Michael Owen: Hooked on the horses
Former striker who has a growing set of stables tells Brian Viner why the buzz of a Goodwood win will rival finding the net
Brian Viner swapped London for the Herefordshire countryside, and his column ‘Country Life’ documents his attempts to chase the rural idyll. Chiefly a sports writer, he pens a weekly sports column and interview for the paper. He is the author of 'Ali, Pele, Lillee and Me: A Personal Odyssey Through the Sporting Seventies'.
Wednesday 31 July 2013
If Brown Panther should win the Goodwood Cup – and there is a decent chance that he will – then it will not afford his 33-year-old, multimillionaire owner the biggest thrill of a sporting life that has already encompassed two late goals in the FA Cup final to overturn a 1-0 deficit, the winner in a Manchester derby, a hat-trick against Germany in Munich and, of course, one of the greatest individual goals ever scored in the World Cup.
No, the biggest thrill was when Brown Panther won the King George V Stakes at Royal Ascot two summers ago. Not that it eclipsed Michael Owen's prodigious goalscoring feats as a footballer with a rare instinct for finding the back of the net, but the satisfaction was deeper.
"I'd bred him myself, I had a real emotional attachment, so it was special," Owen recalls, smiling even now. "When you score a goal in a major game, there's pure adrenalin and excitement for 10 seconds, and that's something you can't replicate. But in racing there's a nervousness, a feeling of emptiness that comes with having no control. So when your horse performs to its best, and wins, it's just incredible. It might be a rush of relief more than adrenalin. But it's just as addictive."
Owen is talking at the London offices of the British Horseracing Authority, having agreed to become an ambassador for the Qipco British Champions Series – featuring all the Flat's greatest races – as he plots a career that will no longer involve warming the bench for Stoke City or anyone else. He is certain that he could still do a job for a Premier League club, but concedes he was finding it dispiritingly hard against defenders he could once have given the runaround. It was time to retire.
Football will still dominate his working life. He will be a co-commentator for BT Sport and has started a management company, intending to pass on to top young players his own experiences of the pitfalls that come with becoming rich and famous in your teens. But he will also devote increasing time to Manor House Stables in Cheshire, which was a 170-acre arable farm when he bought it six years ago and installed stables and a gallop.
Now, trainer Tom Dascombe has more than 90 horses there, and Owen has sold half of the operation to the co-founder of Betfair, Andrew Black. Manor House will never be Ballydoyle or Godolphin, but they are burgeoning players in the Flat racing game. Owen's love of racing began at the knee of his father, Terry. "My dad would have a 50p bet on three horses every Saturday and I'd look in the paper next day to see how his picks did. After a while I was allowed my own picks, which was how I started looking out for certain jockeys, certain trainers."
Football then gave him the means to do what very few boyhood racing enthusiasts are able to; at 18, the age he was when he scored that wonder goal against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup, he became an owner. "It was never really my intention. I loved racing, but I didn't feel as if it was within touching instance. Anyway, I knew David Platt, who had horses with John Gosden down in Newmarket. He said, 'Why don't you buy one?' It had honestly never entered my head, but the following week I went down to see John, and like all good salesmen he brought two out and told me to take my pick. I bought them both. I paid 40 grand for one, and about 55 grand for the other."
These were Talk To Mojo and Etienne Lady, the former named for members of Owen's family (the letters were their initials), and the latter after St Etienne, where he had so memorably – and lucratively – breached the Argentina defence. Both won races for him, but the horse that really captivated him was acquired later, a mare called Treble Heights.
"She's the one who's probably given me the most excitement. Seeing her win first time out at Chester, my home track, was something special. I was sat there in the stand, and she came round that corner, still sat there on the bridle, and I thought, 'Oh my God, she's going to win'. That gave me a massive buzz. And she's also the dam of a couple of nice horses I've got, in particular Brown Panther."
How, though, did ownership of a few racehorses turn into the mini-empire that Owen went on to build?
"At some point I must have looked at the bills coming in, and thought, 'I'm going to be in this game for the rest of my life, do I want to keep paying for all the horses on a monthly basis, or start up my own business having them trained, and maybe train for a few outside owners as well?'
"So we bought the farm, put in 20 stables, then 20 became 40, and I had another decision to make. Should I make it something really permanent or keep it as a bit of fun? I chose the first option, and we've developed Manor House into something pretty smart now. Andrew came in as my partner, and in difficult economic times we're making a steady progression. We've won Group races, been placed in Classics, and while we're still a way from where we want to get, there's progress every year."
In business terms his has been almost the template for a top footballer's career, developing an outside interest while playing that will sustain him, not so much financially as emotionally, in retirement. Racing, he says, gives him the thrill of competition that playing football no longer provides. "And, of course, one you can't do for your whole life, but the other you can."
True enough. Owen has always seemed like a fellow with his head screwed on, despite sporadic reports of a serious gambling habit. Does he still bet? "Yeah. Not as much or as often as I used to, but I get a buzz backing my judgement. I just have a competitive streak. I can't play golf for four hours and not have something on the game."
Who knows how much Owen has won or lost with bookmakers down the years? Probably not even him. But whatever he has taken out of racing, he now insists that he is keen to put something back. "This ambassadorial work really appealed to me," he says. "I have done a lot of deals where you get paid X amount to promote something, and all you have to do is smile for the camera. But this association... there's a synergy there. We want to attract more people to this sport, and once we've got them, keep them."
Michael Owen is an ambassador for the Qipco British Champions Series, which culminates on Champions Day at Ascot on 19 October
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