As Managing Director of Haymarket Publishing for over 30 years, you published over 100 titles, including What Car? and Campaign. What inspired you to buy racing’s Pacemaker magazine and was it a success?
It was not a success, more of a disaster! We bought when the market was at its height at the time of those tremendous battles at the sales between Robert Sangster and Sheikh Mohammed and the Arabs. The advertising market was potentially very strong from the breeders’ and stallion owners’ point of view. But we just bought at the wrong time and within about six months of buying Pacemaker the advertising was on the slide. So we turned it into a quality weekly called Racing Update, which was designed to cover international racing of interest to the breeding industry on both sides of the Atlantic. The magazine itself enjoyed success from the readership point of view, but within about 18 months the advertisers we needed to sustain the publication disappeared. Eventually we went back to producing the monthly magazine.
We had Pacemaker for about five years but simply couldn’t maintain the advertising. Now there is the amalgam of the old Pacemaker together with the readership of the owners and breeders in Thoroughbred Owner & Breeder, which is the ideal mix for where the market is.
Are you still involved in publishing?
I am still a non-executive director of Haymarket, the largest private magazine publishing company in the country, in which Michael Heseltine is still very much involved.
How well served is the racing industry by the sport’s various papers and periodicals?
I think very well served by the two principal publications, the Racing Post and the Owner Breeder. The Racing Post has gone on, improved and become very strong since the days of The Sporting Life, and does an excellent job. I don’t feel a competitor would be of any benefit at all. In fact, I can’t see how another racing daily would be viable. There is bloodstock coverage every day and when the sales are on it faithfully records all the details. We accept that racing is about betting and what’s going to win, but ultimately the paper provides great coverage of the horses, particularly the best ones.
You have enjoyed considerable success as an owner and breeder. Nicky Henderson’s brilliant chaser Simonsig is the outstanding produce from your Highfields Farm in Sussex. Did you ever consider keeping him to race for yourself? Any regrets?
Initially we did, until we realised how good he was and that we couldn’t hold him at home. We had him until he was three and were hoping to race him as a four-year-old, starting in point-to-points. But he showed so much speed and was clearly exceptional that we decided we had to send him to be trained for point-to-points by Ian Ferguson in Ireland, where horses can make their own mark. Simonsig won two out of his three point-to-points and would have won his third had he not fallen at the last. He was the best young point-to-pointer in Ireland and when Ronnie Bartlett, a good friend who also had horses with Ian Ferguson, asked if I would consider selling I did a deal with him. Otherwise, I would have put him up for sale at Fairyhouse and I think he would have sold equally well through the agents.
I do not have any regrets. Ronnie is such a good friend, I know Nicky [Henderson] well and whenever the horse runs Ronnie welcomes me as a co-owner. I join them in the paddock and the winner’s enclosure.
As you say, Simonsig came through the Irish point-to-point scene, like many top class jumpers. How did you choose this route and why doesn’t Britain have a pointing scene like Ireland?
Horses graduate from point-to-points in Ireland for the very good reason that there are a lot of races for four-year-olds, providing plenty of opportunities to run against their own age group, whereas in Britain there just aren’t the same number of races. Also in Ireland they are much more likely to get safe ground, which is so important for young horses.
In Britain, when four-year-olds are beginning to mature in the spring, it is much more difficult to find safe ground, so they run in bumpers. There is a huge quantity of horses bred in Ireland that come through the point-to-point system and you can get a four-year-old race regularly divided three ways. Nick Pearce trains our horses in Sussex up to the point where we can decide whether or not they would benefit from being sent to Ian Ferguson, with whom I have been associated for the past 20 years. And Ian works very well with my racing adviser, Neil McGrath.
How did you acquire Princess Florine, Simonsig’s grandam, and what other progeny do you have out of Dusty Too, Simonsig’s dam?
David Minton bought her at Saratoga in the early 1990s. I think basically because he liked the look of her; there was quite a bit of speed in her pedigree. I put her in training with David Elsworth but she got one of those American viruses, which unfortunately meant that she never made it to the racecourse.
Dusty Too’s first three foals, including Simonsig, have won and we have another five on the ground, including a Yeats filly foal who was born about three months ago. Most of them are named after good South African wines; Simonsig was drunk at the Commonwealth Ministers’ Dinner given for the Queen in Jubilee year.
Simonsig has a four-year-old half-brother by Presenting, called Simonsruudt. We tried to sell him as a three-year-old and bought him in at €50,000 at the Derby Sales last year. As a three-year-old he wasn’t forward enough for the market, so we have him. He has got an engine, a very good temperament and is now with Ian Ferguson.
You also bred Gale Force Ten, winner of this year’s Jersey Stakes, having sold him for a sale-topping £280,000 at Doncaster’s Yearling Sales in 2011. Can you compare the thrill of breeding winners at Royal Ascot and the Cheltenham Festival?
I suppose the ultimate thrill is seeing Simonsig coming up the hill two years in a row at Cheltenham. But that’s only a degree ahead of the excitement of witnessing a horse you have bred come to the front and stay on to win the Jersey at Royal Ascot. Simonsig was a sick horse the second time in the Arkle, and after looking as if he was going to gallop clear and win by a distance he just stayed on. After the race he had a lot of muck in him and bled a bit. When I last saw Nicky he said Simonsig had enjoyed a good time out at grass this summer and has done really well.
As someone who started going racing when he was ten, first as a spectator, then as an owner and then as a breeder, I have to say the real excitement is watching horses that you have bred win, be it at Cheltenham, Ascot or anywhere for that matter.
How many broodmares do you own now and what is the most you would spend on a stallion nomination?
I am down to three now: Dusty Too, Ronaldsay and Anbella, who produces very correct foals that have sold well. At my peak I had ten. I doubt if we’d spend much beyond £20,000, which I have done for Gale Force Ten’s dam, Ronaldsay. She has an Exceed And Excel foal and she has gone to So You Think, winner of the 2011 Eclipse and Irish Champion Stakes.
What have been the best horses to carry your own colours? And which gave you your most satisfying moment?
I have had nearly 170 winners on the Flat and over jumps, but have never owned a really good horse of the quality of Simonsig or Gale Force Ten. I have owned Listed winners, though, including Ronaldsay, who has to be very special. We put her through the ring to sell at Newmarket and she was sent back to Stowell Hill and I took a 50% interest in her, and David Ludlow and Stowell took the other 50%. Ronaldsay won over £100,000 in prize-money and has provided me with the most memorable moments as an owner. She won three Listed races and she has provided those stand-out moments in my career. Then as a broodmare she produced Gale Force Ten, by Oasis Dream, who was sold for 280,000 guineas at Doncaster and then a Dubawi colt, who made 180,000 guineas and is currently unable to run having tested positive for steroids in Mahmood Al Zarooni’s stable.
Another highlight was Nightbird winning four races as a two-year-old, including a Listed event, before being sold to Godolphin. Bob McCreery, my partner who owns Stowell Hill Stud, always tells me I should aspire to owning a top class horse. I tell him I go racing for fun and if a horse of mine wins I am very happy. For me, one of the most fulfilling moments on a racecourse is greeting a horse that has come back from injury to win a race.
Is there too much racing in Britain and should we reduce the fixture list?
If having too many small fields and so much racing is resulting in reduced prize-money, as well it may be, then it has got to be a bad thing for the sport. Prize-money at the top end does not need increasing. At the bottom end many owners are members of clubs and syndicates who only have legs in horses so their overheads are less dependent on prize-money. But the owner/breeder, who might have as many as ten or 15 horses in training, cannot make ends meet on the middle-tier prize-money and I think that is where we should be looking for improvement.
You’ve had horses in training with Barry Hills and Stan Mellor. What are your favourite memories of these two characters?
Stan Mellor taught me everything I know about racing, from his perspective as a jockey as well as his reading of races. I had a lot of success with him and our relationship lasted about 20 years. When I last spoke to his wife Elain she said he was enjoying retirement. Both Stan and Barry made racing great fun. Barry was very good running a big yard and always seemed to have time to talk to you and kept one very well informed; he was an excellent communicator, which is so important. Barry hasn’t enjoyed the best of health in recent years but when I saw him at Ascot in the summer he was back to his best.
As a British breeder, do you consider your operation to be at a disadvantage when you see the more lucrative premiums on offer in other countries?
I think breeders’ prizes are a good thing but at the end of the day I don’t believe we breed horses for prizes. Don’t get me wrong, it is very nice to get a prize, but I don’t think they are the be-all and end-all. And no, I don’t consider that we are at a disadvantage with other countries.