Referred to as the sport of kings, horse racing has been
part of British society for more than 400 years.
It’s a sport fueled by money where the margins for
victory are tiny but the stakes are always high.
I’m on a journey to learn what it takes to be part of
a sport loved by both gamblers and royalty.
On it, I was given rare access to the people
who own, train and ride race horses
as we attempt to shine a light on the inner workings
of a sport, that for many, is shrouded in mystery.
But first, it’s important to understand
that there are two types of horse racing –
flat and jump racing, also known as National Hunt.
Traditionally flat racing was for the wealthy,
while National Hunt was for farmers and country folk.
Today, national hunt occurs only in a handful
of countries while flat racing is global,
attracting fans from Kentucky to Abu Dhabi.
There’s also a lot more money in it.
Winning National Hunt’s biggest race, the
Grand National, would earn you nearly $750,000.
While in flat racing, you could take home
$7 million by winning America’s Pegasus World Cup.
But the major money in flat horse racing isn’t
made out on the track, it’s made at discreet stud farms.
I’ve come to one called Newsells Park in Hertfordshire.
Here, stallions and mares are hand-picked
based on their own success on the track
and their purebred pedigree of champion race horses.
The mares are then covered by the
stallions in a controlled environment,
as they aim to breed the next generation of winners.
For the stallion’s owner, breeding is big business.
Take for instance Frankel, arguably the
greatest racehorse that ever lived.
He was unbeaten during a three year career
making his owner the Saudi Prince Khalid Abdullah
around $4 million in prize money.
Before his retirement in 2012, four-year-old Frankel had
the highest rating of any racehorse in history.
If Frankel had kept racing, he would’ve likely
continued to win and earn more prize money.
But for his owner, Frankel’s success and
super star status had sealed his fate.
He would be a more lucrative
asset as a breeding stallion.
In this new role, Frankel mated with hundreds
of horses every year earning a fee every time.
In 2017, he mated with 195 mares.
Each go cost $165,000, earning his owner
more than $30 million in just one year.
Following the success of some of his first
foals such as Cracksman and Rostropovich,
Frankel’s going rate has increased to $230,000.
One man that paid for a Frankel foal
is entrepreneur Graham Smith-Bernal.
A decade ago, he sold his litigation
software business for over $75 million.
With some of his hard earned fortune, he bought
a number of successful race horses.
“And all of a sudden my phone is going,
there’s text messages of ‘Congratulations,’
I say, ‘What is this?’ It cannot be that
Grey Britain has just won that race.”
So what attracted him to becoming an owner?
“You know, you win the race, you win some
nice prize money but mainly you’ve got the
satisfaction and the thrill of having
your horse winning a race.”
But now he wants to breed a champion race horse.
So he purchased a broodmare called
La Mortola for more than $450,000.
At the time, La Mortola was pregnant
with one of Frankel’s foals.
This year she gave birth to that foal –
a young colt called Fabrizio.
A colt is an uncastrated male
horse less than four years old.
His development over the next year will be
closely monitored by Newsells Park
and its general manager Julian Dollar.
“Our job is not to mess things up really.
They are highly strung and they’ll do lots of things
to try to hurt themselves on an almost daily basis.”
“Everything is designed to make them
the best athlete they could be.
You could sort of imagine some parent doing
it to some seven year old that they dreamt
was going to be the next
Venus Williams of the tennis world.”
“He’s all in proportion, he’s what
I call well balanced.
He did, he’s a snapper.
What’s changed over him – he’s now
three and half, nearly four months isn’t he?”
“Just looking for the overall, when I say
balance of the horse it’s just as I say it’s
making sure that everything fits together.
So we want him to have a little bit of roundness
over the top, a good bit of muscle across his back
and then here a good bit of hind quarter which he has because that’s where the power comes from.
He’s got a good proportion of forearm, he’s not too light,
the muscle here that’s of course very important.
He looks very chilled out in the sun today,
he’s half asleep but that’s good, that’s good
because it says he’s got
a good relaxed temperament.
If I was going to criticise the horse it would just be that
he’s a touch small but the most important thing is
he’s all in proportion, everything flows together,
he walks well, he looks quite athletic.
It’s hard to breed horses,
it’s bloody hard to breed horses.
It’s much easier to go and buy a race horse,
so it’s nice when you get one like this.”
But is Fabrizio’s owner happy with his
progress and what does his future hold?
“It’s a hobby and it’s fun and I’m not doing it because
I think I’m going to make money from this.
This is a really, really enjoyable
hobby to be involved with,
but you have to be thinking
in part with your head as well.
You’ve got to otherwise, you know,
it just doesn’t make any sense.”
If Graham does decide he wants to
sell Fabrizio then he has got options.
He could sell it either through a private
buyer or he could take it to auction.
This is Tattersalls, the oldest bloodstock
auctioneers in the world and the largest in Europe.
It sells over 10,000 horses every year.
“One of the advantages of coming to
auction is that the horses all come to you.”
On average how much money is being
spent at one of these auctions?”
“It varies considerably, at a sale like
this one today they’ll probably be turnover
of around 5 million guineas.”
A guinea is £1 and 5 pence. It’s used mainly for
determining professional fees and auction prices.
Horse racing is a lot about gambling and that
for a lot of people is the entertainment factor
and you get a little bit of
that here as well don’t you?
“Yeah, undoubtedly the adrenalin rush that you get
bidding might help you have another bid or two.”
A high cost of a horse doesn’t
translate to a champion racer?
“No, that’s one of the great things about
the game is that there’s no guarantees.
Your person who comes along and buys a cheap
yearling, say 10 or 20 grand, can still hit the jackpot.”
Two men that are trying to do just that are trainer
Hugo Palmer and bloodstock agent Mark McStay.
They’ve agreed to give me unrestricted access as they
work to find the right horse for the right price.
“You know it’s a great industry to be involved in.
Most wealthy people can’t afford to buy
Manchester United, Chelsea or Tottenham Hotspur
and win the premiership but if you walk into
that ring at Tattersalls here and you had
half a million pounds you could have
bought Australia, who won a Derby.
Most people who come into horse racing as
potential owners or new people to the sport
are uninitiated and they need
to find someone they trust.
I as a bloodstock agent would sell myself
on integrity and hopefully that’s why people
will be attracted to me, come to me
for my advice and I’ll hopefully
point them in the direction of
a nice horse or a nice trainer.”
Today Mark and Hugo are on the hunt
to find a horse for Hugo’s yard.
They’ll be looking at several, but for Mark
this is the last stage after weeks of research.
He’s prepared a short list of horses
from the hundreds up for sale,
now together they need to
make their final decision.
So what are you doing
there Mark when you..?
“You just see the front
of the canon bone there?
There’s a little bit of a profile to it
where it comes out a little bit.”
Okay, got you.
“These horses Mark has seen them, he’s seen them
twice, we’re now coming back to see them a third time.
If I like it and I think I might buy it I’ll
probably see it a fourth time and then I’ll
send a vet to see it and they will check that
the horse is structurally okay and you know
they’ll put a tube down its throat and see that it has the
right breathing apparatus to actually perform.”
“So the colt, lovely big strong horse.
His scope was a grade 2, normal pass, little
bit of extension in the knees and very slight
pain on palpation of the shins.
But all in all very solid.”
“Happy with straight forward horse, yeah.”
“The filly looks like she’s growing, she’s
going to be very big I think, high behind,
she’s lame in front – I would not be proceeding
without getting some x-rays on those knees.”
The time for talking is over.
The horse they’ve decided to bid on is lot
number 186, a young colt called Havana Gold.
But before the bidding war begins, Mark wants
to see how the whole auction is going
and who he might be competing against.
“I just want to follow him in out of interest
and get a gauge on the market.”
And who is he competing against?
“Somebody at the far side
of that partition over there.”
It’s quite nerve racking isn’t it?
“Oh it’s a little bit.”
Lot 186 is up and as soon as Havana Gold strolls
into the sales ring the bidding starts.
After some confusion with the auctioneer,
Mark and Hugo make a late bid.
“That’ll do, that’ll do.”
But is it enough?
For $80,000 Mark finally gets his horse.
Now it’s down to Hugo and his team to try
to turn this young colt into a champion racer.
For Havana Gold, a new life
awaits of racing and ritual.
But he won’t be going far.
He’ll remain in this distinct corner of
England, along with 3,000 other race horses.
Behind me is the town of Newmarket.
It’s surrounded by wide open expanses which has led to
it becoming the home of flat horse racing in the U.K.
This is a town where the pecking order between
horses and humans is a little blurred.
And it will be no different for Havana Gold
while he’s living at Hugo Palmer’s yard.
“I suppose in many ways we’re like a private
school that the owners, or in the school’s case,
the parents send their child,
horse, to a school to be educated.
So we take them in here just when
they’re about one and half years old,
so they’re immature but they’re probably 90% of their
adult size and strength and we work out which
ones are the scholarship pupils and are
likely to be turning up at Royal Ascot
and which ones are,
you know, are less so.”
In his eight year career Hugo has established himself
as one of the leading trainers in the business.
But what’s it like for young trainers just
starting out and the challenges they face?
We’re headed today to meet George Scott,
a young trainer whose only actually in his
third season but he has had
already some big successes.
We’re going to go have a look at his yard
and see what he does everyday to make sure
his horses are in peak condition.
“You can’t imagine the amount
that goes into getting that horse
in the afternoon wearing
the silks at a big meeting.
The amount of work, effort, concentration, time.”
A lot of pressure being a horse race trainer?
“If you push yourself to try and be
successful and want to achieve something
then there’s always going to be pressure.”
Routine for a horse race trainer I can imagine
it’s sort of early starts, long days…
“I mean up at 5:15 and, we’d work
through then till 1 o’clock and then get
home for a bit of lunch and I always have
to have a sleep in the afternoon, without fail,
have to have a quick sleep and then
back in the afternoons or go racing.”
When you don’t have winners, how hard is that?
“It’s hard but I mean it’s part of the game.
You have to take the rough with the
smooth and you have to remain level.”
Is this your dream job?
“Yeah definitely, I don’t really know
what I’d do if I wasn’t a trainer.
I don’t get a rush out of anything
else other than the racing.
You know I like football, I like rugby, I
like cricket, yeah yeah but I love racing.
Dave, just save a little bit for the hill.
Those are mine crossing now
so we need to get across.”
What are you going to be looking for?
“I like to see them just get up the hill nicely.
I like to listen to their breathing.
The horse in second is just struggling a bit
but he hasn’t been up here at all before,
the horse in front’s doing well.
And we’re going to walk
across and talk to them.
So I like to get a comment from each rider.
Are you hanging on in there Fletch?
She’s done well hasn’t she?”
What’s it like to have a winner?
I mean that feeling where you’ve spent days,
months with this horse and got to know it
quite intimately and then it wins this race
with thousands of people watching.
“Yeah it’s absolutely unbelievable, like
it’s the best feeling in the world.
You know I stand there with huge anticipation and
I enjoy sharing that moment with friends and family
and it’s all consuming in that one moment.
And it puts all of the bad days out the
back door. It’s an incredible moment.”
That moment of crossing the line first, riding
a horse at nearly 40 miles an hour
is an experience felt by only a select few.
Fran Berry has been a professional
jockey for more than 20 years.
“I can still remember my first
winner like it was yesterday
and I think if that buzz you get
leaves you, then it’s time to give up.”
The routine of a jockey must be pretty brutal,
losing weight and keeping yourself fit and
strong at the same time. How tough is that?
“It is quite tough.
I’m 37 now you know, I kind of know what
I can and can’t do but the biggest thing is,
as a jockey, is your weight, to find the time to keep yourself right and eat and do everything properly.
You know it takes a bit of application.”
Eating disorders amongst jockeys, is that a thing?
“Yeah I don’t think it’s any secret, maybe
it’s more prevalent in the United States.
They call it flipping, suppose which is a form of bulimia but I’ve come across it worldwide and it is an issue.”
What have you had today for instance
in terms of food and drink?
“I had a two egg omelet this morning,
that wouldn’t be every day.
Some days you’re a bit restricted. I’ll exercise
more and cut down on the fluid intake.
I’ve done a few laps of the track, just
to get my weight back to its normal level.”
So you would have sped walk
the track or run the track?
“Speed walk, speed walk with plenty of
clothes on me to get a good sweat up.”
Can ask how much you get paid per race?
“It’s about £150, 140 and then with deductions
it probably works out at £100 net
before your tax and you’ve got to
pay your own diesel and expenses.”
So for instance you’ve raced two horses,
you’re not making a great deal of money today?
“No, no, not today.
Some days you can have ten rides,
some days you’ve got two.
Travel expenses are quite high and
riding fees for me pay my bills,
pay everything that keeps the show on the
road at home but you’re relying on your
win prize money and your place prize
money really to make money.”
It’s an interesting sport isn’t it?
You’re kind of on your own.
“Yeah, yeah, you know even golfers have a team
of lads around them or something you know.
You got to kind of do everything for yourself in a way,
and if you don’t do it nobody else will.”
What injuries have you had in the past?
“Erm, have we got time?
I’ve broken both my ankles. I’ve dislocated my right
ankle, fractured my left. I’ve had a T9 fracture.
C6 displaced fracture. My vertebrae’s
had a T3 compressed fracture.
Fractured sternum, fractured shoulder blade,
9 ribs on one occasion in the same fall
So yeah I’ve had more than
your average flat jockey injuries.
Some days you’re thinking
you’re having a bad day.
You’ve got five or six rides and they all
get beaten and maybe people aren’t happy
with you or something but if you can
get into that car and drive home
you haven’t had a bad day and
that, you’re safe and sound.”
Fran is risking life and limb doing this job,
for sometimes minimal financial reward.
I’ve learnt it’s the love of horses and racing
that keeps him and many others
invested in this game coming back.
And for such an old sport, which can sometimes
be at odds with the outside world,
it’s still after all this time the thrill of winning
that continues to captivate and entertain.