Racing: The Irishmen aiming to add Manchester United to their stable

Two of Europe's biggest racehorse owners, John Magnier and JP McManus, now own 23 per cent of the world's most famous football club
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The Independent Football

They share initials, an interest in horse racing and various business concerns. Now, it seems, the Irishmen JP McManus and John Magnier may be about to divide the world's most famous football club between them.

So who are the men who have taken Manchester United into takeover territory by upping their stake in the club to a combined 23.15 per cent? For a start, they fit the profile of many who appeared on BBC2's Mind Of A Millionaire last night - men who worked their way up from relative obscurity.

JP, or John Patrick to be pedantic, once drove a bulldozer, while Magnier left school at 16 when his father died to manage the family's Grange Stud in County Cork. From there, the only way has been up.

McManus has always been the more visible of the two, initially a ferocious punter who went by the nickname of "the Sundance Kid". The Cheltenham Festival, in particular, would not be the same without him, with his box packed with family, associates and wounded bookmakers.

JP is splay-footed and unimposing, usually dressed in a long, dark coat for his racecourse adventures. He has performed the quite extraordinary trick of being both a bookmaker himself once and an Irish national hero - a sort of Sheriff of Nottingham with good PR.

One of his first bets was on Merryman II, the winner of the 1960 Grand National, since when he has developed a reputation as a man unafraid to heavily back his own judgement. He understatedly talks of six-figure bets as "a tickle", "an interest" or "a little touch".

"Punting should involve the same approach as that used by markers or analysts," he once told me. "They have to have a certain amount of discipline and not feel they want to trade all the time. I know this applies to betting more than anything else."

McManus, who is from a family of Arsenal supporters, has over 100 horses in training, all of them National Hunt horses performing in his green and gold livery. He pretends the Flat is too expensive for him even though he is estimated to have made over £250m on the foreign exchange markets from his tax exile base in Geneva.

No stranger to the backgammon table in some of the world's ritzier casinos, McManus's portfolio includes the sprawling Martinstown Stud at Kilmallock, County Limerick.

One of the few investments which has not glittered is the sumptuously revamped Sandy Lane Hotel in Barbados, which is also part-owned by Magnier. The refurbishment costs were astronomical and McManus does not like talking about it.

Magnier, who is reckoned to be worth over £200m, is the bigger man, more respected than admired by those outside his own circles, at least. A rarer visitor to the racecourse, he cuts a more imposing figure in his fedora.

He likes to keep his private life just that, but his brilliance and vision in the bloodstock jungle is no secret. He has developed Ballydoyle and Coolmore in Co Tipperary into the world's foremost racing factory - the first perhaps the leading training establishment in the world, the second the global stud flagship.

With Coolmore's success has also come resentment, the leading criticism being that the various stallion depots under its banner have made the brand so powerful that it can now virtually write its own rules. But "monopoly" is not a word you mention in the company of Magnier, even if it is the sort of money he makes.

It was Magnier who first saw the benefits in investing in well-bred stallions. He is also the man who pioneered the shuttling of stallions to the southern hemisphere.

It suited Magnier that an initial ascent at Ballydoyle was scarcely tracked behind the reputation of his legendary training father-in-law, Vincent O'Brien.

Now the stable's horses are prepared by Aidan O'Brien (no relation), who is reportedly disquietened by his boss's hands-on approach. He should have known what he was getting.

Magnier has further stud outlets in Kentucky and Australia. His horses and their dark blue colours run in the name of his wife Sue, and also in tandem with another former bookmaker, Michael Tabor, who similarly successfully plays global currency markets.

Critics talk of Magnier's control-freakery, but the dissenters never include those in his camp who are well rewarded for their loyalty.

We do know that his dislikes include flying and reference to the 1969 Haughey legislation, which meant that the estimated £35m from Coolmore's stallion fee rake is allowed to pass tax free. He also does not do interviews, especially when they concern Sir Alex Ferguson.

A delicious irony of yesterday's announcement is that Magnier is currently in dispute with the Manchester United manager over a horse they used to share, Rock Of Gibraltar.

What cannot be argued is that "the Rock" won a record seven consecutive Group One races during 2001 and 2002 in Ferguson's red and white col-ours. The sticking point is the revenue from his stud career.

Ferguson has been allowed a small number of nominations to the horse, maybe two or three, but apparently believes that he is due half the sum of Rock Of Gibraltar's mating earnings.

As the stallion brings in an an estimated £12m a year, that means that Ferguson could have helped buy Brazil's Ronaldinho himself.

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