It was only some 30 years ago that Lord Wigg, the somewhat antiestablishment chairman of the Levy Board, offered the outrageous opinion that it would be a great day for racing when a horse owned by a syndicate of miners won the Derby. Since then the sport's administrators have actually taken on board thenotion that there just might be people out there who would find it financially easier to own part of a horse instead of a whole one and the once-controversial concept has beenwritten into the rulebook.
Shame about the miners, but syndicates have flourished. There have been big-race successes at Royal Ascot, at Cheltenham, at Longchamp. But not so far in the Derby, or indeed any Classic.
This afternoon at Newmarket, though, there is the possibility of the breakthrough when Petrushka will step out on to the Rowley Mile as favourite for the 187th 1,000 Guineas. The pretty chestnut with the perfect white heart on her forehead is the property of Highclere Thoroughbred Racing, a group of 20 owners who will, with partners and friends, converge on the parade ring from all over the world to wish their beloved well.
The Highclere operation is, by any standards, the most successful of its type. Its pale blue silks have been carried to victory by some very classy horses indeed in its eight-year existence, notably the pair of champion sprinters Tamarisk and Lake Coniston. And last year Housemaster came within three and a quarter lengths of Epsom glory with his fourth place in the Derby.
There is the sneaking suspicion that Highclere may not quite equate to Wigg's egalitarian vision. Among syndicates there has developed a pecking order and as with most walks of life you get what you pay for. Those with a few hundred pounds to spare can become one in many hundreds in a multi-ownership group and exchange their cash for fun, involvement, interest and the dream of that moment of glory. Those with more than a few thousands can invest in the same abstract rewards, plus the prospect of rather more material interest.
For, although the various Highclere syndicates (organised and reorganised on an annual basis) lay great emphasis on that business about the value of bloodstock going down as well as up, the record of the operation suggests otherwise. Consider these statistics: between March 1993 and November last year 85 horses raced 497 times under the Highclere banner, winning 71 races and £1,125,000 in prize money. Nearly a fifth of the runners were classy enough to win or place at Listed level or above. And when sold by the end of the lifespan of each syndicate (normally two years) the horses realised £8,365,115, almost exactly twice their cost. Fun, involvement, glory and a tax-free profit.
The catch is that your average miner could not afford to be involved. A 20th share in the syndicate which owns Petrushka and three other lesser, but not negligible, beasts, cost £22,000 and anyone who has that sort of money to write off (and, despite the tempting mathematics, it is surely folly to own a racehorse with anything but spare funds) cannot be considered ordinarily poor. Today's bunch include David Mort, a former docker who developed his own plant-hire company and in his time has owned a Royal Ascot winner; Michael Brower, who co-founded the Garfunkels restaurant chain and now runs Thai eateries in London; and first-time owner Jamie Gladstone, a farmer and businessman.
But neither are they rich in the sense that the likes of Sheikh Mohammed, Khaled Abdullah or John Magnier are rich and pooling resources has increased not only their enjoyment but the potential for success. Petrushka, who cost 110,000 Irish guineas at auction as a yearling, would probably have been beyond any one of them as an individual.
Success for the filly this afternoon would put the Highclere operation - named after the family seat of its founder Harry Herbert, son of Lord Carnarvon but (like his father) the antithesis of the chinless upper-class twit - right there among the high rollers as a force in the sport. And of course add further benefit to the bank balances of her owners, for a Classicwinning daughter of Unfuwain out of a half-sister to Spectrum from the family of Sun Princess would fetch a tidy sum at the December sales.
Her credentials were laid out in no uncertain fashion at the Craven meeting when both the style and substance of her Nell Gwyn Stakes victory, smoothly, with a decisive burst leaving last year's Cheveley Park Stakes heroine Seazun trailing, justified the high regard in which she is held by her trainer Sir Michael Stoute.
The only one to challenge her in the market has been the Godolphin candidate Bintalreef, owner of similar credentials. Like Petrushka, she raced just once, and won, at two and burst on to the Classic scene when she beat the Fillies' Mile winner Teggiano in a Dubai dress rehearsal at Nad El Sheba three weeks ago.
Henry Cecil, going for his seventh victory and his fourth in five years, fields High Walden, winner of her maiden and yet to appear this term. The fact that such unexposed performers have dominated the market is rather insulting to the cream of last year's crop and better value, at around 7-1, may be found with the battlehardened Irish contender Amethyst, a sister to the 1998 2,000 Guineas winner King of Kings. She must turn a heavy page of history, for it is 179 years since the same mating produced winners of both mile Classics, but the vibes from Ballydoyle have been positive since she scooted home at Leopardstown on her seasonal debut.
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