With the Grand National ready for the off tomorrow, Roxane McMeeken meets three of construction’s racehorse owners. They all agree it’s a mug’s game, riskier than being a developer even. But then, nothing quite beats the thrill of watching a horse you own go two lengths clear in the final furlong …
Chairman, John Doyle. Owns four-and-a-half horses
Owning a horse is a mug’s game. The fact is, only one in three of bred for racing ever get good enough to even see a racecourse. Of these, only one in 10 win a race. A horse can cost anything from £10,000 to £200,000 to buy and then it costs about £2,000 a month for training and feeding. So unless you’re very lucky, you can’t make money out of owning a horse.
I went into it because I like a gamble. I thought, if I buy a horse or two and really get into it, I’ll get some inside information and make lots of money. Of course, that was a complete fallacy.
But if you heavily back a horse that you actually own and you see it going two lengths clear, it’s so exciting, the feeling is fantastic. My best moment was in 1996. I had a horse running at Cheltenham. Even the trainer said it couldn’t win the race. But it did win, and I’d backed it at 33-1. I had a go at everyone who didn’t bet on him, so next time he raced, all my friends and colleagues backed him at 6-1. He won again and we made so much money, we had to take it home in carrier bags.
The worst thing is selling a horse, then seeing it win race after race. That bloody kills me! Now, when I sell a horse, I make the buyer sign an agreement to say they will never race the horse. I know it makes me sound like a loony, but I’m telling you there’s nothing worse, so I don’t care …
My favourite horse is Helvetio. He’s only won once, but I have high hopes for him. You always hope that one day you’ll get one that keeps on winning.
For me, it’s about the excitement and gambling. The people at the races can be quite funny, too. You see the whole spectrum of society. At Royal Ascot once, I overheard some very posh-sounding people complaining that “the problem with racing these days is that too many ordinary people go”.
This weekend in the Grand National I’ll be backing Comply or Die. The horse seems to be a good galloper and the odds are 14-10.
- Owner: Stef Stefanou
- Trainer: Micky Hammond
- Breeder: Side Hill Stud and Floors Farming
- Age: Six
- Race type: Hurdles and flat
- Starts: 17– one win, six seconds, five thirds
QS, developer and founder of the former consultant Roger Kilby Associates. Owns 31 horses
Horse racing is so different from quantity surveying – that’s the appeal for me. Most QSs are careful, straightforward people and not risk-takers. They like to control things, but in this game, you have no control: the horse does what it likes and so does the jockey. Out of everyone in construction, developers are the people that take the most risks, but this is even worse.
I added up my horses this morning and worked out I’ve got 31. One of my favourites is Rollin ‘n’ Tumblin. That horse has come a long way. The trainer described him as “gormless” at first, but now he’s like a lion. He’s run three times at Kempton for me already.
Trafalgar Square is another one of my best horses at the moment. He is a cool customer, a nice even-handed horse with a lovely stride. He’ll probably be going to Royal Ascot and Glorious Goodwood this year.
I love breeding horses. They’re looked after for me by the trainer, of course, but I see them every week and watching them come on is fantastic. You see them trundling over the paddock and you notice that one is looking a bit faster suddenly and it comes as a complete surprise.
You can never tell how a horse is going to turn out. You might pay £10,000 or £150,000 for it, but it seems to have no bearing on how they go.
Gambling on your own horses is alright, but you have to be a bit selective. We’ve had six wins and 19 places so far this year – that’s better than our entire performance last year – so things are looking good. But if I backed all my own horses, I’d be putting on 120 to150 bets a year and I would most likely be skint!
My horses aren’t like pets, they’re more like colleagues. You don’t want anything to happen to them and you want them to do well, but they are not like the beloved family dog.
My favourite races are the shorter sprints on the flat. Jumping is a great spectacle, but it’s a bit like a parade. The real suspense is in the sprints.
My tip for the Grand National this weekend? Definitely Ashkazar.
- Trafalgar Square
- Owner: Canisbay Bloodstock
- Trainer: J Akehurst
- Jockey pictured: Kirsty Milczarek
- Breeder: Matthews Breeding and Racing
- Age: Six
- Race type: Flat
- Starts: 22 – four wins, no seconds and three thirds
managing director, Libra Demolition. Owns three horses
I think the reason so many construction people are into horse racing is the Irish connection. In the sixties, when the Irish came here to work as builders, they brought horse racing with them. It’s bred into them over there.
For me, it’s not about the gambling; I just think race horses are magnificent beasts. To own one that wins and wins is the ultimate dream.
I’ve had Four Franks for 18 months. I’ve only raced him once and he came seventh at Wetherby, which wasn’t too bad. At the moment, he’s what we call a “store horse”, which means we’re bringing him along slowly and not racing him again until we think he’s ready. Some horses just need time to grow up mentally. To start racing him regularly would be like sending an 11-year-old boy to work on a building site.
We named him Four Franks because the name’s a bit of a tradition for my family. I’m obviously Frank, my son is Frank, my dad’s Frank, mum’s Frances, and my little granddaughter is Frankie. We’ve had horses called 50 Franks, One Million Franks and Frankie Hanson.
They’ve all died except Four Franks. Some had broken legs, one got colic and one actually had a nervous breakdown. They’re extremely sensitive animals and it’s really distressing when they’re put down because for us they’re part of the family.
My horses are on my mind all the time. It’s a complete passion. Other people are into football, golf, boxing or whatever – for me, it’s the horses. You’re always dreaming that you’re going to have an awesome horse that keeps on winning.
We’ve never really had a horse like that, but I’ve got a new strategy. We always had Irish horses before, but now I’m going for French horses. They have real class, I reckon.
I don’t tip on the Grand National because it’s a mad race. There are too many horses in it and often the winner isn’t a particularly great horse.
- Four Franks
- Owner: Frank Hanson
- Trainer: Micky Hammond
- Breeder: GT Greene
- Age: Five
- Race type: Hurdle
- Starts: one – placed seventh
Photography by Tim Foster