A double dream and a shared nightmare

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The Independent Online
Sob stories about racehorse owners tend not to attract sympathy. The sport of kings, queens, assorted aristocrats and potentates and some of the more brash examples of nouveau tycoonery is generally, and quite rightly, regarded as being well padded against the knocks attendant on any relationship with the turf.

But, several levels below the sovereigns and the sheiks, there is a stratum of ownership towards which a little compassion would not be misdirected. I refer to those who have made a modest venture into buying a horse or, more often than not, a share in one, which can vary from a half to a hundredth.

As one of that growing number, I can confirm that whatever the fraction you own, the only return you can rely on is 100 per cent of the heartbreak and frustration. I come fresh from experiencing a prime sample of the latter because I had intended to amuse you with the latest adventure of the four-year-old bay gelding in whom I own a half-share.

Turn To Stone, named after a catchy little number by the Electric Light Orchestra in the 1970s, was entered in a maiden hurdle at Tramore, County Waterford, on Wednesday. After two and a half expensive and financially unrequited years, TTS had made an encouraging hurdling debut at Naas 10 days earlier. He didn't get a place but neither did he show a tourist's interest in the scenery as he'd been prone to do in his six previous races.

We looked to last week's outing to provide confirmation of this long- awaited progress but scarcely had we arrived in Ireland on Tuesday when we learned that he had been balloted out of the race. With this lovely little track unable to accommodate more than 15 runners, they drew lots to decide between the 19 entries and we drew number 17 to be listed as second reserve. Tramore is a long way to go to watch your horse not run: a disappointment only partially compensated by some lively races and the view over Tramore Bay - not the only bay overlooked that day.

It is not the first time we've been shot out of a race (among the many misfortunes than can bedevil owners it is one of the most annoying) and it was particularly ironic because my choice of subject today was governed by the publication on Thursday of a book that will register immediate fascination with anyone who has purchased even the smallest piece of a racehorse or is contemplating doing so.

Coincidentally, it is written by my colleague Stan Hey, who shoulders the burden of this column from time to time. Stan and I have more in common than the ability to bore the readers rigid on a Sunday morning; chiefly, the driven desire to own a runner in one of the major jump races. The seeds of this forlorn ambition are also from a shared source. Our respective fathers were not only devoted racing followers but actively involved as bookies' runners in the days when off-course betting was illegal.

His father was a part-time bets taker in a Liverpool factory in the 1950s while my father was a full- time runner for a fabled South Wales bookmaker in the 1930s. The difference between those days and the present is that the punters got a far better deal then than they do now and, of course, the privilege of ownership is now spreading rapidly among the lower orders.

Thanks to the growth of partnerships and syndicates, thousands are now involved in a hobby that was once the sole province of the high and mighty and Hey provides a timely account of what the experience can be like. An Arm and Four Legs - A journey into racehorse ownership (Yellow Jersey Press, pounds 15) is very much a personal record and is as enjoyable as it revealing.

Conspicuously short of any success so far but up to his neck in anecdotes he delights in telling, Hey makes no attempt to shield us from the financial realities of the transformation from mug punter to mug owner, as if determined that his own unfailing optimism doesn't create the misleading illusion that you've a dog's chance of recovering your investment.

He begins with the chilling view that only 10 per cent of the horses in training ever get to win a race so, he says: "All owners undertake an initial act of wilful self-delusion when they cough up."

Throughout the story of his part-ownership of four horses over the 1997- 98 season, he showed courage I could never contemplate by keeping a detailed account of his expenditure on the animals and their training, and also what he spent travelling to and from and at the courses they raced at. It makes chilling reading, not only for any other owner but also for Mrs Hey.

However, having ensured that you are in full possession of the downside, he does illuminate the joys of ownership and, certainly, a visit to a track when you have a runner is a highly charged experience. Even if your horse doesn't win, just a half-decent run will send you home thrilled.

The insight you get into the world of trainers adds to the fascination if not always to the pleasure. Two of the horses he was concerned with spent some time at the yard of Martin Pipe with whom Hey and his fellow syndicators did not part on bosom terms. But the book is less concerned with any perceived fallibility of those who train and ride our precious beasts than it is with the fraternity who inevitably reap the harvest of our efforts.

No discussion on ownership would be complete without an attack on bookmakers but we can't be blamed for mouthing some rebellion against our role as volunteer satchel-fillers. Unsurprisingly, it is on this subject that Hey reaches his most bristling eloquence. He reveals that to the costs of racing the owners contribute 52 per cent, the racecourses 29 per cent and the punters, through the levy, 19 per cent. The bookies give nothing.

He found this extraordinary fact particularly galling at a February meeting at Hereford this year at which one of his horses received an injury that ended its career. He worked out that 103 horses were competing for total prize money of pounds 22,400. Since only 23 could win anything, 80 left the course with nothing to show for the expense of travel, entry fees, staff labour and the owners' time and money.

"The 103 horses were running for the bookies' profits, a load of third- rate nags with little or no future, cynically enticed out on to an ugly little racecourse for scraps of prize-money just to keep the mug punters in their shops handing over their money," comments Hey, who warns of the consequences when the patience of the small-time owners finally runs out.

But life as an owner, as he is quick to reassure us, is not all sourness. He retains high hopes that at least one of the animals he is still connected with will be successful this winter. I wonder if I can beat him to it? The fact that my ownership partner, George Moore, is Irish only partly explains why Turn To Stone is racing in Ireland. The main reasons are that there is no VAT on owners' payments over there, the prize-money is better, the race tracks far more homely and welcoming and sorrows far more pleasantly drowned.

All we need is for our trainer, the up and coming Pat Fahy of Carlow, to add some wings to his heels. More than any other sport, racing is a triumph of hope over reality. Having a slice of the action may be a forlorn indulgence but there's a winning post up there somewhere.