James Bester enjoys the richest of racing lives that has been shaped by a host of high-profile bloodstock identities across the thoroughbred world. He has learned all facets of the business from masters of their trades and continues to apply the knowledge and principles passed on to him.
The international bloodstock agent and Coolmore consultant has, at various stages of a colourful career, been guided by legendary figures of the turf. The affable Bester learned his lessons well, mixing a keen mind and sharp wit in his pursuit of thoroughbred excellence.
A start with an iconic figure in his native South Africa preceded time with bloodstock luminaries John Magnier, John Messara, the late Robert Sangster, Aidan O’Brien and Demi O’Byrne.
Bester went through the usual channels that developed his early passion and love of horses and then came an academic switch that ultimately decided on the U-turn back to his first love.
“I was first put on a horse at the age of four and according to my parents I was obsessed from that day forward, but there was no family history in racing,” he said.
I was first put on a horse at the age of four and according to my parents I was obsessed from that day forward, but there was no family history in racing.” – James Bester.
“I’m from a family of lawyers, but an avid rider whose first loves were show-jumping, eventing and foxhunting, I dutifully spent six years studying for a BA and then an LLB degree before realising that (a) I didn’t want to be a lawyer and (b) one couldn’t really make a living in any equestrian pursuits outside of racing.
“So, after a compulsory stint fulfilling national service obligations as a detective in the South African Police force, I sought a way into racing by combining my legal, investigative and equestrian background as a Stipendiary Steward for the Jockey Club of South Africa.
“My first real mentor was Chairman of Stewards, the legendary Jock Sproule, who deeply impressed on me the importance, to the industry in general and to my own career in it, of absolute integrity.”
Bester said he enjoyed the role, but was soon looking to change tack.
“As a steward I enjoyed the role and learned a lot about racing, but the requirement for no closer than arm’s length interaction with trainers, jockeys and other racing professionals frustrated me,” he said.
“I had learned the colours and could read a race, so I successfully applied for a role as race caller for the South African Turf Club in Cape Town.”
Bester brought his own style to the commentary box, although his sense of humour wasn’t always appreciated.
“The thrill of calling races for those few years is something I’ll never forget, though I did manage to fall foul of one particular jockey by describing him during a race as fumbling for his stick like a bridegroom on opening night. Nor were my stewarding ex-colleagues amused!” he said.
“The senior race caller there was Jehan Malherbe, now better known internationally as bloodstock agent for trainer Mike de Kock, breeder-owner Mary Slack and others.
“He, Robin Bruss and Charles Faull were directors of the Form Organisation, easily then the most knowledgeable and dynamic bloodstock agency in South Africa.”
When Bruss departed, Bester’s career path took another direction.
“Jehan and Charles kindly took me into their Form Organisation as a fellow agent and became my next mentors,” he said.
“Charles knew more than anyone I’d met about international sire lines and Jehan’s specialities were both the assessment of race performance and the yearling sale market. Again, integrity was the catch cry of both.”
Thereafter followed a chance meeting that opened the international gate for Bester.
“After a couple of years at Form, I had the good fortune to run into Ben Sangster, son of Robert who with John Magnier and Vincent O’Brien formed the Coolmore/Ballydoyle triumvirate,” he said.
“At the time in the mid-1980s they ruled the racing world and were about, courtesy of Sadler’s Wells, to rule the breeding world – well, in European terms anyway!
“Through Ben I managed to secure a position, vacated by now-famous agent Charlie Gordon-Watson, on the Isle of Man, assisting in management of Robert Sangster’s then international racing empire.
“It consisted of well over 1000 horses world-wide in England, Ireland, France, America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and even Venezuela!
“And to say that Robert, as famous for covering in both Hemispheres as his stallions, proved a major influence on my life and career would be an understatement.”
“Robert regularly took me racing, to the best meetings in England and Ireland – in the days of Dancing Brave, and still the best horse I ever saw race; Green Desert, the grandsire of I Am Invincible, Slip Anchor, Rainbow Quest and great mares like Indian Skimmer, Oh So Sharp, Pebbles, etc. He taught me so much about life in general and racing in particular.”
They were remarkable times and peppered with spectacular sale ring action.
“They were heady days in the breeding world in the mid-1980s,” Bester said. “I had barely joined Robert when Coolmore, in July and August of 1985, paid some $13 million at Keeneland for the world record sale-topping Nijinsky yearling colt and $3.5 million at Saratoga for the top-selling Danzig yearling colt.
“The story of the first, Seattle Dancer, has often been told. Less known is that, in what became my first international bloodstock deal, I myself two years later bought the second, the speedy but unraced National Assembly for $100,000 and on-sold him to Graham Beck, owner of Highlands Stud in South Africa.
“National Assembly was for the next two decades a leading sire, sire of sires and broodmare sire of National Colour, for one example, whose two Redoute’s Choice yearling sons Rafeef and Mustaaqeem sold for millions at Inglis Easter and both won Group 1 races back in South Africa for Mike de Kock and Shadwell. Small world!”
It was with the support and assistance of Sangster that Bester found his way to Australia.
“Without Robert I would quite possibly still be in South Africa and I would almost certainly never have made it to Australia,” he said.
Without Robert I would quite possibly still be in South Africa and I would almost certainly never have made it to Australia.” – James Bester.
“Robert helped me, after three years on the Isle of Man, to secure a position with what was then Sir Tristan Antico’s Baramul Stud.
“After a couple of years at Baramul I found myself at Arrowfield Stud, as a replacement for Henry Plumptre, in the role of bloodstock and marketing manager.
“It was there that I came under the guidance and influence of one of my most significant mentors, John Messara.
“Almost Caesar-like in his mantra that Arrowfield is an industry leader and, like the government, we need to be beyond reproach, which means not only doing the right thing but also being seen to do the right thing.
“Again, integrity and transparency were the principles he kept drumming into us.”
Timing was again very much in Bester’s favour during his Arrowfield experience.
“What a time that was. Stallions like Kenmare and Danehill, racehorses like Baryshnikov and Flying Spur and Oaks-winning mares like Mahaya and Kenbelle.
“As with Dancing Brave and company, I mention horses of this ilk because they too were my mentors, from observation of which at close quarters I learned as much about my craft as from any human.
“This was especially true of Baryshnikov and Kenbelle, the first two Australian Group 1 Guineas and Oaks winners that I was lucky enough to buy and part-own with Arrowfield and other friends.
“Living and breathing the fortunes of animals like that teaches one quickly.”
While Bester has seen a host of great international thoroughbreds in action and the most influential of stallions, one of a lesser profile touched him deeply.
“One horse in particular stands out – Dante’s Paradiso, inherently more talented than any Group 1 winner I’ve ever bought,” he said.
“Unfortunately unsound, he broke down en route to fulfilling his potential but I had him from a Karaka yearling through racehorse, equestrian competitor, foxhunter and companion until he was put down as a 20 year-old last month.
“I learned more from him about conformation, action, training, veterinary aspects and general horsemanship than any human ever taught me!”
He bought Dante’s Paradiso (NZ) (Danske) for NZ$50,000 in 2002 and won five races, including the Listed Tattersall’s Cup and a runner-up finish in the G2 Villiers S. from limited appearances.
The next stage of Bester’s career was determined by circumstances out of his control.
“To bring the whole process full circle, along came Coolmore,” he said. “When Arrowfield and Coolmore ‘divorced’ over the extent of Danehill’s dual-hemisphere duties, I found myself in the Coolmore camp, unable to tear myself away from Danehill, Last Tycoon, Royal Academy and their barn mates.
“I came under the influence of great horseman and judge Demi O’Byrne, who taught me more than anyone had about assessing horses, especially yearlings.
“Together, Demi and I had the great pleasure of buying as yearlings animals like Atlantic Jewel, Irish Lights, Hips Don’t Lie, Bull Point, War, Valentia and many others. And I still follow Demi’s advice – if you really love them, put a value on them and bid to that and then keep bidding until you get them.”
It has been during the Coolmore association that Bester has got to fully understand and appreciate the brilliance of its patriarch.
“I came under the influence, albeit remotely, of John Magnier, unquestionably the smartest and most successful man with whom I’ve ever had anything to do in both the racing and breeding industries,” Bester said.
“Genius is the only appropriate description of John Magnier, as anyone who has ever had anything to do with him will attest.
Genius is the only appropriate description of John Magnier, as anyone who has ever had anything to do with him will attest.” – James Bester.
“Where Demi shone in the realm of physique – not his own, mind you – following John Magnier and the Coolmore ethos taught me most of what I now know about the ‘business’ of bloodstock in general and of stallions in particular, along with the overall importance of a ‘global’ approach to pedigree and performance.
“It is a source of considerable satisfaction then that, again along with Demi O’Byrne, I was able to put to use some of what I had learned from these mentors in buying, as agent for Coolmore and friends, the yearling filly that became Piccadilly Circus, a Group 1 class filly herself and dam of none other than Coolmore’s flagship stallion Fastnet Rock.”
Coolmore’s remarkably-successful trainer has also become another major player in Bester’s racing life.
“Aidan O’Brien has also influenced me greatly – watching him, listening to him and, above all, observing his work and family ethic,” he said.
“He strives for, and approaches, perfection on so many levels that he cannot but be a positive influence.
He strives for, and approaches, perfection on so many levels that he cannot but be a positive influence.” – James Bester.
“There are so many others, including friends and clients Keith Biggs, Sabine Plattner, Tim Hughes, Laurie Macri, John Camilleri, Robert McClure, Ananda Krishnan, Alan Bell, my vet wife Bridget whom I admire.
“They have all influenced me along the way that I no doubt do many the disservice of not mentioning them. But those I have mentioned are unquestionably my most significant influences.
“And, ever-mindful of how greatly all of these mentors have enriched my life in racing and breeding, it is also very satisfying that a significant part of my current role with Coolmore involves mentoring its own rising stars in all aspects of stock assessment and acquisition, of marketing and promotion and of racing management.”
Bester has been playing his trade for many, many years now and has no intention of slowing down, indeed it’s the opposite.
“I’ll be 63 this month and if ever there was a game to keep one young this is it,” he said. “There’s always something new to look forward to.
“A new season, a crop of new season sires, a new season crop of 2-year-olds and new foals.
“All of that I’m sure has a rejuvenating effect. My enthusiasm remains, in fact if anything it gets stronger year by year.”