MARHABA YA SANAFI (right, Mickael Barzalona) beats ISAAC SHELBY (left) in The Emirates Poule d'Essai des Poulains Longchamp 14 May 2023 - Pic Steven Cargill /

Monday Musings: Of Rich Men and Trainer Fashion

There are a lot of very rich people in the world. There are also many very talented racehorse trainers in the UK, in Ireland and France, writes Tony Stafford. Many wealthy individuals like to own racehorses, preferably blue-blooded ones.  As trainers enter their middle years, though, the tendency is for all but the legends like Sir Michael Stoute and John Gosden on the flat and Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls over jumps, to feel the draft from the younger, thrusting upstarts.

These can be talented, too, but as I often refer to in spring, there are some stark, indeed harsh, facts on this seemingly inevitable trend to be gleaned from the Horses In Training book which lists the strings of most stables.

I was shocked to see one entry upon receiving my volume later than expected because of the present state of Royal Mail. Colour coded and fully traceable stamps aren’t much use if it takes a week (more in this case) to get a little book a hundred or so miles.

Some surprised me by how many more horses they are now training compared to just a year or two ago. But the biggest shock was reserved for a trainer who won a nice handicap at the Craven meeting at Newmarket and then followed up with the same horse in the Victoria Cup at Ascot on Saturday.

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The trainer, Amanda Perrett, the horse Rebel Territory, a 5yo home-bred gelding who streaked away at the end of the Ascot feature in the manner of a potential stakes horse. Home-bred is the key here, loyal but ageing owners that are so hard to replace.

I’d noticed that Amanda and husband Mark were listed as training only 19 horses at the famed Pulborough stables in West Sussex, base of her father Guy Harwood. He was the trainer of the peerless Dancing Brave and the equal in his day of Sir Michael and Sir Henry Cecil where Classic performers were being mentioned.

Amanda has held the licence at Pulborough since the late 1990’s and between 2000 and 2019 only twice did she and Mark send out fewer than 25 winners with a peak at 60 in the immediate aftermath of Guy’s heyday.

I canvassed several friends and racing experts, one of them who previously had horses there, asking how many they thought were in training now. Most estimates were around the 40 mark. “I wish it were,” Mark Perrett might have been saying when he told the media after the nice win on Saturday that “we only have 22 in, but we could always train a good horse when we got the opportunity, and we still can.” No question, Mark, and eight wins at 23% hit rate so far this year is a great start.

That intro was a long way round into coming to my main point. When you have a very good horse in your ownership and far from being one of the leading owners in the world, but you are part of a small, friendly syndicate, what do you do?

The history of the turf is littered with stories of people that did not take the opportunity presented to them when unexpectedly they got a good horse. Often, after refusing a nice offer, the horse in question does not fulfil expectations.

The fact that Isaac Shelby, winner of last month’s Greenham Stakes at Newbury in smart fashion, was owned by one of Sam Sangster’s Manton Thoroughbreds syndicates and trained by the pragmatic and vastly experienced Brian Meehan, ensured that when their opportunity to make a killing rather than agonise about it came, they agreed, albeit reluctantly, allowing the deal to go though.

“It was an agonising decision”, said Sangster, “but the chance for everyone to do well from the deal and at the same time welcome a potentially important new owner into Manton for Brian, made it the right choice. Everyone walked away with a smile on his face!”

It behoves a one-time journalist to try to delve beyond what little they want to reveal and find out rather what everyone else out there wants to know. But young Mr Sangster was not playing. Back in the bosom of his family, he continued: “Sorry Tone, there’s no way I can tell you how much Wathnan Racing paid for him.” “What was that? How many shareholders? Not sure.”

Knowing the present state of the market and the value of top racehorses, the number for a potential imminent Classic winner will be a minimum seven digits. “Not eight, I wish it was!” was as much as Sam could be pinned down to admit to. Neither would he say whether a contingency would have applied had Isaac Shelby won yesterday, or indeed if he picks up any other Group 1 race later in his career. Sorry Sam, I had to ask but I’ll leave you in peace, now!

It’s hard to remember all those years ago, but was it as difficult to break down Robert Sangster (Sam’s dad), and John Magnier’s, similar reticence when things like the multi-million Storm Bird or El Gran Senor stallion deals were having their problems? It’s hard to be sure through the mists of time – maybe I was just better placed in those days to pick up the correct rumours!

So, rather than work on trying to wheedle out of one of the future giants of the bloodstock business what he’d rather keep private – fair enough – instead I’ll pass on what I’ve found out about Wathnan Racing. This Qatari owning entity has been put together by Australian Ollie Tate, who can take full credit for setting up Godolphin’s operation Down Under in around 2002 when still in his mid-20’s.

He’s done plenty in the industry since, with his own operation for the past six years. Recently he was tasked by Qatari Abdullah Mana Al-Hajri to set up a racing operation back home. So rapidly has it developed that over the recently concluded season which ran from October to March, he was leading owner in Qatar with many winners of both thoroughbred and Arabian races.

The biggest acceleration for Wathnan came after an all-out assault on last year’s Newmarket Autumn Horses in Training sale. He bought nine mostly three-year-olds for a total of £1.75 million, an average of close to 200k each. Significant among them were Charlie Hills’ Inverness for 380k; Persian Royal, a 450k recruit from the Charlton stable and Hamiki, 260 grand from William Haggas.

He has enjoyed pleasing results at some of the more important meetings there. His local trainer is Alba De Mieulle and his go-to rider for the major days when international races were staged was Mickael Barzalona, who won several important races in his Technicolor silks.

It would not have escaped Mr Al-Hajri’s notice yesterday that just when Isaac Shelby looked home and hosed, ready to provide a Classic winner at the first time of asking, that along came the said M. Barzalona. Riding the 26/1 shot Marhaba Ya Sanafi, they got up right on the line by a short neck.

Another irony was that that the winning horse’s owner, Jaber Abdullah, a long-standing associate of Rabbah Racing in Dubai, had been selling off a good number of his surplus animals at the HIT part of the Guineas Breeze-Up sale at Newmarket just over a week ago.

Brian Meehan had been very confident of Isaac Shelby’s chance before the race and Sam said, “He was gutted!” They thought the gallop had been inadequate and having made all the running in the Greenham Stakes, there must have been the thought afterwards that it may have been better to have forced the pace again.

Meehan and the new owner’s representatives – the deal was brokered by Richard Brown of Blandford Bloodstock – will talk about the next target, but Royal Ascot, where a winner for Mr Al-Hajri would presumably be a major ambition, comes next this side of the Channel at least. As well as the St James’s Palace Stakes, which Meehan won with Most Improved in 2012, a sideways look might be glanced at the six-furlong Commonwealth Cup, in which the colt also holds an entry.

At this stage, though, the mile option looks more likely. Isaac Shelby certainly didn’t fail through lack of stamina yesterday and most bookmakers have him as one of the first four in the betting on the race.

I’ve spent many wonderful work mornings at Manton with Brian and Sam down the years. Their loyal relationship, which encouraged Sangster to pay a higher-than-usual 92,000gns for the son of 2000 Guineas winner Night Of Thunder as a potential syndicate horse, stands out in an often more routine game between owners and trainers of musical chairs. But make no mistake, Brian Meehan, has long been an outstanding trainer who, like the Perrett’s, just needs the raw material and he’ll get the job done at any level.

When Mr Al-Haji finally makes it to Marlborough, I’m sure he will fall in love with the place as so many before him have over the centuries.

- TS

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