It’s a frivolous game at the best of times. Generally played out by the wealthier echelons of society, necessarily so as the running costs are so high, the accessibility of racehorse ownership has increased hugely in the last decade with the rise and rise of the syndicate.
My own involvement in ownership has always been on such ‘shared’ terms, and I think it probably always will be. Firstly, I can’t afford to own a horse outright. And secondly, and perhaps as importantly, I could never justify the expenditure in the name of something called fun. It’s not that I’m frugal – far from it, I hope – but I do have a problem with wasting money.
And, unless you are a company with a significant tax liability to be written off, or you are a monolithic breeding operation for which the racecourse is an hors d’oeuvres for the main course in the covering shed, you are extremely likely to lose money.
So why do it? Why chuck money at a race horse when the strong probability is that you will see a small percentage – if anything – returned to you at the end of your tenure? Well, as with all things in life, money is nothing. Don’t get me wrong, it has major significance. But not in or of itself. It is but a token, and an endlessly malleable one at that. It is a beer token, a luncheon voucher, a theatre ticket, a cheque for the rent… and an entry fee to a bizarre otherworld where the wannabe’s like me can mix momentarily with the alreadyare’s in racing’s parade rings up and down the country.
A good horse is no respecter of social niceties, and syndicate ownership of a good horse will see you share the parade ring and, if Lady Luck shines her torch upon you, the winner’s enclosure in exactly the same way as if you were the sole owner of a multi-million pound equine factory.
For most, the good horses are too expensive. Buying unraced youngsters is the biggest gamble of all. The case of Snaafi Dancer has gone down in sales ring folklore as the archetypal cautionary tale. Regally bred, by ‘godfather’ stallion Northern Dancer, out of a multiple-winner-producing mare, Snaafi Dancer attracted feverish bidding and counter-bidding before the hammer finally slammed down… at $10.2 million! (That’s 6.67 million quid, in case the exchange rate is a little meaningless to you).
What the buyer didn’t know – he couldn’t, could he, poor Sheikh Mo – was that Snaafi Dancer couldn’t run. Indeed, he never ran on the track. Ever. Ever!
But all was not lost, for a thoroughbred of such esteemed lineage could still a stallion himself make. Erm, alas, no. Snaafi Dancer turned out to be Jaffa Prancer. In two years at stud, just four foals sprung forth. Many stallions do three ‘coverings’ a day, for four months (360 coverings), and a large majority of mares would subsequently be in foal. Shuttle stallions – where they are shipped to the other hemisphere for a second breeding season – can get jiggy twice as much (the mind boggles!).
Snaafi Dancer was never in danger of being a shuttle stallion. Ten million bucks. No runs. One foal every six months. Ouch.
Of course, this is an exceptional case, but I use it to illustrate the perils associated with buying unraced stock. So it is that most syndicates and racing clubs buy ‘second hand’. Here, the range of possibilities is more limited, in most senses of the phrase. While there is almost certainly a class ceiling, index-linked to purchase price, there is at least a likelihood of the horse performing on the track to an acceptable level.
And that, far from brief, introduction is where the theory finally gets tempered with the reality that myself and a number of other geegeez readers have experienced in recent days, weeks and months.
Last Tuesday, after three years and 29 runs in the geegeez.co.uk colours, Khajaaly was sold at the Brightwells Ascot sale. During his time with us, we enjoyed three wins, each of which was magnificent – especially the one where we were extremely hopeful of a big run despite odds of 25/1!! ‘Jally’ also placed second to fourth on another dozen occasions. He was just a very consistent horse in his grade.
But recently, he’d got a bit ‘cute’ and it was felt a change of scenery would do him good. So he will now be strutting his stuff for the excellent Mick Appleby, and I would think he’ll win for him (Khajaaly for Mick, rather than vice versa). I will cheer him as though he is still a geegeez geegee, and I – and all the other syndicate members – are grateful for those good times.
Compare and contrast that experience with what happened the very next day. Wednesday evening saw myself and an overlapping group of part-owners – some who had been involved with Khajaaly, most who hadn’t – head to Worcester to witness Priceless Art’s third run for us. Priceless Art had been a very good horse for his previous owners. Indeed, he’d won nine of 21 starts, and been placed 1-2-3 in sixteen of them.
Purchased privately, he was sent to Anthony Honeyball, a very, very good trainer down in Dorset. Anthony is not a man to call a pony a racehorse, but he was immediately taken with Priceless. Early aspirations were pitched at the Pertemps Final (a valuable and super-competitive handicap hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival), and the horse was pleasing all at home.
Then it started. A debilitating spiral of ailments and issues conspired to keep Priceless Art – who had been half fit when purchased, and was expected to be ready to run in two months – off the track for four days short of a year. It was an extremely trying period for those paying members of the syndicate – me and eleven others – and their patience and understanding made my job as syndicate manager a heck of a lot easier.
But, finally, on 6th June, we were at Worcester – the self-same scene to which we returned last Wednesday – to witness PA’s first run for us, and his first for a year. Hope was hidden under a bushel of apprehension. First things first: come home well, PA, come home safe.
As it happened, he jumped like a buck. A more faultless (if indeed one can have gradations of faultlessness) round of jumping you may never see. If you’ve got access to a video form archive – like the ones at attheraces.com or racingpost.com – and five minutes spare, check it out. It is exceptional.
PA traveled superbly, and he was swinging off the bridle turning in. How quickly our aspirations elevate themselves from pure survival, to a possible place, to… surely not… he’s going to win!!!
He got caught up in a duel from a long way out with a horse called Quel Ballistic. But for him, we’d have cantered home alone. Alas, although he jumped the last in front, he was knackered, and he tied up badly on the fairly long run-in, eventually finishing fourth. A valiant fourth. A brilliant fourth. A fourth place over-brimming with hope for the future. A fourth that, naturally, failed to reward healthy each way bets struck in the midst of the fattest wave of pre-race optimism.
Next up for him was a race at Stratford. PA is a big horse. Stratford doesn’t really suit big horses, with its tight constitution. And this was a higher class race. It was also a shorter distance, which should have been in our boy’s favour, except that they went off as though it was a six furlong sprint steeplechase.
PA couldn’t keep up. He bungled the first. And the second. And the third… And so it went on, until sensibly, mercifully, Nick Scholfield did the decent thing and added a ‘P’ to our lad’s form string.
Whilst that was a crushing disappointment, there were plenty of excuses. The aforementioned course unsuitability; the grade; speed of the race (far and away, the quickest of the night); and, perhaps even the fact that PA was coming back to the track too soon after a long layoff and may have ‘bounced’.
Yes, there were excuses aplenty that day. But there were none last Wednesday.
PA was running in a handicap hurdle this time. Back at Worcester, where he’d run with such unbridled promise just six weeks earlier. Back in his right grade. Running in a race with no obvious speed burn up to push him out of his comfort zone early. Lovely jubbly.
He looked magnificent before the race. He always looks magnificent. He’s a proper National Hunt specimen. Despite that, he drifted from 7/1 to double those odds, for no obvious pre-race reason. He was – always is – the perfect gentleman while being saddled, and went down to post in reassuringly leisurely fashion.
They jumped off, and PA ballooned the first. But he soon settled into a rhythm under Aidan Coleman, and was travelling ominously well. Turning in, the field was still in a bit of a heap, and our lad was ready to pounce down the outside, along with the short-priced McCoy-steered favourite. But then… nothing.
As soon as Coleman asked for a bit more fizz, PA curled up within – literally – five strides.
This was a crushing blow for us syndicate members.
Having been so patient for so long; having been presented with a jeraboam – nay, a nebuchadnezzar – full of hope (false, as it transpired) after that first run; we faced down the distinct possibility that Priceless Art may never win a race for us.
I’m not sure what the collective noun for long faces is, but we were a [insert collective noun here] of long faces.
It’s the hope that crushes the soul. Where there’s no hope, there’s no disappointment. The more you long for something, the closer it is to being within your grasp, the more painful it is when the realisation dawns that it’s not going to be.
Now, I can’t say that PA won’t surprise us – or another owner – in the future. But from the void into which we currently stare, it is hard to imagine him righting the wrong of Wednesday night.
Anthony was beside himself. He’s a really lovely man. Tenacious, ambitious, honest. He wears his heart on his sleeve, and is engaging company. And when things go wrong, he can voice his demons in an uncomfortably candid way.
I watched the race with Anthony on Wednesday, just us, in the Owners’ and Trainers’ bar. He turned to me just before that hollow finishing effort, his face full of hope. Not sixty seconds later, we headed trackside for what felt like a post mortem with Aidan ‘Coroner’ Coleman.
For all of us – trainer, jockey, stable staff (I didn’t even mention them, but they – Charles and Ben – were absolutely crestfallen), ‘experienced’ owners, and first-time owners – it was a desperate evening, and it underscores the perils of being a racehorse owner, even in part.
If that was a crushing low, then less than 72 hours later came a ridiculous high. The thing about horse racing is its ‘glorious uncertainty’: its never-ending propensity to surprise.
So it was that on Saturday afternoon, a horse called Man Of Leisure rekindled the recently extinguished flame of enthusiasm for this most engaged attachment to the sport. The Man Of Leisure story is what part ownership is supposed to be all about. A twenty race nine-year-old maiden rated 95, he was bought for £9,000 (a fair sum for such a horse) by Anthony, who felt the nag had some scope to get to win.
He won for the first time in his career, and on his first start for Anthony, that same day that Priceless Art finished fourth: it was just an amazing ‘pockets and heart full’ day was 6th June. Then he won again two days later. And a third time just another three days after that, beating Rum And Butter, himself a facile winner yesterday. This veteran of a score of races without winning had notched a hat-trick in five days for Anthony Honeyball, and his partner and jockey, Rachael Green.
But that wasn’t the end of it. Not by a long chalk. Next up for MOL was a two mile race – shorter than any of his previous efforts – against a horse called Sea Lord, who had been rated 115 on the flat! He was beaten, eventually finishing second to the Sea Lord, in what has turned out to be a race to follow.
In the space of forty minutes on Saturday afternoon, both Man Of Leisure and his last day vanquisher, Sea Lord, hacked up in the two best hurdle races of the day. Man Of Leisure won nonchalantly off his revised rating of 125 (thirty pounds higher than when he first ran for Anthony), and he’ll probably get another seven-plus pounds for this. But his upward curve shows little sign of abating, and he’ll not run over shorter than two and a half miles again.
Further excitement is that MOL is untried over fences. So much joy and fun still to be had with him, health willing. And the best part is that he’s a club horse. The Anthony Honeyball Racing Club is a fractional ownership gig where, for £300 a year, you get an interest in a few horses, one of which is MOL. I couldn’t go to Market Rasen on Saturday – I was babysitting my son – but I watched it on the telly. And I scared the poor lad when screaming at the gogglebox! (Sorry Leon)
It truly is a frivolous game, and a fraught one to boot. I feel really bad for those first-time owners whose experience of this level of engagement has been tarnished by some tough luck. The best luck of all though is that the group of owners involved in PA are, to a man, a group of savvy aficionado’s who love their racing. I really hope we get the result they deserve before this venture is up.
It’s not for the faint hearted, nor for the shallow of pocket especially, such is the scope for a full wallet to be emptied, but it’s a bloody great game if you catch the right one. If only Man Of Leisure could have been our syndicate horse…