During his 28 years as manager of Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson was known for picking winners. So, with that as your guide, keep an eye on Telescope in the mile-and-a-half Breeders’ Cup Turf on Nov. 1, because Ferguson is one of 12 shareholders in the 4-year old colt.
“Sir Alex is a great racing enthusiast,” says Harry Herbert, Chairman of Highclere Racing, the outfit that basically introduced the syndicate concept to thoroughbred racing in Europe. “I expect to see him at Santa Anita, where Telescope will go for glory. Like the rest of us, he’ll be nervous and excited.”
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Herbert is no stranger to the Breeders’ Cup, or racing in the U.S. for that matter. Born into a racing family—“My father managed the Queen’s horses for many years,” he says—Herbert wanted to be an actor, only to realize in the mid 1980s that he was better suited to do something else. “I had racing genes,” he says. But unlike his father, grandfather and great grandfather, who founded Highclere as a stud farm over 100 years ago, Herbert set out to America to learn the game.
“My mother is American, she comes from Wyoming,” says Herbert. “And I didn’t want to be a daddy’s boy here, so I went to the States to see if I could make my own way. I started in Lexington, Kentucky, working for a company called Bloodstock Research, which is a computer company that specializes in pedigrees. Then, I was hired away by Matchmaker, who specialize in private auctions of stallion shares and stallion seasons. I got into all sorts of things, such as racecourse management. After about four years in Kentucky I decided to head back home. I realized there was a real opportunity to start racing partnerships here in the U.K., which hadn’t really been done before … getting small groups of people together, to share a number of race horses. I started that in 1992 and we’ve been the leader in that side of things over here ever since.”
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Ferguson is not the only celebrity owner on the Highclere team, which also includes actress and model Elizabeth Hurley and actor Hugh Bonneville, the star of Downton Abbey (which is filmed at Highclere Castle, Herbert's family home).
The Royal Family has long been involved in thoroughbred racing in England, but that’s not the only thing different about the Sport of Kings in the U.K., and throughout Europe. “We race principally on turf here,” says Herbert. “And our racecourses have been around hundreds of years, and some go left-handed, some go right-handed. Some go uphill and downhill. There’s a huge variety in racecourses. We don’t just race on flat ovals. Those are the biggest differences in racing over here.”
Yet Herbert says Highclere has a strong desire to bring its best horses to the U.S. to race in the Breeders’ Cup.
“We had a filly called Petrushka who was the favorite for the [Filly & Mare Turf] at Churchill Downs in ,” Herbert recalls. “She finished [fifth], ran very well, but it was just a bit much for her. We ran a horse called Lake Coniston [who finished 12th] in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Belmont Park [in 1995]. It’s very tough for European horses at the end of our long season here, to get on a plane, travel over and win. It’s a big ask.”
Which brings Herbert to Telescope, who’s hoping to make history.
“We skipped some key events with Telescope, to give him time to freshen up,” says Herbert. “He could have run the Derby [at Epsom] last season, but we decided not to. Now, as a 4-year-old, he’s much more mature, he’s improved and he’s a horse we feel should run very well at Santa Anita. He’s got plenty of speed and he stays very well, so the mile-and-a-half distance of the Breeders’ Cup Turf is perfect for him. So we’re hopeful he stays in one piece between now and then and comes over and has a great time.”
Herbert admits that it does make him nervous to think of putting a high-strung thoroughbred on a plane across the Atlantic Ocean and the North American continent, to run in a $3 million race. So his team crosses its fingers and trusts the shippers. “He’ll get over about a week before the race, that’s the norm,” Herbert says. “He’ll have some time to settle in, have a couple of light bits of exercise and then run on race day. You don’t want to send them too soon over there. Some think it’s almost best to run right off the plane. Hopefully, we get it right for him.”
Herbert says that when he first saw Telescope in 2012, he thought the horse was “one of the most beautiful yearlings I’ve ever seen.”
Herbert’s brother-in-law, John Warren, who is the Queen’s bloodstock adviser now, oversaw the purchase.
“I’ve rarely seen him so excited about buying a horse as he was with Telescope,” says Herbert. “He’s by Galileo, who’s one of the top sires in Europe. He’s a very nice colt, a beautiful horse, very well-bred. He was very impressive winning at Royal Ascot this year, won the Hardwicke Stakes [on June 21] by seven lengths. And he was second in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes [on July 26].”
Herbert says that the Breeders’ Cup is followed closely by racing enthusiasts in the U.K. “When I was living in Kentucky, I watched the birth of the Breeders’ Cup [which debuted in 1984],” Herbert recalls. “It’s a great atmosphere and it’s an international event, and few things are more exciting in the racing world than putting a horse on the international stage for big prize money. Having a horse go there is very exciting. This is what every owner aspires to.”
And for a retired football manager—a legend, actually—it's another chance to get up and pump a fist.
“Yes,” Herbert says, “Sir Alex gets excited by all of this. And he’s been in some big games.”