More Than Just Owning A Horse – Interview With Mike Foster

Deva Racing offer Managed Syndicates and Racing Partnerships with two of the best young trainers in Britain – Tom Dascombe and Donald McCain. I recently interviewed Mike Foster, the Racing Manager, at Deva Racing about his love of racing and racehorse ownership.

How Did You Get Interested In Horse Racing?
My grandparents were always interested in racing. They took me to Chester races at a very young age and I remember just being fascinated by the whole thing.

So you’re not specifically from a racing background?
No, but my granddad wrote a racing tips column in the local paper and from the age of five I was helping my granddad on Saturday morning with his racing selections. I’d go down on a Saturday morning with the Sporting Life, it’s the Racing Post now, and we’d study the form giving points to the runners based on a system devised by my granddad.

From that I got a fascination for the stats & figures and when I was about 14 or 15 I started running a book in school, I remember one particular horse called Pulse Rate, which was also the name of our school band, everyone was backing it – this horse had no chance, but of course it won at 12/1 (laughs) I couldn’t go back to school for about 3 months!

How did Deva Racing get started?
I’ve always been a keen racegoer and one day I saw an advert in the Racing Post for a syndicate – I never ever thought that people from my background could own horses. I bought a 100th share in a horse and it was useless! It came last in it’s one race but I was absolutely bitten by the bug. I didn’t want a go out on a low and I was determined to have another go, which I did. Eventually I had a very good horse with Brian Smart called Aegean Dancer who landed a big champion race and he won about £100k.

When I heard that Michael Owen was opening up Manor House stables I contacted him about the possibility of setting up a syndicate and at that stage it wasn’t going to be a business, I just wanted a horse in training with them, local to me (Cheshire) and that’s all I was aiming do.

I met with Michael and Nicky Vaughan and we seemed to get on quite well. I syndicated my first horse with them and that went really well. Then Nicky sat me down one day and said why don’t you do this full time?

Since that first horse Deva Racing has just grown and grown. A mutual friend let me know that Donald McCain was interested in syndicates. I arranged a meeting with him at Bankhouse Stables, I didn’t know him very well at the time, but we hit it off straight away. I remember thinking “we can work together” and that’s how we got started with National Hunt horses at Bankhouse.

Is it difficult finding owners for the syndicate horses?
Marketing is important and it gets easier when you have runners and winners. Bangor-On-Dee racecourse is also a big help. Our first winner there raised our profile and we attracted people we may not have reached through our normal marketing channels. We also advertise in the Racing Post and we’re featured in local magazines but I would say that 95% of enquiries are generated from the internet.

What type of people are showing an interest in horse ownership?
Most of them are keen racegoers who are looking for the next step. The majority of our owners over the last couple of years are people who’ve taken early retirement, their families have grown up and they’re spoiling themselves now. Many have had an ambition to own a horse for a very long time.

So people who in the past may have spent money on Golf membership – are now thinking of horse ownership?
Exactly, it’s a hobby. In the jumps game it’s about the horses, you have them for longer, you’re more emotionally invested. Unlike Flat racing where it can be more business oriented. There’s not the opportunity to make money immediately unless you’ve got something that’s absolutely flying. And in that case the owners will want to keep the horse anyway, it could take them to Cheltenham or Aintree.

With the flat horses it tends to be more of a business. We have them for about a year – we buy inexpensive horses, hopefully they win and their value increases. Financially this has been very good for a number of our owners and they’ve enjoyed their experience of racing as well. Normally owners then reinvest, if we return them a profit they can buy two or three shares – it’s not because they’re not in it for the money, but rather what the money allows them to do which is buy more shares in more horses.

Are owners of National Hunt horses more likely to stay with them for longer?
It’s more of an emotional attachment to the horse. If you’re on the flat then you know you’re only going to have them a year, maybe two and you are going to get offers and they are going to get sold. Whereas there isn’t that sort of pressure on the jump horses and people invest a lot in the horse themselves because you are going to hopefully have them for five or six years. You’ll have the times when they’re injured and the times when they’re winning – it’s a roller coaster ride.

Does the perception of racing as a rich man’s sport prevent people from getting involved? Are Syndicates changing that perception?
It’s no longer the sport of Kings. Look at what Harry Herbert and Highclere Thoroughbred Racing have done. People have their view on Harry but one thing I will say about Harry, as somebody within our industry, is when he’s interviewed on prime time television he will promote syndicates – normally his own! But that opens people’s eyes and generates interest in all syndicates.

Deva Racing will be at Bangor-On-Dee racecourse on May 18th with a display stand, our goal is to promote the benefits of syndicates and let people know they can get involved in racehorse ownership. Whatever your budget, there is a syndicate for you and I think that’s important. However, It’s never going to be a cheap past time, keeping a race horse, particularly at a big stable like Donald McCain’s.

Can Syndicate owners compete with the big boys?
It depends on what you mean by syndicates. There are certain partnerships/syndicates where wealthy guys are owning four or five horses between them – they’re partnerships but they’re different to us at Deva Racing because we’re Professionally Managed Partnerships. That means we’re more likely to get people who are new to racehorse ownership. We take care of all the form filling and admin side that goes with owning a horse.

We are buying at a certain level, to buy a Kauto Star you’d need hundreds of thousands and that would push the syndicate costs out of the reach of most people. Having said that our spend on horses has quadrupled since we started. We’ve got a proven track record which has allowed us to be braver with our budget. We’re buying better horses and our agreement with trainer Donald McCain is that we will increase our quality of horses because for him to achieve his goal to be Champion trainer we’ve got to buy better horses.

It’s a partnership between us and Donald. The way syndicates work is that we’re at the entry level of ownership and many of our owners will go on to sole ownership with either Tom or Donald – the fact that I’m losing them as a customer to Donald or Tom is part of it. We’re using their name and reputation but we’re also bring new owners to them.

Is it difficult managing owners expectations?
It’s the hardest part of the job – managing people’s expectations, but it comes down to communication – it’s all about communication. The owners page on our website is crucial to this as it allows us to give daily updates on all our horses. We're always looking at ways to involve owners more – for instance, as part of our owners weekend an Equine Vet will be giving a talk, hopefully this will not only be very interesting but also help owners develop a deeper understanding about their horse.

Do owner’s expectations change over time?
If that happens that’s not the owners fault. That would be our fault for not communicating properly. This year for instance has been totally unique, by now I would have expected two or three of our newer horses to have had their debut races but the weather has been exceptionally bad this winter. The horse just can’t work on this ground. These are young horses and you run the risk of serious injury working them on very poor ground. You could end up missing a year rather than just having a couple of quiet months.

There has been more low grade injuries and weakness in the horses this season because it’s taking more out of them. The ground has been so soft and it’s been the same for everybody. I’ve never experienced this sort of year and neither has Donald. The gallops have flooded in places that haven’t flooded in 20 years. Talking to local farmers, this kind of flooding hasn’t happened in 90 years.

Donald wants the horses out running and winning. Racing works on percentages and he knows that the more runners he has the more winners he’ll have, the more chance he has of being a Champion. The incentive is to run the horses and as owners we want to see them run so the goal is the same. I get an easy life when the horses are running but I understand that sometimes that’s the wrong thing for the horse.

Has the economic downturn made Syndicates more attractive?
The biggest growth in ownership is syndicates. The super wealthy will always keep and maintain horses because they’re not really effected by the economics. It’s the middle owners, the local businessperson who’s probably had two or three horses, they’re the guys feeling the squeeze, it’s difficult to lay staff off and justify owning a couple of horses.

Traditionally most of our owners would be new to the game, people dipping their toe into the water or it was budget limitations that brought them to syndicates. However, recently trainers has been sending us sole owners who are now moving to syndicates. For Deva Racing that’s our biggest growth area this year, it’s worth remembering that if you’re a sole owner and your horse wins you’ve got no one to celebrate with. A syndicate gives you all the benefits of ownership and there’s a social side too – it’s more than just owning the horse.

If you’re interested in learning more about Mike, Deva Racing and how you can join in the thrill of racehorse ownership visit DevaRacing.com