Tabor harvests rich dividends of relentless journey

Former bookmaker has built racing bloodstock empire to rival the mighty Maktoum family
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Michael Tabor, the omnipotent racehorse owner, will soon announce whether Montjeu, his colt of similar credential, will have one last hurrah in the Breeders' Cup series in the United States a week on Saturday. Whatever the decision, the reign of Montjeu will soon be at an end. For the man who pays his bills, however, the ascendancy has rather longer to run.

Michael Tabor, the omnipotent racehorse owner, will soon announce whether Montjeu, his colt of similar credential, will have one last hurrah in the Breeders' Cup series in the United States a week on Saturday. Whatever the decision, the reign of Montjeu will soon be at an end. For the man who pays his bills, however, the ascendancy has rather longer to run.

Tabor may have Montjeu in the Breeders' Cup Turf, but he will certainly be represented by another equine celebrity in the chestnut shape of Giant's Causeway in the eight-race, end-of-season turf Olympics at Churchill Downs, the spiritual home of American racing. Turnberry Isle, it was confirmed yesterday, will also carry his hopes at the same festival. The tentacles are everywhere.

Michael Barry Tabor has come quickly. From Eastender to racing's Porridge as a banned person from Britain's racecourses to Coronation Street and the monarchy as one the globe's leading owners. Perhaps only Sheikh Mohammed and his Dubaian brothers can now compete with the man who was brought up in Forest Gate. He has travelled a long way.

In the great game of life, Tabor's blocks were not very far forward. His grandfather was a rather more elaborate Taborosky, a Russian Jew who fled from Vilna and persecution. It is a background which adds greater delight to his sales-ring battles with Sheikh Mohammed and the rest of the mighty Maktoum family.

Tabor's father was an East End glassmaker and the boy himself almost a crimper, having enrolled at the Morris School of Hairdressing in Piccadilly. It was bookmaking, however, that was to take Tabor's mind. He became a presence at the dog tracks, a presence at racecourses on the rails. Then he almost came off them. In 1970, Tabor was summoned to the Jockey Club amid allegations that he had paid two jockeys - Duncan Hughes and Tom Jennings - for tips. He received a lifetime ban from the racecourse. Michael Barry Tabor was out. On appeal, though, Tabor limited his suspension to three years. And the naughty boy did not spend his sabbatical in the corner. Tabor's off-course business flourished and, from a starting point of two shops, he was up to 114 Arthur Prince outlets by 1995. Then he had none. He sold the lot to Coral for over £27m. It was the stack of chips he needed to start playing at the top table.

Tabor now has an interest in about 80 horses worldwide, most of which run either in his royal blue and orange colours, with a great fluorescent disc on the chest, or in the blue livery of Susan Magnier, the daughter of the legendary Irish trainer, Vincent O'Brien. She is a nominal owner in the partnerships. Tabor is effectively in business with her husband, John Magnier, the owner of the sprawling Coolmore Stud in Co Tipperary. There are elements in Irish racing which like to portray themselves with fuzzy paintings of men with pints of Guinness in little bars. Coolmore is not quite as folksy. It's a ruthless breeding machine, probably the most bolted down and professional example of a stud in the world.

They are tidy with their words at Coolmore. They don't leave any unnecessary ones lying around in conversation. That fits with Tabor's natural reticence. It is an omerta which stretches from the gang's trainer, the bespectacled Aidan O'Brien, right up to Magnier himself. In conversation with a journalist recently, even the big man ended the brief chat with the Coolmore line "but don't quote me on that". As if he had anyone to answer to.

Michael Tabor is not easy to pin down, here or in his tax-exile base in Monaco. He is either taking more important calls, rushing to a box at the races, getting on aeroplanes or accessing his suite at the Dorchester. He lost my business card. He must have wanted to, because he usually keeps what he wants. The trim 58-year-old speaks softly and considerately, like an undertaker. The accent is not posh, still very much E7. And, like most successful figures, Tabor believes he has not changed from the Forest Gate days (even though he has not been back since Bobby Moore was around).

"I don't look at having any status," he says. "Nothing's changed as far as I'm concerned. I'm just going up to town to my mother's now for a sandwich. Probably a cheese one. It all just happened for me. I couldn't get into the detail of how it happened in one conversation [well, this conversation at least]. But it didn't all just come overnight."

The business as far as Tabor is now concerned is to buy expensive yearlings and turn them into even more expensive stallions. It's not a new system. It's not even a new system to Coolmore. Robert Sangster originated the idea. He devised a strategy after noting that his purchase of several expensive young horses at American sales did not guarantee him the one that would make a fortune as a stallion. After that he determined to buy all the top ones.

Sangster may have gone, but Coolmore still operates on economies of scale. Tabor was at Magnier's side as they purchased a IR£2m Danzig colt at Goffs Orby Sale in Ireland earlier this month. The previous month, on day two of the Keeneland September Yearling Sale, Coolmore paid $6.8m (£5m) for a colt that had not raised a trot in anger. It was the highest price since Seattle Dancer was sold for $13.1m in 1985. It might all seem absurd. But not to Michael Tabor. "Of course it might seem strange, but it's been like that for a long time," he says. "It's all relative. That's the nature of the game. People might think it [the prices] bizarre, but they don't know the business. If they had an understanding of it then maybe they would think differently. A lot of hard work goes into the buying by the Coolmore team. You can't just go along and choose horses willy-nilly. It doesn't just happen. Like everything in life you have to work at it. I get enormous pleasure out of the horses but, it goes without saying, that you're trying to make stallions. You need a stallion, maybe a stallion and a half, every year. And while we've had successful years I'm sure that the not-so-successful years will come along."

While Tabor may know the difference between a thoroughbred and two thespians inside a panto skin, he would never trust himself to buy on his own. "I enjoy going round looking at the horses and I like to think I've got a fair idea," he says. "But I don't know a lot really and a little knowledge is dangerous."

Tabor is more happy with his judgement of people. Ninety per cent of his horses are owned in partnerships. And he is not an owner who needs daily bulletins from his trainers. "It can be very difficult if you drive yourself mad with it," he says. "I don't. I let it all happen. If you entrust the care of a horse to someone then you take their advice. If you don't take their advice then you shouldn't have a horse with them."

The confidence in his trainers is effectively confidence in himself. Michael Tabor knows what has happened to other prominent owners in this sport, the fallen likes of Nelson Bunker Hunt and Sangster himself, but he does not anticipate a similar demise. "I don't think that way," he says. "I don't even think about that." And, if he lost it all, he would only be back where he started.