Racing: Ownership a minefield for the unwary

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THEY SAY that the morning after Lester Piggott was sent to prison for tax evasion, the queue of trainers and jockeys attempting to hand in their returns at the Newmarket tax office stretched all the way down the High Street. Now they have another legal decision to ponder, the case of the well-known trainers and the disgruntled owner, which concluded in the High Court last week with the owner awarded more than pounds 50,000. Some trainers will have read the reports, swallowed hard and muttered, "There but for the grace of God . . ."

The case concerned Oliver Sherwood and Paul Webber, who were found to have indulged in "collusive bidding" at Doncaster Sales in 1995 in order to persuade Gary Heywood to pay twice as much for a gelding than it was worth. At the time, Webber was working for the Curragh Bloodstock Agency, and had bought the gelding, later named Pru's Profiles, on behalf of a client at the Fairyhouse Sales in the spring of 1994.

He did not disclose this previous interest, however, when he advised Heywood to bid for the gelding in 1995. Heywood had told Webber that he wanted to buy four horses, and was prepared to pay up to pounds 30,000 for each. When the horse came into the ring, the bidding slowed at 14,000gns, from which point Webber, on behalf of Heywood, and Sherwood were the only bidders. The horse was eventually knocked down to Heywood for 28,000gns.

"I infer from the evidence," Mr Justice Crawford QC said in his judgement, "that from 14,000gns onwards, there was collusive bidding. Mr Webber and Mr Sherwood were pushing Mr Heywood to his limit." He awarded damages of pounds 51,840 plus costs and interest against the CBA, which is considering whether to seek leave to appeal.

There can be no doubt that cash and horseflesh form a heady mixture, one which can turn otherwise rational people into mad fantasists. Just as the hoaxer Rocky Ryan used to con news editors by selling them stories they desperately wanted to be true, so it is with some would-be owners. When someone with a tweed jacket tells them that lot 24 has the look of a Derby winner about him, their heads may tell them that something smells funny, and it isn't the brown stuff on the floor of the ring. Their hearts, though, so earnestly want to snatch the dream and run with it that the cheque book will come out shortly afterwards.

No one, of course, is suggesting that bloodstock auctions are populated by nothing more than sharks and charlatans. The vast majority of trainers and bloodstock agents are honest professionals who are doing their best for their clients, in a business with few certainties and many pitfalls. And you could also argue that if a sheep walks into a shearing shed with "Fleece me" tattooed on its forehead, it can hardly complain if it comes out feeling chilly.

Michael Harris, chief executive of the Racehorse Owners Association, offers some simple advice for would-be owners. "The best thing to do if you're going into ownership for the first time," he says, "is to consult someone in the business you know and trust. If you don't know anyone personally, then try to get a recommendation from someone you know well. If someone is a complete novice, then they should probably contact either the ROA for advice, or the BHB's ownership marketing group."

The ROA advises potential owners to "seek a trainer who trains quite locally, rather than a bloodstock agent, and to know what type of horse would suit them, whether it be a two-year-old or a jumper. Most importantly, they should know the price bracket they want to operate in, and be aware of all the costs involved. Ownership is all about having a good time, but we have to advise people that it can get expensive."

If you stick to these rules, and keep your visions of success just the right side of wild fantasy, the jockey should be the only one being taken for a ride. Most people in the business, though, can tell you a toe-curling story. One bloodstock agent remembers ringing a trainer to enquire about a three-year-old to buy to go pointing. The horse, the trainer told him, was "sound as a pound". On closer inspection, however, the agent's vet begged to differ. The horse was blind in one eye, semi-blind in the other, and had a fractured leg. Within a week, it was dead.

Then there was the Flat trainer who told an owner he would sell him a jumping prospect for pounds 500, if it weren't for that wretched VAT. The horse, he said, was French-bred, so there would be a huge tax bill to pay on the sale. He would have to charge them pounds 5,000, but honestly, all but pounds 500 of this would be going to the Inland Revenue.

The deal was struck, and a few days later, the new owners rang the yard to find out when they could take delivery. "Not until next week," the secretary told them. "The horse has gone to France for the sale to be finalised. That way we don't have to pay any tax."