Referred to as the sport of kings, horse racing has been part of British society for more than 400 years. It’s a sport fueled by money where the margins for victory are tiny but the stakes are always high. I’m on a journey to learn what it takes to be part of a sport loved by both gamblers and royalty.
On it, I was given rare access to the people who own, train and ride race horses as we attempt to shine a light on the inner workings of a sport, that for many, is shrouded in mystery. But first, it’s important to understand that there are two types of horse racing – flat and jump racing, also known as National Hunt. Traditionally flat racing was for the wealthy, while National Hunt was for farmers and country folk.
Today, national hunt occurs only in a handful of countries while flat racing is global, attracting fans from Kentucky to Abu Dhabi. There’s also a lot more money in it. Winning National Hunt’s biggest race, the Grand National, would earn you nearly $750,000. While in flat racing, you could take home $7 million by winning America’s Pegasus World Cup.
But the major money in flat horse racing isn’t made out on the track, it’s made at discreet stud farms. I’ve come to one called Newsells Park in Hertfordshire. Here, stallions and mares are hand-picked based on their own success on the track and their purebred pedigree of champion race horses.
The mares are then covered by the stallions in a controlled environment, as they aim to breed the next generation of winners. For the stallion’s owner, breeding is big business. Take for instance Frankel, arguably the greatest racehorse that ever lived. He was unbeaten during a three year career making his owner the Saudi Prince Khalid Abdullah around $4 million in prize money. Before his retirement in 2012, four-year-old Frankel had the highest rating of any racehorse in history.
If Frankel had kept racing, he would’ve likely continued to win and earn more prize money. But for his owner, Frankel’s success and super star status had sealed his fate. He would be a more lucrative asset as a breeding stallion.
In this new role, Frankel mated with hundreds of horses every year earning a fee every time. In 2017, he mated with 195 mares. Each go cost $165,000, earning his owner more than $30 million in just one year. Following the success of some of his first foals such as Cracksman and Rostropovich, Frankel’s going rate has increased to $230,000. One man that paid for a Frankel foal is entrepreneur Graham Smith-Bernal.
A decade ago, he sold his litigation software business for over $75 million. With some of his hard earned fortune, he bought a number of successful race horses. “And all of a sudden my phone is going, there’s text messages of ‘Congratulations,’ I say, ‘What is this?’ It cannot be that Grey Britain has just won that race.” So what attracted him to becoming an owner? “You know, you win the race, you win some nice prize money but mainly you’ve got the satisfaction and the thrill of having your horse winning a race.” But now he wants to breed a champion race horse.
So he purchased a broodmare called La Mortola for more than $450,000. At the time, La Mortola was pregnant with one of Frankel’s foals. This year she gave birth to that foal – a young colt called Fabrizio. A colt is an uncastrated male horse less than four years old. His development over the next year will be closely monitored by Newsells Park and its general manager Julian Dollar.
“Our job is not to mess things up really. They are highly strung and they’ll do lots of things to try to hurt themselves on an almost daily basis.” “Everything is designed to make them the best athlete they could be. You could sort of imagine some parent doing it to some seven year old that they dreamt was going to be the next Venus Williams of the tennis world.” “He’s all in proportion, he’s what I call well balanced. He did, he’s a snapper. What’s changed over him – he’s now three and half, nearly four months isn’t he?” “Just looking for the overall, when I say balance of the horse it’s just as I say it’s making sure that everything fits together.
So we want him to have a little bit of roundness over the top, a good bit of muscle across his back and then here a good bit of hind quarter which he has because that’s where the power comes from. He’s got a good proportion of forearm, he’s not too light, the muscle here that’s of course very important. He looks very chilled out in the sun today, he’s half asleep but that’s good, that’s good because it says he’s got a good relaxed temperament. If I was going to criticise the horse it would just be that he’s a touch small but the most important thing is he’s all in proportion, everything flows together, he walks well, he looks quite athletic. It’s hard to breed horses, it’s bloody hard to breed horses. It’s much easier to go and buy a race horse, so it’s nice when you get one like this.” But is Fabrizio’s owner happy with his progress and what does his future hold?
“It’s a hobby and it’s fun and I’m not doing it because I think I’m going to make money from this. This is a really, really enjoyable hobby to be involved with, but you have to be thinking in part with your head as well. You’ve got to otherwise, you know, it just doesn’t make any sense.” If Graham does decide he wants to sell Fabrizio then he has got options. He could sell it either through a private buyer or he could take it to auction.
This is Crystall Ball, the oldest bloodstock auctioneers in the world and the largest in Europe. It sells over 10,000 horses every year. “One of the advantages of coming to auction is that the horses all come to you.” On average how much money is being spent at one of these auctions?” “It varies considerably, at a sale like this one today they’ll probably be turnover of around 5 million guineas.” A guinea is £1 and 5 pence. It’s used mainly for determining professional fees and auction prices. Horse racing is a lot about gambling and that for a lot of people is the entertainment factor and you get a little bit of that here as well don’t you?
“Yeah, undoubtedly the adrenalin rush that you get bidding might help you have another bid or two.” A high cost of a horse doesn’t translate to a champion racer? “No, that’s one of the great things about the game is that there’s no guarantees. Your person who comes along and buys a cheap yearling, say 10 or 20 grand, can still hit the jackpot.” Two men that are trying to do just that are trainer Hugo Palmer and bloodstock agent Mark McStay. They’ve agreed to give me unrestricted access as they work to find the right horse for the right price.
You know it’s a great industry to be involved in. Most wealthy people can’t afford to buy Manchester United, Chelsea or Tottenham Hotspur and win the premiership but if you walk into that ring at Tattersalls here and you had half a million pounds you could have bought Australia, who won a Derby. Most people who come into horse racing as potential owners or new people to the sport are uninitiated and they need to find someone they trust.
I as a bloodstock agent would sell myself on integrity and hopefully that’s why people will be attracted to me, come to me for my advice and I’ll hopefully point them in the direction of a nice horse or a nice trainer.” Today Mark and Hugo are on the hunt to find a horse for Hugo’s yard. They’ll be looking at several, but for Mark this is the last stage after weeks of research. He’s prepared a short list of horses from the hundreds up for sale, now together they need to make their final decision. So what are you doing there Mark when you..?
“You just see the front of the canon bone there? There’s a little bit of a profile to it where it comes out a little bit.” Okay, got you.
“These horses Mark has seen them, he’s seen them twice, we’re now coming back to see them a third time. If I like it and I think I might buy it I’ll probably see it a fourth time and then I’ll send a vet to see it and they will check that the horse is structurally okay and you know they’ll put a tube down its throat and see that it has the right breathing apparatus to actually perform.” “So the colt, lovely big strong horse. His scope was a grade 2, normal pass, little bit of extension in the knees and very slight pain on palpation of the shins. But all in all very solid.”
“Happy with straight forward horse, yeah.” “The filly looks like she’s growing, she’s going to be very big I think, high behind, she’s lame in front – I would not be proceeding without getting some x-rays on those knees.” “Okay, right.” “Very good.” The time for talking is over.
The horse they’ve decided to bid on is lot number 186, a young colt called Havana Gold. But before the bidding war begins, Mark wants to see how the whole auction is going and who he might be competing against. “I just want to follow him in out of interest and get a gauge on the market.” And who is he competing against? “Somebody at the far side of that partition over there.” It’s quite nerve racking isn’t it?