Rich Ricci’s ‘keep buying and trying’ motto hardens at Cheltenham

Colourful American owner reckons Djakadam offers his best chance to win Gold Cup

At the start of this week Rich Ricci described this season as "diabolical" in terms of the misfortune endured by his star-studded string of horses. After Douvan's Champion Chase eclipse on Wednesday, the description started to look an understatement.

Even after Let’s Dance won on Thursday, Ricci admitted Douvan’s defeat had left him “crushed”.

So in the short term there’s plenty riding on Djakadam in Friday’s Gold Cup. And beyond that again, perhaps even more on the colourful American’s philosophy towards racehorse ownership – “Keep Buyin’ and Keep Tryin’!”

It's a motto the former Barclays Investment Bank chief transferred from a business career that made him one of the leading lights in the city of London at the height of the boom and something of a cartoon bad-guy during the subsequent crash.

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Ricci’s name alone was headline catnip, full of punning ‘Richie Rich’ possibilities. Then there’s the rather flamboyant fashion sense he likes to adopt for the races which only added to a popular reputation as something of a poster-boy for banking excess.

Even the self-deprecatory humour at the heart of naming one of his lesser equine lights ‘Fatcatinthehat’ became a timely and snappy stick with which to beat him.

He left Barclays in 2013, has invested in ‘fintech’ companies that develop technologies for use in the financial and banking sectors, is also executive chairman of the BetBright online betting company and remains as enthusiastic about the National Hunt game as ever.

That is despite a series of injures to many of his top horses, the most cruel of which was the freak accident in the autumn that led to Vautour having to be put down. Even by National Hunt standards it has been a remarkable rate of attrition.

Frustrating

“It concerns me because it’s frustrating. I haven’t looked back on the stats yet but this season has felt very attritional. Everyone knows the big guns but it’s young ones that we’ve the highest hopes for as well. And it’s frustrating because you can’t pinpoint any specific thing,” he says.

However, Willie Mullins can rest easy about his most important owner becoming disillusioned with the winter game.

"I bought a flat horse with Michael Buckley once, had it in training with Jamie Osborne, got it back from the sales and it dropped dead. It doesn't matter what the code is. With horses, you get bad luck. It's wearing but that's when you keep buyin' and keep tryin'.

“It’s the same in business. You don’t make money in every trade. My view on that is that once the trade is over, you move on to the next one.

“Keep at it has to be the attitude. I’m going to have a big novice team next year. We have 15 horses already, not including any more purchases we might make.

“I haven’t lost my excitement for the game. It becomes addictive. Maybe sometime down the road I’ll consider something else. But even with all the pain with horses, there’s also a lot of enjoyment,” he says.

The Champion Hurdle has provided the peaks of that enjoyment with Faugheen winning in 2015 and Annie Power a year later. Both times the possibility of the ultimate double in the Gold Cup presented itself. Both times Djakadam has finished runner up.

“The Gold Cup is the one Susannah [Ricci] and I value most. It’s what gets you into the sport in the first place. A lot of the time it feels like it’s all anyone talks about, especially when you’re buying young horses. The Gold Cup is what you always have in mind,” he maintains.

Tiny group

That means the American annually competes with a tiny group of other super-rich owners such as Michael O’Leary and JP McManus to buy a select group of elite young prospects throughout Ireland, Britain and France.

That many of them eventually comes to race under the Irish banner at Cheltenham doesn’t prevent unease about a concentration of excellence in so few hands impacting on competition at home through the winter months.

Ricci, perhaps not surprisingly in the week that’s in it, doesn’t go along with that argument.

“There are so many good horses around and people want to see great horses,” he says before pointing to the fluctuating nature of success.

“The handicaps in Ireland have centred around Gigginstown this year. We had some dominant novices for the last four years but certainly not this year. I don’t see this as a problem. I think it’s great to see such investment in the sport,” Ricci adds.

If that investment is ultimately targeted at Gold Cup success, then Ricci is hoping it will be third time lucky for Djakadam. Runner up to both Coneygree and Don Cossack, the strapping star is back again for another try, the sort of consistency that is priceless in jump racing.

“Last year was not the ideal prep. He ended up working twice a day and it was kind of a rush. He still ran a big race but to my eye he wasn’t as impressive as the year before,” Ricci said. “This time there are no complaints. The prep has been brilliant. I’m as confident as you can be, I suppose. I think it’s probably his best chance.”

If Djakadam does win, suddenly a diabolical season will become a lot more dazzling.