The thrills (and dangers) of race horse ownership
As an owner, rather than a spectator, it's even more important to tell the difference between potential winners and losers
When the Irish-bred grey Nicolaus Silver won the Grand National in 1961, six-year-old Brian Cosgrove was at Aintree enjoying his first day at the races with his father, who won more than a week’s wages on the horse. The bug never left him and 54 years later, after a lifetime working around the world in the insurance industry, Brian became a racehorse owner himself, purchasing a 40% stake in a horse he named Ultimate Dream.
While racing may be the sport of kings, it’s surprisingly easy to become an owner thanks to the system of sole ownership, partnerships and syndicates. But if you think it’s an investment that will make you rich, you should think again: for most owners the real return is the pleasure of being more closely involved in the sport and very few make a financial gain.
Ultimate Dream won races at Towcester and Exeter. Brian also acquired a smaller share in another horse called Terry the Fish, whose name was inspired by the fisheries industry background of the majority shareholder, which has won three times at Uttoxeter Racecourse. His wife, Yvonne, has also become part owner of a horse called The Manuscript.
There are plenty of highs in racing, but there are also lows. Ultimate Dream had to be retired from the sport after injuring a tendon and has been rehomed at The British Thoroughbred Retraining Centre in Lancashire. Brian says: “Obviously, we were devastated, not because he was going to be the greatest horse in the world but because he was our first horse and we loved him to bits.”
Buying a horse
Edward Gillespie OBE, former managing director of Cheltenham Racecourse, is now a consultant working with former champion jockey and leading trainer Jonjo O’Neill at his Jackdaws Castle yard in Gloucestershire, where Brian and Yvonne bought shares in their horses. He says: “There aren’t many sports where you can effectively get on to the field of play by investing as an owner. That’s the fun of horseracing.”
There are usually around 120 horses at Jackdaws Castle. Some are for sale, ranging in price from £20,000 to £200,000, and an annual training fee of around £25,000. Like many stables, when the right animal isn’t available, the team often attends auctions with prospective owners to help them buy a horse.
At first glance, ownership could seem beyond most people but partnerships involving small groups of friends, and syndicates of anything up to 60 people, allow owners to spread the cost. Any winnings are often put towards training and offset the total cost of ownership. At Jackdaws Castle, the aim is to keep the horses racing for eight years where possible, to spread the investment. But, as with Ultimate Dream, there are no guarantees and the welfare of the horses always comes first.
“When someone is interested in becoming an owner, we invite them to the yard for a couple of hours,” explains Edward. “It’s very much like being shown around a private school, that’s the best way I can describe it. We show them the entire set-up, show them the horses exercising on the gallops, introduce them to key personnel as well as Jonjo, if he’s available.
“Either we’ll already have a horse for them, depending on the time of year, or they’ll come with us to an auction. But we don’t expect them to be qualified to make the buying decisions or to understand bloodstock; that’s what Jonjo and his bloodstock agent do.”
Passion for racing
Charlie Liverton, managing director of the Racehorse Owners Association agrees that it’s not an investment for those looking to make money. He explains: “It’s about the experience, the people, the beauty of the thoroughbred horse, the history of it and all that it entails. It’s the colour and the pageantry for those who strike on a horse that is successful at courses like Ascot, Goodwood, York or Chester. But that’s the very top, which we all dream of, and many are racing around lesser tracks.
“There is nothing like having a winner on a racecourse in your colours, whether they are yours as a sole owner or colours that you’ve become attached to through a syndicate or a partnership. You’ve generally seen the horse develop from a youngster, a yearling, through to adolescence and adulthood. You’ve been there every step of the way through the good times and the bad.”
Most owners write off the amount they pay for their horse. But in addition to prize money it’s sometimes possible to make some of the money back by selling the horse overseas. The growing popularity of the sport in Europe, the Middle East and Far East has created a very strong export market. Syndicates, for example, often have a timeline of around two years so that all members understand the commitment. After this time it is possible the horse could be sold on.
The burgeoning international racing scene means that there is big prize money to be won overseas, and British horses are in great demand. The Dubai World Cup race day, the richest in the world, is expected to offer prize money of $30 million this year. Some owners are taking advantages of the international opportunities and, according to Charlie, one British horse is reputed to have completed 34,500 air miles last year.
In some cases, it might make more sense to breed your own winner than to buy one, requiring the purchase of a brood mare, approaching a stud farm and developing a breeding plan. If you want to end up with a middle-distance horse, you send the mare to the type of stallion likely to produce one.
“If you decide to breed a horse, the cost of its training is exactly the same as buying a horse but the production costs, depending on the stallion you use and the mare you buy, will be less,” explains Charlie. “If you are proposing to spend £100,000 or £200,000 in the sales ring then you could probably breed it for less, depending on the stallion you use.”
In Brian’s case, after years working for the Zurich Insurance Group in the Middle East, Switzerland and South Africa, buying a racehorse was a retirement treat he promised himself. But he is adamant that anyone thinking of owning a racehorse should think hard about the costs first.
“If you can’t afford to lose the money, don’t take a share of a racehorse,” he says. “You have to do it because you love the sport and you also have to be able to afford to lose. The high spot is getting a winning horse – even getting a placed horse when it’s wearing your colours is a bit different to just having a bet on a race.”
For buyers and breeders, investing in winning animals is much the same as investing in company stocks. You need to identify the underlying strength and effective management teams that will put a horse ahead of the field, says Charlie.
“When you are looking at horses it’s a bit like looking at a company when you are stock picking,” he explains. “In other words, if you don’t really like the forecast for that sector, that’s a negative. Just as if you are looking at a horse and it hasn’t won lately you are going to give it a negative.
“If you are looking at the chief executive and his team and they are proven, you are going to give it a tick. If you are looking at the dam of the horse you are potentially going to buy, and she has produced four winners from five foals, you are going to give it a tick.
“This is where we as an industry aren’t very good at saying to people, ‘It’s not just about another brown horse,’ but how you can tell the difference between potential winners and losers.”
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