TOM MALONE recalls approaching the figurative crossroads, distraught and broken. He had turned back from conditional to amateur to work with Philip Hobbs and booted home three winners in his first five rides.
But then he broke his shoulder schooling, and two weeks after returning, fractured his ankle. Hobbs was willing to keep him on but he had fallen down the pecking order.
“I packed up the Fiesta and I headed for home,” Malone details. “I was going home after one year in England, a failure, and it was going to be seen as a failure and I wasn’t in a good place. I’ll never, ever forget it.
“I pulled up in Fishguard and I cried my eyes out. I cried for an hour long. I thought ‘Fuck this. I deserve one more chance at this.’ I got the Horses In Training book out of me bag and opened it up on Martin Pipe’s page. I rang him and said ‘Mr Pipe, would you mind if I came and had a job?’
“‘I’ll give you a job but you’re never gonna ride,” he said.
“I just wanted another year. Within three weeks I’d ridden for him and I never looked back. That was the phone call that changed my life.”
He was 21 then and had it gone another way, he would have been back home, a bricklayer like his father Tom Snr or carpenter like his brother. And that would have been fine except that Malone had grown to love horses.
This was despite the Tullamore youngster only having had his introduction to them seven years earlier, as two friends brought him to Brosna View Stables in Clara for a riding lesson on his 14th birthday. He was reluctant but it was a Saturday and there was nothing much else to do. Within moments, he was hooked
After four lessons, he was working at Brosna View on weekends and quickly hacking and hunting as well under the eagle eye of Brian Sheridan, a show jumping guru who also had a long association with the South Westmeath Harriers.
“I’ll never forget those days,” says Malone. “He made me a man.”
In time he moved on to Tom Lacy, John Quinn and Philip Rothwell, for whom he rode a winner. He went greyhound racing in Navan one night and met ex-jockey Ronnie Beggan, a multiple Cheltenham Festival-winning jockey.
“He said ‘if you’re gonna shovel shit, shovel it for the best. If you’re gonna ride, ride for the best’ and that stuck with me. He told me ‘you need to go to England.’ So I did.”
His decade at Nicholashayne provided exposure to genius but also preparation and attention to detail. Allied with a work ethic most inherited from Tom Snr, these traits are the foundation of his flourishing bloodstock business.
As “an average jockey”, albeit one that could get the job done with more than 70 winners including a season-high 30 in 2004-2005, Malone was always considering the possibilities of life out of the saddle. So he commentated on point-to-points in England and did some punditry work for At The Races. When he bought his first horse and it went on to win nine races, he head found his vocation.
“I never missed a beat. I worked so hard and just built up the momentum. Always being seen at the sales, going that bit extra and it started to work. I ended up getting into Paul Nicholls and buying a few for him and that now is one of the main guys I buy horses for.”
The client list is broad and it is no wonder given the stunning CV that details 45 graded successes, 11 of them Grade 1s, another a Grand National. The success is not confined to National Hunt either, as he has accumulated nine group races on the flat, including a Group 1.
Dodging Bullets, One For Arthur, My Dream Boat, Finian’s Oscar, Native River, Irving, Brindisi Breeze, The Worlds End and Caspar Netscher are among the most prominent of his triumphs.
The Somerset resident spoke to The Irish Field ahead of the Tattersalls Ireland Cheltenham November Sale in Cheltenham yesterday, where he was sure to be very active.
What do you have to do to prepare for this sale?
I do like to have seen these horses as youngsters in all the yards, so I already have a vibe on which horses they think is the nicest. I already have pictures and footage of them. So when it happens on a Sunday, at least I know it’s not after-timing. Horses win on a Sunday and I know that they are strongly fancied, that it’s going to happen. That always gives me a lot of confidence, these horses aren’t overnight successes. They’re in the background doing the right things. They’re always the best horses to buy.
What determines who you go to?
It’s not a case of that. I get the catalogue. I go through it in depth. I will do up a profile on the whole sale, I will put it under my header and I’ll send it around to all my owners. I’ll have a fair idea who wants what. If two people want the same one, it’s very simple. You say ‘You’re gonna be fighting with x, y and z on that and it’s up to you what you wanna spend on it.’ That’s how we do it.
What is it like forking out huge sums of other people’s money on a horse?
First and foremost is confidence... confidence that you’ve picked the right horse. I put my balls on the line at Cheltenham last (March) to buy a horse called Slate House. I bought him myself. I paid £260,000 for him. I stood in the ring, no-one really said ‘Go and buy it for me’ but I wanted that horse. No-one else was going to have him on their books because I needed to have that horse. Now I knew, give me 24 hours, I’ll get him sold if I’ve bought him. He was sold 15 minutes after I’d bought him. If I’d left him there, I wouldn’t have him on my books. I wouldn’t have earned a commission on him. The whole thing wouldn’t have been in my favour and I’d have to watch that horse running this year for somebody else. That would have killed me and would make me think about not wanting to do this job. Because if I don’t put my neck on the line and buy him, why should an owner? He won at Cheltenham first-time out. That is where the confidence comes from.
It would be unusual for an agent to take the plunge without an order?
Very unusual. No-one else would take that gamble and they’re probably right. It’s a suicidal gamble sometimes but I couldn’t do it any other way. I’m not functioned to do it any other way. I’m not the sort of guy that goes to a sale and if he doesn’t buy something, he doesn’t. I know every time I go to a sale there’s a chance there’s a good horse there. But pick him, and then sell him. Many’s the time I’ve bought horses and I haven’t found owners for them, but because I know about them, I can sell them. They invariably get sold. The odd time I have got it wrong and it’s cost me money but that’s life. That’s the rough and tumble of trying to make a business. Through that, I’ve managed to build up a reputation and now I have orders.
And no doubt you are building contacts all the time?
I’ve got to a stage where now they want to advise me on the right ones because it’s in their interests to make sure that I am, especially on the Irish side of it. On the French side, I have Seamus Murphy who helps me there. I have a guy called Bernard Cullinane, who’s from Dungarvan and is a very good guy on speed figures. His judgement on some of these horses is invaluable. It just puts a little more flesh on the bone. I make my own mind up on the horses but having someone to say, apart from visually it’s very fast, factually it’s very fast is a big thing so Bernard has brought a new angle to it. And Nick Taylor is my assistant.
It’s a very public confirmation or otherwise of your judgement when they run.
The first day they run is the hardest because I have told an owner to buy this horse. I’ve been in the position where they don’t win and they don’t for a year. I bought Double Treasure unraced out of Ireland and he was a disaster for 18 months. Now he’s after winning his last four, he won at Cheltenham last time out and is rated 150. But for 18 months he was a giveaway job and me with the egg on my face. But I knew the ability was there. I had to take some decent cuts at me over him but I don’t care. As long as they don’t get hurt they can prove me right.?
What big wins did you enjoy most?
Cheltenham in 2015 was a big year because one of them was French (Qualando), one of them was a point-to-pointer (Next Sensation) and one of them was a flat horse (Dodging Bullets), so no-one can pigeonhole me to “he only buys pointers” or “he only buys French horses.” Last April at Aintree I had two Grade 1 winners (Finian’s Oscar and The Worlds End), a Grade 2 winner (Lalor) and a Grand National winner (One For Arthur). What a fabulous week that was!
That was for four different trainers. Everybody gets a chance with me. I buy a horse and whoever says they want it first gets it, whether it’s Paul Nicholls or Richard Woollacott. There’s no favouritism. That’s not how I run my business and they all know that. That’s why they all use me because they know they’ll get a fair crack of the whip. I don’t care who it is, I want to buy winners and I want to share them with everyone.
You have some really exciting younger horses ready to step up this year.
Finian’s Oscar and Capitaine would be two very smart horses. There are any amount of young novices coming through and I’m telling you now the bunch of three-year-olds I have to go to war after Christmas and youngsters I’ve bought this year – I’ve never bought better horses. Ever. They’re coming through two years down the road. The youngsters, the pedigrees, the beauts I’ve been able to buy this year, I’ve never been able to buy like that. I’m quite excited actually.
Any worth mentioning?
Act Of Valour is a three-year-old that will arrive after Christmas. I bought him off Qatar for Max McNeill. I bought a horse this weekend called Danny Kirwan for Paul Nicholls. We’re gonna hear an awful lot about him. He won a point-to-point in Lisronagh (three) weeks ago and he’s a four-year-old that has the world at his feet. He absolutely destroyed a field of point-to-pointers.
Is there depth in the market below the top end? The lower end can be a bloodbath at times.
It can but everything still gets sold. It’s just that what was a 30 grand horse is now 50, 60 grand. The 100, 150 grand horse now is 250 grand. So the whole market has escalated because you have the top owners all have a hunger for the best horse and the ability to pay for the best horse.
Is there value to be found?
There still is. I bought Native River for under six figures, I bought Irving for under six figures – so it can be done. You have to shop a little bit better and be lucky.
How do you see the industry in general?
Very strong. I did a graph on what Cheltenham winners cost over five years. I undervalued anything that was bought privately, knowing full well they probably cost more, and anything that was through the ring. The average winner in a five-year period at Cheltenham cost £107,000.
I did that for my own benefit ‘cos people say “I wanna buy a Cheltenham horse” so I say “This is what it’s gonna cost and you have to buy 10 of them.” So many are buying 100 grand horses and they’re not Cheltenham horses so you’ve got to be extremely lucky as well.
What did you make of the Racing Post story on dodgy practices at sales?
For every bad publicity there’s good. The lady (Philippa Cooper) that was on about it, she was approached 20 years ago with some scenario – 1997 I think she said it was. There are hundreds of thousands of horses sold every year and most above board. It’s like in betting, in anything; there’s always a certain percentage where it sails close to the edge. That sort of business doesn’t last. You go out of business going like that.
If they’d put in a good side to it… I have an owner that gave me 250 grand to spend on a horse and I bought it for 100 grand. Well if the business was crooked he’d have bought it for 250 grand, wouldn’t he? It’s easy to talk about one scenario here or there. That whole article was damning trainers, vendors, agents; it was damning everybody. There was no good side to what they were trying to say, was there? Do you know what I mean? The way they painted it was that it was rife. I don’t agree with that but you’ve got to keep rolling on.
Do you enjoy the flat?
Love it. I love buying yearlings. When you buy a yearling you’ve as good a shot as anybody of buying a good horse. It’s like buying a store horse. You’ve as good a shot. It doesn’t take all the money in the world to buy the bloody things. You could be very lucky and I’ve had some serious good luck buying yearlings off the flat. I bought a lovely horse this year for 26 grand for Keith Dalgleish (Taxmeifyoucan). He’s won 80 grand in prizemoney and he looks like a chaser!
You get a kick from that?
Every horse I buy is my baby. I follow them intently and I am livid when they run bad. I’m like a spoiled child at times and hard to deal with when that happens. But when I tell somebody to buy something I want them to know that I believe in it. I had 329 winners in 2016 and I’m heading for 360-380 this year. When I do stop to think about it, that’s phenomenal but all I care about is buying the next horse that’s going to win.
What trends are you seeing?
The best Irish pinhookers have absolutely scoured the ground in France and brought all their high-quality foals, yearlings and two-year-olds and they’re now all in Ireland being sold at the Derby Sale and the Land Rover. I bought 11 horses at the Derby Sale and eight of them were French-bred. They were horses I’d have been buying in France with a run a few years ago.
The Irish point-to-point scene is doing phenomenally well at the minute at producing good horses. You can’t knock that. The strength in depth every Sunday in these four-year-old maidens is phenomenal. You don’t even have to win to be a good horse now.
The day of buying a horse for five or 10 grand to turn into proper money or him to be a good horse at the back of it are gone. All these boys are investing between 30 and 60 grand on every store and they need to do that to find a good horse. So the whole game, at whatever level you’re at, has improved. The prices have all escalated but that’s life and you’ve got to go with it.
What’s the biggest challenge to the industry?
I think the system isn’t too bad. There are parts of the industry that can be improved on like any system but I’d say on the whole, it’s not too bad. There’s enough people going around with long faces reciting all the problems. Shut up! Find the system that works for you! I’m a glass-half-full person. I sell horses so of course I have to be optimistic but I like being optimistic. There’s enough dull people in the world.
I get out of bed kicking and squealing every day ‘cos tomorrow is the day I can find Arkle.