A F Budge's financial collapse on Wednesday night came just days before it was due to sponsor tomorrow's pounds 45,000 A F Budge Gold Cup at Cheltenham - which is now to be renamed the Tripleprint Gold Cup - and almost certainly signals the end for a racing operation that has constituted one of the few barriers to Arab domination of British Flat racing.
Last night, Budge said: 'It is hard for me to see a return to racing in this situation. The recession has hit hard and there is no sign of it ending. I sold some of my racehorses at the autumn sales and the remainder are now for sale.'
Of tomorrow's newly-christened Tripleprint Gold Cup, Budge, the chairman of Britain's third biggest road construction company, said: 'It would have been inappropriate to continue with our name on Saturday's races.'
In 1992, A F Budge (Equine) Limited, in whose name the horses run, had over 60 animals in training and was the main patron of Richard Hannon, who was champion trainer on the Flat for the first time. Though Budge had announced in the autumn that he would be scaling down the size of his investment in racing, the likelihood of that involvement ceasing altogether is still a heavy jolt for the industry at a time when owners are leaving the sport in large numbers.
Budge is a member of the Jockey Club, is a major sponsor of races and has played a large role in the the revival of Doncaster racecourse, home of the St Leger. He is also an enthusiastic supporter of Sunday racing.
Most of Budge's horses are split between Hannon in Wiltshire and Jimmy FitzGerald at Malton in North Yorkshire. Yesterday, Budge's racing manager, Mark Smyly, said: 'The horses will carry on running for the time being, but I don't want to say any more than that in case I say the wrong things.'
Budge has specialised in precocious, usually speedy Flat racers which have been bought in the medium price range of up to pounds 100,000, though with FitzGerald he has also enjoyed success over jumps with horses like Uncle Ernie and Danish Flight, winner of the 1988 Arkle Trophy at the Cheltenham Festival.
On the Flat, Budge has won the Gimcrack Stakes three times, with Rock City, River Falls and Sharp N' Early, and so has had the opportunity to make the influential Gimcrack speech in three of the last five years. Central City and Power Lake are others to have carried Budge's red and yellow colours.
Technically, the racing arm of the A F Budge group has not been seized, but last night John Geldert, representing the accountants Coopers & Lybrand, said: 'The directors of the subsidiary companies - of which the equine side is one - will be working with the receivers and will continue to operate them. In the longer term, though, we would look to offer them for sale.'
Geldert was unable to disclose the level of debt run up by A F Budge Ltd because receivers started the logging process only at 6pm on Wednesday evening. 'We just don't know. It's too early to say,' he said. The movement of the group into receivership came when banks called in loans to the company.
Budge's squad of horses is unlikely to attract a lone buyer so the probability is that they will be dispersed at auctions next year. The depressed state of the bloodstock market will mean that many of the horses will be available at bargain prices, though the very best of them may be sold privately once the receivers take full control.
Cheltenham took less than an hour to find a new sponsor for tomorrow's big race. George Ward's Grunwick group, which has already taken over the King George meeting at Kempton on Boxing Day, agreed to replace A F Budge for one year only and may have scored a sizeable publicity coup. Ironically, another of the race's previous backers, Glen International, was forced to withdraw when they too hit financial difficulties.
John Sanderson, the chief executive of Doncaster and a fully qualified accountant, described the fall of A F Budge Ltd as 'extremely sad'. He said: 'A F Budge Ltd is part of the joint venture which is the ultimate operating authority at Doncaster, but the implications for us are purely administrative. The racecourse is still wholly owned by the Metropolitan Borough Council.' Budge's construction company helped build the new St Leger stand.
With the demise of Tony Budge's racing enterprise, Sangster stands almost alone among British owners as a significant rival to Khalid Abdullah, Fahd Salman and the Maktoum brothers of Dubai. The recent deaths of Charles St George and Budgie Moller removed two other powerful home-based players, and now the number of large British- owned strings can be counted in single figures.
As a visiting French trainer said at the Tattersalls horse sales in Newmarket earlier this month: 'With the problems at Lloyds (insurance market) and the recession generally, the British owner has all but disappeared.'
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