John’s business motto is
Equo Prodesse “To be for the Horse”
and his logo, the winged horse, Pegasus.
About John Freeman
"It's in the blood", says John. Coming from the son of South Africa’s first commercial bloodstock practitioners.
John Freeman was born into the racing industry. His father, John Freeman Snr, founded the first dedicated equestrian insurance agency in the country after losing his favourite horse in a steeplechase event. A well-known bon viveur, John Snr passed away at the age of 65.
As a teenager John worked as a part-time veterinary assistant and as a groom in Harry Galoun’s Newmarket stable-yard. It was there that, quite by chance, he sold one of Harry’s horses to property tycoon Hymie Tucker. This marked the beginning of his interest in the sales aspect of the industry.
Clearly John Jnr inherited his father’s love of horses. John matriculated at 16 years old from Marist Brothers College. Compulsory military training and involvement in the Angolan war followed, which John still regards as putting a considerable damper on his vision of the future. “I always said it was a monumental waste of time - we got suckered into that very stupidly.”
For John, time is of the essence. After reading law at Wits for two years, he left and joined his father’s business. Here, he soon branched out into non-insurance avenues, including the publication of The Yearbook and The Freeman Newsletter. He concentrated on the sales sector of the business.
John and his late father were the first to import horses from Argentina to South Africa. The first draft of five horses arrived in 1975 – all became winners. Top of the heap was the Stakes winner, Bold Land, followed by Kerkyra, trained by Jackie Bell, winner of her first four starts for John Snr. So impressed was Terrence Millard with the Argentine imports that he teamed up with Alejandro Lilienveldt and took over the market for many years.
The first Freeman-led horse delegation to the Argentine
L to R; Peter Wright, Gorge Castro-Madera, Freeman Snr, Henry Eatwell (checking knees),
Jimmy Fell, Groom, Freeman Jnr, Alex Robertson, Les Rathbone
The Thoroughbred Group
In 1983 John started his own consultancy business after identifying an opportunity in the equine auction field. His regular appearances at Herbert Greenwood’s horse sales paid off handsomely. It was here that John bought his first horse, Fair City, for only R200. After five wins and 15 places in 22 starts, he sold Fair City to give his fledgling business the financial kick-start it needed. That part of the business grew quickly to an annual turnover of R25m a year and progressed from post-race parade ring sales into more formal events, including a long-term contract with the TBA (Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association) which became so attractive that the TBA decided to take over for themselves.
Known as The Thoroughbred Group, the business branched out into other horse-related concerns, including a Lloyds “pen” to write equine horse insurance in South Africa. By now the four main areas of expertise comprised Auction Sales, Insurance, Stallion Management and Publications, including the SA Turf Directory (currently in its 30th year). John also published an industry specific newspaper, The Thoroughbred News. As a founding member of The Highveld Breeders’ Club, John was able to form close ties with the breeders in the area and was instrumental in setting up the first Breeders Premium in SA, which he says, in hindsight, was the worst thing that could have happened to breeders in the area. John remains staunchly opposed to the concept of Breeders Premiums.
In 1993 John sold the insurance and sales divisions of the Group and moved to the Cape to be closer to South Africa’s main stallion base. His first syndication followed soon afterwards with Goldmark for Wilfred Koster at Cheveley Stud Farm. Here his early mentors were people like Wilfred Koster, Myra Gorton and Sir Mordaunt Milner, and he has formed close and lasting ties with many of the Cape’s top owners and breeders.
Laurie and Jean Jaffee entrusted John with the management of Jallad and became very close to John’s in the stallion industry eventually adding the internationally successful champion racehorse London News to John’s portfolio. With John’s advice they enjoyed their best successes as breeders near the end of their careers breeding two top class fillies in one year: Consensual and Give Me Five.
Today John’s Thoroughbred Group comprises a team of five people – dedicated, professional and loyal individuals who enjoy the trust of a large client base all over the world.
“You have to have luck on your side with fantastic enthusiast clients and the support of a good team”, says John. Success breeds success. His team works extremely hard, long hours – often seven days a week. Racing on most weekends usually involves some or other horse-related event or client function. According to John his clients and friends in racing are his “family of choice” – they spend a lot of time in each other’s company.
In a 2012 interview on South Africa’s dedicated racing program, Tellytrack, John remarked that he regards himself as very blessed to have an interest in horses. “Who could wish for anything better – being passionate about your work and enjoying the company of remarkable people? My clients are my friends and I am able to see the results of my work playing out every single day.”
- In his 40-odd years of professional involvement, John has been associated with the selection of six Horse of the Year title winners, numerous stakes winners and many champions.
- During the Epol horse food poisoning crisis of the 80’s, John served on a panel of experts appointed to value the affected animals. His role in the ensuing litigation led to his registration as the only court-appointed horse appraiser in South Africa in 1993 - and he still performs that function today.
- He was a founding member of the SA Horse Import Export Council and played a role in getting the original export protocol signed with Malaysia and Singapore, and has himself exported horses to Singapore.
- John served on the board of The National Federation of Owners and Trainers of South Africa for 4 years.
- John was appointed the Representative in Africa for the BBA (British Bloodstock Agency) in 1983. The Thoroughbred Group was given access to the most skilled horsemen all over the world and John developed lasting ties there.
- John was Deputy Chairman of The Highveld Owners and Trainers Assn for 6 years
- John served as a Director of the Cape Chapter of Gold Circle from it’s inception until his retirement from the board in December 2008. During that time he also served as a Director of the Main Board of Gold Circle Racing and Gaming (Pty) Ltd.
- John serves as a trustee and nominee of organisations within the racing and breeding structures in South Africa.
- John has been a member of the National Horse Racing Authority (formerly the Jockey Club of South Africa) since 1977 and was awarded Life Colours by that organisation in 2007.
- John was a founding member of the Agents Association of South Africa and was that organiusations Chairman for 3 years.
- John was the founder of the WP Racing Groom’s Trust in 1996 and served as Chairman of the Trust for 9 years. He was made Hon Life President of the Trust in 2011.
Horses and Horsemen
“In racing you are only as good as your last best horse”, says John and attributes a lot of his success to the input of the many horsemen with whom he has worked since the time he bought his first horse with James Goodman.
Together John and James revolutionised the syndication of racehorses. They convinced the Jockey Club to expand the rules governing the registration of syndicates, thereby allowing more people to participate. They assembled two of the Highveld’s most successful racing teams: The Darbie and Rainbow Syndicates which owned a string of winners including the stakes horses Doubly Sure and Quarter Flash.
John Newsome and Fieldspring
The founder of Fieldspring, John Newsome, had a huge influence on The Thoroughbred Group for some time. “I helped him establish Fieldspring Racing – it was a unique initiative which worked really well. My instruction at yearling sales was limited to three yearlings per year and in a span of just over five years these purchases included three Horses of The Year, five national champions and several stakes winners.”
The first five horses bred by Fieldspring with John as advisor all became stakes winners. The very first was the champion, Rabiya.
The only weanling John bought for Fieldspring was The Cardinal who won and placed in 10 of his 11 starts before he was sold to Mauritius, where he became Horse of the Year winning 10 races.
John rates Peter Kannemeyer as the greatest ‘horse character’ with whom he has had the pleasure of working. Together, they selected and purchased some of South Africa’s finest racehorses at yearling sales. They also created a string of successes for Fieldspring Racing, including Free My Heart which gave them seven Grade One wins and awards as Horse of the Year and Champion Older Horse.
The most exciting event in John’s life was when Dynasty, another Fieldspring purchase, was selected Outstanding Sire of the Year by the Equus panel. Bought with the Kannemeyers as a yearling and then watching him win the July to become Horse of the Year and Champion three-year-old – all in the same year – was a huge thrill. “All of this, followed by instant success as a stallion is the stuff dreams are made of.”
Jack Mitchell and the Snaith Brothers
Also purchased for Fieldspring, Russian Sage was John’s first top horse with the Snaith brothers, but apart from his successes with the Kannemeyer and Snaith yards in the Cape, John was also involved in the selection and purchase of Ivory Trail, trained by Joey Ramsden for Jack Mitchell. Ivory Trail went on to beat Pocket Power in the Grade One Champions Cup, breaking a 57-year-old record. More recently John successfully involved the Brett Crawford stable in the purchase of a half share in Jackson, Dynasty’s multiple Grade One winning son, also on behalf of Jack Mitchell.
The Koster Family
John has enjoyed a long and successful stallion management association with the Koster family. Goldmark, his first venture with Wilfred Koster at Cheveley, is currently making a name for himself as a successful broodmare sire. Captain Al, his initial investment with John Koster at Klawervlei has been extremely rewarding and has lead to far greater involvement with the Klawervlei team. Captain Al has been the stuff that success stories are made of in the breeding industry; what started out as a bit of fun for one family ended up as a highly successful business.
“I have met some truly inspirational people during my 40-odd years in this industry,” says John. “Syd Laird was very generous to me as a young lad – he shared his wisdom freely and I hung onto his every word. Gary Player is one of the greatest people I have ever met. Graham Beck was a tremendous influence for many years and I count Peter Kannemeyer, Jack Mitchell and the Snaith Brothers among my closest friends.”
Richard and Marina Maponya
John first met Richard Maponya at Turffontein racecourse in 1979 with Michael Azzie. Richard expressed a wish to become an owner and Michael asked John to assist. They purchased a NZ import appropriately named Another Colour and John helped Richard and his wife Marina register their colours which John learned had been specifically chosen by Richard as the ANC flag which always caused a stir on racedays. Richard and Marina would lead in their many winners to the sounds of ululating women. John always admired Marina’s great mind and often expressed the view that if she’d not passed away before her time she’d have played a leading role in South African politics. Marina was a director of 9 public companies. She was a warm and caring mother-figure who always commanded respect. The Maponya’s and John made SA racing history as the first black/white partnership to lead in a winner.
From the Horse’s Mouth
John Freeman’s passion lies in the selection of yearlings at sales, always in search of future sire material. His favourite field remains the syndication and management of stallions. As a selector and buyer of yearlings, his main aim has always been to buy champions. This steady pursuit of excellence has connected him with many of South Africa’s leading sires, including Dynasty.
John cites Enchanted Garden, South Africa's first ever female Horse of the Year, as his biggest learning curve in yearling sale activity and one of the best yearling purchases he has ever been associated with.
He attributes the success of the stallions in his management portfolio to the application of strict selection criteria. At the top end of the 2015 portfolio are four champion sires: Captain Al, Dynasty, Philanthropist and Trippi. Up-and-coming sires include the champion racehorses Gimmethegreenlight and Pathfork who will have their first runners in 2015/16. International Champion racehorse Jay Peg is currently one of SA’s leading 3rd crop sires.
High class performers Querari and Wylie Hall joined the Freeman Stallion portfolio in 2015. Champion racehorses Twice Over and What A Winter will have their first yearlings in 2016, and top-class performers Jackson, Master Of My Fate and Potala Palace will have their first foals in 2015.
Outside his own portfolio of stallions John cites recent greats like Jet Master, Western Winter, Silvano and Fort Wood as among the best our country has had to offer for many years. Freeman’s recollection of great South African sires goes back to his days as an early visitor to stud farms and the Yearling Sales at the old Milner Park showgrounds where he grew up amongst names like Joy II, Abadan, Drum Beat, High Veldt, Preamble, and Wilwyn and in later years had the privilege of experiencing great sires like Persian Wonder, New South Wales, Royal Prerogative, Jungle Cove, Northern Guest, Elliodor, Al Mufti, Foveros, Harry Hotspur, National Assembly and many others.
Beyond the Finish Line
John firmly believes that promotion and marketing are crucial to the success of any operation in racing and breeding thoroughbreds. “Racing is the perfect sport, not just a mindless gamble,” he says. “The racehorse is man’s finest genetic achievement; the best are separated from the worst by the second hand of a clock. It should always remain interesting and packaged as an attractive activity. Huge crowds are always drawn to big events like the Durban July, the J&B Met and L’Ormarins Queen Plate – there should be more.”
He is also convinced that horseracing is much cleaner than most other sports. “They should look to us for guidance. Millions are spent on monitoring each race. In modern racing there simply is no room for unethical behaviour.”
As far as future ambitions are concerned, John says, “I’ll settle for ‘more of the same’ if possible, please. I have been very fortunate but don’t like to push my luck. I doubt if I will ever retire – who can afford to do that anyway? I love working, and as long as I enjoy good health and I’m still able to work with and for the same people, I will consider myself truly blessed”.