The Grand National: The Glorious Insanity Of Owning A Racehorse

For just two hundred quid a month you too can experience the joys of Thirsk on a wet weekend with not a Claire Balding in sight. When your girl romps in second at 50-1 it will all be worth it.
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An email from an old mate I hadn’t seen in donkey’s years tried to sell me a horse. I glanced at it and hit delete. Why he suddenly had me down as the racehorse owning type beggared belief. Sure, I’ve been known to have an each way bet on the Grand National – a nag burdened with my fiver finished third in 1992 – but his thinking that I had the means to join the ranks of Michael Owen, Sir Alex Ferguson and Chubby Chandler was patently absurd.  I’d need a bank loan to buy a guinea pig.

Yet I retrieved the email later in the day, and this time read the attachment. It was a proposal to join a syndicate that had a share in two as yet unraced fillies. There was no purchase involved; the syndicate of 20 people was being formed to effectively lease these two thoroughbreds over the first two years of their racing careers. The ‘buy-in’ was £200 a month per share to cover all training fees, vet bills, feed, transport and insurance for two potentially smart young horses. Any prize money won was to be accumulated in a separate pot to be distributed pro-rata at the end of their first two racing seasons.  My interest was piqued when I saw the breeding lines of the two nags in question.

One was a Cockney Rebel filly. Her dad, therefore, was a winner of both the English and Irish 2000 Guineas. On the distaff side, her grandfather was seven times Group 1 Race-winner Rock of Gibraltar, who stands at the Coolmore Stud in Ireland and is part owned by Fergie himself (although that has little bearing on blood lines). The other filly was also pretty smartly bred, also for racing on the flat at distances up to 1m 2f as they matured.

All this was very interesting. The problem was the £200 a month, even for a twentieth share. I emailed four blokes asking if they would like to join me in a sub-syndicate, the participating cost of which would be £40 a month each. Within 24 hours I had firm commitments from all of them. It took rather longer than that for us to figure out we only had a one-hundredth share in each horse. However, to this day, that doesn’t stop us dropping into conversation (say, with a supermarket check-out girl or with the landlord of a pub we’ve never stepped foot in before) that ‘I have a couple of racehorses in training’. In fact we have about an ear of a couple of racehorses in training.

The first myth is that you get the pre-race word from the trainer that your horse will ‘bolt up on Saturday, so lump on now’

To this day. Our interest in the syndicate was sealed nine months ago and now the fillies are racing, in England, as 2 year-olds. With some small experience, I should perhaps address a couple of popular misconceptions about racehorse ownership.

The first myth is that, as ‘connections’, you get the pre-race word from the trainer that your horse will ‘bolt up on Saturday, so lump on now’. The bulk of your ‘inside knowledge’ comes from a regular trainer’s report that lets you now about such stuff as current condition and fitness, how your horse is going on the gallops and whether or not it is ‘eating up’. For younger horses, like ours, the word from the yard might be, pre-race, that ‘she will appreciate the experience’ or, after a run or two, and placed in a weak looking field at Thirsk on a wet Wednesday evening in July, she ‘has a live each way chance’. That latter expression is about as positive a nod to winning chances as you’ll get.

The second thing you soon find out is that, unless your horse is Frankel (now in its second summer on the track and unbeaten in eight starts earning prize money to date of £805,000) you won’t be leading your horse in at Ascot, Goodwood or Newmarket in front of 40,000 people, many in millinery the cost of which would also require syndicate purchase. You’ll be at Pontefract or Thirsk or Southwell, good tracks and hospitality all, but you won’t be interviewed by Clare Balding.

In June, I set up a visit to the yard, in Wiltshire, where one of ‘my’ horses is in training. The trainer showed me around the impressive yard, designed to maximise the well-being, race education and fitness of those in his charge. He then took me to the gallops in his beaten up Land Rover to watch my horse go through her paces. He explained the prospects, training regime, everything. I was in a different world, a wonderful part of the country, immersed in something I knew absolutely nothing about but rather enjoyed. The trainer said the one thing every owner wants to hear: ‘she seems to know what the racing game is all about’. If breeding is important, attitude and a willingness to fight it out to the line are crucial.

That horse is Rockme Cockney. She was second in her first race at 50-1, unwanted in the market, and probably in the paddock, as she is not a physically imposing horse. But you just knew she loved the racing game, after that first outing.

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