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Kantor Savouring Rascal’s Derby Bid


Bernard Kantor & Her Majesty The Queen at the 2016 Epsom Derby | Getty Images

By Chris McGrath

His choice of William Haggas to train his horses in Britain is a perfect example of Bernard Kantor’s conviction that you reap what you sow; that unstinting integrity, whether in business or sport, will ultimately surpass any gains available through cheap opportunism.

Back in 1997 Kantor’s friend and compatriot, the late Laurie Jaffee, had established that his London News (SAf) (Bush Telegraph {SAf}) was capable of extending his domestic supremacy, in South Africa, to the global stage. He had beaten an international field in Hong Kong, and now Jaffee wanted to stable him with a British trainer to be prepared for Royal Ascot.

The previous year, the young Haggas had enjoyed a breakthrough success with Shaamit (Ire) (Mtoto {GB}) in the Derby–his first run of the season, with only a Doncaster maiden to his name. Jaffee telephoned Haggas to say that he would be sending his globetrotter to Newmarket.

“Thank you very much, Mr. Jaffee,” replied Haggas. “There’s a virus in my yard. Please take him elsewhere.”

Twenty-one years later, Kantor is sitting in the Epsom grandstand after watching Haggas give his own colt Young Rascal (Fr) (Intello {Ger}) a spin round Tattenham Corner in the hope that he might emulate Shaamit on Saturday. As managing director of the race sponsors, Kantor hopes the colt may prove the agent of a benign destiny. Not merely because it’s the 10th year of Investec’s involvement, and the final running of the race before Kantor steps down from his post; but also because of the good karma tracing to the day Haggas turned away a champion.

“Now where would you find that?” marvels Kantor, recalling the London News story. “Values like that are something I can relate to, from what we should be practising at Investec. When I heard that, I said, ‘No, that’s for me.’ And many times since, I’ve been buying horses with William and he’d say, ‘Uh, oh, stop. That’s too much. Leave it, let it go’.”

Young Rascal was actually a case in point. When they were bidding for him as a yearling, at the Arqana August Sale, Haggas and Anthony Stroud urged their patron to back off at €175,000.

“No,” Kantor told them. “Let’s just keep going a little bit.”

He had already left the sale, after drawing a blank over the weekend, when Haggas called to say they had found the nicest colt in the catalogue lurking in the third session.

“Come on guys!” Kantor had laughed. “We’ve been there two days and, when I go, all of a sudden you’ve found the best in the sale.”

“Just go and look at the catalogue, and tell us what you think,” Haggas replied.

And the more he studied the page, the more excited Kantor became. He liked the feted Galileo (Ire)–Danehill cross in the sire; while the dam Rock My Soul (Ire) (Clodovil {Ire}) was a multiple listed winner from a tough and classy German family. The third dam, for instance, was a half-sister to Group 1 winner Turfkonig (Ger) (Anfield I {GB}), who had won the German 2000 Guineas and made the frame in the German Derby; to Tryphosa (Ire) (Be My Guest), a Group 2 winner and third in the Prix de Diane; and to Turfquelle (Ire) (Shaadi), dam of one Group 1 winner and granddam of another. In between, moreover, he felt the second dam would introduce a bit of “kick” from her sire Cadeaux Genereux.

Kantor’s one reservation was that the horse was bound to cost too much. In the event, however, his perseverance paid off and Young Rascal was bought for €215,000. And now Kantor’s yellow and blue silks are to be carried in the Turf’s most venerable race by one of the more credible threats to favourite Saxon Warrior (Jpn) (Deep Impact {Jpn}), Young Rascal having broken out to win his trial at Chester going away.

A pronounced knee action might not be ideal, coming down that hill flat out, but otherwise Young Rascal adds to the overall momentum for a stable also represented by a leading fancy in the G1 Investec Oaks today. Indeed, Haggas entered Derby week as the pacesetter in the British trainers’ championship.

However Young Rascal fares, then, that good karma has long been playing through. For Kantor himself, Haggas won a Group 1 race in Italy as far back as 2000 with the juvenile Count Dubois (GB) (Zafonic); they also landed the G1 Prix Maurice de Gheest with King’s Apostle (Ire) (King’s Best), while Dupont (GB) (Zafonic) won Classics in Italy and Germany within 19 days. With just four horses in training in Britain, Kantor has this spring also won a competitive handicap at the Dante meeting with Reverend Jacobs (GB) (Nathaniel {Ire}).

“William’s just a diamond, a terrific guy,” Kantor says. “I’ve watched him from when he started with very few runners and very few winners, and it’s been an incredible story. I think he has the relationship with [wife and assistant] Maureen absolutely perfect. He’s wise, he’s smart, he’s decent, he’s charming. He’s like a horse that has to win the Derby–you need to have everything! He’s just the most honest, straightforward person I’ve ever dealt with. He could be [a] banker, quite comfortably.”

Kantor speaks advisedly. For if his partnership with Haggas attests that the right thing to do often turns out to be the most productive anyway, then that is just what Kantor would always tell his own staff. Asked how he and a handful of mates hit a seam of gold–Investec today manages $215 billion in assets–when starting out 40 years ago in Johannesburg, he accepts that it took something beyond the universal requisites of luck and ambition.

“Well, I can get philosophical about it,” he says. “When we started we had nothing. So we had nothing to lose. That was ’78, ’79. We became a bank in June of 1980 and there were maybe five, six of us; today we have 10,000 people in 16 countries. I think if we were arrogant enough to believe we were purely responsible for the growth and success, that would be the end of us. So there is something else that helped us to get there.”

“I’m not a religious guy but I repeat it, because it’s very important for the kids who work for us now: arrogance is absolutely unacceptable at Investec,” he says. “We are aggressive in our markets, that’s different. But arrogance we do not tolerate. We were desperate to make a living, we had families. But over and above everything, our culture and values are absolutely engrained in every single member of that staff. If you as an individual subscribe to those values, the profits will follow automatically. Generosity of spirit is very important to us. We genuinely care about our people.”

Naturally all the goodwill in the world would still require the right apparatus. Kantor explains how Investec developed its own momentum, one thing leading to another. They started out as a leasing shop; soon they were buying leasing books; clients were seeking advice, and that prised open the door to corporate finance and merchant banking; now currencies had to be hedged, so a trading desk was set up. Even when the move to London was made, however, the founders cherished their humble roots.

“We come from the tip of Africa and we shouldn’t forget that,” Kantor says. “So it was important that we build a platform for the future, a platform a new management would take over one day. That day has arrived, and they’ll be able to create a lot more value than we do. We’re not a highly rated share, simply because our mandate was to build a business. So now they can get our return on equity right, and create value.”

Whether that still leaves room for this sponsorship remains to be seen, though Kantor promises he will do his utmost to persuade his successors that the Derby serves the Investec brand–and not just the personal whims of an outgoing boss. Again, he invokes the firm’s origins. It was precisely the lack of obvious affinity, between the blueblooded heritage of the Derby and these prospectors from the Rand, that made it such a priceless fit. When Investec signed up in 2008, however, the financial crisis was at its unnerving height.

“It was very risky,” Kantor admits. “At the time liquidity was a real issue in the Square Mile. Some of the board members were saying, ‘Well, you know, it’s not the right time.’ And I was saying: ‘That is the right time, exactly.’ And the price was competitive.”

“Remember we are predominantly an asset manager and a private banking business. That doesn’t mean we’re not a corporate banking business, but it was the combination of wealth management and the private bank that we saw as the biggest beneficiary [of the sponsorship]. It’s very seldom you can get the audience the Derby delivers: not necessarily in the middle of the track, but certainly in the Queen’s Stand. So it was a place we thought we could get great traction for our brand–which at the time was nothing, absolutely nothing. Although the viewership had dropped off quite badly, and the attendance, it just wasn’t believable, to be offered such a trophy event.”

It so happened that they had a particular product to market round the inaugural Investec Derby. And Kantor could clearly chart the growth in deposits after the “High Five” blimp had hovered over Epsom Downs that weekend. Investec has put money into several other sports, often with a very high profile, but Kantor has never seen so tangible a difference. Nor, evidently, has the relationship ever been so mutually respectful.

“Rugby was fantastic–until they kicked us out,” he says. “We used to sponsor the home [autumn] series, and one year they just said: ‘We’ve found someone who’s prepared to pay more, so you’re out.’ Cricket did the same to us. That’s why, with the Derby, I was determined to enter into a longer-term contract. Though Epsom and the Jockey Club have been fantastic, amazingly co-operative and just a pleasure to work with. Now in time to come, whether [the new management] would see it all the same way, I don’t know. Obviously we’ll do everything we can to make sure this sponsorship continues, because I think it adds huge value to the Investec brand.”

Whenever founders step down, companies change. Kantor is reconciled to that reality and offers glowing endorsements of Fani Titi and Hendrik du Toit, who step up after Kantor and CEO Stephen Koseff take a back seat in October. But his own life will change, too, at 68.

“I have a lot of energy,” he says. “But sometimes I find it heavy going nowadays. I’m delighted I’ll have more time to do the things I’d like to do, and just to have time with my family. It’s been tough: you can’t build a business like this and really enjoy your passions.”

So yes, he hopes to become a more familiar presence at the races. However he fares on Saturday, as such, Young Rascal bestrides a crossroads in his owner’s life: an end and a beginning.

“When my brother left South Africa, maybe 45 years ago, he left me one horse,” Kantor says with a wry smile. “He said, ‘By the way, I forgot to tell you–there’s a horse you’ve got to pay for.’ That one horse has cost me a fortune over the years. I didn’t realise I had a similar passion, and that ignited it.”

He admits that his real satisfaction is in the slower tempo of breeding, and is a major stakeholder in the Klawervlei Stud. Watching his runners round the world–whether in South Africa or Hong Kong or here–tends to be too nerve-racking to qualify as an authentic relief from the stresses of his working life. But as Jaffee used to say, they needed a “counter-irritant” in life.

“I say to myself, ‘Why do I have these horses?'” Kantor says. “But William said to me in January, in Cape Town, ‘This year, I can tell you, your horses are of a quality, it’s your year.’

“It’s just luck, honestly, just luck. It wasn’t planned, it just worked this way. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would have a horse with a chance in the Derby. And in our 10th year of sponsorship. I just love looking for that grain of sand that’s going to make that little bit of gold you’re going to find somewhere. And yet when it arrives… Of course I loved Young Rascal’s page. But come on, how many times have I looked at a page and made all the right arguments? ”

“There are 12,000 yearlings every year,” he notes. “How many get to the Derby: 12? So anyone who tells me it’s their genius, no sir. He was certainly a legitimate trial winner but I don’t even go there, I can’t even think that far. Every day, getting there, is like a year. If he just runs and gets through the race, I’ll be delighted.”

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