“Most Kenyans love rearing cattle but I prefer horses,” says Joseph Muya, a breeder and proud owner of over 60 thoroughbred horses. So close is he to his mounts that he “talks” with them every morning.
Mary Binks, on the other hand, leads a life that requires a lot of travelling, but she still manages to raise tens of horses. However, unlike Muya, her busy schedule means that she hires help to do the heavy lifting.
For Muya and Binks, horse ownership is not a money-making undertaking but a work of love. This explains why they can make huge investments on the animals without whining about the hurdles that must inevitably arise.
For instance, although Muya is a hotelier by profession with a busy business life, he rarely skips horse races. He religiously attends every event at the Ngong Racecourse; first to watch his thoroughbreds compete, and secondly, to see his son Henry perform.
Like his father, Henry has grown to love race horses to the extent he decided to train at the prestigious British School of Horse Racing in London.
The senior Muya’s passion for horses began in the 1970s when he was a stable boy at the Delamere Farm in Soysambu, Naivasha. His job entailed grooming and training race horses. He later left the farm and got into other jobs, but his heart was always with horses.
This later drove him to explore a career as a jockey. After years of saving, he bought his first horse, Blackbird, in 1980. Blackbird marked the beginning of Flamingo Stables. Fast forward 34 year and today, Muya owns three sheds. He keeps a breeding stock in Elementaita, stallions in Njoro and race horses in Mwariki, Nakuru.
Eighteen of his horses took part in the 2013/2014 Jockey Club of Kenya racing season that ended last month, with five mounts - Call the Tune, Derrick Boy, Danny Boy, Russk and Vails - giving an impressive showing.
With tens of horses under her name and others under syndicates, Binks leaves her animals with trainer Julie McCain in Nairobi, while her breeding stock stays at the Nightingale Farm, in Njoro, Nakuru.
Nine of her horses participated in the just-concluded racing season where three-year-old Riskovay emerged the champion sprinter of the year. Binks says the lineage of the 482kg horse is one of the best breeds owned by her family.
“I have participated in horse racing for 25 years for the love of the sport and my horses generally perform well,” she says, adding that she finds them thrilling. With her wealth of knowledge, passion and the ability to raise horses, ownership comes naturally for Binks.
The chairman of the Jockey Club of Kenya, Dr Joe Wanjui, had three horses participating during the just-ended season. He also co-owns a number of horses with Captain Bootsy Mutiso, which are trained by Nuno Noor and Oliver Gray. For them, it is for prestige and love for horses.
Evans Monari, a lawyer and member of the Jockey Club, has three horses, all of which took part in the recently concluded Magical Kenya races. Of the three horses, he owns one outright while the two others run under a syndicate, which is where two or more people come together to own a horse or horses.
“Horses are beautiful animals. My kids love them and enjoy the races too. It made them happy that I bought a few,” says Monari.
While horses are strong and agile, they are prone to risks like falling ill and suffering injury. Ill health can take a toll on performance and, in worse case scenarios, lead to death. Horse owners making hefty investments are aware of such risks, and to spread the enormous risks that come with owning horses, there is a growing trend of owning horses under a syndicate.
This pooling of resources reduces the amount of personal investment and makes it possible to own a number of horses, which increases the odds of winning during racing season.
For the growing middle class, a syndicate makes it possible for those without deep pockets to own horses without spending a fortune. It is also an ideal starting point for people who want to invest in race horses.
Even for horse owners like Muya and Binks, forming syndicates can be beneficial in some instances. “By joining a syndicate, one can learn a few things about race horses and be in a position to estimate the expected investments in case he decides to go it alone,” says Muya.
Members of a syndicate share the initial cost of buying a horse, which depends on its quality and value. One’s expenditure is determined by evenly dividing the cost among the members or through acquisition of shares.
However, the investment process does not end there. Members of a syndicate make regular contributions towards maintenance of the horse(s). These fees pay the jockey and cover for training, transport, grooming and other expenses. Acquiring a mature race horse can be an expensive undertaking but there is the option of starting from scratch.
Every year, at an auction organised in July by the Owners, Trainers and Breeders Society, it is possible to buy a yearling (a horse between one and two years) for as little as Sh100,000 or as much as Sh1 million and entrust it to a trainer. In another two years (assuming that it was acquired while a few months old) it should be in a position to make a debut on the racing circuit.
Locally, thoroughbred trainers are certified by the Jockey Club.
“To qualify, one undergoes private training then registers with the Jockey Club of Kenya to get a rule book, secure an interview and an exam. You get certified after passing all the tests and interview,” says Samuel Lokorian, a jockey and trainer.
At his Flamingo Stables, Muya, together with stable manager Solomon Kamugi train the horses. “It takes 21 days to turn them into race horses, but exercises are conducted every day to keep them happy, healthy and fit to race,” says Kamugi.
Normal training schedule begins every day at 6am when the horses go for brisk walks and running exercises, after which they are bathed and fed. Breakfast generally consists of a variety of horse foods, among them oats, horse cubes, horse milk, and alfalfa grass. The horses are also castrated to help them build strength.
Horses perspire a lot when racing or exercising and bathing them is a mandatory daily requirement. Horse shampoo and brushes are used to scrub them while a soft towel is used for drying. Their hooves are trimmed and filed every 14 days to ensure the horseshoe fits well and to make racing easier.