Mike Rattray’s passing will be mourned by many horsepeople and animal lovers around the country but his legacy in both horseracing, polo and wildlife conservation will be long lasting.
There is a constant theme running through the tributes paid to him. He demanded high standards and so was a hard taskmaster and did not suffer fools gladly. However, at the same time if he knew someone was doing a good job and was loyal he was easy to work for because he had the ability to trust those who shared his passion for whatever goal was at hand.
Sally Bruss (nee Jordaan), Alistair Gordon and James Goodman spoke about Rattray’s roles as a thoroughbred stud farm owner, racehorse owner and polo player and administrator respectively.
Sally Bruss was the stud farm manager of Rattray’s Lammerskraal thoroughbred breeding establishment in the Ceres Valley for over thirty years.
She said, “He was very rewarding to work for. He did not micro-manage me. He really valued hard work and loyalty and trusted me. It is really great to work for a someone like that because you can use your own initiative. He allowed me to develop the farm with paddocks and trees and let me manage with my own ideas. We discussed things jointly but it was without me ever feeling controlled by him. He knew I was always present and focused so it was all based on trust and loyalty. He was a wonderful boss.”
However, the aspect which really took Lammerskraal to the heights it achieved was Rattray and Bruss’s shared passion for horses and the shared goals of establishing a top stud farm and keeping it at the top.
She recalled, “He used to phone everyday and would begin by saying ‘How is Sally From The Valley?’. He would then talk excitedly and passionately about what brings success.”
Sally revealed in an interview in 2008 Mike liked broodmares who were not only good racetrack performers themselves, but who had good performers in at least the first three generations and they had to be by a good broodmare sire and be a good specimen.
She shared this belief and also shared his belief in constantly upgrading the quality of bloodstock.
She said, “He was constantly bringing in new blood and was big on soundness. People were scathing of his broodmare policies at first, I think it might have had to do with jealousy, because if you look at the success of a stud farm like Varsfontein or look at the success today of Japan it is founded on that same policy.”
Rattray was also the first to introduce the cover fee paid up front with a guarantee of a live foal.
Sally said, “There was criticism of this too at first but it worked.”
If a cover is done and the payment is slow in coming it can lead to confrontation but if owners know their mare is definitely going to be given special attention at cover time and the foal is guaranteed then they are willing to pay up front.
“Now many are doing the same,” she said.
Rattray also sought the best in stallions and South African racing will forever be indebted to him for importing Western Winter.
The USA-bred son of Gone West became a three-times Champion Sire and produced 23 individual Grade 1 winners, which is one more than the great seven-times champion stallion Jet Master.
It is also interesting to note that Jet Master was by Lammerskraal stallion Rakeen.
Western Winter’s cover fee started at R10,000 and at one stage was as high as R250,000, so Lammerskraal were able to afford their upgrades.
“We were extremely lucky to get Western Winter”, Rattray admitted in an interview in 2006.
He said, “I had always wanted to send my mares to the best stallion in the country but couldn’t always get to him, so we decided to look for a stallion for ourselves.”
He delegated this task to Sally and she began scouring the world bloodstock markets.
Lammerskraal were offered Western Winter in 1996 but turned him down on
the grounds he was not a proven Group 1 performer. His best finish had only been second in a Group 2.
He had suffered a split cannon bone and it was thought he would never race again.
However, he returned with three screws inserted and ran third to Langfuhr in a Group 1 over 1400m.
Three weeks later he failed by a neck to beat Langfuhr in the Group 1 Metropolitan Mile at Belmont.
Had he won that race his price would have soared out of reach but instead Rattray placed an option on him and Sally and trainer Alec Laird flew over to inspect him.
Sally recalled, “Mr. Rattray phoned when I was looking at Western Winter over the barn door. He just had such an incredible aura about him and when Mr Rattray said, ‘Do you like him?’ I replied “Yes.” And then I will never forget he said, “Do you want him?” and I said ‘YES!!’ and that was how the deal was decided!”
Sally did point out one mistake she believed Mike made.
She said, “Western Winter spoilt him. The chances of finding another one like that are low. I believe if he had syndicated Parade Leader and Go Deputy they would have had more success.”
It was indeed strange to see a sire (Parade Leader) who had produced “The People’s Horse”, the Gary Alexander-trained Pierre Jourdan, receiving no support. He produced Summer Cup winner Rudra and Grade 2 winner Senor Versace in his first crop and his third crop included July runner up Pierre Jourdan, who among other big wins won the first two legs of the Triple Crown and finished second in the third leg.
Later Go Deputy did produce a Triple Crown winner, the Mike Azzie-trained Abashiri, yet still remained unfashionable.
Alistair Gordon was Rattray’s first trainer and said, “We were the first to go to America and Argentina to buy horses and we had a fair bit of success without huge success. I have a lot of respect for him and his wife Norma. We were good friends and had a lot of good times together and he was always good to me. He was a hard businessman but if you were ever lucky enough to go to Mala Mala it was clear his demanding of high standards paid dividends. It was a world famous game reserve. But if you did what he asked you to do and did it properly you were fine. He never interfered so long as he knew you were doing a good job, so he was an easy man to train for.”
Rattray’s other life long passion was polo.
He and James Goodman’s father Allan were family friends and organised the first ever polo tour by the Argentinian national team to South Africa. They flew over to Argentina together to do it.
The first polo tour by Argentina in the 1960s included 10 goal legend Juan Carlito Harriott, who is considered the greatest polo player of all time.
James recalled the only thing that slightly peeved Mike at the time was he was not selected to play for the Boks on that tour.
However, the aim was achieved because the test matches were sold out.
However, Mike did play for both Natal and the Springboks and was able to play in any position.
He played polo until the age of 64.
James said, “He was the head of the polo association for many years and was the driving force of polo in South Africa.”
He was still the honorary life president at the time of his passing.
James concluded, “He was a go getter and although he did come from money he built it into more money. He was very well liked in every concern he was involved in. But all he ever really wanted was to win The July and sadly he never did.”
Rattray dreamed of winning the July ever since riding in gymkhana races for prize money of 19 Guineas where all horses carried 11 stone 7 pounds. The events had full betting facilities and were well attended being a product of post-war euphoria in which there was any excuse for a party. The races were run over distances from 1000m to 1400m at venues Park Rynie, Mount Edgecombe, Mooi River, Eshowe, Richmond and Melmouth. He started by riding his father’s horses. Later he bought his own horse, Royal Dandy, and both trained and rode him.
Rattray and Bruss used to keep the potentially good breeding fillies from every foal crop. They also used to keep one or two of the better-bred and best-looking colts to race with the aim, no doubt, of winning the July.
However, he admitted in an interview in 2007 it was somewhat of “a fluke” to get a top colt because they could change so quickly as they grew up.
Therefore, when he realised time was running out, he began singling out potential July winners in-training and making offers for them.
His first big purchase in this regard was of the Duncan Howells-trained Dynasty gelding Royal Life who won his maiden over 1600m at Hollywoodbets Scottsville by 6.5 lengths in January 2015.
He sent him to Alistair Gordon, but he was a difficult customer who tended to over-race and never fulfilled the potential he had shown that day.
Rattray then famously bought Met winner Rainbow Bridge shortly after he had won the 2019 Met and later bought his stablemate Golden Ducat.
Buying such horses is not straight forward and he was only able to get one of the quality of Rainbow Bridge due to the passing of his previous owner Chris Gerber.
The two horses remained in Cape trainer Eric Sands’ yard and both put up fine performances in the July without winning it.
In the end the second place finishes of the Geoff Woodruff-trained pair Celtic Grove and Yard-Arm and the second place finish of Rainbow Bridge were his best July results.
However, he does at least hold a July record in that Yard-Arm is the only odds-on favourite in the big race’s history. However, he could only finish ninth in that 2004 renewal.
Rattray once lamented having the opposite problem of John Newsome, the now late owner of Fieldspring Racing.
He said, “John only ever wanted to win the Met but won the July (Eyeofthetiger 2006) and I only ever wanted to win the July and won the Met (Yard-Arm 2004, Rainbow Bridge 2021). (the latter’s first Met was in the late Chris Gerber’s colours).
Mike Rattray’s funeral arrangements have still not been released by the family but it is sure to have a massive attendance.
Picture: Mike And Norma Rattray Receiving An Equus Award.