Hartford House

The Home of Good Conversation, Fine Wine and Classic Horses.

Award-winning hotel and restaurant situated at Summerhill Stud on the picturesque KwaZulu-Natal Midlands Meander, South Africa.

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Golden Gates

Entrance to the Hartford Estate / Leigh Willson (p)

Entrance to the Hartford Estate / Leigh Willson (p)

"What was it about the thoroughbred that penetrated the soul of A.R.Ellis and his family"

Mick Goss Summerhill Group CEO

Mick Goss Summerhill Group CEO

I remember the first time I entered the Hartford gates, like it was yesterday. Here was the greatest private breeding enterprise in South African history, here was a driveway adorned with old flower pots dating back to the 40s, bearing the names of 48 gladiators, all champions or the next best thing. Bred, raised and trained at Hartford were the heroes of every major race on the South African calendar, their supremacy so marked that when he penned his treatise on the great private racehorse nurseries of the world, Sir Mordant Milner spoke of England's Lord Derby and the Aga Khan; of Marcel Boussac, the founder of the Christian Dior organisation in France; of Federico Tesio, the doyen of Italian breeders; he spoke of PhippsHancock and Calumet Farmin the United States; and of A.R.Elllis of Hartford. I was in awe. And as my brother Pat and I wound our way down that historic road to the steps of the region's most gracious homestead, we recalled the tenth of the Commandments against the coveting of "thy neighbour's house."

From the time I'd first fondled a Duff's Turf Guide on the potty as a three-year-old, I knew of the Hartford legends, and as my capacity for the game grew, I learnt that if there was a horse in the parade in the green, black and gold, it was as good as money in the bank. Mowgli, Cape Heath, Salmon, Panjandrum, Ajax, Magic Mirror, Master Polly, Magic Cloak, Magic Charm, Sentinel, Hat Trick, Fantasma, Albion, Lavonia, Fantastic, Famulus, Masham, Sybil's Nephew, Pussmoth, Preston Pan, Prestissimo, Visionary, Flaming Heath, Magic Link, Cosmonaut, Rudigore, Dazzle, Alyssum, Hey Presto, Royal Occasion, Derby Day, Alhambra, Wayfarer, Pinocchio, Pipes Of Pan, Miracle, Broken Spell, Gypsey Moth, Beacon Light, and Council Rock. The Durban July, the Summer Cup, the Met, the Gold Cup, countless Derbys, Guineas and Oaks, the Gilbeys and the Smirnoff Sprint; on the occasion of the Royal visit to South Africa, three King's Cups in three different centres; and anywhere from a 1000m to 3000m.

Many of our readers know the story of how Summerhill came to acquire its neighbour, Hartford, through a handshake exchange in the toilet in those bleak days of 1989. If you don't, it's a story of its own, and it's for another day. But the one thing that had always fascinated me was the story of Hartford's phenomenal success, and I spent a week with Graham Ellis drawing it all out when the handover took place. His father, A.R. (Raymond) Ellis' curiosity with horses was aroused by the presence on the farm of six Italian prisoners of war, who'd been captured during the 1940 Abyssinian campaign. One of these men was the ex head groom of the greatest European breeder of the era, Senor Tesio; and it was he that ignited the flame which found the motherload. His advice to the Ellises was "breed like you mean it", and they did. That year Raymond Ellis bought two young fillies at the National Sale, and stabled them in the garden across the way from the old stone house, built by the family of the last Prime Minister of the Colony, Sir Frederick Moor. Those that frequent Hartford House these days will know the stable as Suite 7, named for one of those two fillies, Preston Pan. She was something of a terror, and kicked the hell out of her companion as well as the stable divide, so she was dispatched to a paddock adjacent to the Hartford chapel, from whence she was trained for the duration of her career. Enigmatic though she was, Preston Pan was brilliant to the degree that she remains the only two-year-old filly ever invited to run in the Durban July, the continent's greatest horserace. Whatever she was as a racehorse though, she was even more as a broodmare. Of the 48 names that adorn the old pots on the driveway, no fewer than 18 trace their lineage to Preston Pan and her daughters.

What was it about the thoroughbred that penetrated the soul of A.R.Ellis and his family, that gave birth to this celebrated farm, to three champion trainers and five champion jockeys, all of whom resided at one time or another in homes and stables built by that handful of Italians?

In an oft-quoted response, Graham Ellis, one-time Chairman of the Durban Turf Club following a stint as trainer to the finest string in the game, reminded me that of all the species on earth, including us humans, the racehorse is the only one whose genetic history is tabulated right back to the original founding fathers of the breed. He recalled that the welfare of the thoroughbred had been in the hands of the British aristocracy for more than three centuries. From the outset, the sport was conducted as all sports should be, for the sake of the sport, and it was all about one nobleman beating another. Throughout this time, they selected their stock for the right reasons too, for their nobility, their grace and their presence, for their intelligence and courage, for speed, stamina, mental toughness and physical durability, all the traits we as a species would aspire to. And that's why the racehorse is the good Lord's greatest creation.

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Hartford House Preston Pan Suite 7
(Photos : Sally Chance)

Preston Pan Suite 7

The Ellis family founded their famous racing dynasty at Hartford in 1940 and, among several unique installations of their time, at the foot of the farm they built the longest herringbone-drained racetrack in the world, from whence they trained the winners of every major race on the South African calendar.

In the same year, they acquired their first two fillies, the most significant of which was Preston Pan, who went on to become not only one of the most accomplished race fillies of all time, but also one of the matriarchs of South African Thoroughbred breeding. Preston Pan spent her first night at Hartford in what then was the stables, (in this very suite) together with a companion, whom she terrorised through the night, not only inflicting bodily harm on her unfortunate stablemate, but also on the stable itself.

She was trained henceforth from the paddock which is today known as Chapel One (alongside the Chapel), and Preston Pan holds the distinction of being the only two-year-old filly ever invited to participate in Africa's greatest horserace, the Durban July Handicap.

Whatever her exploits at the races, Preston Pan was twice that as a broodmare, and a visit to the old flower pots that line the main driveway into Hartford, reveals the names of 48 national champions, among them no fewer than a dozen descending from this legend of the turf.

While they went about the renovation of Hartford when they first moved here in 1990, Mick and Cheryl Goss occupied this suite for about two years. By the time of their arrival, it had been part of the original Hartford House Hotel, founded by the Ellises some seven or eight years before. Whether it has anything to do with its connectivity with Preston Pan, the room is reputed to induce great fertility!

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Hartford House Sentinel Suite 6

Hartford House Sentinel Suite 6

Sentinel Suite 6

This suite is named after one of the greatest racehorses in South African history, Sentinel. In an age when six to ten victories would often be sufficient to proclaim a champion, Sentinel won 30 races, carrying welter burdens to victory against some of the most famous horses in South African history. He is remembered principally for his rivalry with the immortal In Full Flight, and his dead heat with this revered animal in the Cape of Good Hope Guineas (Gr.1).

Sentinel was a spectacularly imposing specimen, who towered majestically over the hallowed turf of South Africa's principal racecourses, Greyville, Turffontein and Kenilworth, and there were great expectations of him as a stallion when he returned to Hartford at the end of his career. Alas, Sentinel produced just one foal as he struggled with fertility issues, and this turn of events was probably the first portent of the decline of one of the greatest racing dynasties in African history. The Ellis family'sHartford Stud had reigned supreme for almost four decades over the national racing scene, and their exploits are ranked in Thoroughbred lore alongside the famous international racing stables of the Aga Khan, Lord Derby, the Sheikhs Maktoum, Coolmore, Marcel Boussac, Senor Tesio, the Phippses, the Hancocks and the Inghams of the Untied Kingdom, France, Italy, the USA and Australia respectively.

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Click above to watch the Summerhill Sires Film 2012 / 2013
(An iKind Media Production)

Summerhill Sires Film
2012 / 2013

"Peering through one teakwood door at Hartford House, you face a Colonial world. Opening another, the distant sounds of an ancient people at work lilt across the silent landscape, a country of great space, spectacular mountains and big skies. This place commands a headland between the world of traditional cultures and the splendid style of our settler forebears."

Watch the latest Summerhill Sires Film above as Summerhill CEO Mick Goss shares a taste of the Greater Summerhill Estate... and introduces Summerhill's exceptional lineup of Thoroughbred Stallion talent.

Summerhill Stud, South Africa

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BJ Botha / Keo (p)

BJ Botha / Keo (p)


This is not a rugby selector's statement; it comes from a hotelier. World Cup-winning Springbok tighthead prop,Brendan Botha and his lovely wife Tarryn, were back at Hartford again this week after his torrid Tri Nations tour to Australasia. In the peak of health, "BJ" assures us there are only a few small things wrong with the Springbok team at the moment, requiring a few "tweaks", and all will be well. Brendan and Tarryn are among a number of sporting fans of Hartford, including former Springbok rugby captains, Gary Teichmann and Francois Pienaar,coach Jake White, and former Proteas cricket captain, Shaun Pollock. Brendan also has the distinction of being an alumnus of that fine sporting institution, Durban High School, the most prolific school academy in the production of international cricketers in the world, though it has to be said, this man is a rare rugby Springbok.

Closer to home, we have a "horsey" weekend ahead with the greatest of the greatest, the Vodacom Durban July on Saturday, and "Racing's Greatest Day Out", the Summerhill Stallion Day, right here on the farm on Sunday. We'll be feeding close to 700 people from at least 14 different nations this weekend, and looking at Friday evening's guest list at Hartford, apart from the equine contingent, we have the return of one of television's most recognised personalities in Martin Locke, Isidingo's Carolyn Steyn and Vodacom man on the screen, Michael De Pinna, who will be entertained by Waterford's lyrical winemaker, Kevin Arnold. It takes all types to make up a race meeting!

summerhill stud south africa

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Mick Goss enjoys a moment with Ben Jonsson

Mick Goss enjoys a moment with Ben Jonsson
(Photo : Hartford House)

Among many anecdotes to have emerged from the Jonsson 80th birthday celebrations, were these two. According to the Guinness Book of Records, there is only one other set of living triplets who are slightly ahead of the Jonssons, the threesome having chalked up 93 years. The Jonssons trail by just 13 years, but knowing their history of longevity, it’s a good bet our “triplets” still have a good bit of wind in their sails. Either way, it’s a remarkable story of triumph against the odds, and it’s our bet the Guinness Book is in danger of having its pages rewritten. For the record, an elder sibling Hugh, was the breeder of Jet Master greatest South African stallion of all time, who’s just recorded his third consecutive Sires championship.

The second anecdote worth repeating is the connectivity in racing between Ben and the Goss family. As a young man recently out of school, Ben made his first investment in a racehorse, acquiring a colt from Mick Goss’s grandfather, Pat Goss Snr, in the mid 1940’s for the princely sum of £50, quite a bit of money in those days.

Legend has it that Ben had only £35 from his savings to spend, and had to borrow the remaining £15 from his employer, which he redeemed at £2 a month. Unable to afford the training fees, Ben leased the colt to the grandfather of David Pianel, famous for his association with the studs of the Rowles family (Ivanhoe) and Sydney Press’ Coromandel Stud.

For what its worth, Ben’s colt won two heats on the same day at the Lions River gymkhana, and then promptly suffered a heart attack which put him down. Prior to that he hadn’t been able to pull off a win at the major courses, hence his dispatch to a gymkhana meeting, though we shouldn’t demean gymkhanas too much, because they were quite competitive affairs in those days.

Either way, we’d like to think we’ve moved on at Summerhill!

Ardmore Ceramic Art - The Summerhill Collection

summerhill stud ardmore ceramic collection

Summerhill Stallion Day
"The day after the Vodacom Durban July"

What has become as much a tradition as the Vodacom Durban July itself, the annual Summerhill Stallion Day dubbed "Racing's Greatest Day Out", is always a grand occasion where the who's who of racing descend on Summerhill Stud to pay homage to some of Africa's most exciting Thoroughbred Stallion prospects.

Quite fitting then that this year's event will witness the teaming up of two formidable forces in their own fields, in a celebration of excellence and dedication.

South Africa’s premier ceramic studio, Ardmore Ceramic Art, and South Africa’s Champion Thoroughbred Breeder, Summerhill Stud, will unveil an exciting new Ardmore ceramic collection inspired by the horses, people and nature at Summerhill.

The Ardmore artists have created Staffordshire-like everyday farm scenes including Summerhill Stallions walking the lands, yearlings being bandaged, foals being born and Ready to Run graduates galloping to victory.

Most of Ardmore’s 80 artists live in the rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal steeped in tradition, where music, song and dance prevail. After two successful London sales held in 2004 and 2007, Christie’s labeled Ardmore “a modern day collectable”. Collectors around the world love Ardmore’s distinctive style - a fusion of African, Western and Eastern form and design embellished with sculptural African fauna and flora and painted in a kaleidoscope of colour.

Ardmore’s talented artists create with passion and freedom and many have intuitively found their own style. The decorative collectibles have an elegant charm as has the work of the realists who are inspired by nature. The exotic naturalists add an artistic fantasy to their painting. Then, there are the free spirits whose sculpture and painting is expressive of their imagination and is without inhibition or apology. Lastly, the ‘Storytellers’ incorporate the human figure as they sculpt and paint Zulu cultural and social events.

A percentage of Ardmore sales is contributed to The Excellence Fund, a non-profit organization that also receives donations from many people worldwide. The Excellence Fund assists the artists to advance their education and skills training, and provides health care. In the current economic situation marked by rising unemployment and health care costs, the role of the Excellence Fund is critically important.

The artists are proud of their achievements and are known amongst their community as the “isgwili” (fortunate ones).

So if you’re going to be at the Summerhill Stallion Day on Sunday, you’re in for a real treat... where the ceramicists have traded in their zebra stripes for the racing thoroughbred.

Marsh Shirtliff, Mike and Carol Bass make the Pilgrimage

mike and carol bass with marsh shirtliff at hartford house

Mike and Carol Bass with Marsh Shirtliff pictured awaiting their famous
Hartford salmon omelettes
(Photo : Leigh Willson)

With the 2009 renewal of Africa's greatest horserace, the Vodacom Durban July, now just a few days away, we have already welcomed an array of racing's eminent personalities through the gates of Hartford.

One of whom is Marsh Shirtliff. Marshis not a superstitious man, not as far as we know, yet he does know that there hasn’t been a July winner in the past twenty years whose connections have not made it to Summerhill for the July, or at the very least, for our Stallion Day on the Sunday afterwards. The trick is either to make it beforehand or to make sure you’ve accepted the invitation in advance for Stallion Day, otherwise you risk taking on history. So Marsh dragged Mike and Carol Bass to the farm on a spectacular Sunday morning, and they took up their lodgings in the Inkanyezi and Nhlanhla suites while the Bass stable was cleaning up in the big events in Cape Town.

Logic tell us Pocket Power is a shoe-in for the big race, but Mike Bass (and you’d better be listening, if you intend having an interest in the big event next Saturday) thinks River Jetez is twice the filly she was last season. Let’s not forget what a big race she ran in the 2008 Vodacom Durban July, and if she’s twice as good as that, Pocket Power himself will need to have made some improvement to keep her out. And that he undoubtedly has, having had a trouble free “prep” for the first time in his life.

Of course, with three of our own in the line-up, it would be uncharitable of us not to wish them everything of the best, but we really hope that if either of them fluff their lines, the gates will open for Thandolwami, Outcome or Catmandu.

Country Life features Summerhill Stud

summerhill stud south africa

Autumn evening in KwaZulu-Natal
(Photo : Summerhill Stud)

Country Life is a fresh, invigorating publication that captures the essence of life in the South African countryside. The pages entice readers with an armchair escape to a quiter, simpler life; an exploration of South Africa's natural beauty, delightful dorpies, passionate people, artists, crafters and the discovery of our bountiful Nation's fascinating heritage.

Country Life recently featured Summerhill Stud in an article written by Olivia Schaffer entitled "In a league of its own", an extract from which follows :

Summerhill Stud in the KZN Midlands is a thoroughbred establishment in more ways than one.

Countless rural folk seek better jobs in the cities, often overlooking the wonderful opportunities country life can offer. For instance, horse handlers in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands are given unique opportunities to travel abroad on the Summerhill Stud educational programme. Following an intensive three-year life skills course on the farm, they are rewarded with working scholarships on the American and European farms of the horses’ owners.

Elliot Bhengu, a broodmare handler, and John Motaung, a work rider, were the most recent horse handlers to secure a place on the programme, and I happened to be on the farm when they returned.

“I have learnt so many different tasks,” said Elliot, still beaming with enthusiasm, “and it has made my work back here easier.”

John’s excitement was equally contagious, even though it was the second time he’d been chosen to go to America. “I learnt so much,” he says. “Now I look forward to sharing all that I’ve picked up with the other guys at Summerhill. I’m very grateful to Summerhill for what it’s done for me.”

Velaphi Mbanjwa, Siyabonga Mlaba, Robert Mbhele, Richard Hlongwana, Thulani Mnguni and Mali Zuma are others who have enjoyed work experiences abroad and who have thus benefited from the programme. They chose to remain in rural KwaZulu-Natal rather than seek jobs in the city and have reaped the rewards of their decisions.

Summerhill Stud, with its undulating emerald-green pastures in the foothills of Giant’s Castle, is as picturesque as it is unusual. As national Breeder of the Year for four consecutive years, and the only racehorse stud in the world boasting a five-star country house on its estate, it is one of a kind. Uniquely, it’s also home to stallions owned by the Rulers of Dubai, the world’s most powerful racehorse owners and breeders.

“Of all the studs in the world, apart from their own, Summerhill is the only one where the sheikhs stand their stallions,” says Mick Goss, the CEO of Summerhill.

As Mick drives me around the estate, he tells me there are between 700 and 800 thoroughbreds here. I’m also reminded that activities on the farm are determined by the changing seasons. It’s autumn, with the lush green of summer turning to shades of yellow and red, and the foals are being weaned from their mothers.

“We leave a herd of about 20 weanlings with an adult horse to ensure discipline is maintained,” Mick explains, adding that necessary procedures such as worming and hoof trimming ensure the young horses are handled extensively.

He tells me the more mature and better-bred yearlings are taken to the National Yearling Sales and that they are sensitively introduced to human contact so the handler can show them in the best light. “This is a vital process,” says Mick emphatically. The yearlings have never been ridden (the training starts when they’re about 20 months old) and they are sold to the highest bidder, who could be a trainer, a bloodstock agent or an owner who sees their potential.

The less advanced foals are kept for the Ready to Run Sales in October. These potential racehorses know what’s expected of them by the time they are sold because they’ve been taught the basics on tracks that have produced countless winners.

Winter in the racehorse industry also has its charm. Though it’s the time of the Vodacom Durban July, Africa’s greatest horseracing event, contested at Greyville Racecourse in Durban, things are quiet on the farm. Lands lie fallow, the veld takes on a golden hue, and although prospective young racehorses are being put through their paces, a certain peace prevails.

“With spring comes new life,” says Mick. “The trees burst forth with fresh greenery and budding flowers herald the return of warmer weather. Mares take on a nurturing role with the dependent foals and stallions go about the stud duties for which they are kept.”

Summer, I gather, is a busy time. It’s when international owners take up residence at Summerhill’s award-winning Hartford House “toescape the cold in Europe and the UK, to absorb the gentle Midlands sunshine as the lazy days drift by, and to visit the offspring their mares have produced.”

There’s lots of youthful activity, with newly independent foals frolicking in the fields as the guests look on in admiration. It’s also the rainy season, with balmy days ending in exhilarating thunderstorms followed by mild evenings under a star-studded sky. And so the cycle continues.

Summerhill’s horses are bred and reared as naturally as possible. They graze on pastures of erogrostis, rye, cocksfoot, clover and kikuyu, supplemented by Vuma Horse Feed, a commercial product manufactured on the farm.

This labour-intensive industry is an important job creator and Summerhill has a dedicated workforce, many of whom are the third or fourth generation of their families on the farm.

An exciting new project is the Al Maktoum School of Excellence, planning for which is at an advanced stage. “We see it as providing top class training for management candidates in the South African thoroughbred breeding industry,” explains its co-ordinator, Barbara Meier. “Our mission is to identify, train and develop the industry leaders of the future.”

The school’s first intake is planned for this month.

Whether its stallions, brood mares or people, all have played a role in the success of Summerhill. All are woven into its colourful tapestry.