Sport Horse Racing

Saturday 7 December 2019

Owen looking to shift goalposts

Brown Panther can announce soccer star as a genuine force on the Flat racing scene, writes Ronan Groome

'How does that compare to scoring a hat-trick for England?" The inevitable, but rather boringly predictable question directed at a weary-eyed Michael Owen in the immediate aftermath of Brown Panther's emphatic Royal Ascot victory. Hoarse and barely able to speak after roaring the horse home, Owen paused to take stock of his emotions.

The amount of money the Manchester United striker has invested into his racing operation is not in the hundreds of thousands, but millions. The sport has been his second passion since he was 11 years of age, when his father allowed him to pick one horse that would go into his Saturday bet. Aside from dreams of winning Premiership titles, European titles and achieving World Cup success with England, this sort of ambition has been with Owen ever since.

He had his first winner as an owner at the age of 20, only two years after he had announced himself to the football world with that glorious goal against Argentina at France '98. Owen found it hard to contrast the successes from two different sports. He was England's youngest cap and youngest goalscorer at the time. He was the first English player in 20 years to secure a Ballon d'Or, a feat no other Englishman has achieved since. He was a Liverpool hero with over 100 goals for the Reds, a Galactico at Real Madrid, and now a Premier League winner with Manchester United. For Owen to shed tears of happiness at a Royal Ascot success says a lot for his passion for racing.

Today the striker may well be in a better position to compare successes in both sports. It's been 10 years since that famous England victory over Germany, where Owen was at his predatorial best. But this time around he is on another assignment, Brown Panther is favourite for the German Derby, and Owen has travelled over with a similar kind of hope and expectation.

Owen's plan was always to set up his own operation. He had been thinking about it for years when he came across a run-down cattle farm in Cheshire, not far from where he grew up. It was ideal, 170 acres, sufficient enough for his ambition. Nicky Vaughan, who worked with John Gosden for 17 years, was the man selected to lead the newly named Manor House Stables. Vaughan did okay at the start, but by 2009, Owen had become dissatisfied with a five per cent strike rate and Vaughan was replaced by Tom Dascombe, an up-and-comer, a man making his own headlines.

Dascombe's string and number of winners had increased fantastically since he began training in 2005. Along with Dascombe came his principle owner Andrew Black, the joint-founder of Betfair. Black would join up with Owen in a partnership and most of Dascombe's horses at the time would come down as well. A new trainer, new investment which brought new facilities, all with the aim of creating a new power.

Dascombe's first season was slow, but it was going to take time. He had to adjust to training at Manor House; he took the Lambourn style of training down with him and it simply didn't work. But Owen was patient. Manor House Stables now houses over 100 racehorses. Rhythm Of Light was the first winner for the team at Royal Ascot, but Brown Panther's win was the big one, given that Owen bred and owned it himself.

The win itself couldn't have been more impressive. Richard Kingscote sent the son of Shirocco on as early as the turn for home. We had already seen the catastrophic effect of that sort of move earlier in the week, but this three-year-old just went further and further clear. But should Brown Panther justify favouritism for today's race in Hamburg and land the Owen team their first Group One, the scale of victory will have to be taken with a pinch of salt. Although probably one of the most impressive winners at Royal Ascot, the race Brown Panther took was just a handicap; a competitive race full of progressive three-year-olds, but still a handicap.

A successful jump-up from handicap class to Group One company would be near impossible on these shores, but such is the level of racing in Germany that Owen's horse is as short as 2/1 with most firms. The racecourse at Hamburg is mostly used as a public park. There is a running track two metres off the racing track and in the centre of the racecourse is an activity centre, accompanied by sporting facilities and barbeque areas. They only race once a year and the track is only in use for three weeks of the calendar year.

Yet Owen, Dascombe and Co will take home a pot just short of €260,000 if Brown Panther continues his progression -- quite a figure in an era of dwindling prize money. The amount would be more than eight times that which Brown Panther attained for his Royal Ascot success and more than what connections of Rewilding, Canford Cliffs, Frankel, and Fame And Glory won in their respective big-race Royal Ascot victories.

There were a few eyebrows raised when Brown Panther's target was said to be the German Derby, and not a tilt at the Irish Derby. But, economically, it looks an astute and canny move by connections if nothing less. An Irish Derby bid would have seen Brown Panther take on the second-, third-, and fourth-placed horses from the Epsom Derby and the unenviable task of taking on Aidan O'Brien at The Curragh.

Here, Brown Panther goes away from home with a favourite's chance of Group One glory. And despite the lack of prestige associated with the Deutsches Derby back in Britain, a victory would signal the beginning of a new power on the Flat racing scene.

For Owen, involved with horses for over 10 years now, it would be another dream come true, and another happy visit to Germany. It's back to the day job tomorrow though, with Manchester United's pre-season training scheduled to start at 9.0am.

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