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How Alex Ferguson’s co-ownership of Rock Of Gibraltar helped lead to the Glazer take-over of Manchester United


Rock Of Gibraltar and jockey Johnny Murtagh with Alex Ferguson in 2002

Rock Of Gibraltar and jockey Johnny Murtagh with Alex Ferguson in 2002

Rock Of Gibraltar and jockey Johnny Murtagh with Alex Ferguson in 2002

He would have been blissfully unaware of it as he belted down the finishing straight or spent his retirement busily siring a string of big-race winners, but Rock Of Gibraltar was the horse that changed the course of football history.

The Irish stallion, which died this week at the Coolmore stud in Co Tipperary at the age of 23, was at the centre of a legal dispute which enabled Malcolm Glazer stealthily to secure ownership of Manchester United.

Which means had “Rock” not been quite so good a horse, the Old Trafford roof would not be leaking, there would be no £600m debt still hanging over the club and FC United of Manchester would never have come into being.

Rock was foaled in a good year for United – 1999. And it quickly became clear he had real potential as a racehorse. Together with his Coolmore partner JP McManus, his owner, John Magnier, had grown close to United manager Alex Ferguson, even taking his advice to build up an investment in the club, then a plc.

​Racing was Ferguson’s principal form of relaxation and he had been increasingly interested in owning horses. Magnier, appreciating the public relations value of an association with the United manager, saw an opportunity and invited him to become involved in Rock; the horse was registered as co-owned by Ferguson and Magnier’s wife, Sue.

And, almost as soon as Rock started racing, Ferguson was picking up some substantial equine silverware, pictured beaming with delight as the horse, his jockey wearing silks in the United colours, won seven consecutive Group One races, beating Mill Reef’s record.

The 2,000 Guineas, the St James’s Palace Stakes and the Sussex Stakes were all accumulated one glorious summer in 2002. Not that Ferguson was there to witness the Guineas: he had to watch on television during half-time of the 2002 FA Cup final between United and Arsenal.

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Almost from the moment Rock was retired from racing, his smile disappeared. It was estimated that Rock could earn £200m in stud fees for his owners.

Ferguson liked the sound of that. The problem was, Magnier and McManus were way too shrewd to split the rewards. Ferguson, they explained, was co-owner only for the racing part of Rock’s career, entitled to a split of the prize money. Stud was very different.

An enraged Ferguson issued legal proceedings in 2003. The reply was unequivocal: “Coolmore Stud and John Magnier consider the action to be without merit and it will be vigorously defended,” was the extent of their public comment.

And vigorous was an understatement. Using their joint vehicle, Cubic Expression, Magnier and McManus quickly built up their holding in United to 28.7pc. It was done to make a point: when it comes to demonstration of power, here they were building up sufficient stake to make themselves Ferguson’s boss.

In 2004, they flexed their muscles by issuing a list of 99 questions ahead of the board annual meeting about the way United were being run. It was turning nasty.

So nasty, Roy Keane was collared on a trip back to Ireland and told to advise his manager of the seriousness of the position he was adopting. Keane tried to dissuade Ferguson from making enemies as powerful as the Coolmore lot. But he was not to be moved.

Eventually, however, an agreement was reached. Ferguson settled for a one-off payment reckoned to be about £2.5m, rather less than the amount the horse made as he sired 77 Group race winners, including Samitar, Seventh Rock, Mount Nelson and Society Rock.

Meanwhile, Glazer was stealthily accumulating United shares in a bid to take over the club. In May 2005, there was just one block standing in his way of gaining sufficient holding to trigger a takeover: the shares earned by Cubic Expression.

With the dispute settled, no longer needing leverage over Ferguson and without any emotional attachment to the club, Magnier and McManus happily accepted Glazer’s offer of £3 a share. And why not; it represented a substantial profit, tens of millions earned in just a couple of years.

So it was with that, Glazer took control of United, establishing an ownership model of foisting humongous borrowings on a debt-free operation while sitting back and counting the dividends. Whether he would have been able to build up a sufficient shareholding without the Irish block remains conjecture. But Rock Of Gibraltar certainly made it easier for him to mop up the holdings.

The horse will have remained ignorant of his culpability, but there will be plenty of United fans with reason not to mourn his passing. 

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2022]

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