Fancy a share of your own racehorse? Here’s how to get in on the action
Running in Heels is an all-female syndicate, named after their first horse
Elaine Dixon, Helen Bridges, Carol Mccarthy, Kiva Cromwell, Catherine Fee, Sarah Jane Walsh and Denise O’Dwyer, owners and staff of the Running in Heels syndicate with five-year-old Captain Courageous race horse and Loreena Van Buuren. Photograph: Alan Betson
Ladies Day at the races may conjure visions of women in hats seemingly designed to frighten the horses, picking their way between stands and enclosures in shoes more suited to the walk from taxi to restaurant than through fields. But for one group of race-going women, the idea of running in heels has come to mean more than risking a sprained ankle speeding to get a good view of the action on tricky turf.
Running in Heels is the name of their incredibly successful all-female syndicate, named after their first horse.
While on holiday with friends last year, Kiva Cromwell was bewailing the fact that the men in their lives seemed to be having all the equine fun. Kiva’s husband Gavin is a farrier by trade, and a trainer for the past nine years. Deciding it was high time they got in on the action too, a syndicate was suggested.
“It was just chatting really,” says Kiva, when I meet her at an open day at the Cromwell yard in Danestown, Co Meath. She is a dark-haired beautician, brimming with a sense of fun. “But then Gavin went to the sales . . . ” So began one of those fairytale stories that fires the passion for all lovers of horse racing, the tales that fuel the romance that the next horse could be The One.
Racehorses are so intelligent. They try their best for you, if you give them something to do
Nine years old when Gavin bought her, Running in Heels (Heels for short) cost just £2,500 (€2,885). “She’d been quite consistent, she’d had a lot of runs and shown enough ability,” remembers Gavin. “But the rules would say you can’t improve a nine-year-old.”
The trainer’s recent shock win with Espoir D’Allen in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham suggests the rules don’t always apply in this yard.
“Gavin gave me three days to fill the syndicate,” recalls Kiva. “I rang everyone I could think of; hunting friends, old friends, friends from the school gate.” And her hard work paid off.
“You don’t say no to Kiva, she’s irresistible, but in a good way,” says Catherine Fee, a solicitor from Dundalk who had always enjoyed going to the races. “We’d been going for the craic anyway, getting the hats, getting dressed up, but we weren’t really in it until Running in Heels came along.”
Whatever magic Gavin worked, the filly definitely improved. “She won the first time out at Kilbeggan,” Kiva smiles. By August she had won more than €26,000 in prize money, and provided a series of unforgettable days (and nights) out for the syndicate.
“She cleaned the bookies out in Bellewstown,” says Fee. “She had won several races, but she was only getting into her stride then. There were a load of hen parties at the races, and they all bet on her because of her name. When she won, the bookies ran out of money. They cheered us like rock stars in the pub that evening.”
Of course, it helps that Kiva is married to a trainer, but Amber Byrne of Horse Racing Ireland says starting up a syndicate is easy, and costs less than you might think (see below), in the region of €1,000 a year. For this you get entry to race meetings where your horse is running, access to owners’ and trainers’ areas, training updates, a share of prize money, and invitations to visit your horse and watch it work out on the gallops. You can also join a racing club for about €500, or share a spot in a syndicate.
“The first horse I had in training was with a load of friends in London – I couldn’t afford a full share, so shared a share and paid €500 for the year,” she says.
Byrne is now in another all-female syndicate, All About the Girls, whose horses are trained by Jessica Harrington. There are approximately 8,500 horses in training in Ireland at any given time. But what happens to the ones that don’t cover themselves in glory on the track?
My own horse, Bosco, is one such: his racing name was Frankie Smile, but he suffers from anxiety when he thinks he’s on his own, and pulls up when he’s out front to wait for his horsey mates to catch up. This “stopping in front” trait is obviously not ideal in a racehorse, and so he came to me.
Another Heels syndicate member is Joanne Quirke, who works with Tattersall’s, the main auctioneer of race horses in the United Kingdom and Ireland. In her spare time, she retrains racehorses to be riding horses. The trick, apparently, is to keep them interested.
“Racehorses are so intelligent,” she says. “They try their best for you, if you give them something to do.”
No pressure Captain Courageous, but you’ve got big heels to fill
One of her successes is former winner at Cheltenham, Forpadydeplasterer, with whom she has won the Race Horse to Riding Horse class at the RDS a number of times. She also rides the superstar side-saddle, and has nothing but praise for his temperament. “He’s pure lovely with kids,” she says.
Not all former race horses are so lucky, as the horse meat scandal of 2013 proved, but Horse Racing Ireland is working hard to promote the idea of these beautiful animals as worthy of a second career for leisure riding. Bosco is perfectly happy hacking gently around the lanes near where I live, but when he gets into his stride in a big open field, and finds his fifth gear, there’s really nothing like it.
Having a slow racehorse to hack on at home is one thing, but racing is also a bug – and I’m now also a member of a syndicate, Friends of Maria, with horse Slippery Serpent, and trainer Edward O’Grady. Slippery’s first year out covered the costs of this year, so there was no big decision about renewing.
Like most trainers, Gavin is happy to advise potential owners about the right horse for them. “Some want to go to Cheltenham, some want to have fun at local tracks, and some want to trade on,” he says.
At his recent open day, the prices reflected these different possibilities, ranging from €6,000 to €35,000: horses for courses, as you might say.
Knowing the form is one thing, but the social side to owning a racehorse is huge too. “We didn’t all know each other when the syndicate began,” says Quirke.
“I knew about a quarter of the girls,” says Fee. “And that’s the great thing about it, you get to meet new people. We couldn’t have had a better summer last year, we had a ball.”
Some of the syndicate members, by their own admission, “wouldn’t know the front end of a horse,” but all have had fun. Part of this, back in the beginning, was choosing their colours.
“We wanted something you’d see, when she was running up the hill at Cheltenham,” says Quirke. “Green for Irish, and pink for the girls.”
“It has been such a different experience,” says Kiva. “Gavin had had winners, and I’d been cheering him on, but when it’s your own horse it’s just a different feeling. The tables are turned too. We now leave our husbands at home minding the kids and head off to the races.”
At the end of last year, and on Gavin’s advice, the syndicate sold Heels on as a brood mare. Her first foals should be racing in a couple of years. The syndicate continued, although not all members renewed. Some cashed out. One bought a car on the proceeds. The others, however, invested in Captain Courageous, a strapping six-year-old bay.
Catherine Fee and I walk over to meet him, where he is dozing contentedly in a paddock. “Here he is,” says Fee. “No pressure Captain Courageous, but you’ve got big heels to fill.”
How to get in on the action
From racing clubs to syndicates, there are lots of ways to get in on the gallops.
INS Racing from the National Stud gives you an interest in six horses, with entrance to races, plus updates and yard visits. €399 per year. irishnationalstud.ie
Racing clubs are best for larger groups, and to spread the risk (and opportunity). Many trainers have racing clubs: Gavin Cromwell’s offers an interest in four horses in training, and includes yard visits, a share of the prize money, owners’ and trainers’ passes, parade-ring entry and more. €75 joining fee, plus €100 per month. gavincromwellracing.com
Syndicates have a maximum of 20 members, but you can always split shares within that. Average cost per share is about €1,000, covering all training, entry and jockey fees, though costs are more expensive with some top trainers. Expect fun days out, trainer updates, owners ’and trainers’ and parade-ring passes, and a photo op in the winners’ enclosure – when your horse is first past the post of course. Actual horse ownership costs extra; some owners will set up syndicates to spread the training costs, while some trainers list syndicates with available places. For more information on your options see racehorseownership.ie
Getting started: Amber Byrne and Aidan McGarry look after owners, and potential owners at Horse Racing Ireland, where the team can guide you through everything from picking a trainer to sourcing a horse, to selecting your colours. Giddy-up. racehorseownership.ie