The gentle sea breeze, the glint of classic cars, swaying sugarcane plantations, and horses trotting around – while this might seem like the description of a picture postcard, this is the everyday life of Viju Gowreesunkur, an entrepreneur in the island nation of Mauritius.
This sugarcane planter, who has a vintage car collection that is the pride of the island, also knows a thing or two about horses. He grew up with them, and today, even owns a few.
Mauritius occupies a significant place in Africa’s horse industry. The country boasts an average racing population of 450 horses, and has an important equestrian link with South Africa. All of the nation’s racehorse imports – 150 every year – come from South Africa.
“A lot of South African jockeys ride in Mauritius. The traveling time to Mauritius is only three hours by air. The horses adapt well with our climate. A lot of South Africans are immigrating to Mauritius, and horse racing can be a main social activity for the expatriates,” sums up Gowreesunkur.
In South Africa, the horseracing industry contributes R2.71 billion ($226 million) annually to its GDP. Efforts are on to ramp up those numbers.
And as with the expatriates taking to horse racing in Mauritius, here too, it’s no longer the pastime of only the privileged few.
“These days, horse racing is no longer the domain of royalty, and with this shift came the glorious possibility that anything is possible and that the richest races could be won just as easily by a working man as by a multi-millionaire,” says Adrian Todd, Managing Director of SA Equine Health and Protocols NPC, in South Africa.
Mick Goss, the CEO of Summerhill Stud in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, says while owning racehorses can be an aspirational endeavor, it can also arise from a deep-seated connectivity with animals in general, or horses in particular.
“The result is that racehorses are owned by people from across the social and economic spectra, from the wealthy to the determined,” says Goss. In its 40th year, Summerhill Stud is one of the country’s top horse breeders, and it has produced several champion racehorses.
Goss had humble beginnings starting the stud farm. He came from a family of generations of horsemen and was previously a lawyer, when after 17 years, he gave up law to start out with nothing in the horse business but “a deep-seated will to make it work”.
“I inherited the horse ‘disease’, for which there is no known vaccine,” he jests.
Today, his farm runs a school of management excellence in equine studies, the only one of its kind in the southern hemisphere, he says, and the results have been “extraordinary”.
Goss says South Africa is set for a record year.
“2018 will be a game-changing year,” he says, with respect to the efforts now being made to rejig the racing and breeding industries “with substantial investments towards the normalization of export protocols with international trading partners”.
There is significant demand for South Africa-based horses in the international market for their quality and affordability. A case in point being that in the past, at the $10 million Dubai World Cup, the richest day in international thoroughbred racing held in March every year, South African-trained horses have won at many levels.
“We have produced winners at the highest level in almost all of the major racing jurisdictions of the world. It is little surprise that our horses are as sought -after as they are internationally, more so as they cost a fraction of their counterparts from other major racehorse-producing countries,” says Goss.
But there are challenges, including strict export restrictions, quarantine controls and prevalence of the African Horse Sickness (AHS).
“The current onerous export restrictions make it difficult for the racing and breeding industry to expand and very hard for our horses to travel and compete internationally,” says Todd.
The country has been severely curtailed in its ability to export horses due to AHS.
South African horses have to endure a quarantine of up to six months before they reach their country of destination.
“Compare this with the delivery of 30 days of horses acquired in countries like Australia and New Zealand, destined for South Africa,” says Goss. “From this, you can deduce the obstacles South African horse people face in the export of their products.”
AHS is a vector-borne viral disease, and has affected South African horse exports since the 1960s.
Goss says he has only suffered one loss to AHS in 40 years on his farm, but says, if properly managed, the losses can be avoided.
“Proliferation of game farms around the country has meant concentrations of zebra in close proximity to horse farms, which has exacerbated the problem,” says Goss.
“The reason is many zebras are carriers of the virus, though they have an inbuilt immunity against it, and while the disease itself is not contagious, it can be carried from one animal to another by a vector.”
Thankfully, there have been breakthroughs in its detection.
“The latest technologies mean that we are able to detect AHS within a matter of hours nowadays and with the quarantine protocols we now have in place, we can guarantee we are unlikely ever to export infected horses,” says Goss.
“With new scientific developments and a new Polymerase Chain Reaction test to detect AHS within hours, South Africa is busy working towards a much shorter period of quarantine of possibly 16 days. This will obviously open the door to the world market and allow the entire horse industry to grow to its full potential,” says Todd.
This test has been developed by Professor Alan Guthrie and colleagues at the Faculty of Veterinary Science’s Equine Research Centre in the University of Pretoria, which has improved the lab diagnosis of AHS by increasing the sensitivity of detection and shortening the time required for the diagnosis.
Equine experts like Todd are optimistic the strides taken by the industry will make this year more successful for the horse industry.
Currently, horses are exported from Cape Town’s Kenilworth Racecourse, which serves as a quarantine, transit and export station. The horses are required to serve a three-month quarantine period in Mauritius on top of the three weeks already spent in quarantine in Cape Town, before going on to their final destination.
“The opening of export protocols will allow the industry to unlock a potential billion rand market. This in turn will lead to an expansion of the industry and a significant increase in rural employment…,” says Todd.
The platforms and opportunities are plenty.
In December, FORBES AFRICA visited the Turffontein Racecourse in the southern suburbs of Johannesburg for the glitzy Gauteng Sansui Summer Cup. Dating back 128 years, and along with the Durban July and the Sun Met in Cape Town, it’s one of the big three races on the South African horse racing calendar, with a prize money of R1.25 million ($104,373) up for grabs.
In South Africa, horse-lovers come from all walks of life.
“From rural communities who use horses for transport, to families who buy ponies for their children to ride for fun, to show jumpers and wealthy [South African] businessmen like Dr Richard Maponya who loves horseracing,” elaborates Peter Gibson, the CEO of Racing South Africa.
Prices range greatly depending on the breed and what it will be used for, but buying a thoroughbred racehorse could set you back by an average of over R300,000 ($25,000).
Furthermore, it takes R50,000 ($4,000) to R60,000 ($5,000) a year to maintain a horse on a stud farm.
“Thoroughbred studs are cash guzzlers, and you need to surround yourself with people that are capable of contributing towards the capital needs of the business by way of their support as clients, as well as developing strong relationships with the financial institutions that support you,” says Goss.
“The horse breeding and racing industries by their very nature are among the most labor-intensive activities in South Africa, and according to a recent audit of the industry by Grant Thornton, it employs in excess of 100,000 people, either directly or in those businesses that provide services to racing and breeding.”
Hopefully, in the years to come, the “cash guzzlers” will repay the favor, in leaps and bounds.