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Off The Record with Charl Pretorius

Racing, Business, and Philanthropy:
Warne Rippon’s journey of Triumph and Resilience

Part 3

In the third and final part of the Warne Rippon story, we delve deeper into the events that shaped Warne’s love for nature, and how an injury to his star mare Sun Classique turned his life into what was to become a huge venture into conservationism with Buffalo Kloof. He also speaks about the importance of May’s general elections for racing and conservationism.

If you’d like to catch up:

Read Part 1, here.

Read Part 2, here.

***

As a boy, growing up in the natural landscapes of Grahamstown, Warne Rippon found himself immersed in the world around him. He developed an appreciation for the beauty and harmony of nature. It was during these formative years that Warne’s passion for conservation was unknowingly sparked, influenced by music that celebrated the natural world.

Little did he know that these early encounters with nature and music would shape his future, instilling in him a commitment to preserving the environment that would become a guiding force in his life.

Warne loved the tunes of American singer and songwriter John Denver, and when he was eight years old his mother bought him a guitar. “Denver’s songs appealed to me. He sang about mountains and animals and trees and plants. I played my guitar, tried to sing too and became quite good at it.”

Denver, following many US billboard hit songs in the 1969, began to focus more on sustainability causes, nature conservation projects and humanitarian work. “When I was 10, I wrote to John Denver and invited him to visit us in Grahamstown as he would enjoy the vegetation of the area, forests and grasslands. Of course, I wanted to meet him too. He never visited, but he did reply to my letter!”

***

After Warne had bought the 800-hectare property on the Kowie River in 1999, the Paardekraal (‘Horse Enclosure’), in the same area, came up for sale. This was the old ostrich farm that formerly belonged to Wendy Rippon’s family. Warne and Wendy bought the farm in 2007. Forests of natural bush found on the property contained valuable growths of sneezewood, yellowwood, and ironwood, that would later provide the necessary poles which were used in the construction of fencing. The Kowie River formed one boundary of the farm for a distance of 10 miles.

The marvellous exploits of Sun Classique in 2007 and 2008 diverted the Rippons’ attention away from the Eastern Cape and Warne told: “After she’d won the Sheema Classic in Dubai, we were on a high I cannot describe in words. We were living in a bubble of pure joy and anticipation of more to come. We owned one of the best fillies in the world, if not the best, and she was in big demand from buyers. We could name our price. But having already amassed the equivalent of R29-million, money was not an issue at all. We wanted to add the world’s major prizes to the Sheema Classic. Royal Ascot was coming up, there were major races in Hong Kong and of course the spectacular and prestigious Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp.”

After some discussions, we decided to aim Sun Classique at the ‘Arc’ in Paris, a race we felt she’d be well suited to. It was due for early October, 2008 and this would give her enough time to recover from her Dubai campaign and get back to peak fitness. She went into quarantine in April 2008, and arrived at Mike de Kock’s stable base in Newmarket, UK, in May, where she was given time to settle down.

Mike had penciled in the Group 1 Falmouth Stakes over 1600m at Newmarket on 7 September as a first preparation run into the ‘Arc’, and, after that, Sun Classique was likely to go to France for a final prep into the big race.

Having progressed nicely in the latter part of May and June, Sun Classique was due for a grass gallop early in July. Work rider, Gavin Howes, partnered her on the July track at Newmarket for her first stretch on this surface, alongside Trevor Brown on her accomplished stablemate, Archipenko.

Tragedy struck. It wasn’t immediately apparent, but Sun Classique had injured herself during this gallop. A few hours into that morning, she developed heat and a large swelling on her near fore. She was diagnosed with a strained tendon, something no trainer wants to hear, ever.

Warne recalled: “We were still on cloud nine after the Sheema Classic, still enthusing every day and telling our story to anyone who wanted to hear it. Life was good, business was good. Our days started with a spring in the step, in anticipation of our next racing adventure with Sun Classique. We were ready for the next chapter to be written.

“I was standing in the washroom at Allied Steelrode when Mike’s call came through. I remember the moment, because my knees buckled and I almost passed out. Mike had nick-named me ‘Elvis’ after I’d entertained them on a merry evening in Dubai and he said: “Elvis, we’ve got a problem with the filly’. I briefly thought he was about to report a minor setback, but he said, ‘Sun Classique strained a tendon in work. It’s serious. She might not race again.’”

“I’d learnt enough about thoroughbreds in my time as an owner to know that ‘tendon injury’ means ‘big trouble’ in racing terms. Horses with tendon injuries seldom, if ever, return to the racetrack. Right then, right there, the lights went off in my life. This was a quick, paralysing blow and I fell from a euphoric cloud into a bottomless pit in a matter of seconds. I sat motionless in my office for hours, contemplating what I’d just been told.”

Mike and his team at Newmarket decided, as a last resort, to send Sun Classique to a horse rehabilitation facility in Newmarket. The centre’s manager, David Chapman-Jones, was optimistic about a recovery in the first few weeks, but hope gradually faded.

Warne said: “I flew to the UK and spent five weeks with Sun Classique in Newmarket while they were giving her controlled exercises at the rehab. Those were dark days, but I learnt a lot being by her side. She was intelligent, she knew what was happening and she tried hard to help us, to help her.”

After several weeks, the team threw in the towel. The recovery process was taxing on Sun Classique and the tendon wasn’t healing to the extent that enough encouragement could be given for a full recovery. Sun Classique was retired and Lionel Cohen was quoted in the media as saying, “I don`t want to let the disappointment spoil the fun we’ve had. The bond and enjoyment she has brought to my friends and family is priceless and we are now looking at the bright side of just how blessed we have been. She has brought us the greatest moments we have ever experienced.”

Warne added: “The 2008 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe was won by the Aga Khan’s star filly Zarkova, who beat Youmzain into second by two lengths. Ironically, Youmzain had finished fifth behind Sun Classique in the Sheema Classic, beaten 3,25-lengths. That’s how good she was. Man, oh man, if I just think what could’ve been, had our filly stayed sound.”

***

On 18 January 2024, Warne spoke from his suite at the Peppermill Casino Hotel in Reno, Nevada. He was en route to Nashville, Tennessee, for the annual Beretta & SCI Foundation Conservation Leadership Awards Ceremony on 30 January, for which he was one of six nominees. He’d travelled via San Antonio, Dallas and Reno for various meetings with relevant individuals and authorities in the fields of conservation, preservation and rewilding.

Recalling an incident in Reno, in 2019, he noted: “I’ve always skated on the seat of my pants, but I find it exhilarating, I get fired up by challenges. I came to this gambling city for meetings and one night I was in a casino, not completely sober. I took $2,000, all I had, and sat down to play blackjack. Within 20 minutes I’d won $40,000. I have no idea how I racked up the chips so quick, and the casino’s supervisor interrupted my game. They accused me of card counting. I said, ‘I scored 30% for maths at school, I can hardly count!’, but they asked me to leave, pronto. I walked to another casino on the strip, where I wanted to push my winning streak.”

“Unbeknown to me, the officials at the different casinos are constantly in touch with each other. I’d barely entered the second casino when a group of beefy guys in suits surrounded me. They were all wired up. ‘Sir,’ said the main man, ‘we want you to leave our premises immediately. That’s the exit, over there. Go now, and do not ever come back!’ My bravado faded at the sight of these big, stern-faced security officials and I carried out their instruction without pausing to argue. My daughter, Hannah, was in our hotel with me. She was stunned by the $40,000 I’d won, but equally surprised when I asked her to pack up so we could leave, in a hurry!”

There was a welcoming party in Reno this time and Warne said. “I am very friendly with the owner of this casino resort, I am safe and I’ll be at the Wild Sheep Conservation Show here for a few days, networking. The show fills 75,000 square feet of wall-to-wall exhibits designed to celebrate the great outdoors and raise money for the conservation and management of wild sheep.”

Conventions like these are a part of Warne’s life now. He travels around the world to promote his farm, Buffalo Kloof, and to raise money for his own conservation efforts.

A lot has happened since Sun Classique’s career ended in September 2008. The partnership sold the mare for $2-million and she was sent to a top breeding farm, but she sadly died of colic before she could produce a foal.

“This was an extra tragedy in the hardest time of my life. While Sun Classique had contributed greatly to our later expansion of Buffalo Kloof, her death was a serious first blow in a series of blows. Things went pear-shaped. In 2009, Wendy, Hannah and my son, Taylor, were involved in a hijacking on their way back from the children’s school in Johannesburg. Not long after that, they survived a robbery by a group of eight thugs at our house. To top it all, I was hurt in a motorbike accident.”

The family made a life decision. Within a month, they wrapped up matters in Johannesburg, packed their bags and moved to Grahamstown. Whilst safer and perhaps more content, Warne was troubled and didn’t like their new house and the commuting to his business in Johannesburg. He recalled: “Our lives were uprooted and, with Sun Classique still on my mind and her death as a catalyst, I spiralled into clinical depression for more than five years.

“We bought more racehorses and found a decent gelding called Umgiyo, raced in partnership with Arun Chadha. Umgiyo won a minor race in Dubai and was good enough to race on Dubai World Cup night in 2015 at a time when I’d reached my lowest point. Being there again, among all those memories, must have triggered something, and I was on the wrong medication to boot. I went up to the top floor of the hotel building and wanted to jump from it. It was tough, I was mentally wrecked. My best mate said, ‘Sun Classique was just a horse man, get over it!’”

Still, in her absence, Sun Classique had aided in the gradual recovery of her former owner by providing funds for the development of Buffalo Kloof. There were no plans for the farm when the Rippon family moved from Gauteng, but by living so close to nature they were soon consumed by grand ideas.

Above:  Buffalo Kloof

For rewilding, Warne acquired a further 16 title deeds and joined his new land, the farmlands and areas of the pristine untouched thicket, into a large conservancy. He was also able to introduce the first white rhino to the farm in 2010, when rhino poaching was at an all-time high and rhino protection came with a lot of security risks.

“Little did we know then that rhino conservation would be at the centre of our mission today. Rhino are the heart and soul of Buffalo Kloof, as the whole project has almost formed around them. My involvement with Rhino helped me to get out of the hole I was in. The farm’s White Rhino population has flourished. Our anti-poaching teams operate with relentless dedication, 365 days a year, to create a safe space for rhinos to roam.”

Above:  Some of Buffalo Kloof’s resident rhinos

Buffalo Kloof, today, is situated in a 700km long sweep of land at the bottom right corner of the continent: a biological melting pot where five of South Africa’s nine great biomes come together. The thicket biome is at its heart, a rich and mysterious world of well-armed shrubs, tough succulents and tangling vines. It offers a greater variety of plant forms, life histories and lineages than any other region in Southern Africa.

Long-neglected by naturalists, the thicket was only recognised as a biome in its own right a few decades ago, yet it dates back more than 50-million years. This thicket is remarkable for more than its ancient origins and impressive plant diversity. It is also resistant to fire, has the ability to create its own microclimate and can build up nutrients through leaf litter. This means that, despite receiving only modest rainfall, it has an impressively high biomass.

Buffalo Kloof is a veritable Eden of diverse flora, fauna and ecology; home to four different flora biomes as well as hosting four members of the Big Five – elephant, black and white rhino, Cape buffalo, giraffe and leopard. Buffalo Kloof also boasts a variety of smaller and unusual species of animals and birds.

Above: Buffalo Kloof buffalo

In 2017, Warne relocated a family group of 10 elephants from Shamwari and two bulls from Kwandwe private game reserves, both also in the Eastern Cape, to Buffalo Kloof. This marked the return of elephants to the Kowie River Valley after an absence of 150 years.

In 2019, Buffalo Kloof partnered with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency (ECPTA) in joining the Black Rhino Range Expansion Project (BRREP). As part of BRREP, the farm became custodians of the first black rhino to live on community land. With a favourable habitat, stringent anti-poaching measures, and the assistance of countless conservationists, this founder population is established and thriving. The dense Kowie River thicket provides them with an abundance of food.

Since 2019 Buffalo Kloof has rewilded three captive-bred cheetah who now successfully hunt on their own. One of the females, who goes by the name of Khatu, raised 11 cubs in the first 36 months of the rewilding.

Warne said: “We will introduce lion in time. Lions are cats, they breed fast and they eat a lot, which impacts greatly on the food available for other species. They have to be strictly controlled, culled. Our mission at Buffalo Kloof is to become a leader and pioneer in proving that you can support ecotourism and photographic safaris at the same time as hunting practices. Hunting adds a financial value to wildlife and, without it, wildlife conservation would be restricted to a select few photographic or eco-tourism reserves. Adding value to wildlife allows mixed operations, game farms, livestock, and enterprises to thrive without conflict. If wildlife has value, in turn it is protected and conserved, which ultimately leads to conservation.

“Buffalo Kloof now needs support from people around the world, whether they are sustainable hunters, or people going on photographic or eco safaris. Every person who visits Buffalo Kloof ultimately becomes a part of our rewilding mission. Through this support we can work on expanding Buffalo Kloof, which in turn means protecting more thicket and ultimately creating a bigger area for additional black rhino, elephant and other wildlife. Conservation and the preservation of a place like Buffalo Kloof is tremendously important for the planet.”

Buffalo Kloof has two luxury lodges for visitors to choose from – Spekboom Bush Camp has 8 bedrooms and Rhino House has 4 bedrooms. Both offer a private and personal stay with a focus on minimising the farm’s carbon footprint. “I source new clients on my travels, and introduce them to our farm,” Warne told. “Money pays bills. Overseas visitors, paying in dollars, keeps the operation going.”

***

Warne recently returned from Rwanda and said: “Things are going so well, they have rebuilt Rwanda into a thriving hub with good governance. They call themselves, ‘A Nation of Doers’, and they truly get things done. In South Africa, we have a government of consumers. They are ‘takers’, not givers, and what they’ve done is horrific.”

“I went to the Union Buildings in Pretoria recently, the home of our government. They didn’t have working toilets and they haven’t had them for years. There are Porta-Loo’s, made available via tenders for friends. That’s an example of the culture that has been established here, and it is wrong on so many levels.”

“It is vital that we put a responsible government in place during the coming elections. Africa is the black sheep of the world. The major political and economic powerhouses are increasingly hesitant to deal with us. Our leadership’s mismanagement affects everything, and it will only get worse if they remain in power. But I have hope. I think the people have had enough.”

“Tourism in South Africa is on the brink of an explosion. It can be massive, a monumental boost to the country. But for this to happen we need the Big Five to be protected at all costs with assistance from a good, caring government. Along with that, a complete shake-up of the justice system and the police service. There are mountains and rivers everywhere in the world, so tourists come here to see animals and spend the money needed to keep conservation going. But they want to be safe. If we lose our Big Five, people will lose interest and tourism will die. Africa will become an insignificant continent.”

***

Returning to racing, Warne comments, “There is definitely some good new interest in racing in this region from all sections of the population, and we need to bring the sport to the people. I was encouraged by 4Racing and Betway’s efforts at the Summer Cup, and they’ll do so much better at a new venue with a smaller grandstand area that will house fewer people and therefore won’t look so empty. Changes like these will make a difference. Pound for pound, racing is an affordable form of entertainment. It is catching on again, and a new venue will be a foundation for a major revival.”

Most importantly, he believes, the ongoing bloodstock export problems need to be solved so that our breeding industry can grow, and the rest of the industry will flourish. “We have enemies out there.  In my view, the Australians especially don’t want our horses to race over there. They are scared of us. We need lots of money to make inroads and I’m not sure we have enough of it.”

“We can’t export meat, we can’t export fruit, we can’t export horses. This is as a result of problems and hold-ups on official, decision-making levels and in government. It will get to a stage where trading partners say, ‘no more’! This is a rotten state of affairs.”

“If we can export our horses and our owners can take their runners overseas again, dreams will be fuelled, new partnerships will be formed. We will win the big overseas races again and winnings will be re-invested in our racing industry and our country. The potential is huge. We have some of the most talented horsemen- and women in the world, with horse owners who will come to the party if the conditions improve.”

***

In his spare time, and with his kids having successfully taken on management responsibilities, Warne watches some of his and partner Arun Chadha’s 50 runners in training, on the big screen in his revamped Buffalo Kloof home. He places bets all the time and said: “I love the game. It gives me a rush of adrenaline and I am good at winning. But I lose, too, and my wife doesn’t like it when I do. We have an agreement now that she takes 10% of my winnings and 20% of my losses. She’s coining it!”

Wendy also suggested a few years ago that Warne starts, ‘another project’ to keep him occupied (and perhaps away from his betting accounts). “I said, ok, and we planned and then opened a boutique butchery on the farm. The equipment alone required big outlay. We also hired a master butcher. This venture gave us so many headaches, I started calling Buffalo Kloof Butchery, the ‘F*****g Butchery!”

“The butcher’s business has turned the corner, it’s starting to do well, but it took a lot of effort and investment. Now, every time Wendy walks in on me when I’m watching races and having a bet, and she looks at me funny, I say, ‘Shall we start another project?”

The Beretta & SCI Foundation Conservation Leadership Awards Ceremony is held annually in the United States to honour those unique individuals who represent the ultimate embodiment of the hunter-conservationist philosophy and demonstrate a lifetime of commitment to wildlife conservation and education through volunteer service and philanthropy. Warne Rippon was the first nominee ever from Africa, one of six nominees this year.

Above:  Warne Rippon with his Wife Wendy, children Hannah and Taylor, at the Beretta & SCI Foundation Conservation Leadership Awards Ceremony, January 2024

*In the writing of Warne Rippon, Part 3, I borrowed extensively from reading material provided by Buffalo Kloof and from their website, for which I give thanks. – Charl Pretorius.

https://news.4racing.com/off-the-record-13