Robert Garner: Breeding thoroughbred racehorses is no business for the faint-hearted. In fact, without loads of luck, capital, revenue from other sources and sound judgment it will almost certainly land you in the poorhouse.
So many breeders, who were once household names in South African racing circles, have disappeared down the years, but Koster is one name that has survived since Ralph Koster first decided to breed racehorses in Beaufort West in 1943 at Klavervlei Stud.
Ralph, who bred mules for the army during World War II, started with six mares bought from famous breeder Allan Robertson and a year later acquired six more from the estate of Henry Nourse, South Africa’s top owner and breeder for the first four decades of the last century.
Klavervlei was on its way. Successful stallions like Dramatic II and Preamble II soon arrived while foundation mares turned out to include stud book greats like Jezebel and Sister Sublime.
Ralph went on to breed many top horses in the heart of the Great Karoo – the likes of champion filly Majorca, 1971 Durban July victor Mazarin and Met winners Polar Bear and Jerez being four that spring to mind.
Ralph’s three sons – Werner, Peter and Wilfred – all shared their father’s passion for breeding, but as the years rolled by and the third generation was born, the family business evolved in different directions.
Wilfred, Ralph’s youngest son, moved to Ceres in 1980 to establish Cheveley Stud, where champions like London News, National Emblem and Goldmark were bred. Wilfred died in 2008 and the farm is now run by his son Vaughan.
Peter set his son John up on a farm in Bonnievale, the current Klawervlei Stud and deliberately spelt with a w to differentiate it from the original Klavervlei. Simultaneously, his younger Son Charlie took over the Beaufort West farm, which is today a spelling farm.
But the Koster racing banner lives on in Beaufort West at Rosedene Stud, which is run by Werner’s son Graeme and is home to champion Greys Inn, sire of twice Horse of the Year Legal Eagle.
This is the farm where Godfrey Gird stood twice South African champion sire New South Wales before moving to Maine Chance Farms in Robertson. Graeme took over the farm in 1994.There were only three horses there when he arrived and he started his venture into racehorse breeding with only five mares.
“I added slowly to that number but only really got involved because of Mike de Kock. He was instrumental in the late Mrs Oppenheimer sending me Greys Inn to stand as a stallion and that’s when I expanded the breeding operation,” says Graeme.
We stopped by there on a visit to the Karoo earlier this year and Greys Inn looked a picture of health and vitality – so good in fact that you would be hard pressed to guess from a casual glance that he is now 18 years old.
Winner of the 2003 Durban July and unluckily beaten in the QEII Cup in Hong Kong the following year, Greys Inn has sired a consistent stream of winners with one of the highest average earnings per runner.
“This has to be one of the best places in the world to breed racehorses,” says Graeme, adding that his yearlings live outside until two months before they go to sale.
“You want them to be athletes and the longer you leave them outside the better. The only drawback here is the location and we are a long way away from the centre of the breeding action. That’s why we sent Greys Inn to stand at Highlands Stud for the first six weeks of the breeding season last year. It made it so much easier for many of the top studs to send mares to him.”
Koster is keenly aware of the financial hazards of breeding racehorses and is thoroughly diversified. Among him, his brother Ralph and his father Werner they have more than 100,000 hectares of land, nearly 14,000 sheep and two highly rated game lodges in Lemoenfontein and Ko-Ka Tsara Bush Camp.
Graeme and Werner also have some 800 hectares of land under lucerne and Ralph has three bed-and-breakfast establishments in the Wagon Wheel, the Beaufort Manor Country Lodge and the Matoppo Inn, which dates back to 1835.
A three-year drought has taken its toll on their sheep and game enterprises, but recent snow provided some relief and Graeme remains optimistic that March next year, the area’s wettest month, will bring rain.
Rosedene has 10 lots on the National Two-Year-Old Sale at the TBA sales complex at Germiston on Thursday and Friday next week, while Cheveley will offer four for sale.
There are 447 lots catalogued and the sale will begin at 11am on both days.