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How to pick a winner in the syndicate stakes

ONLY AN incorrigible optimist would see a stake in a racing syndicate as an investment. On average, such stakes lose 78 per cent of their value within their first year. Even the taxman wants nothing to do with them: racehorse ownership is tax-free, since stake-holders would otherwise have more losses to offset than gains to tax, and the Inland Revenue itself would make a loss on the business.

None the less, tens of thousands of people hold some sort of stake in horses through collective ownership schemes.

Some are attracted by hopes of hitting the big time. When the 200-member syndicate Million in Mind bought Mysilv in 1993, it paid pounds 27,000. She went on to win six hurdle races in the 1993-94 season, notably the pounds 36,000 Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham, and the following year she was sold for pounds 162,750. And one of Highclere Thoroughbred Racing's syndicates bought the colt Lake Coniston for pounds 22,000 last year and sold the horse a year later for a cool pounds 2m.

But these are exceptions. Last week the Jockey Club announced new guidelines to make promoters of shared-ownership schemes spell out more clearly the possibility of investors losing all their money.

The rules are all the more necessary because racing investment companies are not governed by the Financial Services Act, and investors are not covered by the Investors Compensation Scheme.

One company, Classic Bloodstock, which has 6,500 shareholders and pounds 3m of equity, has been in trouble with the Jockey Club since its launch last year, when it was criticised for not emphasising the risks for stake-holders. It has also been fined and put into automatic default by Companies House for filing its accounts late.

Most participants, however, are in racing for entertainment alone. "It's like being a member of a very exclusive club," says John Brill, a public relations consultant with a stake in a Highclere syndicate.

"We feel like sole owners, at a fraction of the price. We'd go into the syndicate whether we won or not.'' Mr Brill belongs to a 30-strong syndicate that owns five horses. His share costs pounds 7,000 a year. At the end of the year, the horses in the syndicate are sold, and any prize money, as well as the sale value and anything left of the share money, is returned to the shareholders.

Syndicates such as Highclere's can spend pounds 15,000 per horse per year on running costs, which include training fees, insurance, vet and blacksmith fees, transport to and from races, and the jockeys' riding fees.

The Million in Mind racing partnership has a less expensive approach. Each of its 200 members contribute pounds 1,500 at the beginning of the year, and this year manager Anthony Bromley has bought eight horses.

For his or her contribution, the punter gets a regular newsletter, an information line, open days at training, and special admission deals negotiated with courses.

An even cheaper scheme, the 8,000-strong Elite Racing Club, charges members pounds 150 a year to lease - rather than own - an interest in a horse.

So what should you look for in a syndicate? Experts provide seven tips:

q Consider the size of the group. In general, the fewer the owners, the higher the costs, but the greater feeling of participation and enjoyment.

q Look round the stable and the yard, and talk to the trainer. Does the syndicate look after customers well? How professional is the operation?

q Examine the record of the syndicate, trainer and buyer as far back as possible. Check what returns investors have made (if any).

q Make sure ownership is only for a limited period, so there will be no further call on funds beyond the original price.

q Make sure the accounts are audited annually by a reliable firm.

q Look at the syndicate's investment policy. Some, such as Classic Bloodstock, buy mainly yearlings - horses a year old - which may nor may not go on to race.

q Check the size of cut that is taken by the scheme's managers. Investors in Million in Mind - a typical example - pay their managers pounds 1,200 per horse, plus a 5 per cent buyer's commission.

Details of the various types of shared racehorse ownership - racing partnership, joint ownership, company owner, recognised business partnership, and club - are available from the British Horseracing Board. The organisation has a free information pack to help people with the first steps towards ownership. It also organises seminars for new owners.

o The British Horseracing Board can be reached on 01942 613030.