The dispute between the Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson and the Irish racing billionaire John Magnier over stud rights to a horse they used to co-own may now have been settled amicably but the furore it generated should not be allowed to obscure what was, essentially, a good news story. And that is the sheer pleasure the normally dour Ferguson received from his involvement with Rock of Gibraltar, a horse that won seven Group One races and more than a million pounds in prize money in his two-season career. Thousands of racehorse owners, including myself, should be so lucky!
Nor should the current burst of alleged "race-fixing scandals" blind would-be investors to the excitement that comes with owning a racehorse. As an Equitable Life policyholder I'll have no truck with the canard that "racing is bent". Where there's big money, whether it's in the City or on a racecourse, there are a few who break the rules.
The caveat on financial products that "you may not get back all you invest" is particularly relevant when it comes to owning racehorses. There is a statistic that only one in ten horses wins a race but most people going into ownership suspend their doubts and dream that their horse will be among the ten per cent. There will be over three hundred horses running at the Cheltenham National Hunt Festival next week but only 20 can win.
For the rest of the year, Aintree apart, jumps horses compete for much smaller prize money at smaller, sometimes obscure racetracks. It's not much different on the flat, with the five Classic races - 1,000 Guineas, 2,000 Guineas, Oaks, Derby and St Leger - combining with Royal Ascot and York's Ebor meeting to produce a pinnacle of equine quality and cash rewards.
Entry to these elite spheres of racing costs a packet, largely because access to the best stallions is now prohibitive - Rock of Gibraltar costs £100,000 a "covering", whereas National Hunt jumps stallions are in the £1,500-£10,000 price bracket. The very best can be much higher. As their progeny hit the market, prices rise or tumble according to form, but the "high end" will always be expensive.
As an owner you have more chance of winning a Cheltenham Festival race or a Grand National than the Derby. Earth Summit was a good example. Rejected by a Fleet Street editor as a potential purchase, he was bought for £6,000 but went on to win the Grand National, the Welsh National and the Scottish National.
But why should you even consider ownership given the prospect of little success and a poor return on your investment? In my case it was almost certainly the onset of a genetic inheritance. My father took me racing from an early age and no family holiday was complete without a visit to York, Chester, Redcar, Newton Abbot or whatever racecourse happened to be on the way.
My father also operated as a bookie's runner pre-1961 when there were no betting shops, collecting money and bets from fellow factory workers. Later, he worked on Saturdays as a "settler" of bets in a bookmaker's.
But it took decades of race-going before I took the step to becoming an owner. Just when I should have been putting money into Isas, I bought into a racehorse partnership. It involved only a few hundred pounds a year but it gave me new status on the track. I could wear an "owner's badge", rub shoulders with trainers and other owners in "our" designated racecourse bar, inspect "my" horse in the parade ring and welcome it back to the winner's enclosure.
Except that it didn't happen that way. The first run, at Warwick on the last day of 1997, ended with the horse finishing stone last. The only emotion was humiliation. It was a chastening introduction.
And yet anyone buying racehorses will tell you that the convivial pleasure of a day at the track is immeasurable, as is the contact with your horse and its trainer. You have laughs, a few drinks, hear lots of jokes and inside stories, and also get the occasional betting tip. Best of all you get to dream.
When I later invested £5,000 in a quarter-share of a four-year old filly called Deadly Doris, my trainer Nigel Smith promised "lots of fun" and, most of the time, that has been the case. Such as the day she scooted through the winter mud at Huntingdon to claim fourth place in a hot race of highly promising horses. Or when I very nearly had to go home on the train from Stratford carrying a 4ft silver trophy, the "nearly" element being that "DD" finished second.
Then came her only win, on Thursday, 8 November 2001. I couldn't be there but after parking my sons outside the betting shop, I watched open-mouthed as Doris, at 14-1, stormed up Towcester's hill to beat a Martin Pipe-trained, Tony McCoy-ridden odds-on favourite.
The prize money from that race - £2,618 - as well as bits and pieces for Doris's other placed efforts, brought in about £4,000. But my share never appeared, being eaten away by race-entry fees, jockeys' fees, administration costs and vets' bills.
I was able to off-set expenses - £200 per month training fees, purchase of colours, registration etc - by writing a book about the experience. But without that recompense, I'd still have got involved because racehorse ownership offers not just surreal drama but also an escape from everyday drudgery that's worth every penny.
One way to save costs is by forming a partnership with friends. Training fees can range from £200 to £400 a week for the jumps, so you are looking at a minimum of £1,000 a month, before ancillary costs.
You can buy a horse through advertisements in the Racing Post or by contacting a trainer and telling him or her how much you want to spend and see if he or she has anything going spare. Or you can attend one of the British Horseracing Board's ownership seminars. There are six this year at Ayr, Thirsk, Newmarket, Goodwood, Wincanton and Newbury. These days involve stable visits, watching horses on the gallops, talks from bloodstock and training experts, lunch (a key feature of racing) and an afternoon at a meeting, for £99.
The more serious option is to go to one of the sales but you'd need an expert eye for company. The top end of racing, in both codes, is for the well-wedged only. Landed gentry and self-made millionaires such as Jim Lewis (the owner of the double Gold Cup winner Best Mate) and Andrew Wylie (the founder of Sage software) are involved with the jumps. Wylie has spent about £800,000 buying horses this season, after easing back on work. "I'm not in this to make money," he says. "I get as much pleasure from going around the stables with a bag of carrots as I do watching my horses jump the last in the lead."
On the flat, Arab princes, City bonus-boys and those Irish business magnates that Sir Alex is back on speaking terms with, battle for millions. But just off the peak of this game, there's good value entertainment to be had. And after all, how much fun can you have with an Isa?
'What began as a laugh has turned into an obsession'
Vera Boyd works for a merchant bank in London. She commutes to Ayrshire at weekends where she owns three fillies bred by Silver Patriarch, a St Leger winner, who are almost ready to race.
She said: "I won my first bet on Last Tango in the Ayr Gold Cup and I think that helped me on my way. While living near Newmarket I got into the racing fraternity and after a few too many drinks one night I decided to breed my own racehorse. I've "invested" upwards of £15,000 with zero return. I believe one of my fillies will be a good horse.
"The general consensus is that my love of horses and racing was inherited from my grandfather, who enjoyed the odd "flutter".
"The first time any of my horses race it'll make all this effort worthwhile. What began as a bit of a laugh has become an exhilarating obsession."
FACT FILE: STARTER'S TIPS FOR HORSE OWNERS
* BRITISH HORSERACING BOARD
The BHB is in charge of policy, promotion, funding and race planning, having taken these responsibilities over from the Jockey Club (who are left with integrity and security matters) a decade ago. Their website (www.britishhorseracing.com) details ownership options, seminars, racing offers and ticket-buying facilities for every course in Britain. There are also lists of all registered trainers and the best stallions, their costs and their pedigrees.
This Wellingborough-based organisation has been racing's "Civil Service" since 1770. It collects entry fees, jockeys' fees and registration costs, and distributes prize-money. It advises on racing colours and horses' names. The company can also provide equine insurance for illness, injury or loss. The Stallion Book is online. (www.weatherbys-group.com)
* THE RACEHORSE OWNERS' ASSOCIATION
The RoA does what it says on the tin (www.racehorseowners.net). For a relatively small membership fee, you get a monthly magazine, owner pass-cards for racecourse entry and car park labels as well as plenty of offers to assorted lunches and dinners. The RoA also lobbies hard for improvements in owners' prize-money and facilities at courses. At Haydock Park, owners now get their own marquee and free lunches.
Stan Hey is the author of "An Arm and Four Legs: A Journey into Racehorse Ownership", (Yellow Jersey Press)Reuse content