Punters happy to take chance with racing clubs and syndicates
‘The syndicate and club is a great gateway for people to try out ownership’
Ruby Walsh aboard Kemboy on their way to winning the Coral Punchestown Gold Cup. File photograph: Getty
As fanciful as following in the footsteps of JP McManus, John Magnier or Michael O’Leary may seem, racehorse ownership has managed to remain accessible to the masses, thanks in no small part to the continued rise of racing clubs and syndicates.
Keeping a thoroughbred in training costs in the region of €20,000, a costly endeavour for those of more modest means, but these alternative forms of ownership continue to offer interested parties a gateway into racing. And more than a decade on from the economic downturn of 2008, the appetite for racehorse ownership is experiencing a vertiginous rise once again.
Last year the number of active syndicates and clubs in Ireland rose to 651, an increase of 8.7 per cent from 2017.
Moreover, Horse Racing Ireland (HRI) also recorded a 27.5 per cent increase in new syndicate and club registrations during the same 12 months. While this form of ownership represented only a small minority of the 3,817 owners in the industry, the rise in popularity of these forms of ownership proves there are more and more people interested in getting involved in the sport.
“Back in August 2017 we had our first runner at Downpatrick so we effectively came in as things started to spike,” explains Sam Boswell, co-manager of the Pioneer Racing syndicate. “We had 50 owners at our recent Open Day in October and we went on to Fairyhouse and had a box together. It was a really nice afternoon together.
“We pride ourselves on being affordable: our lease fees start at €60 a month which is a really strong access point for the vast majority of people that want to be involved. You have syndicates being successful in big races which obviously draws attention to it and Irish racing is really fantastic at getting behind those stories. It’s key for the growth of the sport.”
However, syndicates differ from racing clubs in terms of structure. While the former is an initiative undertaken by a small group of between five and 20 people coming together with the shared common interest of owning a racehorse, a racing club can have hundreds of registered members. When you join a racing club you’re simply buying into a horse for a year, rather than acquiring it as an asset or a piece of private equity.
Any prize money that is won is shared among the membership who, in turn, can experience a day at the races as owners whenever their horse runs. Naturally there are different levels of entry into racing club membership, depending on how much a given person is willing to spend. For example €399 for a full year of owner registration, as is the case with the INS (Irish National Stud) Racing club, comes in at the bottom of the scale, ideal for those interested in experiencing racehorse ownership for the first time.
That fee also sees members with an interest in up to six horses at a time, with occasional visits to trainers’ yards a feature of the package.
The success of the Supreme Racing Club and Kemboy – a Willie Mullins-trained gelding who enjoyed a hugely successful campaign last year that concluded with a win in the Grade One Punchestown Gold Cup, Ruby Walsh’s very last mount as a professional jockey – highlighted the potential for racing clubs, though recent events have cast a cloud over those achievements.
HRI suspended entries and declarations for all horses under the racing club’s banner after the group failed to reply to the concerns of the authorities in relation to financial misdemeanours. It is understood that there have been allegations of shares being oversold. Nevertheless, Kemboy is the ante-post favourite for next year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup.
The future remains uncertain.
For some there’s a fear that these developments can have a knock-on impact on other groups.
“I think it highlights the importance of communication between governing bodies, syndicate managers and owners,” maintains Boswell. “It’s imperative that everybody continues to work together, in order to enhance the range of options. We love that our owners communicate with each other. We invite them altogether to the yards and, from what I understand, that wasn’t really happening with the club in question.”
While the HRI are remaining tight-lipped on the situation, owner relations manager Aidan McGarry does not believe the success of runners like Kemboy have much of an impact on the promising trends regarding clubs and syndicates. He believes the rising interest levels can be largely attributed to “evolution” of the sport.
“There has always been successful syndicates and there has always been successful clubs,” he says. “Syndicates have won champion hurdles at Cheltenham and big events like that. Like anything else post-Celtic Tiger, there was obviously a significant downturn. With a hobby or an interest like this, that can take time to bounce back and regain the interest again. I would see the growth just as a natural bounce back.”
He says 2018 “was the first year of real significant growth. The year or two before that we had seen the figures start to steadily increase. But last year was the first big increase. This year, with another couple of months to go, we’re seeing a 10 per cent increase in active syndicates again, with similar figures in terms of new registrations as last year. These are really positive signs for us.”
McGarry is part of the horse racing ownership department within the HRI, where as well as retaining owners there is a focus on bringing new faces into the world of ownership. The department may be relatively new in name, closing in on its third anniversary early next year, but it has existed in some shape or form since before 2017 and the current set-up has followed on from the work of previous departments.
“Our main focus is a two-pronged attack. In terms of retention we want to keep people involved in the actual sport and we work in conjunction with the racecourses, the trainers and the various stakeholders to ensure that the ownership experience is as positive as possible and to improve that experience.
“On top of that then is the recruitment side of things, attracting new people in. And the syndicate and club model is a great gateway for people to try out ownership for the first time – to see if they like it.
“It’s something they may have thought about for a while, they’ve experienced it and now, after a while, they could go all out as a sole owner or they could join a partnership with a couple of friends or a larger group. There are loads of options there. It does allow people to taste it for what it’s like with the option then to do something different.”
Every owner naturally dreams of entering the winner’s enclosure at famous meetings, whether it’s at Cheltenham, Aintree or Ascot, but there remain plenty of exciting and realistic opportunities back in Ireland for those eager to get involved and taste success. Boswell is no different to other racing enthusiasts and insists that his syndicate would “love a Cheltenham winner”, yet he is also eager to highlight what Ireland has to offer, where the essence of being a successful owner can truly be experienced.
“The experience of having runners at the Galway festival, for example, is one a lot of owners would be very keen to have. Every individual area of Ireland has its own highlights. You could go to the four-day festival at Tramore and for the locals there it’s a huge thing. Killarney is another example.
“There are lots of accessible points which means a lot to individual owners at home – as well as having the Cheltenham dream.”
Indeed, a small share today could be an empire tomorrow. Start small, dream big.