by | May 20, 2020

Article courtesy of Turf Talk: TEAM Valor International’s owner Barry Irwin threw up his hands in despair and exclaimed to his wife, “What else can happen?”

He was watching the Breeders Cup Juvenile Turf at Churchill Downs and his homebred colt Pluck had first pecked at the start and then had to veer left to avoid a horse which had slipped and fallen, writes DAVID THISELTON. The colt went on to record a quite astonishing win and his background, which is very South African, is also full of unlikely success stories. Irwin had not been at all confident of Pluck winning his Breeder’s Cup assignment.
The More Than Ready colt had won his preparation race in Canada well, but the time had been slower than the two-year-old fillies race on the same day. Then a week before the Breeder’s Cup he had been outworked by a two-year-old filly called More Than Real. “I was depressed until More Than Real won the Breeders Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf!” said Irwin. “I still didn’t think our colt would finish in the top three. He was in gate 12 and in the last five years no horse had won from there at Churchill Downs!” Irwin’s pessimism proved to be unfounded. He recalled, “Halfway through the race my main concern was whether my colt was injured because he was so far back and the rider had collected him and was not moving. As he started his move, I watched at ground level on the dirt track and had a hard time believing what I was seeing. “When Pluck reached his top-end speed, it was like
a runaway locomotive–he was powering into the lead with an amazing degree of force. I was so stunned, I never said a word, never cheered–I just
watched in pure amazement.”

The Pluck story starts in 1964 when Cape Turf Club chairman and founder of Highlands Stud, Jack Stubbs, imports a horse to South Africa called
Persian Wonder. Racing historian Jay August reported recently Persian Wonder won nine races in the UK including the Dee Stakes. However, in SA he was unplaced in every one of his nine starts. Persian Wonder then, upon being retired to stud, attracted zero interest from breeders. Stubbs had to go it alone and the expensive import covered just seven mares in his first season and seventeen in his second. Well known racing industryman Robin Bruss elaborated, “He had a long back, a hind leg so straight that he barely had a hock, and he had long slack pasterns. It was also true he was a horse of great quality and what seemed to make such odd conformation work was that the straight hind leg provided great leverage and contributed to a flawless action.” Sentiment turned 180 degrees after Persian Wonder had produced the top class Shah Abbas in his second crop.
Persian Wonder went on to become a six-times champion sire and four times champion broodmare sire.

The next chapter in the story was when top trainer David Payne bought two maternal grandsons of Persian Wonder at the National Yearling Sales on behalf of leading owner Laurie Jaffee. The pair was called Bush Telegraph and Real Tennis and were by the respective champion sires Jungle Cove and Royal Prerogative. Bruss recalled how Jaffee had to approach Payne at the Sale with an embarrassing admission. He had promised to buy a yearling for Bert Abercrombie in the latter’s first year as a trainer but had completely forgotten to do so. Abercrombie had now reminded him and Jaffee said to Payne, “David I am going to have to give him one of the two horses you bought for me, I’m very sorry, you pick the one you want and we’ll give the other one to Bert.” Without hesitation Payne replied, “No problem I will take Real Tennis.” Payne had trained Real Tennis’s stakes-winning  dam Little Mo, a nine-time winner who had possessed tremendous speed, and Real Tennis had been one of his picks of the Sale. Bruss remembered Bush Telegraph to be as plain looking as his father Jungle Cove, who had in turn been a surprising success at stud as his most important win in North America had been over thirteen furlongs.

However, Bush Telegraph famously won his first nine races including the Daily News 2000 and Durban July. He was a fine sire too and was a big loss when passing away after siring just five crops. One of his good daughters, the Mike Azzie-trained Secret Pact, a three-times Listed-winning full sister to Horse Of The Year London News, became a matriarch. Irwin bought Secret Pact’s Listed-winning daughter Secret Heart in-training from Laurie Jaffee and also tried to buy her half-sister Promisefrommyheart. However, the latter’s owners Varsfontein Stud would not consider selling. Irwin said this was despite him offering them almost double what he had paid for his Dubai Duty Free winner Ipi Tombe. Irwin bought Secret Heart due to “her racing class, her ample size and her terrific pedigree.” He was also drawn to her speed.

Irwin chose More Than Ready for her first cover as he liked the cross of Turn-to over Northern Dancer. Pluck was the result and Irwin said, “He was a looker from day one and I told our racing partners that we should retain him for racing.” Pluck was retired to Vinery Stud in Australia after
two unplaced runs as a three-year-old. His progeny won in nine different countries but ultimately he could not compete with the high calibre of local and shuttle stallions in Australia. Secret Pact’s family has become one of the most sought after in the SA stud book, so the record price Varsfontein Stud had to pay to buy her at a broodmare sale has proved money well spent. Her home-bred champion, the late Promisefrommyheart, is becoming a matriarch herself with Master Of My Fate among her progeny. Another of Secret Pact’s home-bred daughters Covenant also won a Grade 1 and currently has the exciting home-bred colt Erik The Red representing her.

Secret Pact with Covenant at foot in 2007