Author: Howard Wright
Remember Ipi Tombe, the superb mare whose sterling win by three lengths over Paolini in the Dubai Duty Free in March 2003 broke the Emirates racing mould in more ways than one? She was among the vanguard of horses who pioneered the now familiar path from South Africa to the UAE. More than that, she also helped to catapult a new name on to the world stage. She was trained by Mike de Kock; this was his first season with runners in Dubai, and Ipi Tombe gave him his initial Group One success in the country. That campaign, 2002-03, Mike de Kock’s small team of adventurers notched six wins from 18 appearances at Nad Al Sheba, and their prize money haul was second only to leading trainer Saeed bin Suroor’s.
Victory Moon won the UAE 2000 Guineas and Derby under Wayne Smith, but Ipi Tombe and her regular rider Kevin Shea went one better with an unbeaten record that progressed from the Listed Al Fahidi Fort on her first outing for 215 days, through the Jebel Hatta to the Group 1 Dubai Duty Free. Her exploits earned her the honour of being named Dubai’s Horse of the Year, to add to the similar title she gained in South Africa, where in 2002 she won the Oaks, Fillies Guineas and most famously the Durban July. By the time that Ipi Tombe reached Dubai she was owned 75% by US connections, Barry Irwin’s Team Valor and Kentucky breeder WinStar Farm, and immediately after the Duty Free she was shipped to Churchill Downs, where she carried on her winning ways by landing the Locust Grove Handicap under Pat Day.
That proved to be her last race. Her season was curtailed in July 2003 by injury, and her racing career ended with the announcement of her retirement in November that year, after the signs of heat in all four ankles had signalled a halt to a programme that had anticipated a spell in Florida followed by a return to Dubai. The decision was taken to cash in on her broodmare value by moving on to the second stage of her career in the breeding shed. On hearing of her retirement, Mike de Kock was quoted saying: “We will go to our graves with great memories of her.” In a reference to his Champion Colt, he added: “She was the Horse Chestnut of fillies and we unquestionably had the best of her.” Sadly, like many a smart racemare before and since, Ipi Tombe was unable to replicate her brilliance at stud, despite a stellar list of suitors in the early years, beginning with Sadler’s Wells when she went to Coolmore for her first mating.
Safely in foal, she was sold at Tattersalls in Newmarket in November 2004 for 850,000gns to the Americans Richard Santulli and Barry Weisbord and the following spring she was boarded at Highclere Stud near Newbury. Ipi Tombe foaled a colt to be named Monastic Springs and was bred to Pivotal in a mating that in 2006 produced a filly, Pin Turn. Both won a single race apiece, but thereafter Ipi Tombe’s stud career remained patchy to say the least. Barren to Montjeu in 2007, she slipped a filly to Giant’s Causeway the following year, by which time she had joined the broodmare band at Denali Stud in Kentucky. Five foals have followed, interspersed with another barren spell in 2012 and two more slipped foals, before time was called on her breeding career.
None of her offspring has come anywhere near her own outstanding exploits. Today, as Ipi Tombe approaches her actual 21st birthday, she remains at Denali Stud, pensioned off after failing to conceive to local matings in 2017 and 2018, and according to a recent visitor is ‘as happy as Larry’. Despite the low key ending to her public career Ipi Tombe’s name will not be forgotten. She has her own website, ipitombe.com, run by equine artist Kirsten Wellman of White Horse Productions, a fan who lives in Chicago and has followed her from the UK to the US. The owners’ and trainers’ bar at Borrowdale Park racecourse in the Zimbabwean capital of Harare is also named after her, which was where my interest in her story was reignited on a visit last month.
The tribute at Borrowdale Park, where the Mashonaland Turf Club stages racing at the excellent turf facility once a fortnight, as long as fields for seven races fill, is more than fitting. Ipi Tombe was bred in Zimbabwe and remains the country’s best and most famous equine export. She symbolises the spirit and passion of those who strive to keep racing going among a nation beset by savage political upheaval and economic decline for the last three decades, where the very survival of the sport hangs by a thread. Ipi Tombe herself was caught up in the decline. Carrying a name that means ‘where’s the girls?’ in Xhosa, one of the official languages of Zimbabwe, she was bred by Peter Moor, one of the country’s biggest breeders and chairman of the local Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association at the time. Her sire, Manshood, will not go down among the most famous in Sheikh Mohammed’s racing and breeding operation, for he never made the racecourse, but as a son of Mr Prospector and the fabulous racemare Indian Skimmer he has his place in the records.
Having been shipped off to Zimbabwe as a 3yo in 1993, he was relocated to renowned golfer Gary Player’s stud in South Africa in 2002, where he remained until his death. Meanwhile, Ipi Tombe created her own incredible story. Zimbabwe’s annual foal crop had already slumped from more than 700 to around 460 when she was sent to the national yearling sales in 1999, and such were the country’s economic woes that she fetched the equivalent of little more than £15, yes, £15 for a Champion Filly and a pathfinder. Her new syndicate owners Sunmark Stable sent her to Champion Trainer Noelene Peech, for whom she was unraced as a 2yo and then won four times and was second once in five outings at Borrowdale Park. Success brought inevitable attention from South Africa and a half share was sold to a group of 22 investors across the border, where she was sent into training with Mike de Kock.
As the old saying goes, the rest is history. Except to note with great sadness that the search for the next Ipi Tombe has gone unfulfilled and is likely to remain so for many years. Thanks to the enormous passion demonstrated by a band of racehorse owners who relish the social side of the sport, and a rejuvenated business drive among a newer breed of stewards at the Mashonaland Turf Club, racing in Zimbabwe is clinging on. But with one stallion on the ground, serving a handful of mares each year, and men such as Peter Moor having given up the unequal struggle, the country’s breeding operation has all but disappeared under the forced land grab on farming property by the government. Ipi Tombe, therefore, is almost certain to remain one of a kind.