Tattersalls presents An American Invader in the UK: Down on Ye Olde Farm

by | 06.20.2011 | 5:28pm

There are stark differences and surprising similarities between the U.S. and British racing industries, and both were on display today.

Our group with the University of Louisville's Equine Industry Program headed out into the English countryside, first for a visit to the Manton Estate, home base for Thoroughbred trainer Brian Meehan. Meehan's highly successful career includes a victory in the 2010 Breeders' Cup Turf with Dangerous Midge, and we were fortunate to see him doing some light work.  Meehan told us he's pointing Dangerous Midge for another run at the BC Turf this November, then probably the Japan Cup.

Manton is a gorgeous 2,500-acre farm with a vast array of gallops, yards and stables.  They have a woodchip gallop, a Polytrack gallop and a seemingly endless number of grass gallops.  This place points out a key difference between training methods in the U.S. and Europe.  In the U.S., most trainers stable their runners at the track and prepare them for races there, with a few exceptions, like Graham Motion at the Fair Hill Training Center.  In Europe, almost all training is done on the farm.

Meehan's assistant, Patrick MacEwan, gave us a comprehensive tour of the estate, which was established in the 1860's as one of England's first training centers.   MacEwan said he preferred grass workouts to the Polytrack.  He said the horses move too easily over the Polytrack and don't get a vigorous-enough work.  In fact, he said some savvy American owners ship their horses to Manton or similar training facilities when their horses are two years old.  They work them vigorously over the grass here while their bones are still developing, then ship them back to the States for racing at age three.

The grass gallops range from four furlongs to a mile, and most of them are only used specific times of the year to keep them maintained.   I couldn't believe the give in the ground at certain points.  I can see how a horse charging uphill on these could build up stamina pretty quickly. One of them was designed specifically to replicate the course at Epsom Downs.  Hmmm, I wonder why?

Meehan has 83 two-year-olds on the grounds, and they are kept away from all of the other horses.  MacEwan made a few interesting comments about their approach to training.  He said he's more concerned with “a little nick than a big cut” because the little nicks often get ignored and turn into something much worse later on.  He also said his primary goal was to eliminate risks. That's why they steam all of their hay at Manton – to get rid of spores, dust and anything else that might cause a problem for the horse.  Attention to detail is paramount here.

Our next stop was Highclere Stud, another stunningly beautiful estate that includes a well-known castle on the property. Lord Carnarvon established the Thoroughbred operation in 1902.  He also teamed up with famous archaeologist Howard Carter to discover King Tut's tomb in Egypt. Shortly after the discovery, Lord Carnarvon died in Cairo, prompting speculation of the Curse of the Pharaohs.

The curse doesn't appear to be hanging over Highclere these days.  The farm is currently standing Motivator, who won the 2005 Epsom Derby and Paco Boy, who recently retired with nine stakes wins from 21 starts.  Four of his losses came at the hands of Goldikova.  We were fortunate enough to see Paco Boy in his yard because he's preparing for quarantine and shipping off to New Zealand this week for temporary stud duty.

Our guide was Harry Herbert, the managing director of Highclere's Thoroughbred syndicate and younger brother of the current Earl of Carnarvon.  Herbert said while working in Kentucky early in his career, Dogwood Stable inspired him to bring the syndicate idea to Britain.  He told us a great story about how Royal Ascot approached him to develop one of these syndicates as a racing club.  He came up with a plan that would have the members investing a few thousand pounds each, and in return, they would own a piece of half a dozen horses. They would also have a special box at Ascot with all the trimmings of a truly high-class experience.

Herbert sent out letters to potential members and no one responded.  He was stunned, so he called a few people and asked if they got the letter.  Oh, yes, they said, what a wonderful idea.  Well, why haven't you responded?  They said they didn't believe it was true, that there's no way the poorly-marketed racing industry could offer something so appealing to its customers!  We all gave a hearty and knowing laugh to that punch line.

It'd be great to see U.S. tracks develop racing clubs, but I'm guessing the horse ownership aspect is likely to be frowned upon by the tracks?  Herbert believes horse racing is a “luxury goods industry that should be treated as such.” But he said many owners dismiss a $50,000 purchase as nothing, which creates the impression that Thoroughbred ownership requires millions of dollars.

“Can you imagine if someone came into Cartier and said they wanted to spend $50,000?  Herbert asked.  “The staff would be fawning all over them.”

Obviously, marketing the sport and diversity of ownership are issues here, too.  Herbert said, “The racing industry doesn't have a grip on what it has to offer.” Sound familiar?

Our trip to Highclere concluded with a visit to see a three-month-old colt by Sea The Stars.  Not bad!

Our final destination was Cheltenham Race Course, renowned for its National Hunt – or jump racing events.  It's a pretty stunning course, which only operates 16 days of racing a year.  Managing director Edward Gilespie said Cheltenham draws crowds upwards of 70,000 a day for its Gold Cup Festival in March, and the races are all run on weekdays! Still, his talk with us was eerily like many discussions we've had in the States.  He said beyond the big event days, it's a challenge to keep the sport “refreshed and new,” but when he's added entertainment to the mix, the new people who come to Cheltenham don't bet, so the racing isn't benefiting.  He expects a few smaller tracks might go under as the racing industry here struggles with a steep decline in the Betting Levy on bookmakers, who have decided betting on other sports is more profitable.

At the All-Weather tracks in England, Gilespie said the betting handle is solid but no one goes to the races.  Those tracks are essentially a model for racing without attendance, which he believes may become more common as it has in France.  Gilespie said Cheltenham was considering building a hotel on the property and may partner with a local soccer team to build a new stadium next door, which might create some interesting possibilities.

All in all, it was a fascinating and revealing day.  While there are differences in the way things are done here, the racing industry faces many of the same issues we face in the U.S.  I'm not sure whether to find that comforting or depressing.  But Gilespie's message seemed to be:  Racing's been around for 300 years, and while it might defy logic sometimes, there's still reason for optimism with the right kind of out-of-the box thinking.

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