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'If you own a horse and hit the jackpot – the rewards can be substantial,' says late Queen's godson

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 3/14/2023 Jeremy Taylor
 Treyarnon Bay with trainer Nicky Henderson - Orlando Gili © Orlando Gili Treyarnon Bay with trainer Nicky Henderson - Orlando Gili

What could be more of a thrill than to watch a horse you've backed romp home in first place? Ask the Honourable Harry Herbert, a godson of the late Queen Elizabeth II, a man who has experienced that moment hundreds of times and never tires of the spectacle: 'I've seen women sob, grown men cry and Champagne flow like water. It's a truly magical feeling and hard to beat - but if you actually own the horse, that joy is amplified tenfold. There is simply nothing like it.'

As founder of Highclere Thoroughbred Racing (HTR), Herbert runs the country's most successful racehorse-owning syndicate. Over the past 30 years, his horses have been placed in eight British classics - the most prestigious flat races in the country - as well as countless other races.

Best of all, Herbert has helped bring that giddy thrill to a huge number of syndicate owners. 'It's been my pleasure to see people who would never have dreamt of owning a racehorse, let alone watching it win, enjoy a special moment. They come from all walks of life but racing brings them together. It's terribly addictive.'

Which is why I'm standing on a windswept Berkshire hill watching 'my' horse, Treyarnon Bay, on the morning gallops under the critical eye of Nicky Henderson. The affable Old Etonian has been jump racing Champion Trainer six times, winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup twice and the Champion Hurdle eight times.

Horses like Treyarnon Bay are still bought and sold in guineas, worth £1.05 in today's money - Orlando Gili © Provided by The Telegraph Horses like Treyarnon Bay are still bought and sold in guineas, worth £1.05 in today's money - Orlando Gili

The fact that Henderson, who trained horses for the late Queen, was chosen as the trainer is a major bonus. Others top trainers at HTR include Paul Nicholls, Richard Hannon and broadcaster Clare Balding's brother, Andrew, whose yard was the subject of the 2022 Amazon Prime documentary series Horsepower.

Treyarnon Bay is named after a sandy beach in North Cornwall, close to The Pig hotel and fashionable Padstow. Part of Herbert's HTR stable, the five-year-old mare has 20 shares costing £7,700 each for the first year, with smaller payments for subsequent years - our second annual payment, due in May, amounts to £3,950.

That fee covers all training, stabling and vet fees - which can be considerable - while any loss over and above is borne by HTR. Shareholders receive a set of accounts covering every penny spent, and any prize money or sales proceeds come back to the syndicate.

Know your horse-speak © Provided by The Telegraph Know your horse-speak

On her first race out for us, in May last year, Treyarnon Bay won at Southwell with Nico de Boinville in the saddle - the English rider is one of the most successful British jump jockeys currently competing. I wasn't there but I fully expect de Boinville to continue the horse's winning ways in 2023.

'Treyarnon Bay cost 60,000 guineas and she is already showing great potential,' says Herbert. Even today, horses are still bought and sold in guineas, worth £1.05 in today's money. The tradition dates back to the 17th century, when golden guineas were first minted.

'Horse racing is the sport of kings,' Herbert continues. 'And buying into a syndicate like this allows owners to mingle in the parade ring with great trainers, jockeys, royalty and celebrities.' Herbert's own bloodline makes him something of a thoroughbred in the equine world himself. His father, the late 7th Earl of Carnarvon, was the late Queen's racing manager: the former Lord Porchester, known as Porchie, shared a lifelong passion for horses with the monarch and was a close friend.

Queen Elizabeth II with racing manager John Warren and Harry Herbert at Newbury - getty © Provided by The Telegraph Queen Elizabeth II with racing manager John Warren and Harry Herbert at Newbury - getty

Herbert still lives on the family estate at Highclere Castle, the Hampshire setting for Downton Abbey. 'Horse racing was always the subject of every conversation around the dining table with Dad when I was a boy,' he recalls. 'I rebelled and had zero interest. My plan was to become an actor, then I went into the City and suddenly renewed my interest in horses because people loved to gamble. That moment was like a tsunami - I went straight to Kentucky to learn the trade and was introduced to Cot Campbell. He was the American behind the first successful syndicate business and pioneered shared ownership.'

Convinced that syndicates were the way forward, Herbert returned to England and established HTR in 1992. 'Syndicates were a bit of a dirty word back then - people put money in and had no idea where it was spent. Cot changed that and I wanted to do the same here. When I went to the bank they were horrified and flatly refused to help, but I found backers to bankroll the business and I was on my way.'

Despite scepticism, Herbert enjoyed immediate success. One of HTR's first horses was a stallion named Lake Coniston, bought as a yearling for 22,000 guineas, which went on to become European Champion Sprinter, and was sold for breeding at the end of his career for £2.4 million - a major payday for its 15 owners.

One of these was the late William Smith, 4th Viscount Hambleden. His son Alex Smith recalls the experience: 'My father had been a racehorse owner but he gave it up; I encouraged him to renew his interest in his later years. He really hit the jackpot with Lake Coniston and I remember the tears of joy when the horse romped home in the July Cup at Newmarket in 1995. I think it was one of the greatest moments of his life.'

Treyarnon Bay rides out in the Berkshire countryside - Orlando Gili © Provided by The Telegraph Treyarnon Bay rides out in the Berkshire countryside - Orlando Gili

Herbert admits that such high returns are rare. 'Nobody should buy into a racehorse syndicate to make money. It's a fun pastime when you might be lucky and get a big return. There is also the social side, meeting fellow owners, going to races and enjoying the spectacle.'

But for every moment of Champagne-soaked glory, Herbert tells would-be owners to expect weeks and months of waiting until a horse is trained to run at the highest level. Nicky Henderson's stables near Lambourn is the business end of the sport, which few watching from a corporate hospitality box ever experience.

Today, Henderson is crashing through puddles in a mud-splattered Land Rover. The 72-year-old trainer is juggling his time between a vet visit and studying horses as they trot around an arena. 'I don't think about my age,' he says. 'This is a tough business but it's worth all the effort when you win and see the sheer pleasure it brings to the owners and people involved. Syndicates have changed horse racing in this country, allowing people from all walks of life to become involved.

'All the syndicate owners are invited to my stables to see their horse training. They get to know each other and can become quite a close-knit group of friends, all based around a shared passion for horses.' 

The same is true with the Treyarnon Bay syndicate, who have been slowly getting to know each other since first meeting last year, when the thoroughbred came under HTR ownership. None of us got involved to make money, that's for sure. Every time we meet Treyarnon Bay, it feels as though we grow a little closer to the horse, although she can be quite feisty. I know everybody secretly shares a dream to one day celebrate in the winner's enclosure.

Nicky Henderson, who trained horses for the late Queen, was chosen as the trainer for Treyarnon Bay - Orlando Gili © Provided by The Telegraph Nicky Henderson, who trained horses for the late Queen, was chosen as the trainer for Treyarnon Bay - Orlando Gili

I got interested thanks to my future father-in-law, the late Peter Talbot-Ponsonby, an owner himself, who won enough on one horse to instal central heating in a Cotswold mansion. While syndicate owners might be lucky to break even on their investment, the world's highest-earning racehorse, Winx, an Australian mare owned by an international partnership, proved anything is possible. The thoroughbred had won an astonishing £15 million plus by the time her career ended, in 2019.

Henderson adds, 'If you own a horse and hit the jackpot then the rewards can be substantial. There is no tax on prize money or capital gains tax on owning a racehorse, so a lucky few have done very well indeed.'

Perhaps there is only one person who experiences the joy of winning more than the owner - the jockey. De Boinville says Treyarnon Bay always gives her all: 'She is a brave and gutsy horse. This is the very start of her career, and I can see plenty of potential. I still get a massive kick from winning any race, so I really understand what it feels like for an owner. For syndicates you get to share the highs and the lows with a group of people who all have an interest in one horse.'

Back in the stable after her workout, Treyarnon Bay - all 478kg of her - is snorting with neighbours Call the Dance and Touchy Feely. The walls of the block are lined with blue plaques that celebrate Henderson's many achievements but there's room for more. The National Hunt season is moving towards a climax and, for the owners of Treyarnon Bay, there will be more chances to enjoy a day at the races. Herbert, who married television chef Clodagh McKenna in 2021, is confident our mare can follow up on her earlier success.

'I absolutely love this sport,' he says, 'and I believe syndicate owners feel the same. Ultimately, we are providing them with a luxury goods service, so we spend a lot of time and care making sure owners are happy and that, hopefully, they will one day experience that winning feeling too.' 

Would you ever buy a racehorse? Please let us know in the comments below

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