If there is one thing horse racing in the UK needs above all else it is owners: men or women with resources, a love for the sport and the willingness to put up with the absurd economics of excessive and ever-rising costs against persistently modest returns via prizemoney, writes Tony Stafford.
The new player would need to be committed to the game. Like the brothers Maktoum, now down to two from four after first Maktoum Al Maktoum, Ruler of the Emirate, died in 2006 and, only this year, second in terms of age, Sheikh Hamdan also left the stage.
Nominally third in seniority but the long-term number two auditioning for the top job was Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, now in his 70’s after more than four decades’ involvement in our sport.
We had met in Kentucky and one day I sat with him and Michael (not yet Sir) Stoute as we waited near the famed King’s Head pub and eating house in Dullingham to see the young home-bred stock that the late Richard Casey, subsequently trainer of top handicap chaser Hogmanay, had in his charge. The Sheikh opined, “it doesn’t take ten years to build a breeding operation, more like thirty”. After last weekend, probably 38 years after our chat, with home-bred winners of the 2021 Derby and Kentucky Derby on the Roll of Honour, he has just about made it!
Hogmanay had been one of a package of ten horses I bought without the luxury of having the £100k to pay for them from Malcolm Parrish, owner of a massive stable of his own horses, a sort of precursor to Jim Bolger, but an Englishman based in France with carpet-making mills in Belgium.
Malcolm supervised the training but a M. De Tarragon, his head lad, held the licence and was officially responsible for the 100-head or so horses. I met him in July 1984 in the long-gone Cashel Palace Hotel near Ballydoyle but it was a total fluke as I was really over to meet David O’Brien who at 27 had become the youngest trainer to win the Derby with Secreto.
While the later O’Brien’s seem to have perfected the art of enjoying each other’s major successes, the 1984 Derby brought major tensions as the favourite and previously 2,000 Guineas winner El Gran Senor was lined up for a massive stud deal subject to his winning the Derby. In the race, Pat Eddery on the favourite appeared to be going far better than Christy Roche on the eventual winner but in a desperate finish was beaten a short-head.
The verdict had to delayed while Eddery objected but the result was upheld. Fortunately for the initial Coolmore team, El Gran Senor won the Irish Derby – his task eased by Secreto’s absence – and the Epsom hero also missed both the King George and Eclipse Stakes, retiring without racing again.
I had previously met David O’Brien on my trip that July to Keeneland, invited for my first look at the great Calumet Farm, owned by several generations of the influential Wright family. Then an outsider, J T Lundy married into the family and by this time controlled the place. His stewardship was to become a matter for serious concern in the city, but he had arranged a deal to buy 50 per cent of the would-be stallion for $20 million. The strain of training told on young O’Brien whose sister Sue Magnier says he is much happier tending his grape vines in France where he has been based for many years.
I was to see Calumet later when a previous contact, Henryk De Kwiatkowski, bought it and started the revival of the farm’s fortunes. Upon his death, his own family never having been interested in racing and breeding, new owners came in and it is again at the forefront in Lexington.
Incidentally, my wife recommended I watch the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit and I was amazed when this epic tale about a female chess genius was entirely centred on Lexington. Right at the start her mother’s car is on New Circle Road, a mini-M25 I cruised every inch both ways during my many visits there. The scene again early in the seven-part series where the heroine plays a tournament at the Henry Clay school also invoked memories of a good friend of Brian Meehan, Henry’s grandson, who had several horses with him at Manton. Great series, you will love it, I promise!
Secreto was owned by a Venezuelan, Senor Miglietti, who also owned the main bus company in Caracas and had, it seems, connections with some less-than-reputable individuals in his country.
Down the decades, other major Arab owners have stayed the course, none more valiantly than Prince Khalid Abdullah, breeder and owner of dozens of the world’s great horses but two will do – Frankel and Enable. His passing, also this year, will no doubt lead to a diminution of seeing his pink, green and white on the racecourses of the UK and beyond and for the blue and white of Hamdan a reduction of 100 is immediately to be enacted.
Two Princes to suffer uncannily similar early deaths at the first years of the Millennium were Abdullah’s countrymen brothers Fahd and Ahmed Salman, both dead in their early 40’s. Their father has since become King Salman in Saudi Arabia.
I brought in Malcolm Parrish and Hogmanay because he was one of the ten horses. We got onto that tack as earlier he had sold two good horses to Michael Dickinson and I had a small part in that. “Want any more?”, he asked then elaborated. “Yeah okay, you can have ten for 100 grand, I won’t put you wrong,” he added.
Hogmanay was one of them but Rod Simpson, who had the job of sorting them out (and on balance did pretty well) said Hogmanay will never stand training, so the £5k he represented in the deal was deducted. For each of his eight wins (seven over fences) and £60k prizemoney a dagger went to the heart. In the end, I did manage to pay for them and there were some very decent animals among them. Later Malcolm bought both Lordship and Egerton studs in Newmarket before passing them on.
With deference to the Dixon brothers who head up the Horse Watchers, and who combine television expertise with phenomenally successful ownership, journalists are hardly likely to make that jump. But one man who has shown signs of joining racing’s big time is the football agent Kia Joorabchian, who has been one of the more visible personalities in the first months of the season.
His horses – 37 have run – have collected 22 wins and more than £400,000 in prizes. That compares with £240,000 in the whole of last season with 18 wins. But what gives the game away is that his horse Mayo Star, a maiden who finished runner-up to Adayar in the Derby nine days ago, earned £241,000 for that one run, so a touch more than for all last season’s exploits.
There is no doubt Kia has gone about it whole-heartedly. Using trainers like Roger Varian, Richard Hannon and Ralph Beckett he has not been shy to spend, paying for instance 460,000gns for a Shamardal colt he sent to Varian. Great King has won one of five starts and is rated 88. Of the horses he has run this year alone – he also has several similarly-expensive acquisitions from the recent breeze-ups in the pipeline - he has spent almost £6milion in acquiring them.
As the man behind the controversial Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano deals a decade or so ago, Kia has become a leader in his business and at 49 he is still a relative young man in racing ownership terms. This year his colours could be represented at Royal Ascot by up to 16 horses. Pivotal to his early success this year have been his two-year-olds with Beckett being joined by George Boughey and Michael Bell as having feasible chances in the juvenile events.
The best candidates in the purple silks must be in the Albany Stakes where once-raced 350,000gns Wolverhampton winner Hello You (Beckett) and twice-successful and cheaply bought Beautiful Sunset (Boughey) are due to line up and are both prominent in the ante-post market. He also has realistic chances with the Varian-trained and seemingly well-handicapped Raadobarg, £200k, in the Britannia, with Hannon’s Sir Rumi (£160k) as a potential second string.
Kia will have a major interest of course in the Euro 2020 championship as will another of the big soccer (and many other sports) agencies, the ICM Stellar Group’s boss, Jonathan Barnett.
From an earlier generation than Joorabchian, Jonathan, along with partner David Manasseh, sold the agency last year to the American group, but they remain in day-to-day charge. Their major players at the competition include four of the England squad (Mason Mount and Jordan Pickford, who played yesterday, as well as Jack Grealish and Luke Shaw who watched the 1-0 win from the subs bench). Gareth Bale (Wales) and Kieren Tierney (Scotland) will also be well to the fore at the championships.
Less than an hour after full-time at Wembley, Jonathan was watching his lightly-raced four-year-old Fitzcarraldo winning with a fast finish at Longchamp for trainer Nicolas Clement. Fitzcarraldo was a €27k buy that took time to mature but now looks like a stayer with a future. Clement, who is head of France’s trainers’ association, has a record of bargain buys having paid £30k for Ray Tooth’s Group 1 winner and later 2,000 Guineas second French Fifteen, who has been sending out jumps winners as a stallion lately.
Given a £40k budget to buy a yearling last autumn, Clement came up with a €21,000 daughter of Derby winner Ruler of the World and he rates her very highly. That’s the way Barnett, also owner of the decent handicapper Year Of The Dragon with William Knight, prefers it, rather than the Joorabchian method.
I bet the people that have been recruited to buy the Amo racing horses would be horrified at M. Clement’s behaviour. Watch out for Fitzcarraldo. I would not be at all surprised if later in the year the jumping boys come calling for this big strong gelded son of Makfi. Maybe then the Clement business acumen that turned a £30k colt into a £1.3 million Classic prospect and future stallion will be rather more in evidence.