x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Success takes the reins at the home of Downton Abbey

Harry Herbert has created one of Europe's most successful horse racing syndicate businesses – all from the location of British TV's Downton Abbey drama series

Harry Herbert at the Highclere Stud near Newbury, UK. Stephen Lock for The National
Harry Herbert at the Highclere Stud near Newbury, UK. Stephen Lock for The National

It's a big week for Highclere Thoroughbred Racing.

Today, two of the racing syndicate company's most fancied horses will run in the Dante Stakes at York in northern England, a qualifying race for the UK's prestigious Epsom Derby, just a fortnight a way.

Telescope, trained by Sir Michael Stoute, is the Derby favourite, despite having run in only two races. Greatwood, which was withdrawn from the Derby Trial at Lingfield last weekend, is also highly fancied.

It is not yet clear whether both horses will end up running in Britain's richest race in June, but the anxiety at Highclere has ratcheted up as both have hopes to go head-to-head this week. Highclere Thoroughbred Racing (HTR) is one of Europe's most successful racing syndicate businesses - having produced seven European champions, one world champion and, altogether, 380 winners since it was started by Harry Herbert, the younger son of the seventh earl of Carnarvon, in 1992.

Mr Herbert and his team and, of course, his owners, are hungry for more success.

"Telescope is the one. This year we have seen him physically explode and that is reflected on the gallops.

"We would not put a horse in unless we thought that we had the right piece of kit and Telescope [a son of Galileo - probably Europe's best stud] certainly ticks all the boxes," Mr Herbert says.

HTR has had one previous Derby winner - Motivator in 2005 - but that was managed by HTR for Royal Ascot Racing Club. This time, Telescope or Greatwood, or both, will run in the pale blue silks of Highclere.

HTR - which takes its name from Highclere Castle, now better known as television's Downton Abbey - has an impressive track record. It has a 23 per cent runner-to-winner strike rate and 60 per cent of its runners will win or be placed.

Owners can buy a stake for between £15,950 (Dh89,134) and £37,950, compared with the usual £100,000 it can cost to buy and train a race horse for two years.

"Racing is a very expensive sport to get involved in. You can put £100,000 in and maybe you've bought Dobbin," Mr Herbert says.

HTR puts two horses in each syndicate, which also decreases the risk that your horse will be useless.

All the horses are bought by John Warren and Mr Herbert. Mr Warren is married to Lady Carolyn, Mr Herbert's sister, and is the British Queen's bloodstock adviser, a position of trust and friendship that used to be held by Mr Herbert's father, who died in 2001.

"The key to the business is to try to buy good horses and in my brother-in-law we have someone who is extraordinary in his ability to look at a yearling and see what that animal will develop into," Mr Herbert says.

"And the other part is making people feel as if they own the horse, outright.

"The communication between HTR and our owners is unparalleled in the racing industry," he says, likening his business to a hospitality or luxury goods operation.

We are speaking in the boardroom of Highclere Stud, the business owned by his sister and brother-in-law. In the fields, foals bask in the spring sunshine and there are pictures of the Queen, absorbed in her hobby, or smiling with delight, all over the room, alongside portraits of Highclere's champions - Harbinger, Petrushka, Lake Coniston. The paddocks are overlooked by a hill that happens to be the last resting spot of the fifth earl of Carnarvon, who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922.

"I think, 'what did my father do to the Queen that made her racing fun and successful?' Mr Herbert says.

"We communicate all the time to our owners, sending them photos, messages and videos. But there's nothing like picking up the phone and talking to our owners."

Some HTR owners are new to race horse-owning. Others, such as the just-retired Manchester United football club manager Sir Alex Ferguson, are veteran horse owners but like HTR because it can give them exposure to many more horses, very cost-effectively.

Mr Herbert's original ambition was to be an actor and after school he spent some time doing a bit of acting and "licking stamps in the City" at the stockbroking firm Rowe and Pitman.

"But this dormant gene of horses and racing, which had been spoken of at every meal at Highclere, sort of surfaced and I went from zero to really wanting to get into the industry," he says.

Not wanting to be caught in his father's shadow, he went to Kentucky for nearly four years, meeting and working with Barry Weisbord, the world-famous US Thoroughbred owner and racing entrepreneur who Mr Herbert says was a huge inspiration and mentor.

HTR has had a lot of success but in the racing world its resources are dwarfed by the major bloodstock owners including Coolmore, owned by John Magnier.

Yet HTR manages to compete, with a fraction of the funds.

"When we go to the sales - John [Warren] goes one way, I go another. We probably each look at a hundred horses a day then I feed my shortlist back to him. By the end of the sales season we've probably seen 1,500 horses and will buy 18 yearlings," Mr Herbert says.

"But so long as we buy from John's list - every now and then a winner falls through."

Winning is infectious, so HTR is looking to put a few special syndicates together with people who want to make a bigger investment, so that Mr Warren and Mr Herbert can go after some of the more expensive horses. It's not about changing the shape of the business, rather giving some options to those who want to put in more resources.

"We are always trying to buy Group One winners. But if your syndicates are averaging £100,000 you are more limited,"Mr Herbert says.

HTR syndicate members come and go all the time but the company does not advertise. People come through word of mouth and are drawn to the horses. Opportunities to visit the horses at Newmarket and stay at the Jockey Club, or to visit the HTR box at Newbury, help to sell the shares in the horses. Some 200 people a day will visit the HTR yearling parade, held over three days in October, when the horses the company has bought are shown off and the final syndicate shares are sold.

"We try to keep it as fun and sensibly exclusive as we can. It's looking after the people which takes the time. Our owners feel very immersed in it," Mr Herbert says.

Of course, the clincher is always the racing and Mr Herbert, although surprisingly not a rider, adores racing. "There is nothing more exciting than watching a FTSE 100 chairman and his wife in floods of tears because they have had their first winner.

"The reaction that a winner can have on people is phenomenal. It's why the Queen does it, it's why Joe Bloggs wants to come into a racing club and spend £200 a year," says Mr Herbert."It's the same thing. You can do it at lots of different levels and the horse is what brings people together."

Mr Herbert recently stepped down from his position as chairman of British Bloodstock Marketing, a lobby group that promotes the United Kingdom's bloodstock and racing industry, particularly to international investors.

"British racing has great history, fabulous race courses and … this is the most prestigious and competitive racing in the world."

Britain's prize money, however, is paltry compared to that in countries such as the US and France.

"We may not have the best prize money but we certainly have a very unique product and we want to showcase that and make sure that people get involved," Mr Herbert says.

Attendances at race courses are going up and next month there will be between 60,000 and 70,000 people a day at Royal Ascot, the high point of the flat-racing season.

New money comes into the sport from unexpected directions. The Arab Gulf states have provided a huge amount of capital over the years but all eyes now are on China, which could be a significant new market for Britain's bloodstock.

Just as Chinese and Asian investors are buying up properties in London, Mr Herbert hopes they will look at Royal Ascot and the prestige of racing and want a piece of it. HTR already has a few Chinese stake owners and its syndicate brochures are being translated into Mandarin.

But British horse racing found itself under an unexpected cloud last month when one of the trainers at the major bloodstock owner Godolphin was charged with injecting horses with anabolic steroids.

Mr Herbert says he was shocked and disappointed. "Drugs like that are absolutely forbidden in our sport in this country. It is something that they can recover from, but it has knocked the confidence in the sport." As Derby day approaches, the stakes get even higher. After winning the Derby, Motivator was sold to stand at stud for £6 million.

For most syndicate owners, however, owning a horse is a pleasure rather than an investment scheme.

"Managing expectation is a very big part of what we do. I'm a big optimist. When we were starting out with Lake Coniston, everyone said: 'You've blown your luck. You won't have another one like him.'

"But my father said: 'Don't listen to them. This is a business, dear boy, where you must believe you will have another one and you will have another one.'"

 

business@thenational.ae

 

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