racing’s loveliest couples. The first thing that one remembers about Joy is her huge smile and the way her eyes light up when she talks to you.

She is always genuinely and sincerely friendly and one of life’s sunny people that makes you feel better just for having been in her company. James is perhaps a little less comfortable with social chit chat and happiest when he’s busy, usually around his horses. And in fact, that’s how we met. I was wandering around the sales grounds late one evening, double checking some yearlings and generally soaking things in.

It’s the time of day that I love best: when the horses have been fed and checked over and their weary grooms have headed off to find their own dinner and lodgings for the night.

The stables are calm and peaceful, with just the gentle sound of hay being munched. The stabling complex was all but deserted, apart from the section housing the Sandown string, where James was checking his babies over one last time.

I teased him about still being there so late and he replied shyly “the more you look at your horses, the faster they get.” And to me that pretty much says everything about James.

The Armitage family have deep-seated racing roots. James’ grandfather Jim first started breeding horses at his Rathvale Stud near Standerton. Bucking the trend for sprinter-milers, he stood the stallions Penthouse II and Kirsch Flambee and his faith paid off with the production of such turf greats as Home Guard and Gatecrasher. His all-red racing colours, first registered in 1946, are now in the name of his grandson.

Geoff Armitage moved to Rhodesia in 1964 and started farming about an hour’s drive from Salisbury. He promptly bought four mares and founded Sandown Stud, which went on to be the country’s leading breeder in every season bar two over a 23-year period. Unfortunately the local political and economic landscape became increasingly difficult and the final straw came when the value of their yearling proceeds fell by two-thirds in the 18 days between the annual sale and the cheques being issued.

James and Joy relocated to South Africa in 2006, first settling in Ceres and finally making a home for themselves at their current location just outside Stellenbosch. When we express our admiration for the resilience of Zimbabweans and the courage it must take to start all over again, James shrugs philosophically and says “we’re farmers, you know? I think farming is a pretty tough lifestyle anyway, so we’re used to making a plan. It’s what we do.”

Spacious Sandown

Their 600 ha new home has been transformed from a wheat farm into a beautiful stud and thriving cut flower business. James manages the growing side of the flower business, while Joy does importing, sales and logistics (and kindly sends us home with armfuls of sunflowers).

On the stud side, James has laid out vast fields over rolling hills with gorgeous views over the nearby mountains. They have converted the dairy into barn stables and a medical block, although these are only used for sales prep and dire emergencies. “John Kramer once told me ‘A horse’s worst enemy is a stable’.

I use that a lot,” James says seriously. Sales yearlings are left out at night and brought in during the day to protect their coats, so we get to cast a quick eye over his stock. There is a huge horse walker, designed by Joy’s father and they manage their water supply carefully enough to still have ample grazing in February. And all this a convenient 30 minutes from Cape Town!

In an interview just after moving to their Stellenbosch base, James stated that his ambition was to “buy fresh land, build up a decent broodmare band, get a nice stallion and produce horses good enough for export.” It seems the words went from his mouth to God’s ears as their broodmare numbers have swelled to 60 and the royally bred Ashaawes arrived at Sandown in 2008.

Noblesse Oblige

Bred on what increasingly seems to be accepted as the Kingmambo / Seattle Slew nick, Ashaawes was bred by Richard Santulli, George Prussin, David Orlinsky and Jules Fink’s Jayeff-B Stable. An exceptionally well made individual, he was knocked down to the Shadwell racing enterprise for $2,850,000 at the 2004 Keeneland September Yearling Sale.

Although that was the third highest price paid for a yearling of his generation, Ashaawes is probably best known for the fact that his full brother, Meydan City, was purchased by Godolphin for staggering $11.7 million at Keeneland in 2006. Ashaawes was initially trained by Saeed Bin Suroor and won his juvenile debut over 7 furlongs. He finished a close fourth behind Palace Episode on his only other start at two and would go on to notch up a total of 3 career wins from 7 starts and £24,532 in stakes earnings, before relocating to South Africa to take up stud duties.

James relates that Ashaawes has taken to his new job very well. He is a pleasure to handle and work with and gives his handler, Lazarus no trouble as we ask him to move him this way and that for the camera. However, we are not fooled into complacency by his cooperation.

He keeps a steady eye on us throughout, making it very clear that we are being entertained on his terms, which makes me smile. He clearly knows he’s worth every penny of that $2,850,000!

The proof is in the pudding

Although he has got off to a relatively modest start numerically, Ashaawes’ progeny have more than done the talking for him.

Donnie Brasco got him off the mark at the Vaal in March 2012, winning by a comfortable 2.75 lengths at the first time of asking. His first stakes winner came a few months later in the shape of Way Clear, who won the 2012 Listed Racing Association Stakes in Fred Crabbia’s colours for the Alan Greeff yard.

Ashaawes’ haul of first crop stakes horses also includes Sanshaawes (bred by Barbara Sanne’s Oldlands Stud who was a recent Dubai winner for the eagle-eyed Mike de Kock), Priceless Jewel and Scented Ash. With his second crop just starting to hit our racecourses with promising results, he seems on track to continue the trend. Despite standing for a very tempting R12,000, Ashaawes has an impressive and discerning list of shareholders and his progeny have sold exceptionally well, with yearlings fetching up to R240,000 in the sales ring.

They’re proving pretty rewarding on the racetrack too, with his AEPR amongst the highest in the country, even though he’s received some modest mares.

The eye catching son of Kingmambo may have been flying under the radar for some time now, but with Sashaawes’ Meydan victory, the secret is finally out. Priceless Jewel’s courageous win in last weekend’s Two Oceans Racing Prix du Cap simply underlined his credentials.

Ashaawes has a number of progeny available at the forthcoming CTS and TBA National sales. Go and see whether he speaks to you too.