Buzzing north from London to Liverpool, the Beechcraft should have had plenty of room for its two passengers, but it's as jammed as a Laker Sky-train in August. Strapped in aft are antique silver candelabra and on the adjoining seat is a fine pen-and-ink study of Willie Shoemaker. There are some suitcases, a coat one could wear while touring Antarctica and, hemmed in by shopping bags from the fancier London stores, a notably striking Australian lady named Susan.
Regrettably, flying time to Liverpool is under an hour. On the ground, room has to be made for a third passenger, a stocky, mild-featured man, business-suited and briefcase-carrying. Suddenly the Beech-craft cabin becomes a suburban living room just after the 5:45 gets in. "Meeting go well, dear?" Susan asks, implanting a wifely kiss. "Drink?" Willie and the candelabra are moved, tired husband settles in, opens his briefcase and, smiling, produces a sheaf of 10 x 6 color prints. Vacation shots? Graduation portraits? They are not. What they show is a 4-year-old colt named Alleged sailing past the post in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe at Long-champ last month to win the French classic for the second successive year. Aboard is Lester Piggott, foremost of English jockeys, and he is wearing the white, blue and green racing colors of the man who now looks on indulgently as his wife coos over the prints. That man is Robert Sangster, a 42-year-old English multimillionaire who, just four years ago, made an important resolve.
"I decided," he recalls, as the Beechcraft heads over the Irish Sea, "to get hold of the racing business by the neck and shake it."
As a classic formula for self-destruction this would be hard to beat, especially because Sangster planned to use both inherited and borrowed money. "People stood around to watch me go down in flames, like Lady Beaverbrook," he says, recalling the widow of the great Fleet Street press baron, who lost some of the fortune he left her on dud horses. " 'Here's an idiot with money,' they said about me. 'Let's watch him fall flat on his face.' A lot of people were looking forward to that."
November 13, 1978
So far they have waited in vain. It would be extremely difficult now to find a knowledgeable voice on either side of the Atlantic to deny that not only has Robert Sangster shaken the racing world, but that the seismic disturbances continue. He has demonstrated that it is possible to trade blood horses on a massive scale as if they were soybean futures or Krugerrands. It is generally conceded that in four years Sangster has attained a position second only to Nelson Bunker Hunt in terms of horseflesh ownership. About $350 million is the figure he will grab out of the air for you, but he points out that the international market in thoroughbreds has gone up by about 50% in the last year. "You'll have to wait for an executors' meeting for the precise figure," he says wryly. "Irritating that I won't be around to hear it."
The Sangster family fortune stemmed from an idea that Robert's grandfather, Arthur Sangster, had in 1926, which brought together two ruling passions of English sports enthusiasts—soccer and gambling. With three partners and $800 he set up what came to be called the football pools. For a tiny stake you could win a massive sum (today, it could be more than a million dollars) by forecasting game results correctly. Two years later Arthur died, but his son Vernon bought out the other three men and prospered. These days, maybe 2½ million Englishmen spend Wednesday evenings figuring out their Vernons Pools coupons—another 10 million use other pool companies—and at teatime on Saturdays a great silence falls over the whole nation as the telly announces the soccer scores.
Printing pool coupons turned out to be a license to print money. The cash flowed over into other Vernon enterprises until the company now may have an annual turnover of something like $500 million. Even so, it must have been a magic moment in the boardroom the day that young Master Robert walked in and requested a little float, maybe $6 or $7 million, to launch himself in the horse-trading business.
At 38, though, he had long ago proved himself no spendthrift heir but an astute businessman who was successfully running a large segment of the company. His father, whose homilies about hard work he constantly quotes, had considerable faith in him. Moreover, with an inheritance-tax problem looming over him, which would almost certainly compel him to leave England, Robert would have to play a much lesser part in the affairs of Liverpool-based Vernons. Horse racing and horse breeding was an international business that could be run from anywhere in the world. And Robert had seen that in spite of the huge sums involved, it was still essentially an amateurish business.
"I'd been involved in racing in a small way for 10 years. I'd seen how mistakes were made," he says. "Then, paradoxically, I realized that if you wanted to enjoy racing and keep a large string, you had to be totally commercial and ruthless unless you wanted to be a complete idiot and pour your money down the drain. I don't get any satisfaction from that."
The Beechcraft is losing height, breaking through the cloud cover so that it is possible to see surf breaking on high sea cliffs, with rolling, pastoral country beyond—the Isle of Man, a 33-mile-long tax haven, midway between England and Ireland. The Sangsters have lived there for three years, so the approach is familiar, and they continue to study the pictures of Alleged. "The odds will be just silly on Saturday," their guest observes. Alleged is meant to be running in the Champion Stakes at Newmarket on the weekend.
"He won't be there," Sangster says. "Sometime in the next six weeks he'll be flying to Kentucky. We've taken a lease on Walmac-Warnerton farm." The figures that follow flatly, in a business tone, are more spectacular than the northern mountains of the island just coming into view. Alleged, Sangster says, may be syndicated for $16 million, a world record, 40 shares at $400,000 apiece. "He'll stand in the region of $80,000," Sangster says, "and cover about 40 mares in his first season. Earning capacity at least $3 million per annum."
The Sangsters live a couple of miles from the little fishing port of Douglas, in a restored nunnery that once housed a community of the Order of St. Bridget. The fine gray mansion is mostly 19th century, but parts of it are Elizabethan. Lawns as emerald as their owner's racing silks glide down to a salmon stream. Copper beeches, ancient chestnut trees and a high stone wall hold the world out. In the dining room, which is hung with Lowrys and a Sidney Nolan portrait of a masked Ned Kelly, Australia's Billy the Kid, talk of Alleged continues.
A late foal, May-born, bred at Claiborne Farm, Ky., leggy, not much to look at in the sale ring, sold privately for $40,000. As a 2-year-old, shipped to California to a horses-in-training sale, bought by Billy MacDonald, acting for a Sangster syndicate, for $170,000. "We put him back into the ring again," Sangster recalls over dinner, "and he made $175,000, so we bought him back. If he had made $200,000 we would have let him go. The minute the sale was over, a Colorado horseman named Hoss Inman came over and offered MacDonald $200,000, which I would have thought of as a good day's work. But Billy's an Irish bloodstock agent. He asked $275,000, and Hoss told him where he could stable that. So we took him over to Santa Barbara, looked at him again and decided he was an ideal horse for Vincent O'Brien."
When Sangster uses the pronoun "we," it can mean a multitude of things. But his basic "we," in the sense of the assault group he formed four years ago "to take racing by the neck," always includes Vincent O'Brien, perhaps the greatest European horse trainer of our time, 61 i years old now, who started as a jump trainer—three Grand National victories, four Cheltenham Gold Cups—and then switched to flat racing, most notably winning five English Derbies. Trainer of, among other superlative animals, Sir Ivor, Nijinsky II, Roberto. Trainer for Charles Engelhard, Raymond Guest and Ogden Phipps, among others.
O'Brien was Sangster's first recruit. "I think Vincent was getting bored," Sangster says. "He had won everything. He was a little tired of owners. He had even reduced the size of his stable before I went to him with my concept. Now it is like a new lease on life for him. No other trainer could have done the job I wanted. I have great admiration for brilliant trainers like Angel Penna and Charles Whittingham, but I believe that Vincent is the greatest horseman in the world, and he is also blessed with an extraordinary business mind."
Sangster's original group also included John Magnier, O'Brien's son-in-law, and Simon Fraser, a Scottish landowner and son of Lord Lovat. Even then Sangster saw clearly that the future lay in supplying his own stallions, in going heavily into the breeding business. Now he has far-reaching interests in stud farms in Ireland, England, France and, most recently, in Kentucky. Also in Australia, one of his great enthusiasms, which he visits at least twice a year. "A magnificent environment for racehorses, for building muscle and bone," Sangster says. "Just needs an infusion of quality blood." One has the feeling he will be doing something about this.
Sangster was off to a flying start that first year, thanks to two inspired yearling purchases—Alleged and The Minstrel. The latter won the English and Irish Derbies before being syndicated for $9 million in the U.S. last fall. And it was these two horses that taught him an important lesson: that it is a mistake to have too many part-owners. "Now," he says, "we try to take a majority share—I like to take 40% myself—in every colt. It cuts out arguments."
The Sangster method, from the business point of view, is to buy the very best of colts—especially in America, especially with Northern Dancer blood—race them successfully, then go for the biggest prize of all, which is syndication at stud in the U.S. "This year at Saratoga we spent almost a million and a half dollars on three colts," he says. "Two of them, one a half-brother of Secretariat, one a half-brother of Alleged, have only got to win a stakes race to double their value. If they win a top race, the sky's the limit. Another colt sold for a higher price, but we had already eliminated him on grounds of conformation."
Sangster is well aware that his blitzkrieg tactics at sales—crashing in with all the power of a heavy-money syndicate—have earned him criticism from some racing elements. "We come on like bank raiders, I know." he admits. It is hard to think of Vincent O'Brien, a small, quizzical leprechaun of a man, as a raider, but he is probably the most effective of the group. The team normally numbers about eight—leg men, heart men, conformation men. Two are vets, including Pat Hogan, who also has the reputation of being the finest rider to hounds in Ireland, although that means he is unavailable for raiding during the hunting season.
By now other syndicates have been formed on the Sangster model. But Sangster, if not contemptuous of the threat, is confident. "We are light-years ahead," he says.
And light-years away are sales-ring rivalries on this balmy evening on the Isle of Man. For a man of his millions, Sangster is not addicted to sophisticated pleasures, his one unwelcome burst into the gossip columns happening three years ago when he stole Susan Peacock, now Susan Sangster, away from her husband, now Australia's Foreign Minister. With the dinner plates cleared away, she says domestically, "Won't be late, will you, dear?" This as he and his guest head to a pub for a quick one before closing time.
In the bar of the Palace in Douglas, the locals greet Sangster in a friendly and unsurprised way. He is a local himself, after all, even though he will be away much of the year, in Ireland with O'Brien, in Australia to look at his horses and to watch the Melbourne Cup, in Hong Kong to look at the new track and in Teheran to look at the even newer one ("What an outlet!" he murmurs. "They'll want at least 100 horses there"). And this month he will be in New York for the launching of the new lottery that Vernons is organizing for New York State, called, with engaging simplicity, "Lotto."
In essence, the lottery is the football pools without the soccer teams. It has long been known in England that the least likely way to win half a million pounds on the pools is by studying form. Because of the pari-mutuel system, the big prizes come up when form is overturned. You are better off making stabs with a pin. Or simply choosing the same numbers each week and sticking with them.
In "Lotto" you choose six numbers out of 40 for a dollar. Your pick goes onto magnetic tape in White Plains, N.Y. and into an on-line computer. The guaranteed weekly first prize is $250,000. If there is a roll-up jackpot, maybe a million. The odds are extremely long. But Sangster likes to recall a remark made to him by an Episcopal clergyman from the British Churches' Council on Gambling. "We're both in the same business," the reverend gentleman said. "Selling hope."
But racing is what Sangster is most deeply involved in, and more and more it is plain that his attentions will be directed to the U.S. He says, "Last year I was the leading prizewinner in England. This year I am leading in prize money there and in France. Altogether in Europe last year I won about $1.2 million. It barely covered my expenses. How others get on I cannot imagine. I feel sorry for them."
The lease on the Kentucky horse farm may prove very significant. "The Americans showed us," Sangster says. "In the '50s and '60s they came to Europe and bought the best of our mares. Now they have the best blood. Kentucky is where the best mares and stallions are, where the management is the best in the world. That is where we will concentrate our efforts from now on."
On form, the results are likely to be explosive.