TIM Palin likes to call Middleham Park Racing “a hobby that got out of hand”, given how it has evolved since the then school teacher set it up in 1995 for himself and a few friends to have a bit of fun.
With their first horse, China Castle, winning 26 races, the omens were good and Middleham Park Racing is now the largest and most successful syndicate in Britain, on target to beat the record set last year for most winners ever by a syndicate in that jurisdiction (109).
As well as quantity though, there has been real, with those success coming at every level from Group/ Grade 1 downwards.
Toormore was European champion two-year-old colt in 2013 after bagging the Group 1 National Stakes at the Curragh, G Force was crowned champion three-year-old sprinter for the following season after bagging the Group 1 Haydock Sprint Cup and Ventura Storm scored in the Group 1 Gran Premio del Jockey Club in Milan.
All three would go on to provide a further yield for the various syndicate owners when sold in private deals. Just on Tuesday, The Platinum Queen rocketed into contention for the Nunthorpe Stakes when breaking the five-furlong track record at Goodwood.
Marie’s Rock will be returning to Nicky Henderson’s care at Seven Barrows soon enough to begin a campaign that will centre around defending her champion mare titles at Cheltenham and Punchestown.
That latter success was by no means Middleham Park Racing’s first on these shores but of the approximately 130 horses, the majority are in England. That is understandable, but MPR is branching out and as well as having premium-eligible horses based in France in pursuit of the wonderful prize money there at all levels, Middleham Park Racing Ireland has been developed with Coralillo a very exciting flagbearer in pursuit of a chunk of the €300,000 on offer for the Irish EBF Ballyhane Stakes at Naas on Monday.
Tim’s son Tom is a partner of MPR along with Tim’s wife Carol and Mike Prince. Tom was charged with starting the National Hunt arm of MPR seven years ago, which explains why Marie’s Rock defeat of Epatante at Punchestown last April is his favourite Middleham moment. It was, as he says, “the crescendo” of his endeavours.
It was the champion juvenile career of Toormore that transformed the overall operation.
“That’s the best thing about horse racing, the fact that the man in the street can have access to the highest quality horses
“The game really started to change when Toormore came along in 2013,” says Tom. “He’s still going to be one of the best horses we’ll ever buy, ever own. Champion of his generation and it was a serious generation with the likes of Night Of Thunder, Kingman, Australia, Kingston Hill. When he came along, we practically doubled overnight. We probably went from around 50 horses to nearly what we’re at now.”
Toormore was bought by Peter and Ross Doyle – who also did the bidding on Coralillo – for £36,000 from Jimmy Murphy’s Redpender Stud.
Toormore "is still going to be one of the best horses we’ll ever buy, ever own" \ Healy Racing
“That’s the best thing about horse racing, the fact that the man in the street can have access to the highest quality horses. There’s always fairytale stories every year. Even Pyledriver (in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes last Saturday). The normal working man can compete with kings and queens. It’s a fantastic sport to be able to do that.
“I can’t put a pair of boots on and go play with Lionel Messi, but you can buy a champion two-year-old. It’s one of the few sports in the world that will facilitate you to live out your wildest dreams.
“I’m never gonna play with Messi. I’m not gonna play in Lords, but you can go to Goodwood and win the Vintage Stakes, Group 1s, win two Grade 1s beating Epatante and winning at the Cheltenham Festival. It’s the stuff of dreams.”
The dynamic has shifted in recent years he feels with regard to the welcome to encouragement of syndicates. This is largely by necessity, with many of the established owner/breeders literally dying away.
Palin hails the work of the Racehorse Syndicates Association in fighting syndicates’ corner and believes that the Racehorse Owners’ Association have come to realise the power syndicates can wield on behalf of owners.
“We’ve probably got 130 horses in training. There’d be north of a 1,000 horses in training for business syndicates, if you will, as well as the ‘friends’ syndicates. We do have quite a bit of power. I think the dynamic is shifting and they are become more welcoming.
“I think we’re getting there in the right direction. Still a bit of work to go. A bit more understanding on the level of badges required, or number of badges required on race day. To me, let’s get people through the door.
“Punchestown were fantastic. They were, ‘let’s get people in the door and let’s get them spending money at the bar’ and that’s exactly what we did! I think when racecourses start getting their head around that; that we’re there to enjoy ourselves, to have a good day. We’ll buy food, we’ll buy drink, we’ll have a fantastic day and are more likely to come back. They are starting to get there now.”
The number of owners in the various horses is approximately 1,200 but it increases on a monthly basis. Costs and terms and conditions are transparent regarding initial outlay and monthly payments for training costs. The usual minimum ownership share is 2.5% but that can reduce to 1.5% for a purchase on the north side of £150,000.
“You’re only as good as your word,” is how Palin describes the MPR philosophy. Decisions on sale of horses, when an offer comes in, are taken exclusively by the shareholders, with no executives having voting rights.
It does take 65% approval for an offer to be accepted and the proceeds, like prize money, are divvied out in accordance with a shareholder’s stake.
There is a business element to the operation Palins admits, but only in terms of having to be able to cover admin costs and pay the wages of the team of people that has increased to deal with the expansion of the past decade.
“We all live and breathe horses… we get up in the morning to find these horses to give people the fantastic days out that we’ve had at Ascot, Cheltenham, Punchestown. That’s what motivates us.”
Sourcing of stock is done in collaboration with trainers and their agents, targeting an intersection point between their lists and that of Middleham Park. Then a budget is worked out and stuck to. Usually.
“Eddie’s Boy, when we bought him, he was a horse that ticked both Archie’s (Watson) and (agent) Tom Biggs’s boxes, and he was one we followed. We had 40 grand for it, we were on 40, somebody went 42 and Archie gives me a kick in the belly and says, ‘we’re buying this horse.’ We went 45 and I’m delighted he did. You got through all the filters to get to that stage of bidding on him.
Fairyhouse winner Coralillo is primed for the Irish EBF Ballyhane Stakes at Naas \ Healy Racing
“Because you’ve got so close to him, it’s always worth having that extra one or two bids. The rest is history. So it’s a team effort. You’ve a Super Sprint winner on your hands, third in a Windsor Castle and (fourth) in the Molecomb.”
Palin reckons that he, his father and Prince can be very valuable to trainers when it comes to placing the horses.
“A lot of the trainers we work with are quite high-profile trainers with large strings. We might have 120 horses on our book, divided equally between the three managers. So that suddenly means we’ve only about 40 to look after each, whereas the trainer might 120 or 150 horses or maybe more to look at. So it’s easier for us to sit down with two or three declarations each per morning rather than 19 declarations per morning.
“We like to study the form, to study races and provide races for the trainers as well as working with them. It’s not a dictatorship, in buying or placing the horses but we like to think we have sensible discussions with the trainer, weighing up all possible options to be able to buy the horse with the best chance of winning, whether that’s up in Ayr or down in Newton Abbott. So we do try to get involved without being a nuisance.”
The selection of trainers is broadly around those that have the best records on the biggest days, because that is what is attractive to the owners. It is why Nicky Henderson trains the bulk of their jumps horses, for example.
But they know there are plenty of good trainers that can work with the right material. That is why when they start a relationship, such as with Eddie and Patrick Harty, they work extra hard on providing that artillery. Coralillo has the added responsibility of attempting to be the flagship horse to give Middleham Park Racing Ireland some momentum.
“Ross Doyle had been talking about the Hartys, and we must have met them five or six years ago and we’ve always been very impressed by how they’ve gone about their business. The communications side of things is excellent.
“So, it’s always been a relationship we wanted to have with the Hartys and we’ve just been waiting for the right sort of horse to get involved in the Irish game a bit more. Hopefully we’ll try to build it to a nice portfolio and a nice string.
“Coralillo is a Havana Grey and he can do absolutely no wrong at the moment. I think we’ve got eight of his progeny and only one hasn’t won yet. So anything he’s siring is like gold dust at the moment. I wouldn’t get near any of them this time around.
“We bought a horse last year off Eddie Linehan called Misty Ayr, who’s listed placed, but unfortunately got a bout of colic so we haven’t seen her this year. So when Eddie recommended Coralillo to us, you sit up and take note. That was the second tick in her box.
“She clocked a very good time at the sales and she’s just a quality filly. She had a wonderful physique, wonderful conformation. Ross Doyle was there. Patrick was mad on her. We’d been to three sales to try to find the right horse to buy to start the relationship. You’ve got to get off on the right foot. The first has to be bang on. Otherwise, it’s hard to support from our guys if the first horse doesn’t work. So we had to make sure we got it spot on and I think we’ve got it right with Coralillo.”
Palin is excited about Coralillo’s potential and while very cognisant of the competitiveness of the Irish EBF Ballyhane Stakes and Irish racing in general, believes she has a very good chance, particularly after proving six furlongs won’t be a worry when winning on her debut over the trip at Fairyhouse three weeks ago.
“Since Patrick and Eddie got her back, she’d been working superbly with some of the nicer horses in the yard, doing some very good pieces of work very comfortably on the bridle. If she’d replicated what they’d seen from her at home, we were confident of a very good performance (at Fairyhouse) and I’m please she showed exactly what she was.
“The question mark was staying because she was so fast at the breeze-ups but she saw it all out extremely well. So I’ve no doubts about that now going into the Ballyhane. We think she works to a decent level.
“It depends what ends up in the race but I think we’ve got a good weight, we’ve got a good bit of form, we’ve got a bit of racing experience while unexposed. Let’s see but I’d imagine she’d be there with a chance.
“I’d imagine we’ll be sending a bit of a team over as well. We’ve had a bit of success at Naas, Kool Kompany has won there, Great Page and Sandiva. It’s been a happy hunting ground for us and obviously the town itself is a fantastic place so we’re really looking forward to getting back there. We gave it a good kick after Punchestown and looking forward to trying to give it another one on August 1st.
“I think Ireland has done a fantastic job of putting these races on and the Ballyhane is a wonderful addition to the programme.
“Fair play to Joe Foley and his team for putting it on and championing it. It’s a very lucrative, very appealing race and we’ve always been looking to have horses in it. It’s nice to have one to try do that with.
“Those races in general, they’re fantastic. Like the Super Sprint (at Newbury), when Eddie’s Boy won it. It gives the working man operating in that middle market, the £40,000-£80,000 bracket, an opportunity to land a big pot like we did in Newbury.
“Eddie’s Boy won £98,000 on top of what he’d already earned so he’s a massive money spinner. And the beauty of it is, I know the owners of that horse are just going to put the money straight back in and that will fund their racing for the next five, six years now. They’ll have a free ride for six years, and if they’re lucky enough to get another one, that will continue to fund it and that’s the way the game should be. Like it is over in France.
“But unfortunately, the prize money structure doesn’t necessarily self-fund on a daily basis which is why you have to target those big races.”
That “kick” given to Naas last April when 22 owners made the visit, was because if Cheltenham was special, Punchestown was better. It was a stronger race with a former Champion Hurdle winner added to the equation.
“We had to see it again if what we’d seen a month before was to be taken seriously. But Epatante was a fly in the ointment. It wasn’t the cohort, it was arguably a deeper cohort than what she’d beat at Cheltenham. So it confirmed that Cheltenham wasn’t a fluke and that she’s the best two-and-a-half-mile mare around.
“She will be sold when her racing career concludes to allow the breeding element of her life to be overseen by experts in that field. But we are a bit away from that and while defending her two championship crowns are the target, the route there is still being discussed as some compromise to her strengths will have to be made, be it taking on geldings, carrying a penalty in listed races or stepping up to three miles.
“But she will run because that’s why her owners are involved.
“Ultimately, the aim would be to try to defend our mares’ crown and if we did that, we’d be the only dual winner of the race apart from the great Quevega. That would be quite an achievement. And then Punchestown again.”
Brace yourself, Naas.