Monday Musings: Horse Traders

For a few years now I’ve had a constant companion on my bedside table, writes Tony Stafford. Horse Trader, published in the early 1990’s and written by Patrick Robinson with Nick Robinson, tells the story of Robert Sangster’s unlikely path to the pinnacle of international racing and breeding.

I’ve read it cover to cover at least six times and when I tell you it must be the best part of 250,000 words (at least three times as long as my sporadic offerings over the years) that’s plenty of reading material.

Nick Robinson, like the young Sangster, prospective heir to serious money, back in the late 1960’s had knowledge of racing through family connections. Over time in a Liverpool coffee house then favoured by the sons of leaders of Northern industry, he imbued his friend, the heir to the Vernon’s Football Pools fortune, with a similar love of the sport.

Without Nick Robinson there would have been no Sadler’s Wells, no Golden Fleece, no Galileo. None of the many champions of the past 40 years to have emanated from Ballydoyle and its adjunct Coolmore stud in its two distinct phases. The first, which goes to the end of the book in 1992, is basically pre-Arab domination.

Then there is the second period where the skill and enterprise from Vincent O’Brien’s successor, the not related Aidan, linked always by the constant of John Magnier, Vincent’s son-in-law. Magnier of course was the man who recruited the young O’Brien to succeed Vincent as well as embracing Michael Tabor and later Derrick Smith to the party in place of such as Sangster and Danny Schwartz as well as others who dipped in and out, like Stavros Niarchos.

At one time the owner himself of more than 1,000 horses worldwide and at the time of the book’s conclusion, owner of shares in all the best Coolmore stallions, Sangster’s destiny seemed secure. His six children, sons Ben, Guy and Adam and daughter Kate from his first marriage, and Sam and yet to be born Max from his third, could anticipate a never-ending stream of wonderful thoroughbreds in the family ownership.

But, as Sam said when I suggested it to him one day last year: “As if!”  Recently though, the wider family fortunes on the racecourse have shone, particularly with Saffron Beach, the four-year-old filly trained by their Australian-born step-sister Jane Chapple-Hyam, daughter of Sangster’s middle wife, Susan mark 1. Winner of the Group 2 Duke Of Cambridge Stakes at the Royal meeting last month, Saffron Beach is owned by Ben’s wife Lucy, James Wigan, and Ben and Lucy’s son, Olly.

The success of the Sangster, O’Brien, Magnier formula only came to its conclusion as the competition from the Arabs strangled the team’s buying power in Kentucky. For more than a decade their team of unrivalled experts had monopolised the best-bred and best-conformed individuals almost to the extent of “what we want we get!”

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In some of the latter years, that buying power had greatly eroded and people like Schwartz, who was accustomed to put up his few million dollars every July (as it then was) and sit back and wait for the Classic and Group/Grade 1 wins to roll in and the stallions to roll off the production line, could no longer rely on that certitude.

Classic Thoroughbreds was the would-be replacement scheme whereby Vincent thought the Irish racing fan would take the opportunity to buy into his proven “buy and win the biggest races” formula. It needed, though, many thousands of small shareholders rather than a few major players taking serious financial positions to work.

It did initially succeed, to the extent that Royal Academy, the yearling O’Brien coveted above all those of the 1988 Kentucky yearling crop, won the July Cup and then later memorably the Breeders’ Cup Mile. Ridden by Lester Piggott on that never-to-be-forgotten day at Belmont Park in October 1990, only weeks after Piggott’s release from his prison term, he came past the whole field to win under his 54-year-old jockey. But it was unsustainable.

Meanwhile, Sangster had bought Manton, the historic Wiltshire training estate, spending lavishly under Michael Dickinson’s brief stewardship. The first year’s meagre return of four wins inevitably ended the Dickinson era and as MW went on to win major races in the US, Sangster battled on.  Barry Hills had a successful stint there but when Barry moved on to open a public stable in Lambourn, his assistant Peter Chapple-Hyam took over, making an instant impact.

Dr Devious had been a hard-working two-year-old, winning even before Royal Ascot, where he finished runner-up to Dilum, before his Superlative and Dewhurst Stakes successes. Sold to Jenny Craig and husband Sidney, he was bought principally to run in the Kentucky Derby and after a prep race second in Newmarket he shipped to Kentucky but he could finish only seventh to Lil E.Tee.

In such circumstances he was in some ways a surprise Derby winner, returning after such a short time, his toughness enabling him to beat St Jovite by two lengths. St Jovite got full revenge in the Irish Derby, but the Doctor gained a second narrow win over his rival in the Irish Champion Stakes for Jim Bolger and owner Virginia Kraft Payson that September.

Earlier that year, 1992, Rodrigo De Triano had given Lester his final English Classic win in the 2000 Guineas, adding to it at The Curragh with the Irish equivalent a fortnight later. He did take his chance in the Derby under Piggott and actually started the 13-2 favourite, but could finish only ninth of 18. Returned to shorter trips, further success came in the Juddmonte at York and in the Champion Stakes. He was sold as a stallion to Japan.

Chapple-Hyam was still at the helm when Commander Collins won the 1999 Superlative Stakes and Racing Post Trophy in front of young Sam Sangster, but then the rift came. John Gosden took over as the Millennium turned with Jimmy Fortune as his stable jockey. After Robert’s death in 2004 his older boys kept the show going with Brian Meehan as their trainer.

Success was never far away and Meehan, previously assistant to Richard Hannon, always had a sure hand with young horses and also developed many high-class fillies. Over the years he has won big races all around the world - one of his Breeders’ Cup successes came with a first-crop son of Galileo, the three-year-old Red Rocks who won the Turf race in 2006.

In later years the Sangsters sold Manton, although Ben still lives in Manton House and has also moved the mares and young stock of the family’s Swettenham Stud to land close to the house. Martyn Meade, now training in conjunction with son Freddie in another part of the 2,000-acre estate, is its owner.

When I started this piece, I used Horse Trader simply because of an encounter at Newmarket on Saturday afternoon after Isaac Shelby, trained by Brian Meehan, won the Group 2 Superlative Stakes. The colt is owned by Manton Thoroughbreds, a syndicate set up by Sam Sangster, who buys all the stock, usually as yearlings.

Earlier in the meeting, before Isaac Shelby ran a brave race to remain unbeaten after a drawn-out battle with 5-4 favourite Victory Dance, another Sangster yearling buy, Show Respect, was an excellent second in the Group 2 July Stakes. He is also trained by Meehan.

I’ve had the privilege of visiting Manton many times, and as I go through Marlborough and along the half-mile-plus long drive down to the Meehan stable area, the excitement never fails. It was there that I saw the gallop when Derby favourite Crown Prince flopped many lengths behind Delegator. I backed the latter at 33’s that morning, forgetting to add the words “each-way”. Sea The Stars had the temerity to beat him!

Sam and Brian, along with Brian’s wife Jax, were suitably thrilled on Saturday when all the chat, much of it fuelled by an on-the-ball Matt Chapman, was about the last winners of the Superlative Stakes to win in those colours – Sam has secured the use of his dad’s green, blue and white for Manton Thoroughbreds – to much approval on Saturday.

Everyone remembered Derby winner Dr Devious – sold by Robert to Jenny Craig, the California diet magnate, before his Classic win – but Sam also recalled Commander Collins. “I came that day with dad and I think I was ten or maybe eleven.”

Incidentally, Commander Collins was named after one of Robert’s great friends, Old Etonian trainer AK “Tony” Collins, who found fame or rather infamy for his role in the Gay Future affair, when some of the horses linked in multiple bets rather mysteriously did not manage to leave their stables on that Bank Holiday. The one that did, Gay Future, won and with bookmakers prevented from laying off commitments when the phones went down, it caused a furore in those innocent days. You couldn’t cause a whole telephone exchange to be out of commission nowadays – or could you?

Well A K spent Friday afternoon in the owners’ restaurant at Newmarket in the company of another grand old stager, former trainer Bill Watts. From a famous Newmarket training family, Bill left to go north to Richmond, Yorkshire, from where he sent Teleprompter and Tony Ives to Chicago to win the Arlington Million in 1985. Watts has moved back to Newmarket since retiring from training.

I managed a quiet word with Sam when the excitement died down a little later and said: “I always told you that you were the most like your father,” a suggestion that always brings its share of embarrassment for him. But he did say: “You know Horse Trader? Dad is wearing a tie on the front, and I’ve had it in my possession for years, but am wearing it today for the first time,” pointing to the rather old-fashioned neckpiece.

Trying to find potential Classic and Group-race winners in face of such incredible competition is getting ever harder and to secure the Night Of Thunder colt Isaac Shelby, Sam had to stretch to 92,000gns, one of his more expensive buys. The Godolphin-owned runner-up, by Dubawi, and trained by Charlie Appleby cost £700k. In this market, that colt will be regarded by connections as being right on track and showing terrific potential, so Isaac looks very well bought.

For me, the best part of the Sangster/Meehan operation is their mutual trust and loyalty. Brian has had some quieter years from the heyday when he had more than 100 horses in his team but, like most longer-established trainers, he finds it harder to get new owners and therefore new blood.

Sam, still in his early 30’s, does though have access to younger businesspeople who find enjoyment in the syndicated horses he unearths and buys. Meehan, as with Isaac Shelby, does the rest. If that ends up with a Group 1 success, which looks eminently possible about this still unfurnished and to the shrewd John Egan’s eyes, “still up-behind” colt, that could easily be the eventual outcome.

- TS

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