Michael Owen knows the feeling only too well; first the agony, then the awful realisation that injury has ruled him out of a major event, in his case a World Cup. This was the man who ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament in a warm-up game ahead of the 2006 finals in Germany. For an international footballer, the timing could not have been more devastating.
In its own way, the damage inflicted on Brown Panther’s near foreleg during exercise on the gallops at Owen’s Manor House Stables in Cheshire yesterday morning will have hurt his owner-breeder as much, coming just five days before the horse to whom he is devoted was due to contest the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot.
Only a few hours previously, the former Liverpool, Real Madrid, Newcastle, Manchester United and Stoke striker who has travelled the world – Germany, Australia, Canada, the USA, Dubai – with Brown Panther in pursuit of the major staying prizes, had been daring to dream that what could be Brown Panther’s final racing year before departing to stud could be decorated with a triumph in the royal meeting’s showpiece staying race. That was all dashed in an instant yesterday.
Saturday may just have brought forward his departure from the racetrack. As Owen declared this week, perhaps unwittingly portentously: “The minute he takes one lame step or looks as if he’s struggling from an injury point of view, then that’s the minute we’ll retire him.”
Trainer Tom Dascombe said that the horse will have a bone scan and added: ‘‘We hope he recovers to either race again or be a stallion.’’
Owen relishes the vibrancy of the royal meeting, and if there is a solace, of sorts, it is that Manor House Stables, the increasingly powerful training operation Owen has created with his business partner Andrew Black, joint-founder of the betting exchange, Betfair, will be sending out two other Royal Ascot runners: Angelic Lord in Friday’s Commonwealth Cup and Barracuda Boy in Saturday’s Wokingham Stakes.
Though declaring himself “gutted” yesterday, Owen will, you suspect, be philosophical about yesterday’s setback. The last 12 years have provided a remarkable educational experience in aspects of training, breeding and the physiology of racehorses for a man whose fascination with the Turf was nurtured in childhood through his father Terry who’d place small bets on Saturday races and allowed his son to help make selections.
By his early 20s, Owen had started to invest in racehorses. One purchase was a filly named Treble Heights, trained by John Gosden. The pair had been introduced by another England international, David Platt. Treble Heights won her first race and in July 2003 Owen’s filly was due to contest a good class Newmarket race. Owen couldn’t be there because Liverpool had a pre-season friendly at Crewe.
“I knew where my mum and dad were sitting because the stadium was only tiny and they were right behind the goal,” recalled Owen. “After about 20 minutes, we got a corner. I mimed to my mum and dad ‘how did she get on?’ They were giving their thumbs up and looking really excited.” His filly had won, easily.
Treble Heights would become significant for another reason when Owen bred Brown Panther from her. The horse won his first race, a modest event at Southwell. “Even then, we didn’t realise he was going to be so good. But he started working on the gallops with some well-rated horses of ours, and we though ‘Jesus, we’ve got something on our hands here’,” said Owen.
At the start of next season, Brown Panther was sent on a mission to Kempton Park. “I had what was probably my biggest bet of all time,” says Owen. “We thought he was a certainty, but he went and got beaten. I got my fingers burnt that day.” He adds: “Today I occasionally have a bet, but I don’t bet as much as I used to – far from it.”
Owen’s faith in Brown Panther was swiftly restored emphatically. His three victories that season included the King George V Stakes at Royal Ascot and his 11 victories in total have included last year’s Irish St Leger and this year’s Dubai Gold Cup. He was third in last year’s Ascot Gold Cup.
His owner, a former European Footballer of the Year, had long planned his exit from the game and where his destiny lay. “Some years ago I bought a farm and we put in a gallop and turned one of the old grain stores into 20 stables.”
Soon, he had 40 horses, and, at that stage, a decision was made to invest in “what I consider, and most people who have been here consider, to be the best facility in the country.” He adds: “We’re not stopping. We want to get to the top table where so many great trainers and great owners regularly dine. My partner Andrew Black joined forces five or six years ago, and with trainer Tom Dascombe, we really went on a crusade.”
Owen’s wife Louise, the mother of their four children, is fully supportive of her husband’s initiative. “She loves her horses and she certainly doesn’t mind her day out at the races, and pops down to the stables. But she’s more into dressage,” he says. “My eldest daughter (Gemma) got into the GB dressage team a few months ago, which was brilliant.”
Today, the stables located within 170 acres are occupied by 90 horses. Several football-related owners include Sir Alex Ferguson. It is planned to increase the number of boxes to 140. If there is a model he aspires to it is Richard Hannon’s 240-strong Marlborough operation.
“I’ve got to be realistic about it,” says Owen. “I’ve not got the depth of pocket that the majority of big owners have got. I suppose Andrew Black has so more than me. But I think what I lack in financial clout in the horseracing game I probably make up for in passion and desire and wanting to get to the top. That can sometimes count for even more – as I’ve found out in my footballing career.”
Outside racing, Owen also has extensive BT Sport commitments and runs a management company, looking after the interests of around 20 young footballers. Everything about his life appears to be ordered, meticulously planned and typical of a man who has long been a constant frustration to the voraciously scandal-hungry red-tops.
No drunken nightclub exits for him, in a clinch with the obligatory model. He could be the lovechild of Dame Helen Mirren and Sir David Attenborough, such is his untainted place in public affection ever since announcing himself at St Etienne in 1998.
He laughs at such a depiction. “As a footballer, I was commercially quite viable. My agent had an agenda to protect my image, portray me in a certain light to the media and that’s the image people have of me. It’s all fair enough. I’m not one to go off the rails. But I have got a personality as well, I have got character. If you speak to my wife, and my mates, they’d laugh their heads off at the image I’ve got.” He adds: “You don’t want to watch me getting off the bus at Royal Ascot because we tend to leave the house at about seven in the morning and have a real drinking session, play cards and sing songs.”
Except you imagine it will be a distinctly sober Thursday, Gold Cup day, as he contemplates what could have been.
The Gold Cup at Royal Ascot on 18 June is part of the QIPCO British Champions Series: www.britishchampionsseries.comReuse content