ORIGINALLY from Plumbridge, Co Tyrone, I’ve spent the last 30 years developing a health care business in Belfast. During which, I’ve spent 25 years as a board member of Down Royal Corporation and have par-taken in on-course bookmaking as a hobby on the side.
How did you get into racehorse ownership?
My first introduction to racehorse ownership was via Aaron and Gareth Metcalfe, well known hoteliers and National Hunt breeders. They introduced me to Ruby senior and Ted Walsh who trained my first winner Gargamel at Wexford in the mid 1980s at odds of 8/1.
I had £50 each-way on it. I’ve never forgotten this day and I’ve been hooked ever since!
What was your best day at the races and why?
It’s difficult to single out one day but most vivid in my memory is Ferns Lock’s victory at Thurles last Sunday (January 22nd), where he beat a classy field including last year’s hunter chase champion at Cheltenham and Punchestown, Billaway.
What is the biggest drawback about being a racehorse owner?
The biggest drawback for me is being second! I’ve lost out in a photo finish on two occasions now and it’s gutting. The latest one was at Clonmel on January 18th this year, where my horse Global Assembly led everywhere bar the line. Maybe I need to become a better loser?
Which racecourse in Ireland treats owners the best and why?
Obviously I have great regard for my local tracks Down Royal and Downpatrick where the facilities and hospitality are second to none. The management at both tracks have made tremendous strides to attract big crowds and treat owners with smashing hospitality and the upmost respect. Fairyhouse and Clonmel have also been brilliant!
What qualities do you look for in a trainer?
In David Christie I believe I have the top trainer for the point-to-point and hunter chasing scene. Not only has David a proven track record in training and a strike-rate second to none, but he also has a canny expertise in sourcing horses.
David is always available on the other end of the phone for a chat. I leave all the decisions with David and the wise counsel of the jockey team, Barry O’Neill and Rob James.
What improvements would you like to see racecourses in Ireland do for owners?
It’s lovely being presented with a photograph and a recording of your winner which Downpatrick and Down Royal do so well. It’s a lovely touch and one that should be done unanimously across Irish racecourses.
How do you think the current cost-of-living crisis will impact on ownership and racing?
In a time of recession and increasing costs it is undoubedly concerning that we reach a “pinch point” on disposable income.
HRI must be given credit for the initiatives that they have taken to future-proof our sport. For example, increasing the prize fund for point-to-points and their recognition of the insurance challenges.
What can trainers or HRI do to encourage owners to keep horses in training at the moment?
As an ardent supporter of point-to-points and hunter chasing, it’s great to see and follow the success stories of young Irish-bred horses through the sales rings. I then take joy in following their track careers both in Ireland and across the Irish Sea.
However, I believe it’s equally vital to secure open point-to-pointing and hunter chasing. I have some concerns regarding returning Grade 1 horses or established stars moving back to opens or hunter chases.
What significance do your colours hold?
Throughout the darkest days of our troubled past in Northern Ireland the racing community never allowed politics to conquer or divide.
Still Northern Ireland has a sensitivity about colours hence my orange and green silks. It is good for me to be in a position of promoting cross community colours.
Also, they’re great colours for public viewing and they’re almost as recognisable as J.P. McManus’!
When buying a horse, what do you look for?
I entrust David Christie with all the purchasing decisions, some of my most recent purchases include:
Ferns Lock: A six-year-old gelding by Telescope out a Bollin Eric mare sourced at the Cheltenham Festival Sale last March by David Christie and Barry O’Neill.
At 17hh he’s a big, strong, well-balanced horse who has been given time to develop. Good scope, good temperament, a good jumper and great change of gears. He’s only been beaten once in five starts and is very exciting.
Ultimate Optimist: A six-year-old gelding by Fame And Glory out of an Oscar Schindler mare. This horse again is a big, scopey horse and could be a staying type.
Global Assembly: A six-year-old gelding by Kayf Tara from an Anshan mare.
What horses do you currently have in training?
I have managed to keep this a secret as my wife might have something to say about it. However, I will take a chance and say many!
In addition to the aforementioned horses, I also own Some Man (last year’s champion point-to-point horse), and Handy Headon, a dual hunter chase victor.
What’s next on the agenda for your horses?
Ferns Lock has now taken two hunter chases in his stride and, with a bit of luck, we believe this horse has the potential to be top class.
His next engagement is likely to be the Tetratema Cup Chase at Gowran Park on March 11th. We won’t take him to the Cheltenham Foxhunters this year, we want him to get more education and experience first, but he’s very exciting.
Ultimate Optimist most recently won the Earl of Harrington Memorial Hunters Chase at Limerick over Christmas. It was a huge honour and privilege to be presented with this trophy by the late Earl’s (Bill Stanhope) family, four generations were present.
This horse will receive an entry for Cheltenham and will possibly go to Stratford for the hunter chase festival at the end of the season.
Global Assembly will hopefully run in the Down Royal hunter chase on St Patrick’s Day.
Some Man and Handy Headon will continue on the point-to-point circuit.
What do you do with your racehorses when their racing days are over?
It is requisite that racehorses are well cared for when in retirement from their racing careers. Initiatives such as retraining of racehorses, racehorse showing classes, et cetera, can provide good owners, good homes and the best animal welfare. What is best for each horse must be our mantra.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of becoming a racehorse owner?
Go for it! Particular reference to the point-to-pointing scene. From personal experience, the craic is mighty and I’ve been overwhelmed at times by the congratulations and well wishes from friends and even people I don’t know on my recent successes.
Joining a syndicate with a trusted trainer can be a very useful entry point into racehorse ownership. Should you be fortunate enough to get a winner make sure you embrace the moment. I would also advise to be prepared for the highs and the lows. If you can’t handle the lows then forget horse ownership, go for another sport.
For me pointing allows the little man to enjoy the sport of kings.
Ray Nicholas was in conversation with Sophie Mellett.