Dubai Buyers Join Downton’s Bonneville in Horse Syndicate

Highclere Thoroughbred Racing, the syndicate that owned former Royal Ascot winner Harbinger, is experiencing strong demand even as higher prices for young racehorses push up costs, managing director Alex Smith said.

Highclere, founded in 1992 to put together ownership groups for racehorses, has produced seven champions, including top-rated Harbinger in 2010. This season, Highclere’s 16 winners have made 642,521 pounds ($1 million) in prize money for its owners, which include “Downton Abbey” star Hugh Bonneville and ex-Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson.

Dubai investors “have seen the success we’ve had over the years,” Smith said in an interview two days ago at the annual parade of yearlings on the grounds of Highclere Castle, the Victorian gothic house in Newbury, England, where Bonneville’s television series is shot. “We’re punching above our weight at the very top level of racing and perhaps they might have dabbled at a lower level and not had much luck.”

Between 1992 and 2013, Highclere has spent more than 26 million pounds on bloodstock. Its horses have won almost 6.6 million pounds in prize money, and Highclere has earned close to 34 million pounds from bloodstock sales during that period.

As of Oct. 20, it had sold 157 of 172 shares available this year. Buyers from Dubai bought 10 shares, three times more than in previous years, Smith said.

Nine Syndicates

The shares in nine syndicates, which consist of one or two horses and can have as many as 20 part-owners, are priced between 6,950 pounds and 42,500 pounds depending on what was paid for the thoroughbreds. Last year, share prices ranged from 4,500 pounds to 39,950 pounds. That fee includes all the costs such as vet and feed bills and costs for trainers. Prize money is shared by the syndicate owners, while further profit may be made from stud fees and from sales.

For retired South African mining executive Chris von Christierson, who has owned Highclere shares for five years, it’s not all about the money. He’s one of 12 owners who each paid 46,950 pounds in 2011 for a stake in Telescope, which cost 231,000 pounds at Tattersalls auction house.

“If you ask me whether I am up or down, it’s almost impossible to be up,” Von Christierson said in an interview at Highclere Stud during the sale. “But I have a lot of fun. My return is the enjoyment from it.”

Breeders’ Cup

Telescope is the 9-2 favorite at oddsmaker to win the $3 million Breeders’ Cup Turf next month. Should the horse win, “then that will have paid for everything,” he said.

Von Christierson, a founder and former chairman of Rio Narcea Gold Mines and a former director of Gold Fields Ltd., buys shares in two syndicates a year, which he said is “hassle-free” compared to owning a race horse outright.

It also gives investors a chance to take part in a sport that’s dominated by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and the world’s biggest racehorse owner, and Irish millionaires John Magnier and J.P. McManus.

Buyers spent a European record 83 million pounds on yearlings, or untrained one-year-old racehorses, at Tattersalls this month. Sheikh Mohammed bought almost one-fifth of the horses, pushing average prices up by 56 percent to a record 298,744 pounds.

Smith credited John Warren, Highclere’s chief horse buyer, with much of the company’s success when competing with richer rivals at the auctions. Warren, who is also bloodstock adviser to Queen Elizabeth II, has been scouting as many as 100 horses a day in the past six weeks to fill all nine syndicates.

Unbelievably High

“The top horses at Tattersalls were going for unbelievably high prices but some were falling through the net,” Smith said. “It’s a numbers game. John is the best buyer of yearlings, and everyone in the business knows that.”

Demand has also been boosted by the syndicate’s association with “Downton Abbey,” which traces an aristocratic family and its servants in the 1920s.

Bonneville, who plays Lord Grantham in the program, bought a share in the two-horse Palmerston syndicate for 18,950 pounds. Bonneville posed for pictures with Richard Hannon, who will be training one of the horses.

“In America in particular, the Downton Abbey effect has been helpful,” Smith said. “It’s such a big hit over there.”

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