Racing: Always Hopeful helps Fretwell to keep the books balanced

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The Independent Online

John Fretwell, whose colours they are, is perhaps something of a rarity, a businessman whose brains do not gallop out of the door when it comes to his hobby. The ethos that has allowed him to be in retirement at the age of 56 is still being applied and rewards are once again being reaped.

Fretwell started his working life with two hairdressing shops in the Nottinghamshire village of Warsop, but soon realised that a snip had a different meaning. "I was cutting hair at 30p a time," he recalled yesterday, "then the guy I bought the shampoo off offered me some watches for £2 each. I had £34 in the till, bought 17, and put 75p profit on them. By the end of the weekend I'd had to get some more off him, I'd sold 84.

"I had Thursday afternoons off and went round the little village shops, and took £330. My profit was about the same as what I earned in the rest of the week cutting hair, and it was then that I realised what a fantastic game buying and selling was. I started a cash and carry and by the time I sold out last year I carried 35,000 different products and had 600 employees."

Fretwell's love affair with racing ran alongside his real life (appropriately, his first winner, Frith's Fancy in 1978, came in a seller), but it is only now that he has been able to give it his full attention, and how. He has had horses with now-retired Bryan McMahon for 18 years, and still supports his son Eddie, who has taken over from his father. But Fretwell's dream has come true in the form of a state-of-the-art facility at Averham, not far from his old stamping ground.

There, he has given unheralded young Irishman Eoghan O'Neill his chance and his judgement has proved sound. The team has the best strike-rate with juveniles in the country and took some notable scalps with Always Hopeful in the Group 2 Richmond Stakes at Glorious Goodwood. "I was right about Eoghan, but then I have always been a fairly good judge of character and ability, which is one reason I did so well in business," said Fretwell. "Maybe it's luck, but I think you make your own luck. And one thing I believe in is honesty and being straight with people.

"I think that in racing, many owners, who perhaps don't know so much about the business, are badly advised. In a way, I can understand why a trainer is reluctant to be frank if a horse is no good; their margins are very tight and they perhaps worry that they will lose an owner.

"And perhaps that's why people get dissatisfied and end up not enjoying their racing they'll go out of the game." Fretwell and his team bought 40 yearlings last year, with a top limit of around 40,000 guineas. "Only three have turned out no good," he said. "My son Paul is the pedigree expert, and Eoghan, Bryan and myself look at the individuals and their conformation. Bryan never had a silver spoon and had to become good at that. But we buy them to race them and then sell them, keep the new faces coming in. We'll keep a few to race at three, but most will go to market. Last year we sold Casteletto, who cost us 15,500gns and then won the Cornwallis Stakes, for 85,000gns.

"But I do like to cover myself. I like a bet, no doubt about that, but I only bet on my own. If I can win the cost of the horse, when the books are balanced and there's not so much pressure to keep one if it's not making a profit at the sales." Sound business principles, indeed. And from cheap Swiss watches to the multi-billion JTF Trade & Business Warehouses, Fretwell is now seeking to expand. The shop-window is attractive; there are boxes for outsiders available at Averham Park. "I know all the pitfalls of racing," he said. "I know it's not all glory. But this season has been a great big rollercoaster ride. The door is open. Racing is fun and we want others to enjoy it."

If Escape Plan, who cost 20,000 euros, and Always Hopeful, a 32,000gns purchase, have maximised their value, then so, at last, has Mona Lisa, though on a rather different scale. The Aidan O'Brien-trained daughter of Giant's Causeway, a 1.25m guinea-yearling, won her first race yesterday at the 11th time of asking when scoring by a short-head at Cork.

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