The battle for the Rock of Gibraltar
John Magnier's elaborate plan to make up for a snobbish slur on his mate Alex Ferguson would lead to an epic battle for a £50m horse. Liam Collins tells the story of the showdown between a sporting legend and some of Ireland's richest men, a battle which changed the face of sport
Published 27/03/2011 | 05:00
As his battle for an iconic 19th league title goes down to the wire, it is hard to believe that 10 years ago the most famous manager in British football was fighting for survival at Manchester United after a bitter feud with one of Ireland's richest men threatened to end his career at the club.
As the well-heeled guests made their way into the Gimcrack Dinner at York racecourse on a frosty night of December 12, 1999, few could have anticipated that one of the high points of racing's social calendar would ignite a row that would pit the football manager Sir Alex Ferguson against his one-time friend, the multi-millionaire owner of the Coolmore racing empire, John Magnier.
Racing tradition dictates that the owner of the horse that wins the famous Gimcrack Stakes at York addresses the annual dinner of the same name. As Mull of Kintyre had won the race in his dark blue colours that year, it fell to the stallion master of Coolmore, John Magnier, to give the speech.
A former member of the Irish Senate, where he had rarely spoken, Magnier was not known for public speaking. But he did endeavour to provide the guests with a top-class replacement, a casual friend of his and a man who was equally passionate and successful in his own game: the manager of Manchester United, who was then just plain old Alex Ferguson.
And that was where the crux arose. The organisers of the Gimcrack Dinner at York were not enamoured by the idea and turned him down. Instead, it fell to Bob Lanigan of Coolmore to make the speech and he followed it up with an entertaining ballad commemorating some of the great horses of Coolmore and Ballydoyle, which had been written with a bit of help from a neighbouring Tipperary estate owner, Andrew Lloyd Webber.
John Magnier usually got his own way and he resolved that his friend Alex Ferguson would make the Gimcrack speech in his own right, whether those who ran York's social life wanted it or not.
Ferguson, whose father was a shipyard worker on the Clyde who had a "tanner yankee" every Saturday, had a passing interest in racing. He went to meetings and a few horses had run in his colours, red and white. "One of the reasons I like racing is that, largely, people leave me alone. And when they do talk to me it is likely to be about what is going to win the 3.30 rather than football," he remarked. All that was about to change.
John Magnier was a 16-year-old schoolboy at Glenstal Abbey when his father died in 1964 and he got the call to return to the family's Grange Stud near Fermoy, Co Cork. His father Michael had bred Cottage, a horse that would sire Cottage Rake which, in turn, would bring a young trainer called Vincent O'Brien to international prominence when it won three consecutive Cheltenham Gold Cups.
The young Magnier not only relied on Vincent O'Brien for sound advice on how to survive in the intricate world of Irish racing, but he also fell in love with Susan O'Brien, the beautiful young daughter of Vincent and his Australian-born wife, Jacqueline.
In 1975, the 27-year-old Magnier became the third partner in an enterprise that would change racing forever. He brought his expertise in horse-breeding to join his father-in-law Vincent O'Brien's unrivalled knowledge of horse racing and the seemingly bottomless wealth of Vernons Pools multi-millionaire Robert Sangster. They had devised a simple, but highly effective, plan for domination of the turf.
Identifying the stallion Northern Dancer as the star of the sport and with a war chest of more than $50m, they went into the market for its sons. The crop of horses were trained by O'Brien at Ballydoyle and, after winning a string of classics, they were retired to stud. But instead of being sent to America as had been the practice, they travelled the short distance from Ballydoyle to the trio's Coolmore Stud on a 400-acre farm near Fethard in Co Tipperary.
The star of the enterprise was undoubtedly the "incomparable" Sadler's Wells -- retired in 2008 -- which is said to have earned Coolmore at least €20m during the horse's illustrious stallion career.
Behind the shrewdness of Magnier, the brilliance of O'Brien and the wealth of Sangster and his various successors, most notably the London barrow-boy-turned-bookie Michael Tabor, there was an underlying advantage bestowed to Coolmore. This had been conferred by Charles Haughey, the then finance minister, in the 1969 Finance Act, which made fees earned from stallions in Ireland exempt from any form of tax. It was a controversial piece of legislation, but also a brilliant one. Magnier and his associates made millions, while Ireland became the world "centre of excellence" for horse-breeding and racing.
To be fair to Magnier, this tax advantage was open to everybody, from the sheiks to the Aga Khan, but it was he who exploited it best. His knowledge of horse-breeding and his instincts for great sires gave him a supreme advantage. The 400-acre farm near Fethard, Co Tipperary, where Coolmore originated is now a 6,000-acre equine empire, with associated stud farms in Kentucky and Australia. And when the old master Vincent O'Brien retired, he was succeeded by the equally obsessive perfectionist Aidan O'Brien (no relation).
With his wealth from Coolmore, Magnier went into financial partnership with the legendary Limerick gambler JP McManus, and Dermot Desmond, a billionaire financier known as The Kaiser. Desmond had become the biggest investor in Glasgow Celtic football club and Magnier and McManus decided to follow suit by buying a stake in another club that has a large following in Ireland, Manchester United.
While they were already on friendly terms with Ferguson, it is unlikely that they either consulted or informed him that Cubic Expression, a company formed specifically to hold their Manchester United stake, was investing millions in the club where he was the legendary manager. But their friendship with him did give the story another layer of intrigue for the analysts and bankers who watch large financial transactions taking place. The £30m stake they bought in 2001 belonged to Martin Edwards, whose family had been long-term owners of United.
"That they [Magnier and McManus] are both friends of Sir Alex Ferguson, the United manager, sharpens the tabloids' teeth," wrote journalist Alan Ruddock of the Irish businessmen's foray into the club. "Ferguson has been at war with his board and particularly his chairman, Martin Edwards, over the past few years. Entering the final straight of his career, he appears to have won the major battles by getting enough money to buy big-name players as well as getting a £5m pay package for himself last year."
Magnier's business model in horse racing was exactly the same as Ferguson's in football: have the money to buy up all the best players/horses and you're sure to win most of the prizes. That's the theory, anyway.
While he was eyeing up the prospects of Manchester United in the year 2001, Magnier had not forgotten the promise he made to himself back in 1999 in York: that one day his friend Alex Ferguson would make the Gimcrack speech. Socially, Ferguson was now close to the Coolmore crowd. He was happy to fly over to Ireland to tour around Ballydoyle, attend charity dinners and play golf with his new friends, who included their pal Tiger Woods in their circle.
It seemed clear, according to the writer Martin Hannan, that Coolmore was deliberately listing Ferguson for what they believed were their best Gimcrack prospects in 2001. His name was linked to three different horses before Magnier and Aidan O'Brien saw the full potential of two-year-old Rock of Gibraltar that summer when he won the Railway Stakes, at the Curragh. When Ferguson phoned him in early August, Magnier told him about the horse and his plans for it -- it was a phone call that would later become of vital importance to both men, but the exact details of what was said that day still remain shrouded in mystery. Whatever was said, the end result was that, on August 17, Ferguson was registered with Horse Racing Ireland as a 50 per cent owner of Rock of Gibraltar, with the other half vested in Mrs John Magnier. The same day the horse was declared for the prestigious Gimcrack Stakes, to be run five days later on August 22. Although the trainer and jockey and registered 'owners' would remain the same for the rest of Rock of Gibraltar's career, from then on the horse ran in the red and white colours of Alex Ferguson.
In 2002, Ferguson told the Observer: "My first real memory of Rock of Gibraltar was at the Gimcrack Stakes at York in August. I had bought him a couple of months earlier and he had already won once."
What did that one word "bought" mean? Ferguson hadn't actually paid any money and he wasn't charged training fees, but he was listed as "joint owner" with Susan Magnier. What did that mean?
It would later turn out that, as far as John Magnier was concerned, it was just a formality to give Ferguson a thrill that many wealthy and powerful people crave: having a top-class horse win prestigious races in their name and pick up a share of the lucrative prize money involved. But there can be little doubt that Ferguson believed that he was the true owner of a half-share of a blueblood of the turf.
However, the Turf Club 'registration' with Horse Racing Ireland did not have any legal standing. According to Martin Hannan in his book, Rock of Gibraltar, things were further complicated, because in Weatherbys' General Stud Book, which is the bible of horse-breeding in England and Ireland, the owner of Rock of Gibraltar was listed as "Rock of Gibraltar syndicate" and not Alex Ferguson or Mrs John Magnier.
The Manchester United boss could not make the racetrack at York to see Rock of Gibraltar reach the first milestone in his astonishing career when he won the Gimcrack Stakes. But it was a win that set him up to make the speech at the "the frightfully grand" Gimcrack Dinner later that year, in the course of which he expressed his "deepest gratitude" to his friends Sue and John Magnier. "I have been given the privilege of teaming up with them, and standing up before you this evening. Nobody could be blessed with better friends than them." They were prophetic words that would soon come back to haunt him.
In 2002, as a three-year-old, Rock of Gibraltar won seven Group 1 races in succession, starting with the Grand Criterium at Longchamp, followed by the Dewhurst Stakes at Newmarket, the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket, the Irish 2,000 Guineas at the Curragh, the St James's Palace Stakes at Ascot, the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood and the Prix du Moulin de Longchamp at Longchamp on September 8,
2002. "You always have to be surprised when something like this happens," said John Magnier in a rare RTE interview. "He is a tough, durable, versatile horse. No doubt about that. And Alex is lucky."
The Rock, as he was now known among racing fans with whom he had gained celebrity status, started as favourite in his final race the Breeders' Cup Mile in Arlington Park, USA, on October 26, 2002, and was unfortunate to be narrowly beaten into second place. He was then promptly retired to stud at Coolmore on his return to Ireland.
Ferguson now looked at the value of Rock of Gibraltar in terms of money -- after all, he was registered as half-owner of the most talked-about thoroughbred in the world. An article in the Daily Telegraph in November 2002 speculated that the stud value of Rock of Gibraltar could be as high as £50m, and that a half share would mean a colossal windfall profit for Ferguson, which would dwarf the millions he was getting from running the most valuable football club in the world.
That was not the way John Magnier saw it. When Ferguson and Magnier finally sat down to thrash out the financial details of the horse's future, it was clear that there was more than just a cultural difference in their approach to the problem that had now arisen between the two friends.
Magnier was clear -- the ownership was a nominal honour that would entitle Alex Ferguson to 50 per cent of Rock of Gibraltar's earnings of £1,164,804 (and high-class replicas of his trophies) or one stud nomination a year in Ireland and one in Australia where the horse would 'stand' in the winter. The probable value of these was more than €150,000 a year for an expected 10 years.
But Ferguson wasn't having any of it. In his mind, 50 per cent was 50 per cent. By the summer of 2003, the stallion master of Coolmore and the manager of Manchester United were haggling over money on one level, but over supremacy on another. Their friendship was torn apart in the process.
What made Magnier even more uncomfortable was the media spotlight that was beginning to settle on him and the dispute over Rock of Gibraltar. As a compromise, he offered Ferguson four stud nominations per year -- two in Ireland and a further two in Australia. It was a tempting offer but the tough Scot, now appraised that others also had claims to nominations, held out for between 15-20 per cent of the stud value of Rock of Gibraltar.
On October 7, 2003, it was disclosed that Magnier and McManus's Cubic Expression had spent a further £62m acquiring another 10 per cent stake in Manchester United held by BSkyB.
By late 2003, the row over the ownership of the Rock finally found its way into the Irish courts when Ferguson began formal legal proceedings in the High Court in Dublin against John Magnier and Coolmore Ltd.
The statement of claim lodged on behalf of Ferguson with Coolmore in the Dublin courts stated that Ferguson's name had contributed to the massive stud fees now earned by the horse; that he was a half-owner of Rock of Gibraltar and that he was entitled to half its earnings, which could be in the region of €50-€70m over the following 10 years. Magnier, who had done multimillion-pound deals with the nod of a head or shake of a hand, was incensed. He believed that his word, so important in his business, was being questioned and he loathed the fact that his private affairs were now open to public scrutiny.
"Coolmore Stud has today been advised that legal proceedings have been initiated against Mr John Magnier by Sir Alex Ferguson alleging certain ownership rights to the stallion Rock of Gibraltar. Coolmore Stud and John Magnier consider the action to be without merit and it will be vigorously defended," said a statement from Murray Consultants on behalf of Magnier, issued on November 17, 2003.
A series of questions were put directly by Cubic Expression to the board of Manchester United and they were clearly directed at Ferguson's stewardship of the famous club. What, they asked, was the relationship between the manager of United and his son, Jason, who ran the sporting agency Elite Management and who was involved in receiving commission from United on the transfer of players, notably Jaap Stam? They also put a series of questions to the Manchester United board and its solicitors relating to payments to players, the financial organisation of transfer deals and payments to Ferguson himself.
As the dispute escalated, the most famous football manager in the world was put on a rolling yearly contract rather than signing the normal five-year deal that would have been expected. By February 2004, Cubic Expression owned 28.39 per cent of Manchester United and there were strong indications that Magnier and McManus might take over the club.
Ironically, as Ferguson came under more and more pressure, it was to a group of Irish advisers that he turned. Led by the well-known Dublin barrister Colm Allen SC, Ferguson assembled a team which operated in secret what was known as "the Rathgar Project", a fightback aimed at advising Ferguson on the legal, financial and public relations aspects of the battle over the Rock of Gibraltar. Among those who contributed advice was Tony Blair's former adviser, Alastair Campbell, a long-time admirer of Ferguson. One of those involved says it was like a "covert operation".
Then a group of Manchester United fans called United4Action began to take the war to Magnier and McManus's own turf -- the racecourse, with a series of protests planned to culminate at a rally in favour of Ferguson at the famous Cheltenham Festival.
This was a step too far for all concerned. Ferguson came out on the steps of Old Trafford and personally read out a statement that effectively ended the Rock of Gibraltar affair. "The reputation of Manchester United is paramount to my thinking. The private dispute I have is just that and I don't want to exacerbate the whole thing. Cheltenham is such a great festival and I don't want it marred in any way. There is a lot of concern about what could happen and I would ask supporters to refrain from any form of protest. I am strongly opposed to any violent, unlawful or disruptive behaviour which may reflect badly on the club and its supporters in general," he said.
His reputation was under scrutiny, his job was at considerable risk and his family was finding the pressure intolerable.
On the other side of the feud, there was also a clear will to get this "over and done with" as one of the participants admitted. The Irish duo had become the subject of unseemly chants at Manchester United's hallowed ground, Old Trafford, and they were finding it increasingly difficult to
concentrate on their enjoyment of racing, punting and buying and selling horses, due to the voracious appetite of the British and Irish press for stories about the feud.
It was the sign that all sides needed and the signal for Dermot Desmond to approach Ferguson with a deal that almost needed to be as carefully choreographed as the Good Friday Agreement.
The basic settlement was that Alex Ferguson would be paid a lump sum of £2.5m, he would renounce all claims to Rock of Gibraltar, he would discontinue the contentious legal action instituted in the Dublin courts and he would remain silent forever on the Rock of Gibraltar affair.
The deal was signed. But 'The Irishmen' had one more deal to pull off before the saga was complete -- they sold their holding in Manchester United.
Malcolm Glazer, the 76-year-old Florida-based owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers American football team had been quietly stalking United all through the Rock of Gibraltar drama. On May 11, 2005, John Magnier and JP McManus took a conference call from the American. It is not known where they were at the time, or what transpired in the telephone call between the three men. But the following morning an estimated £230m dropped into the bank accounts of Cubic Expression, netting Magnier and McManus an estimated profit of £80m on their Manchester United adventure. Their pal Dermot Desmond made about £12m when he threw in his stake a couple of days later.
Ironically, John Magnier, who had never actually attended a game at Old Trafford, was at York races, the scene of his triumphs with Mull of Kintyre and Rock of Gibraltar, watching his latest crop of two-year-olds flash past the winning post, when the news broke that he had cut the last link with his one-time friend Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United. "I really don't have anything to add," said Magnier calmly when asked about the deal by reporters. "Let's talk about horses now."
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