Golf Star Player Meets Turf Star Ipi Tombe

Edited from track reports
South African golf legend Gary Player, fresh off Sunday's final round play of the U.S. Senior Open at the Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, stopped at Churchill Downs on Monday to visit another of his country's notable exports: Ipi Tombe, winner of Saturday's Locust Grove Handicap (gr. III) in her U.S. racing debut.

Player's interest in Ipi Tombe is more than provincial. He owns Ipi Tombe's sire, Manshood, who stands at his Gary Player Stud, a sprawling 12,500-acre breeding complex located between Johannesburg and Cape Town. Trainer Elliott Walden greeted Player when he arrived at Walden's barn for a mid-morning visit and Walden's staff led Ipi Tombe out of her stall to allow the golf legend to give her a visual inspection.

After giving the 5-year-old Zimbabwe-bred a thorough look, Player walked up to Ipi Tombe and planted several kisses on her muzzle.

"I love horses," said Player, 67. "It's a disease with me. I love golf and horses and I don't know which I love more -- probably horses."

Player, whose first professional golf victory came in the Kentucky Derby Open in 1958 at Louisville's Seneca Park golf course, has been breeding Thoroughbreds since 1964. He currently has 110 broodmares and stands six stallions, including Manshood, a son of Mr. Prospector out of the champion mare Indian Skimmer, who finished a troubled third in the Breeders' Cup Turf (GI) at Churchill Downs in 1988.

"You cannot get a better bred horse in the world than Manshood," Player said. "I heard some gentleman in Dubai say, 'The breeding is not much,' and I nearly fell out of my chair. It's one of the best pedigrees in the world and the dam (Carnet de Danse), she must have produced six winners and a place in a group race and her grandsire is Northern Dancer, so how can you say it's not much breeding?"

U.S.-based Team Valor and WinStar Farm purchased majority interest in Ipi Tombe last fall, with a 25% share remaining with Sunmark Partners, a group of 22 people who originally owned the mare in her native Zimbabwe. Ipi Tombe won South Africa's greatest race, the Durban July Handicap, which helped earn her honors as the champion 3-year-old filly in South Africa. She traveled to Dubai over the winter, where her three consecutive wins included a romp in the $2 million Dubai Duty Free at Nad Al Sheba on the Dubai World Cup undercard. Saturday's victory in the Locust Grove made her a winner on three continents and improved her career record to 12-2-0 in 14 races and boosted her earnings to $1,529,820.

"It's very exciting for a country like Zimbabwe that needs some encouragement at the moment," said Player. "They've got a terrible leader who has just ruined the country and they need some encouragement. It's very encouraging for them to see this happening."

Player said Ipi Tombe's exploits have also been good news to South Africa's racing and breeding industry.

"It's the most underrated country in the world for quality of horses," he said. "We sent over Hawaii, who was the champion 'Horse of the Year' here. Bold Tropic was a very good horse. Colorado King was a champion over here. Horse Chestnut won one race over here and broke down, unfortunately, because there was a really super, superstar. So this is wonderful, this is encouraging to see this come from a small country like South Africa."

While the fact that he stands Manshood gives Player an obvious stake in Ipi Tombe's success, he clearly would be celebrating her exploits regardless of any business or personal connection.

"What is incredible about this filly is she beat the colts in Dubai in record class time all three races," he said. "Now you've had a lot of great horses running in Dubai and she ran against many champions from all over the world - a filly - and broke the course record every time and won every time. There's no filly that can claim that. You can have Azeri saying she's won all these races, but to win against the best in the world -- colts -- and break the course record every time, that is phenomenal."

Player clearly relishes his visits to Kentucky. He has raced horses here through the years and looks forward to next year's stop by the Senior PGA Championship at Louisville's Valhalla. On Tuesday he will play in an 18-hole fundraising exhibition match for the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation at the Lexington Country Club in Lexington, Ky. Player will lake on club pro Buddy Harston in a match that is scheduled to begin at 2:15 p.m. (all times EDT).

"Kentucky is such a wonderful, wonderful place," Player said. "I'm just sorry as a younger man that I didn't buy a ranch in Lexington. I'm nearly 68 now and I'm getting a bit old to do that now and I'm really sorry I didn't. Kentucky is a very special place for me. There are such beautiful stud farms, the great sires of the world, wonderful people - it's just a paradise to come here."

Player has been one of golf's true international stars since he launched his career in 1957. His list of championships includes nine majors, including British Open victories in three separate decades, and nine more majors on the Senior Tour. He won the South African Open 13 times, the Australian Open seven times and also counts victories in Brazil and Chile among his accomplishments.