Northern Horse Power
David Fearnhead speaks to Jason Fildes about Highclere North, a new venture bringing the glamour and excitement of owning a thoroughbred race horse to the Ribble Valley
A close friend who was unaccustomed to the world of horse racing sought me out for advice one day. She’d been invited to the races as guest of a thoroughbred owner. “What do I do?” she asked nervously. “Enjoy it,” was my response. “All of it.”
She would return to describe the day as the closest thing to experiencing her wedding day all over again. The excitement building to a date marked in the diary, the choosing of the right dress, the right hat, the right shoes, the champagne, the food, the feeling that you were behind the ropes of one of life’s great social events.
And then there was the racing itself.
Few things cause the blood to course through the veins like a day at the races. Backing a winner can illicit a joy unrivalled, especially if that horse is one you own. There is a reason why it is called the sport of kings. Yet for all the super-yachts and super-cars of the super-rich, it is horse racing that quickens their pulse like no other. Forget Formula One, when those of fame and fortune truly come to play, they do so with thoroughbreds.
Owning a horse isn’t a financial investment, it’s an emotional one, as the dividends pay you back with unforgettable memories. At the yearling sales where future four-legged superstars of the track are paraded for prospective owners, superstars of the human persuasion rub shoulders with royalty. If the setting of Highclere Castle seems familiar, that’s because it’s the real life ancestral home of the Earl of Carnavon, better known to television viewers as Downton Abbey.
For the past 26 years it’s also been home to Highclere Thoroughbred Racing. They have won pretty much everything there is to win in horse racing. With over £12 million in prize money, their thoroughbreds have won or been placed in all of the five classics, including winning The Derby, Britain’s richest horse race – twice.
Now they are bringing their winning alchemy to the north. And it all started with a chat in the paddock between Highclere’s chairman Harry Herbert, director Alex Smith and a Ribble Valley local who enjoys a casual pint at the Swan with Two Necks.
“I’ve known Harry and Alex a while,” says Jason Fildes, the Pendleton-based former GM of Haydock Park Racecourse. “I asked them why they didn’t have more runners here in the north? They replied that they didn’t have anybody based up here. So, of course, one thing led to another and the idea of Highclere North was formed.
“To get into the sport on your own at the level Highclere is at, you’d be committing at least £200k,” says Jason.
“Buying the horse, two years training, vet’s fees, travel, colours, admin, entry fees and even new sets of shoes!”
The cost of owning a thoroughbred has traditionally made it prohibitive to all but the oligarchs and sheikhs, though it is possible to join the elite. Syndicate racing is growing in popularity. A syndicate win is a favourite of television directors, as a group of owners crowd into the winner’s enclosure with all the exuberance of folk whose lotto numbers have just made them millionaires.
“The great thing about a Highclere syndicate is that we aim for the top but all these costs are shared, which gives us more firepower,” continues Jason. “We also make sure that it’s all-inclusive, there are no unexpected extra costs.”
Think of it like owning shares in Manchester City, where before every match you had a chance to talk tactics with Pep Guardiola, hang out in the dressing room before kick-off, and celebrate the win in the boardroom.
Highclere might not be able to guarantee you the winning ticket, but they can tell you which numbers are likely to come up. Their continued success is born from the collective experience of people who know how to produce champion thoroughbreds. It starts with the man responsible for selecting Highclere’s thoroughbreds, John Warren.
He is also the man trusted to do the same for HM The Queen. Perfect breeding is then backed up by working with the most respected trainers in the sport.
Sir Alex Ferguson, who knew a thing or two selecting and training footballing thoroughbreds, is just one of the names with stakes in Highclere thoroughbreds.
Jason’s phone is full of such respected names. It’s one of the reason why he is the perfect man to head their new northern venture, and with it comes an opportunity for fellow Ribble Valley residents.
“We’ve launched three syndicates with leading trainers Mark Johnston, Richard Fahey and Tom Dascombe which are proving incredibly successful – so much so that we are now planning to create another new syndicate exclusive to the Ribble Valley.”
For more information on how to join Highclere’s Ribble Valley syndicate please contact Jason Fildes