SA thoroughbred great dies

Horse Chestnut (
Horse Chestnut (

Cape Town - The great Horse Chestnut, arguably one of the best thoroughbreds ever produced on South African soil, was found dead in his box at Drakenstein Stud Farm on Friday, February 20, 2015. He was 19-years-old.

According to the SportingPost website, Horse Chestnut, from the very first crop of Fort Wood out of the Col. Pickering mare, London Wall, was born at Harry and Bridget Oppenheimer’s Mauritzfontein Stud in Kimberley in 1995. As a two-year-old, Horse Chestnut transferred to the Randjesfontein yard of Mike de Kock, who described him as ‘a mug’s horse’, meaning that any mug could see he was a quality specimen.  It was a very apt description, for Horse Chestnut was an imposing individual and left an impression on all who were lucky enough to see him in the flesh

Horse Chestnut made his debut over 1 000m at Turffontein on December 20, 1997 and cantered down in the famous yellow and black Oppenheimer silks. It was a big moment for the Oppenheimers, Gavin Schafer, Fort Wood and Mike de Kock. However, he did not disappoint, changing legs at around the 200m mark to leave the field floundering in his wake. He romped home, nearly six lengths clear of his nearest rival.

A little less lucky in his second outing, a 1 000m Juvenile Plate in March 1998, Horse Chestnut was narrowly beaten into third, but it was the first and last time he would finish behind another horse.

Mike de Kock moved his string to Natal for the Durban season and Horse Chestnut was sent out to contest the 1 200m Natal Handicap over 1 200m. He beat his nearest rival, Abernant Star home by two lengths. Although Mike de Kock described this as being the least impressive of his victories, the trip to Natal and the second win brought the colt on tremendously and he returned from Natal ‘like a lion, ready for action’.

On his return to Johannesburg, Horse Chestnut lay waste to his rivals in the Graham Beck Handicap over 1 300m, winning by a seven length margin in October 1998. The Dingaans over 1 600m followed a month later. It was possibly his greenest run with even the commentator noting that ‘Horse Chestnut is all over the place’. Nonetheless, he romped home by 4.25 lengths

In 1999, Horse Chestnut started his onslaught on the Triple Crown with an emphatic seven length victory in the first leg in the Cape Argus Guineas (while stable mate Fort Defiance took the Johannesburg leg in the Newmarket Guineas, making it a double for the De Kock yard).

There is a saying that your horse can only be as brave as you are and they don’t come braver than Mike de Kock, who decided to run his three-year-old prodigy at the J&B Metropolitan Stakes over 2 000m. It was the first time Horse Chestnut had been asked to go such a distance and it is a big ask for any three-year-old – so much so that the Met had not been won by a three-year-old in over 50 years. However, horses don’t read the record books, they write them.  Horse Chestnut quite literally annihilated the competition.  As second placed Classic Flag struggled an almost comical eight lengths in his wake, race caller Jehan Malherbe’s voice rang out across the course: “This is true greatness! Horse Chestnut is killing them in the J&B Met!”

The second leg of the Triple Crown, the SA Classic over 1 800m, was run on March 27, 1999. Horse Chestnut again showed his superiority by beating Fort Defiance home by nearly four lengths.

The SA Derby, his last start in South Africa, is perhaps remembered as his most impressive. It was the longest race of his career at 2 450m, but Horse Chestnut simply used the trip to put even more daylight between himself and his rivals, winning by an almost ridiculous 9.5 lengths. In doing so, he became the first horse in history to win the South African Triple Crown.

While winning races is by no means easy, a horse should be judged on the company he beats. Horse Chestnut touched gloves with the best in the country, encountering the likes of El Picha, Classic Flag and Young Rake.

He closed out his three-year-old campaign by being named 1999 Equus Champion three-year-old Colt, Equus Champion Male Stayer as well as being honoured as the Horse of the Year. At her acceptance speech at the Equus awards that year, Bridget Oppenheimer spoke of how much joy he had brought to her and Harry.

Greatness beckoned and Horse Chestnut left our shores for the United States. Despite the new country and a different surface, he took it all in his large stride. His made his American debut on dirt in the Broward Handicap in January 2000. Again he showed his incredible turn of foot, carrying Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith across the line to thunderous applause, 5.5 lengths clear of Isaypete.

An unfortunate injury shortly afterward signaled a disappointingly early end to his American campaign, but Horse Chestnut had shown himself to be a true champion. Not only had he won over different courses, different distances, different surfaces, and different continents, he had also shown that he had the big match temperament to match. In a fitting end to an illustrious career, he joined a long line of racing luminaries, by retiring to stud at Claiborne Farm

Horse Chestnut’s America progeny enjoyed their fair share of success, producing 61% winners, and 13% stakes horses, including a Group 1 winner out of his first crop, Lucifer’s Stone. He has also left an American legacy as a broodmare sire and is the maternal grandsire of 2015 Triple Crown candidate, Ocho Ocho Ocho. However, being primarily a ‘grass horse’, his appeal to the American market was limited. But every cloud comes with a silver lining and in this case, it presented an opportunity for the big chestnut to come home.

Purchased by the Horse Chestnut Syndicate, he returned to South African shores in 2009 to take up residence at the magnificent Drakenstein Stud Farm. He stood six seasons at stud locally and of his runners to date, has produced a number of promising-looking progeny, including debut winner Chestnut’s Rocket, the ill-fated Zobens and Rake’s Chestnut. With several generations still to hit the track, the best may yet be to come.

There is a notion that you only get one great horse in a lifetime, but as Mike de Kock said, Horse Chestnut is the sort of horse that comes along once in every 10 lifetimes.

When Horse Chestnut’s sire Fort Wood passed away just a few short weeks ago, Jessica Slack posted on Facebook that she could imagine her grandparents feeding him carrots up in heaven. It seems their stable is expanding.

RIP Horse Chestnut, a true South African legend.

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