John Magnier doesn’t often lose at anything but last October his Coolmore stud came off on the wrong side of a bidding war with arch rivals Godolphin (owned by Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai). The prize — a half-brother to Group One winner Barney Roy — ended up being the most expensive yearling of the year in Europe at £3.6m (€4.26m) and represented a rare blot in a year which saw the Irish billionaire reach for the first time into double figures in Epsom Derby wins.
The 72-year-old isn’t known as The Boss for nothing. He sits atop a business empire which includes interests in UK nursing home group Barchester Healthcare, Britain’s biggest pub group, Mitchells & Butlers, and Luttrellstown Castle, where David and Victoria Beckham got married.
Mitchells & Butlers represented one of Magnier’s many successes this year. In January, shares in the UK pub giant, which holds names such as All Bar One, jumped after it said sales grew by 6.5pc to record levels across five key days around Christmas. The Birmingham-based company, in which Magnier holds a substantial stake, recorded £177m (€209.6m) in pretax profit, significantly higher than the £130m reported the year before.
However, Magnier missed out on a potential windfall in 2019 as Australian investment bank Macquarie pulled out of talks to acquire Barchester Healthcare, which was put on the market last year by Dermot Desmond and Magnier, who owns around 20pc. The healthcare company, which operates more than 200 care homes and seven registered hospitals in the UK, was put up for sale two years ago with a price tag of around €2.8bn.
Even as a young man, Magnier was always an astute businessman. After the death of his father when Magnier was 15, he had to leave school to take charge of the family’s estate near Fermoy. He later moved into the equine business and along with his father-in-law Vincent O’Brien and the English businessman Robert Sangster, Magnier developed a system of buying yearlings in America and turning them into sires in Ireland where stallion income was tax free.
This tax exemption was abolished in 2008 but by then a series of canny investments, which included the trading of government and corporate bonds, as well as currency trading, helped propel him to the status of billionaire, and this in turn enabled him to indulge his expensive tastes: In 2002, he was reported to have spent £4.5m on paintings by Sir Alfred Munnings, the famous horse painter. In 2018, a nude portrait by Amedeo Modigliani sold for $157.2m (€131.7m) at Sotheby’s, achieving the fourth-highest price for any work of art at auction. Magnier had bought the painting for a mere $26.9m (€24.4m) in 2003.
Throughout it all Magnier has assiduously shunned publicity, but this has generated an even greater aura around his shrewd business dealings.