The buying, selling and training of the thoroughbred racehorse is a multibillion-pound global concern that tends to be 18 months ahead of the general economy. Boom or bust, the bloodstock industry is always there first. It happened in the 1970s and onwards into 2008, and it’s happening today. At one sale alone last year, Newmarket-based bloodstock auctioneer Tattersalls sold a record £80 million’s worth of untried horseflesh — and they’re hoping to do better this year when the same three-day sale kicks off on 6 October. There are more than 500 lots to go under the hammer with a minimum bid of 5,000 guineas (all racehorses are sold in guineas, one guinea being 21 old shillings or £1.05).
Tattersalls sells dreams — of owning the sort of horse that might win the Epsom Derby or one of the four other ‘Classic’ races; the 1,000 Guineas and the 2,000 Guineas, both run at Newmarket; the Oaks at Epsom and the St Leger at Doncaster. But it’s an industry that brings true happiness or heartache to a few, financial pain to most participants and financial pleasure to a select group whose only special quality as racehorse owners appears to me to be sheer luck.
Owning a racehorse is an expensive business. The late property mogul Raymond Mould likened it to the cost of sending a child to Eton: around £35,000 a year to school your unruly equine. Celebrated Newmarket trainer Sir Mark Prescott once warned me, when I was thinking of putting a syndicate together to have a horse with him, to assemble an arsenal of at least £50,000 just to pay the training fees and the add-ons. His point was that, if the horse was useless, I’d have a very difficult job extracting training fees from other syndicate members.
And all of that comes on top of shelling out goodness knows what to purchase the horse in the first place. I should warn that in all likelihood your horse will indeed turn out to be useless, temperamental and too slow. But there again if it’s fast, enjoys racing and learns quickly, you’ll have a great deal of fun and you may even hit the financial jackpot.
For many, the art of pitting horses against each other is a never-ending fascination, and that is what oils the vast industry that is horseracing. In the UK alone there are more than 14,500 registered owners and 600 trainers. The allure of owning a winner is magnetic and there are many entry points, from having a ‘leg’ in a point-to-pointer to joining a syndicate or investing hundreds of millions in a world-class racing and breeding operation, as the Qatari royal family have done recently.
But be warned: this is an industry with its fair share of sharp operators. You should be particularly careful in your choice of trainers and bloodstock agents. A small minority behave as if they have come straight from the pages of a Dick Francis thriller. As well as going by personal recommendations, it’s a good idea to join the Racehorse Owners Association (ROA) which not only gives invaluable advice but also lobbies on behalf of owners with the government and the racing authorities.
Tattersalls, I should add, has a high reputation as well as an enviable record: since 2000, seven Derby winners have passed through its auction ring. Tattersalls director Jimmy George says, ‘This sale represents the best chance of buying a Classic winner that you’ll ever have.’
Perhaps the most famous was a horse called Sir Percy, knocked down for 16,000 guineas in 2004, who went on to win the Derby and more than £1 million in prize money. He now lives out his retirement happily impregnating upward of 100 mares a year at £7,000 a pop, and his fortunate owners receive the largesse — not a bad return on their original investment.
Rachel Hood, president of the ROA and an owner herself, is in the enviable position of being married to John Gosden, the champion trainer who this year won the Derby with a horse called Golden Horn. This future star had gone unsold at 190,000 guineas at Tattersalls two years ago. He was kept instead by his extraordinarily lucky breeder, Sir Anthony Oppenheimer. Having gone on to win again and again, he has been entered in this October’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Irrespective of the outcome, Golden Horn will be worth anything up to £50 million as a sire.
Unsurprisingly Hood says, ‘If you want to purchase a horse, go to a trainer or a bloodstock agent. You’d be ill-advised to buy a horse on your own. You should recognise that people who have been doing it for years tend to be rather better at it than those of us who recognise a pretty horse. It is science as well as art.’
But there have been disasters too. The Irish tycoon John Magnier may be the shrewdest judge of horseflesh in the world; his Coolmore stud operation based in Ireland, the US and Australia is the most successful stallion farm ever seen. Yet it was Magnier who bid a record-breaking $16 million for an unraced yearling in America, later named The Green Monkey. Great things were expected — but didn’t materialise. The horse was completely hopeless and was retired after failing to get in the frame in all of his three races. As is so often said: win some, lose some.
Setting aside such extremes as the success of Golden Horn, and previously the great Frankel — and the colossal disaster that was The Green Monkey — there’s a middle ground of more modest wins and losses. You may not profit from your purchase but it will buy all the enjoyment of horseracing from an insider’s point of view, some great days out and the high that is hope over expectation.