Jerome Reilly reports on the rise and rise of Coolmore, the dominant name in the world bloodstock industry
BENEATH a crystal chandelier and under darkening clouds visible through the glass roof, Charles Haughey's old buddy John Magnier of Coolmore and Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum went into battle for a horse with no name.
Lot 34 came under the hammer at the Houghton Sale at Tattersalls last November and the bars and cafes emptied to watch the two crowned princes of the sport of kings go head to head. The young colt certainly looked the part and his blood was a shade of midnight blue.
The yearling's father? Sadler's Wells, now undisputably the greatest stallion in the world, who stands in Tipperary at Magnier's Coolmore and covers mares at an estimated 150,000 guineas a time. The colt's mother, Watership Down, also possessed impeccable genetic credentials and a celebrity owner in Andrew Lloyd Webber.
The Sheikh blinked first. As the bids went up in rapid, bewildering leaps of 100,000 guineas a time it was the taciturn, rather remote figure of John Magnier who personally upped the bidding one last time with a raised eyebrow. Arab royalty gave way to an Irish horse trader. Lot 54, a horse that may never appear on a racecourse, was knocked down for 3.4 million guineas smashing the existing European record for a yearling by some £400,000.
Seven months later and that outrageous game of brinkmanship between the heads of the pre-eminent bloodstock corporations in the world increasingly looks like good business for Magnier and those closest to him. It just can't get much better for Magnier, who entered Leinster House in 1987 on the nomination of Charles Haughey and reinforced his reputation as a quiet, rather solitary man by speaking in the Seanad just three times in three years.
Coolmore and the Sheikhs have held the whip hand in the world of thoroughbred breeding in Europe for years but it was always a photo finish between the two conglomerates. Now it appears that Magnier and Coolmore have edged ahead, especially since the unfortunate demise of Dubai Millenium a brilliant racehorse who the Sheikhs were banking on as a potential super stallion.
Last week-end Galileo, in the French navy blue colours of John Magnier's wife Susan (daughter of the legendary Vincent O'Brien) and co-owned by Michael Tabor (the East End born former professional gambler and bookmaker) took the Epsom Derby in imperious style not seen since Shergar.
And Gallileo did it with a turbo charged change of pace which suggests he could be one of the greatest race horses ever an animal possessed of the holy trinity of the thoroughbred's qualities; blistering speed, endurance and a natural equilibrium which even the sharp undulations of Epsom couldn't disturb.
Galileo won the Derby in the second fastest time ever recorded and while being eased down. In another remarkable piece of business for Coolmore, in the days before the race Magnier had also secured the breeding rights of the other favoured horse in the field, the second placed Golan, who will stand at Coolmore when his racing career is over. In a classic case of hedging their bets Coolmore purchased the breeding rights of Golan from Lord Weinstock for some $10 million, though if Golan had won they would have had to pay more. The difference for the venerable Lord between first and second place in the Derby was $5 million.
The day before the Derby, Sadler's Wells' daughter, Imagine (also owned by Susan Magnier, though this time in partnership with Wicklow breeder Diane Nagle) won the premier fillies flat race, The Oaks, with Sadler's Wells' offspring also taking second and third.
Coolmore's headquarters, the 2000 acre spread in the heart of the Golden Vale just outside Fethard, Co. Tipperary, is now the axis around which the bloodstock world revolves.
Magnier is the man out front of the Coolmore operations in Ireland and its two satellite operations, Ashford-Coolmore in Kentucky and Coolmore-Australia. However Michael Tabor, the 58-year-old former bookie now resident in Monte Carlo, appears to be his equal.
Born to a Russian-Jewish immigrant family called Taborosky who escaped to London from the pogroms in Vilna, Tabor's fascinating rise to become one of the world's top owners and breeders is the stuff of fairytales.
He once studied to be a hairdresser but a natural flair for numbers led him into the bookmaking business, starting with two shops under the Arthur Prince name which he bought with borrowed money and ending with the sale of 114 shops to Coral bookmakers for a reported £27 million.
In between he had his rows with the racing authorities and in 1970 was banned from all racecourses in Britain after the British Jockey Club investigated allegations that Tabor had paid two jockeys for tips. The ban was rescinded some three years later.
It was at the time his off-course empire was expanding that Tabor became a serious owner at the very top end of the market, especially in the United States.
He turned to Coolmore's chief buyer and veterinary surgeon Demi O'Byrne for advice in picking horses during the Keeneland sales in Kentucky to find him likely prospects, many of them subsequently winners under the joint ownership of Susan Magnier and Tabor.
It is impossible to know who owns how much in the Coolmore operation but JP McManus is closely connected and, like Tabor, a man who is now more likely to gamble on the strength of the dollar or some other currency fluxuation rather than placing a big bet on the favourite of the Galway Plate.
JP McManus remains talisman of ordinary Irish punters because of his fearless jousts with the bookies over the years, his lack of arrogance and the exploits of his horses at Cheltenham, particularly in recent years the peerless hurdler Istabraq. McManus has also pledged £50 million to the Government's controversial National Stadium if it is ever built.
Dermot Desmond, also closely associated with Charles Haughey, and who paid for his yacht Celtic Mist to be refurbished, is also one of the Coolmore set. The fifth man with strong connections to Coolmore is the mysterious Joe Lewis, the Bahamas-based billionaire. Lewis is another Londoner who likes to speculate on world currencies and dabble in sport.
While Lewis's investment vehicle, ENIC, part owns Rangers in Scotland, Desmond is across the sectarian divide at Celtic Park. Both men also, along with McManus, share a passion for golf, while Michael Tabor once had a tilt at buying West Ham.
Those jealous of the power of Coolmore point to the generous tax breaks which Charles Haughey introduced to benefit the bloodstock industry in Ireland. It means that all nomination income, the money made from stallions doing what stallions do naturally, is tax free .
The bloodstock industries in other countries are jealous of this benign regime and when one considers the potential income from nomination fees it's no wonder. It means that while the production of top quality foals is stagnant in Britain the Irish trade is flourishing.
On the Coolmore website John Magnier pays tribute to finance Minister Charlie McCreevy and Agriculture Minister Joe Walsh on establishing the new racing authority. "We would like to thank Ministers Joe Walsh and Charlie McCreevy as well as our government for having the vision to develop our industry and improve living standards of all those within it." A soft tax regime allied with sound judgement, professionalism, shrewd horse sense and a fearless gambling streak have ensured that John Magnier and his friends have had their living standards improved more than most.