How to pick a racing certainty

Can't afford to own a Derby contender? Then try collecting some valuable memorabilia instead, says Nick Clayton

It is often said that the only people who make money from horseracing are the bookies. But, actually, collectors of the associated ephemera and memorabilia do not do so badly either.

It is often said that the only people who make money from horseracing are the bookies. But, actually, collectors of the associated ephemera and memorabilia do not do so badly either.

At the affordable end of the market there are badges, race-cards and porcelain items. The top part, however, lives up to its billing as "the sport of kings" and has prices to match.

It is hard to class much of this material as mere "memorabilia". Many of Britain's best-loved artists, for instance, from Stubbs in the 18th century to Munnings in the last, were inspired by racehorses or at least commissioned by their owners. Some of these works now fetch tens of thousands of pounds.

More directly connected to the sport are trophies. "It's unlike many other sports such as football where most of the trophies are challenge cups, which they get to keep for maybe a year, then have to hand back," explains Graham Budd, Sotheby's deputy director and head of sporting memorabilia and author of Racing Art and Memorabilia.

"Often the prize for a horse race was the trophy, there may not have been any cash on offer at all. Instead the winner got, say, a gold cup which was worth, at the time, 500 guineas or something like that. They've survived in quite large numbers going back to the 18th century.

"The Doncaster Gold Cup, for instance, is the oldest race in the world still in existence that's been run every year. The stewards used to present gold cups for that race. It's not unusual to see those go for £20,000 or £30,000," he says, adding with some regret, that owners now usually receive a large cheque rather than a valuable trophy.

Thanks to the workmanship and materials used, the old trophies had a value beyond their racing pedigree. Other items connected to a famous horse, jockey or event can be extremely collectable and fetch correspondingly high prices.

Anything directly connected with Red Rum, for instance, is going to be valuable. "I sold a lock of his hair from his tail with a certificate of authenticity from his owner for £450. At the same time there was one of Bob Marley's dreadlocks in a rock and roll sale. I think Red Rum beat him by about £50," says Mr Budd.

Mementoes of famous jockeys are also much-coveted. Lester Piggott remains the most sought-after name in 20th-century horse racing. When he sold his collection through Sotheby's in 1998 the champion jockey trophy from his record-breaking year in 1966 fetched £14,000 and other items fetched similarly high prices.

Many collectors, however, prefer items to be a little older. "Fred Archer was the Lester Piggott of his day in Victorian times and anything to do with him is very keenly collected. We sold one of his jockey whips in 2002 for £4,000," says Mr Budd.

"Also in 2002 we sold an inscribed gold watch given to the jockey Steve Donoghue after he won the Queen Alexandra Stakes at Ascot six years on the trot on the same horse, Brown Jack. It went for £8,200. As a gold watch without the inscription it would probably be worth £800. So it increases its value something like tenfold because it is a piece of racing memorabilia," he says.

As racehorse owners such as Sir Alex Ferguson will testify, lineage is extremely important. Many modern winners can trace their ancestry back to, arguably, the greatest race horse of the 19th century, St Simon; and such is his importance, a single horseshoe of his was sold for £420. And it was not even one that was worn in a race.

It is unlikely that items of this sort would languish undiscovered in an attic or at the bottom of a drawer. There are, however, items of racing memorabilia with a greater value than their owners might realise. For instance, from Victorian times through to the late 1960s Epsom used to produce a silk scarf commemorating the winner of the Derby. These now sell to collectors for upwards of £150 each.

Some books also bring a better return than might be expected. Timeform guides have been published since 1948. The information in them is not much use to modern punters, but they are bought for the quality of their articles. Early copies, before the publication became popular, are quite rare, but even fairly recent editions are not without value. Complete runs bring in excess of £2,000.

Further upmarket is Weatherby's Racing Calendar, which has been produced annually since 1774, and the General Stud Book, which has been published regularly over the same period. "They're usually very high-quality productions in beautiful leather bindings. We've sold complete runs of racing calendars for up to £10,000," says Mr Budd.

For less well-heeled collectors, publications such as racecards and programmes are often appreciating assets. "There was a time when you could buy old Grand National programmes from the 1970s and 1980s for a fiver. Now any Grand National programme pre-1980 is going to be over £30 and a lot are going for £150 to £200," says collector William Wake (see panel).

With 59 courses in Britain and racing six and, sometimes, seven days a week, not all cards are of any value. The ones to look out for are ones connected with the Classics - the five main Flat races for three-year-olds - and important meetings such as Cheltenham, Ascot and the Grand National. But Mr Wake says even less well-known events can attract collectors, particularly those connected with racing who may later want the card from a meeting where they finished second.

But of all the objects of racing memorabilia, it is badges that attract the most avid collectors. These are given to members of the various racecourses. Early examples were made by jewellers, but for most of the 20th century they were pressed from metal in the Midlands.

As with many types of collectable, it is not so much the aesthetic quality that sets the price, but the rarity of the item. People try to assemble sets covering all the courses for a particular year. Or they try to collect all the badges from their local course, often starting the year they were born. This is not always as easy as it sounds. Not only do members like to hang on to their badges, but some courses have sold very few or even none at all for years. Anybody with a handful of Liverpool, Leicester or Hereford badges could get enough for them to pay for a decent family holiday.

"There's a few courses now where you could sell the badge at the end of the season for almost as much as you paid for it at the start. Hereford's membership, for instance, is £130 a year. It would be fairly easy to sell your badge for the best part of £100 because for years they didn't issue any badges at all. There's a lot of people sitting out there with collections of badges for national courses and Hereford is the only one they're missing," says Mr Wakes.

His advice for anybody starting a collection is to focus on a particular course. Much of this material is relatively inexpensive at the moment but, he believes, will find a ready market in the future both from punters and from people connected directly to the racing industry. "The people who are collecting the course stuff are the ones who'll be making the serious money in 10 or 20 years' time," he says.

'I started a database for other collectors'

While his fellow racegoers were downing Guinness by the bucket-load at his favourite course, Cheltenham, William Wakes was browsing the stalls round the track.

"There was an agent and she used to go round all the courses with stuff that ranged from antiques through to badges and racecards. A couple of my mates became collectors. I thought: 'I'll get a few of those, then I'll put them away. On a rainy day I've now got a little investment'."

That investment now includes some 3,500 members' badges. Among those is a collection from the Cheltenham course going back to the early 19th century and includes his most valuable badge, from 1919, which alone is worth £580.

Mr Wakes works as an account controller for a major food firm. His hobby has, however, become a valuable part-time source of income.

"A cousin in the US was a producer for Yahoo before the internet thing really sprang in this country. So I got a couple of websites including my main one, racingmemories.com. But I realised I couldn't compete on information with the likes of the Sporting Life and Racing Post, so I started a database of collectors," he says.

"Thanks to eBay and the rest prices started going ballistic. Before I knew it, I'd got quite a significant collection. I'm kind of filtering things now. Say I buy 100 badges, I filter 20 of them and move 80 of them. It's become a self-funding hobby."

THE FORM FOR WOULD-BE COLLECTORS

If you do your homework, collecting horse racing memorabilia can give you better returns than you will get from any tipster. And even if you purchase does not turn an instant profit, you will have rather more to show for your money than a torn-up betting slip.

Although there are no hard and fast rules, there are a few things a potential collector should bear in mind:

* Look for anything that forms a set. Whether it is members' badges, silk scarves or annually-issued commemorative whisky jugs, there will be somebody collecting them.

* Almost any item associated with a famous jockey, horse or race will appreciate in value. Lester Piggott, left, remains the most sought-after name in 20th century horse racing.

Unsurprisingly, rare objects are likely to be worth most.

* Collecting badges, race cards and other memorabilia from a small local course can be both affordable and ultimately profitable. One day the rarity of this material will make it valuable, if only to a small group of very keen collectors.

* Gauge demand for different types of item by looking at websites such as eBay, Sotheby's and racingmemories.com.

* With a few very well-made exceptions, items marketed as "limited editions" are not limited enough to attract collectors. Owners are unlikely to see them retain their value, let alone increase by any significant amount.

* At the top end of the market, in particular, look for quality. Sotheby's expert reckons it is often easier to sell a £5,000 item than a £500 one.

* At the end of a good day's racing, buy yourself a memento with the winnings. It will last far longer than a celebratory bottle of champagne, and it might even bring you some worthwhile long-term returns.

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