The number of racehorses in Britain is on the rise, with the British Horseracing Authority aiming for a further 1,000 horses in training by 2020. Owning a race horse is one of life’s greatest pleasures – to have a winner, especially a high-profile one at Royal Ascot or the Cheltenham Festival, is a dream come true. But how do you buy a race horse? Should you go it alone or join a syndicate?
Words: Amy Mathieson
Owning a racehorse is one of the most exhilarating experiences one can have. The rush of coloured silks as the horses gallop up the home straight and the roar of the crowd as the runners pass the post, the pop of Champagne corks – the excitement on a racetrack is tangible. And that’s just for the ordinary spectator. For owners, the experience is even better – to have a winner, especially a high-profile one at Royal Ascot or the Cheltenham Festival, is a dream come true.
‘It’s an odd experience – but a fantastic one. Your heart starts pounding and time moves in a blur,’ says Clive Smith, owner of the legendary Kauto Star, recalling his first Cheltenham Gold Cup.
There are many options available to the discerning owner, and for the first time buyer there’s help at hand. The number of racehorses in Britain is on the rise, with the sport’s governing body, the British Horseracing Authority, aiming for a further 1,000 horses in training by 2020. Membership of the Racehorse Owners Association (ROA) is also growing and now stands at around 7,500.
‘It was a difficult time for racing immediately post the 2008 financial crisis and we saw owner numbers drop,’ says Harry Williams of the ROA. ‘In the past 12 months though we have seen owner numbers begin to level out and more recently increase again.’
‘Given the compelling and competitive nature of the sport in this country it is no surprise that so many people from overseas choose to own horses here,’ adds Williams.
The ownership of racing horses is split between those with deep pockets who opt for sole ownership and those who are happier to join a well-run, successful syndicate.
If you want to make all the decisions, and are happy to bear the costs, sole ownership is the answer
‘If you want to make all the decisions, and are happy to bear the costs, sole ownership is the answer,’ says Williams. ‘But if you want a smaller stake for less cost, and perhaps to spread the risk, syndicates and partnerships are the way forward.’
There’s also the decision between Flat and National Hunt. From top hats to tweed, there’s plenty of glamour in both spheres – though you’ll need to wrap up warmer on a day out for the latter. Organisers of the Grand National recently announced that the prize-pot across the three days had risen to just under £3m – a record total, showing the positive state of the industry. But rewards in Flat racing are much higher.
The Derby is the richest race in Britain, run over 1m4f at Epsom in June, and the race is this year worth £1.325m, a figure that is set to rise to £1.5m in 2017.
‘Fundamentally buying a racehorse is an easy process,’ says Jimmy George of Tattersalls, Europe’s leading bloodstock auctioneers, which celebrates its 250th anniversary this year.
‘The auction market makes it very easy,’ he adds. ‘As long as you know how much you have to spend and what roughly you want to buy, we can find a sale to suit.’
When horses range from yearlings to unraced two-year-olds to older horses, it can appear overwhelming to make a choice. The book one October Yearling Sales is where Tattersalls displays its ‘cream of the crop’.
It is arguably the most glamorous sale, and horses range can reach around 220,000 guineas. However, there is something at every level, whether you have £1,000 or £2m.
George says that as most owners are not experts in assessing thoroughbreds, it is best to enlist someone within the industry for help. Half the fun is the actual choosing and buying of a horse, so it’s not something to be rushed.
‘In every line of purchase you will need professional advice,’ he adds. ‘There are lots of different options available and the point is to make the buying process as enjoyable as possible.’
More than half of the annual turnover at Tattersalls comes from overseas clients including those from the US and the UAE.
‘Racing in Britain is very much regarded as top class, and horses here go on to the global stage, our overseas buyers are hugely important to us and have grown massively in recent years,’ adds George.
There are many syndicates out there depending on your budget and preference. Highclere Thoroughbred Racing was set up by John Warren, the Queen’s bloodstock manager, in 1992 and is popular with overseas clients.
The organisation also has numerous high-profile members including chef Heston Blumenthal, Olympian Denise Lewis and actor Hugh Bonneville.
‘It’s a great way to become involved with good bloodstock without spending a fortune,’ says Highclere’s Chairman Harry Herbert. ‘Ultimately, it’s about enjoying the sport with your friends.’
Highclere member Michael Richards says the syndicate provides the ‘thrill of competing on the sport’s biggest stages and exceptional behind the scenes access.
‘It is a real privilege to see racing’s master trainers at work and it adds enormously to the enjoyment of racehorse ownership. Win or lose, racing should be fun and we have had some wonderful times with them.’
The organisation – which runs around eight different syndicates – prides itself on the personal touch, so wherever you are the world you will receive regular updates including videos, photos and phone calls.
‘Communication is vital with us,’ says Herbert. ‘Whether you’re in Hong Kong, France or the US you will feel like your horse is just down the road. We treat every share owner as if they are an owner in their own right. You’ll feel that buzz wherever you are in the world.’
Whether you’re in Hong Kong, France or the US you will feel like your horse is just down the road. We treat every share owner as if they are an owner in their own right
Plus owners have a ‘serious chance’ to race at a high level, says Herbert. Highclere has had winners at Royal Ascot including Harbinger and Memory. Horses are in training with top handlers including Sir Michael Stoute and Richard Hannon and ridden by racing stars such as Frankie Detorri and Ryan Moore.
Owners choose which horses they would like to become involved in and are invited to yearling parade at Highclere to see them, before signing up for three years. ‘We cater for all budgets – the average is around £15,000 but it ranges from £7,800 to £40,000,’ explains Herbert.
In 2014 Highclere had 164 runners with 24 wins and 55 places, with prize money totalling £862,862. All prize money and sale prices are split between share owners, with Highclere taking a management fee. ‘It’s a very transparent way of owning horses,’ he adds. ‘It’s a way of dipping a toe in and seeing what the great sport is all about.’
Unlike art or property, racehorse ownership is seen as more of an experience than an investment. ‘Very few owners make a profit and instead tend to view ownership as a passion and as something they want to spend their disposable income on without expecting a return,’ says Williams. So what is the key to success?
‘You need luck and money,’ says George. ‘Owners need to enter into the sport with that in mind – if you’re looking at it as an investment you could be disappointed. A good horse can end up making a good financial return, but it shouldn’t be the overriding reason to enter into racing. Everyone wants winners, but it’s the fun of the sport that makes it worthwhile.’
Amy Mathieson is news editor of Horse & Hound