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HORSES FOR HIS KINGDOM
Clive Gammon
November 13, 1978
Robert Sangster literally has the horses—and he has made good on his threat to shake racing by the neck
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November 13, 1978

Horses For His Kingdom

Robert Sangster literally has the horses—and he has made good on his threat to shake racing by the neck

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Buzzing north from London to Liverpool, the Beechcraft should have had plenty of room for its two passengers, but it's as jammed as a Laker Sky-train in August. Strapped in aft are antique silver candelabra and on the adjoining seat is a fine pen-and-ink study of Willie Shoemaker. There are some suitcases, a coat one could wear while touring Antarctica and, hemmed in by shopping bags from the fancier London stores, a notably striking Australian lady named Susan.

Regrettably, flying time to Liverpool is under an hour. On the ground, room has to be made for a third passenger, a stocky, mild-featured man, business-suited and briefcase-carrying. Suddenly the Beech-craft cabin becomes a suburban living room just after the 5:45 gets in. "Meeting go well, dear?" Susan asks, implanting a wifely kiss. "Drink?" Willie and the candelabra are moved, tired husband settles in, opens his briefcase and, smiling, produces a sheaf of 10 x 6 color prints. Vacation shots? Graduation portraits? They are not. What they show is a 4-year-old colt named Alleged sailing past the post in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe at Long-champ last month to win the French classic for the second successive year. Aboard is Lester Piggott, foremost of English jockeys, and he is wearing the white, blue and green racing colors of the man who now looks on indulgently as his wife coos over the prints. That man is Robert Sangster, a 42-year-old English multimillionaire who, just four years ago, made an important resolve.

"I decided," he recalls, as the Beechcraft heads over the Irish Sea, "to get hold of the racing business by the neck and shake it."

As a classic formula for self-destruction this would be hard to beat, especially because Sangster planned to use both inherited and borrowed money. "People stood around to watch me go down in flames, like Lady Beaverbrook," he says, recalling the widow of the great Fleet Street press baron, who lost some of the fortune he left her on dud horses. " 'Here's an idiot with money,' they said about me. 'Let's watch him fall flat on his face.' A lot of people were looking forward to that."

So far they have waited in vain. It would be extremely difficult now to find a knowledgeable voice on either side of the Atlantic to deny that not only has Robert Sangster shaken the racing world, but that the seismic disturbances continue. He has demonstrated that it is possible to trade blood horses on a massive scale as if they were soybean futures or Krugerrands. It is generally conceded that in four years Sangster has attained a position second only to Nelson Bunker Hunt in terms of horseflesh ownership. About $350 million is the figure he will grab out of the air for you, but he points out that the international market in thoroughbreds has gone up by about 50% in the last year. "You'll have to wait for an executors' meeting for the precise figure," he says wryly. "Irritating that I won't be around to hear it."

The Sangster family fortune stemmed from an idea that Robert's grandfather, Arthur Sangster, had in 1926, which brought together two ruling passions of English sports enthusiasts—soccer and gambling. With three partners and $800 he set up what came to be called the football pools. For a tiny stake you could win a massive sum (today, it could be more than a million dollars) by forecasting game results correctly. Two years later Arthur died, but his son Vernon bought out the other three men and prospered. These days, maybe 2½ million Englishmen spend Wednesday evenings figuring out their Vernons Pools coupons—another 10 million use other pool companies—and at teatime on Saturdays a great silence falls over the whole nation as the telly announces the soccer scores.

Printing pool coupons turned out to be a license to print money. The cash flowed over into other Vernon enterprises until the company now may have an annual turnover of something like $500 million. Even so, it must have been a magic moment in the boardroom the day that young Master Robert walked in and requested a little float, maybe $6 or $7 million, to launch himself in the horse-trading business.

At 38, though, he had long ago proved himself no spendthrift heir but an astute businessman who was successfully running a large segment of the company. His father, whose homilies about hard work he constantly quotes, had considerable faith in him. Moreover, with an inheritance-tax problem looming over him, which would almost certainly compel him to leave England, Robert would have to play a much lesser part in the affairs of Liverpool-based Vernons. Horse racing and horse breeding was an international business that could be run from anywhere in the world. And Robert had seen that in spite of the huge sums involved, it was still essentially an amateurish business.

"I'd been involved in racing in a small way for 10 years. I'd seen how mistakes were made," he says. "Then, paradoxically, I realized that if you wanted to enjoy racing and keep a large string, you had to be totally commercial and ruthless unless you wanted to be a complete idiot and pour your money down the drain. I don't get any satisfaction from that."

The Beechcraft is losing height, breaking through the cloud cover so that it is possible to see surf breaking on high sea cliffs, with rolling, pastoral country beyond—the Isle of Man, a 33-mile-long tax haven, midway between England and Ireland. The Sangsters have lived there for three years, so the approach is familiar, and they continue to study the pictures of Alleged. "The odds will be just silly on Saturday," their guest observes. Alleged is meant to be running in the Champion Stakes at Newmarket on the weekend.

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