Life’s a gamble

From White City dogs, to betting shops, to becoming a Coolmore partner, Michael Tabor’s life has been a series of punts – most of them lucky more »

Monday, July 2, 2012

When Michael Tabor stands beside the heaving flanks of a horse that has just won a major race, he is invariably content. So, too, are his partners in the Coolmore syndicate, yet there is something utterly distinct about Tabor’s smile. There is no discernible sense of wonderment or surprise. He has the aura of a man in a self-contained bubble of satisfaction. It is as if a calculated gamble has just paid off. Bingo!

Michael Tabor and Seamie Heffernan after winning the Oaks with Was

For all that, you have to wonder what goes on inside a mind that has swept Tabor on a magic carpet ride from London’s East End to some of the world’s most desirable locations.

His base in Monte Carlo – a friend recently teased that it took him 50 years to get there – is augmented by a winter residence in Barbados, where he is also a partner in the Sandy Lane Hotel. It has all come the way of a man who assimilates information like a giant cypher.

Tabor’s calm outward demeanour is abetted by a determination to keep things simple. It was an asset bestowed at birth and has governed much of his professional life. Now, having conquered the betting jungle as an opening gambit, he sees life through the lens of one of the game’s biggest owners.

He is one of only four men to have won the Derby at Epsom and Churchill Downs. Neither John Magnier nor Sheikh Mohammed can claim that distinction, and it is fast becoming a habit: Camelot’s recent triumph at Epsom gave Tabor the chance to meet the Queen for the fourth time in 12 years.

“It is very difficult to know how you should behave when you are introduced to her,” he maintains. Not too many are sufficiently acquainted to help him out on that one.

Nor is it a dilemma that Tabor, 70, could have envisaged in his youth. The son of a glass manufacturer, he took a shine to dog racing in his teens. He spent Monday and Friday afternoons at Hendon stadium, which is now Brent Cross shopping centre, in north London.

“That’s how I became interested in gambling,” he reflects. “I saw these guys standing up, taking bets, and it appealed to me. People came for enjoyment and from early on I thought to myself that being a bookmaker would be enjoyable. I also spent a lot of time at White City – and still would if the place was open [it closed in September 1984].”

Tabor’s fraught, formative experiences would eventually make him the betting ring’s biggest predator at a time when monsters stalked the patch in the 1970s and 1980s. Occasionally he would ask the tic-tacs to lay a favourite for him. The learning curve was steep.

“From memory, of the first ten dogs I laid, eight of them won,” he reflects with a smile he can now afford. “That’s when I realised there was more to bookmaking than meets the eye. It’s like everything else in life: you have to know your business from top to bottom.”

Camelot is the fourth Derby winner in which Tabor has been involved

Undeterred, Tabor’s curiosity was aroused to the extent that he wanted to know every last detail about everything to do with the ring. His search for information in his quest for an edge knew no bounds; he was even banned from the racecourse for three years in 1970 for paying jockeys for information.

By then he’d started the Arthur Prince betting chain that would make him his first fortune. “My first year of business was in the year Foinavon won the Grand National [at 100-1 in 1967],” Tabor recalls.

“It was a great result for me but two years later, when Highland Wedding won, I walked out of the office that evening thinking I’d gone into the wrong business.”

His opening foray into off-course bookmaking saw him buy two shops from Andrew Gordon, who’d served in the ceremonial position as Second Page of Honour to the Queen in the 1950s but had subsequently hit hard times.

“Andrew was a very charismatic individual,” Tabor says. “It made sense to keep the name of Arthur Prince, who I think was an Italian bookmaker who used to bet at Epsom. I also became a punter as well as a bookmaker, but I always knew I needed to have a solid foundation. I needed to keep opening betting shops in as many correct locations as possible.”

I always was – and probably still am today – absolutely terrified of losing

Tabor was plainly driven in his determination to grow the business. He had one golden rule. “When I went into the office I always adopted the attitude that yesterday was history,” he says. “I always was – and probably still am today – absolutely terrified of losing.”

He still has a picture in his office of Tornado Prince, the first horse he owned, winning a novices’ hurdle at Ascot in 1974. The horse was kind to him, winning seven times in all, “dare I say it, when I most needed the money,” says Tabor. “He was one of those horses you could rely on and they are few and far between.”

But the horse that highlighted the fruits of Tabor’s endeavours was Royal Derbi, a cheap purchase off the Flat who was trained, like Tornado Prince, by Neville Callaghan in Newmarket. Tabor hired a helicopter to watch Royal Derbi contest a humdrum race at Leicester in 1994.

His arrival created quite a stir, especially when he flexed his muscles in the ring. “We thought the horse was a good thing,” he recalls. “We were guided by the groundsman, who told us where the better going was, but it turned out to be completely wrong. When the jockey jumped off him he said to me, ‘Who was that friend of yours’?”

Enjoying Camelot's Derby victory with wife Doreen, Bernard Kantor and John Magnier

It was around this time that Tabor sold his Arthur Prince chain for a reported £27 million. His first son, Ashley, showed little interest in the business and the final straw came when Tabor was walking the streets of Croydon in February with two co-directors.

“It was a distinctly dull, miserable day with slush on the ground,” he recalls. “We were there to look at a couple of shops and I thought to myself, ‘What am I doing here?’ I decided to sell there and then.”

His association with Magnier and the Coolmore team was almost simultaneous. He was introduced by JP McManus, a mutual friend who pointed him in their direction when Tabor moved to Miami and wanted to race a horse in America.

In the summer of 1994 Tabor paid “a little over $400,000” for Thunder Gulch, then a promising two-year-old in John Kimmel’s barn. The colt was rigorously assessed by Demi O’Byrne and Paul Shanahan, whose faces dropped when he was beaten in ordinary company on his first run in Tabor’s silks. Thunder Gulch was then transferred to D Wayne Lukas, who saddled him to win the Grade 2 Remsen Stakes. From there Thunder Gulch went on to win the Kentucky Derby, the Belmont and the Travers. His Triple Crown bid came unstuck in the Preakness, where he was beaten less than a length from the widest draw in stall 11.

Thunder Gulch’s exploits marked the start of a love affair with American racing that still endures today. “He was a phenomenal horse,” Tabor says. “It was a fantastic feeling when he won the Kentucky Derby; I would love to win the race again.”

So much so that Tabor was at Churchill Downs, rather than Newmarket, on the first Saturday in May. “It was obvious Camelot had a better chance in the 2,000 Guineas,” he says. “I could stomach missing Newmarket, but not the Kentucky Derby – just in case Daddy Long Legs won. I couldn’t bear the thought of missing it.”

At the height of Thunder Gulch’s exploits he attracted a huge bid from Japan. Tabor’s commercial instincts prompted him to accept in principle until he mentioned it in passing to his wife, Doreen, who was distraught at the prospect.

At that point Magnier intervened. Tabor reveals: “He said to me, ‘Michael, I don’t want to be responsible for a divorce. Let’s keep the horse’.”

So they did, with Magnier buying half of Thunder Gulch for his stud innings at Ashford, Coolmore’s Kentucky annex. It was to prove a seminal moment for Tabor.

“John coming in like that gave me a lot of encouragement,” he says. “Nothing succeeds like success and, ever since then, the business has been very good to me.”

Tabor has since been joined in the Coolmore partnership by Derrick Smith. Although Camelot carries Smith’s purple and white silks, almost all the Ballydoyle horses are owned in a three-way partnership along with Magnier and his wife Sue.

This arrangement evolved from recognition that racing is a notoriously difficult business to predict. In the past Tabor has passed up certain horses that graduated to championship status, among them Holy Roman Emperor.

“I remember that so well,” he reflects. “I had a lovely foal out of my mare [the Grade 1 winner] Circle Of Life and John had a homebred foal that turned out to be Holy Roman Emperor. He suggested we went 50-50 on each foal but I declined.

I would say that breeding your own horses is the hardest game in the world

“Holy Roman Emperor now looks like making a very good stallion and mine was an also-ran, but that’s life. I was offered the opportunity, which I didn’t accept, but you can’t win them all. Not in this game.”

Mind you, the traffic is not all one way. “For reasons that none of us can remember, John didn’t come into Rags To Riches with Derrick and me,” Tabor relates. “To this day John still wonders why. She was a standout yearling [she fetched $1.9 million] and of course she gave us an unforgettable day when she won the Belmont Stakes [in 2007].”

Any such anomalies are quickly forgotten: the rollcall of champions owned by the partners continues to grow at astonishing speed. In the circumstances it’s hardly surprising to hear Tabor declare that he is enjoying his racing and breeding more now than at any time in the past.

“I would say that breeding your own horses is the hardest game in the world,” he avers. “At the same time, the rewards are huge. You get such an enormous amount of pleasure from one you breed yourself – like Giant’s Causeway, for example.”

He continues: “My role within Coolmore, is very simple. You’re running a business, you know what your income is, and you treat it as such. As partners, Derrick and I discuss things with the team, and, in the main, you have to go along with them because they have a proven expertise.

“To be honest, it’s a pleasure just to listen to them. They always say why they are doing this, or breeding this mare to that stallion. I’m not an expert on that side of it but I find it fascinating. And it’s mind-boggling to see the foals and yearlings which result from that planning.”

The consequence of it all is that Tabor and his partners are poised for an unprecedented clean sweep of the British Classics. It is theirs for the taking, possibly with a Triple Crown winner into the bargain, yet Tabor’s thirst for some occasional betting ring action remains insatiable.

He is as cagey on the subject as he has always been: the poker player reluctant to show his hand even when all others have folded. However, when asked for one key strategy to success, he responds in a heartbeat.
“Never take a lesser price to the one available when you want to place your bet,” he says. “That’s a recipe for disaster. It is very difficult to beat the odds, so unless you can get on at the odds you want, don’t have the bet.”

Getting on at the desired odds is no easy business when Tabor chooses to open his shoulders, since the sums are colossal. But he doesn’t blame bookmakers. He admits that when he stood on the other side he would sometimes run for cover.

“It always depended on who the punter was,” Tabor says with a smile. “That’s how it is in all of life: you have to know who’s who, or you won’t last long! There’s an old saying I like, which is that good punters make good bookmakers. I have found that to be very true.”

Handicap win stands out among Group 1s
A look of bemusement descends on Michael Tabor when he is asked to nominate five horses or races that have given him particular pleasure. In 2012 alone he has won all four Classics in Britain plus a Royal Ascot Group 1 with So You Think.

Stewards' Cup winner Danetime remains a favourite for Tabor

“It’s very difficult to answer,” he says. “I mean, where do you start? I could give you 20 and still miss out some really important ones.”

Nevertheless, he gives it a go, starting with High Chaparral’s 2002 Derby victory in his colours. “On the day Mick Kinane went to Hawk Wing,” he says, “but when I put a gun to Aidan’s [O’Brien] head he said he just favoured High Chaparral because the ground had turned in his favour.

“But Galileo and Pour Moi, and now Camelot, have also won the Derby for us. And of course, there was Montjeu. He won his King George with consummate ease [see page 104], and also the Arc. How can you not include that? And Giant’s Causeway, who I bred. See what I mean?”

Nevertheless, a telling addition to the list was Danetime’s Stewards’ Cup victory in 1997 after the horse had narrowly failed to land the Wokingham from a bad draw.

“I shall never forget it,” he maintains. “It was a beautiful day, my family was with me at Goodwood and I was nervous because we’d backed him.

“I told Pat Eddery in the paddock that he had to keep an eye out for horses on the other side of the track, and he gave me a look as if to say, ‘Hey, just remember who you’re talking to here’.

“It came down to a photo and at first glance it seemed as though the horse had got beat.
“But the angle is deceptive there and after seeing the replay it looked as though we’d won it – which we did, in a photo. It was only a handicap but it was special day. There have been many of those. I have been incredibly fortunate.”

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  • Eoghanjoneill

    well written and a lovely story, well done Mr Tabor

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