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John Kramer, the seasoned breeder, owner, pedigree guru and conformation expert, celebrates his 80th birthday today, and we look back on the colourful career of a man who is as active in the industry today as he was 50 years ago.

John is unassuming and quiet and has never sought recognition for his lifetime of serving the thoroughbred industry. His straw hat, khaki shirt and pipe have popped up for decades at stud farms, horse auctions and race meetings at which he most often strays away from the crowd in the direction of the nearest horse.

Minus his pipe these days, John still operates in his own way and below the radar, but his knowledge remains fully accessible and invaluable to the industry and his private clients. Presently, he and Kerry Jack are in charge of yearling inspections for CTS, a function he performed for the TBA too, for many years.

John travels to stud farms around the country with a rating-system he has refined over many years. He gives each young horse a conformation rating, scoring to a maximum of 10, compares it to the rating of his inspection partners to reach a final assessment.


John grew up on a Middelburg, Karoo farm at a time his father George was a leading breeder. Of Russian descent, George marched to the beat of his own drum, but was a supreme horseman and his friends nick-named him “The Russian’’.

In his time as a breeder George bred a Met winner, Marion Island, and Royal Warrant, who won the Summer Cup. He imparted his knowledge to his son and John says fondly: “He taught me almost everything I know about horses.’’

John also discovered the many advantages of the dry Northern Cape region and explains: “The Karoo is horse country. It has the best soil – there is a good PH balance and good water. I still believe there is potential for a revival of the area as a prime breeding region.’’

The Middelburg farm was sold and John moved to Broadlands Stud at Somerset West. “The soil there was sour but they bred plenty of winners because they stood the great Royal Prerogative. I wonder how much better he could have been if he’d been based elsewhere.’’

A spell overseas followed between 1965 and 1975. John worked for Countess Bathiyani in Germany and later at Artur Pfaff’s breeding establishment in France. It is here where his already formidable base of knowledge started to surface and he takes the credit for planning the mating and breeding English Oaks winner Pia, a total outcross, and French 2000 Guineas winner Caro and German Derby winner Marduk.

Interestingly, he also bred and raised Elliodor, a colt by Lyphard from the Busted mare Ellida. He was imported to South Africa and had a big influence at stud, becoming a top sire and champion broodmare sire. “He was a good racehorse in France but he was pushed as a two-year-old and injured himself.’’

John jokes that “one could match anything with Lyphard those days and he threw you a champion’’, but adds: “How things have changed. Today people hit one button and a computer brain comes up with a mating!’’

Back home, John’s expertise produced the mating for Jamaico’s son Jamaican Rhumba, winner of the 1982 Durban July for trainer Gail Thompson and jockey Patrick Wynne.

He would have reached great heights as a full-time breeder, but built his latter career around his knowledge of the thoroughbred specimen.

He believes that true horsemanship is in the genes and can’t be acquired, saying, “You either have it or you don’t.’’ Like the `Horse Whisperers’ of the modern era, he believes horses can sense a good horseman. Horses “talk’’ to him, John says. He admits to talking to them too, especially when something is troubling his mind!

The first impression is the most important. “When a horse walks out of his stable and is paraded, I know immediately whether I like it or not. The good ones talk to me. I like quality in a horse, a good head. Overall quality is important and for that I overlook specific faults. I can forgive, for example, a horse that turns out slightly. They grow out of it. Knees can be slightly off-set, even the ones with crooked legs can win races!’’

True experience is only gained by being around horses every day of your life, John says. But while decades of experience give certain horsemen a competitive edge when it comes to selecting horses, he will never criticise the opinion of an inexperienced individual who selects a horse base on things like superstitious beliefs.

Horses are essentially herd animals and John says: “It would be great if today’s trainers could give their horses more time off to roam around freely in paddocks with others. They stand in stables for 22 hours a day where they develop bad habits because they get bored. They are friendly, sensitive animals and they enjoy company and activity around them.’’

John has always been a man who needs “paddock space’’, like the horses he adores so much. He attributes a life thoroughly enjoyed among horses as a life he wouldn’t have any other way. Calm and non-confrontational, he says he stands as much in awe of nature and its beautiful creatures today as he did 40, 50 and 60 years ago.

“Every year when I travel to the various farms I am struck by the natural beauty that surrounds the horse industry. I am grateful to have lived so close to nature’s gifts.’’ -extracts from Legends Of The Turf by Charl Pretorius, The Citizen, June 2010.