THE modest Tobie Spies believes that he is below the status of a racing legend, and that there are others more worthy of having a newspaper article written in their honour. He is, however, as deserving of a tribute than the other individuals we have dealt with in Legends Of The Turf (by Charl Pretorius, September 2009, The Citizen).
A horseman who has made an indelible mark on the horseracing industry in South Africa, Spies’ training career included a win in the Queens Plate and back-to-back victories in the Bloodline Million. At age 62 he remains actively involved in racing as an assistant trainer to his son, Corné, and as a consultant to the Thoroughbred Breeders Association (TBA).
Spies and John Kramer are responsible for inspecting and rating 1200 foals entered annually for Bloodstock SA’s National Yearling Sale, and trimming that figure down to around 550. Judged by the record-breaking results achieved at the sale this year, they are doing an excellent job.
Spies tells us: “John and I use a 10-point system for every foal. We score our tallies independently, but our assessments match about 90% of the time. Once we have made our selections, a panel of experts appointed by the TBA adds more points to each foal in consideration of individual pedigrees. The 80 yearlings with the highest points are drafted into the Select Session of the sale, the green pages of the sales catalogue.’’
Spies and Kramer’s job involves a lot of travelling to stud farms around the country between October and middle November of the year preceding each sale and Spies says: “We have met many wonderful people on our travels. Our breeders are a knowledgeable and interesting bunch. The competition is fierce, everyone is trying to breed a better quality horse, and I believe with all the new stallions in South Africa the industry is alive and well and heading for bigger and better things.’’
This view is borne out by Kentucky-based expert Barry Irwin, of Team Valor fame, who suggested in a speech at Summerhill’s Stallion Day last July that yearling sales in the USA are crammed with foals who are treated with substances to improve their physical appearance so that they can fetch higher prices. Irwin argued that this trend was progressively weakening the breed and urged South African breeders not to fall into the same trap.
Spies comments: “I have my suspicions that this is happening here in South Africa too, but I cannot prove it and it is not something I really wish to comment on. To my mind, the best way of raising yearlings is the traditional way. Foals should grow up tough to mature and grow naturally.
In his position, one would assume that Spies has encountered the odd offer of a “backhander’’ from breeders to rate foals higher than they should be rated, but he laughs and comments: “I think the breeders know me too well. I am an honest man and they know that. When I visit a stud farm I block the people from my mind and concentrate purely on the horses I need to inspect. The points given are discussed with breeders. They have a right to question our assessments and lodge an appeal, but this hasn’t happened.’’
Spies is a religious man whose principles were engrained whilst growing up as a farm boy in the rural Middelburg district, where his family loved and kept a few horses as pets.
They started racing them for fun at the so-called “bush’’ race meetings in Middelburg, Leslie, Evander, Ermelo and Bethal, and in 1950, aged seven, Spies rode his first bush winner on a horse called Sir Beduvear.
“I was to weak and small to ride a decent race,’’ he recalls, “but this was a clever 11-year-old horse who pulled himself to the front and won, and then broke back into a canter, stopped and returned to the saddling area.’’
This fuelled the young Spies’ dream of becoming a jockey, but he was considered too tall by the Jockey Academy and went on to a successful early career in mining working for Anglo American.
Racing remained his calling and when a friend offered Spies a training track and a few stables close to the mines in Middelburg, he grabbed the opportunity and started training a few horses.
At the time he studied pedigrees quite extensively, and assisted Mrs. Georgina Goodman (the mother of trainer James Goodman) with several matings for her stallion, Peralta.
“One day Mrs. Goodman called me to her farm to give me a present. She said I could pick any of the weanlings on her farm and I chose a grey filly called Mantilla. Soon after that, in 1978, I took out and owner-trainer licence and started training part-time. Mantilla was my first winner. She later produced Fun To Fly, a horse I gave to Corné as a 21st birthday present, and Brandol Bush, who went to my second son, Erik.”
In 1983, Spies struck up a relationship with breeder Trevor Armitage, who helped him to secure stables at the Vaal in 1985. He trained many winners sired by Armitage’s stallions Buck’s Bid, Jawad, Kirsch Flambee, Home Guard (SA), World Affair and Jolly Good. They sired solid, bread-and-butter horses like Fast Eagle (Spies’ first stakes winner), Aced and Emperor’s Walk.
Leading owners followed Spies’ quick rise to prominence, and David Makins joined the yard in the late 1980s. Makins had several big-race winners, including Yardmaster (Queens Plate), Fast Gun and Mysterious Hal (Bloodline Million), but he was always focused on expanding his breeding interests and asked Spies to purchase fillies that would go on to produce good foals.
One filly selected at the time was Bridge Of Stars, by Averof, who won a race and as a broodmare recently produced superstar Jamaica, who went into training with Allan Roux and later with Diane Stenger.
“David and I parted company in the mid 1990s because he wanted his horses to be trained closer to his home at Randjesfontein, and I wasn’t willing to move from the Vaal. But we remain friends today, and I am happy to see that he is still achieving much success.’’
Having closely inspected all the foals before the National Sale, Spies these days has an obvious advantage when the actual sale comes around and he can help his son to select the best value buys for his stable.
“The closest to a perfectly conformed horse I’ve ever seen was the great Hawaii many decades ago, who I would have given a 10 out of 10. Nothing since has come close, except maybe National Currency, who was our pick at the 2001 National Sale but was too expensive to purchase.’’
“With the sales prices as high as they are we can only buy in the bottom bracket, but we do our homework. We look at every single horse on the sale and we often pick up well-conformed bargains.’’
What are their secrets when buying yearlings?
“A young horse has to make a good general first impression,’’ Spies reveals. “It has to shout ‘wow’ at you. It has to be well balanced all round. We look at everything from the head, the ears and the neck to the hindquarters. We also like horses with big nostrils and lots of space between the jowls for good breathing.’’
Spies regards Corné as a trainer who is “ten times better’’ than his dad, and says his son has a “gift” for picking horses. “Corné picked the Fahal filly Fun Fly at the old Transvaal Breeders Sale and we bought her for R28 000. He also selected other champions like Rock Opera and Take Silk.’’
While Spies does all the shoeing in the yard himself, Corné tells us his dad is still very much involved as an assistant trainer who arrives at the yard before daybreak and awaits the rest of the team.
Tobie Spies comments: “This arrangement is perfect, because I can take a back seat and concentrate on the nitty-gritties in the yard. Corné is a true people’s person, something I never managed to be. At one stage I had 108 horses in my stable, but the owners drove me mad and I cut the string back to 40. We now have 65 horses and things are working well.’’
Spies is presently taking care of 12 horses at the Summerveld Training Centre and says: “Sun Screen and Wolfpack are the big guns here along with a few late-developing, unraced two-year-olds. We’re hoping Sun Screen can make it into the Durban July. Corné will take over in a few weeks. ”
At that point, Spies and John Kramer will hit the roads to stud farms again in preparation for the Bloodstock SA’s National Two-Year-Old Sale and Spies concludes: “I love this game. It is in my blood. I never want to retire. I will continue until I fall over one day at the training tracks or at a stud farm!’’