By Samantha Martin (@sam_angelina22)
Racehorse ownership was once purely for the wealthy – it is the ‘Sport Of Kings’ after all. But nowadays, you don’t need to be a Sheikh or a millionaire to own racehorses as it’s becoming increasingly easy to get involved with ownership through syndicates.
I’m going to tell you the story of Free Love, a bay filly owned by The North South Syndicate. I’m guessing a lot of you probably don’t know who this filly is, but her syndicate have a wonderfully heart-warming story which is perfect to tell in these challenging times. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to chat with Tony Linnet, a member of The North South Syndicate, who has written a book called ‘A Year Of Free Love’, documenting the first year of owning this filly.
Tony’s love for racing began aged sixteen whilst working on a construction site, as a co-worker was interested in racing. At sixth form, he and new friend Patrick Hickey would use their study lessons to go home and watch the televised racing. Sea Pigeon, the Gordon Richards trained gelding who was at his prime in the 70s, “lit the flame” of Tony’s fascination with the sport. In his book, he refers to Sea Pigeon as a hero: “Hero is the right word. I idolised the horse and, for six or seven years, couldn’t allow Sea Pigeon to race without a small amount of my money riding on his handsome brown back. He was a mercurial talent in his early days.”
Tony and Patrick grew up and had families of their own but, thanks to their love of horse racing, they never lost touch. They’d both liked the idea of ownership, but never thought it possible until the rise of racing clubs and syndicates. Tony had small shares with Heart Of The South, which he says were the perfect introduction to ownership. In September 2017, Tony and Patrick, alongside Pete Smith, with whom Tony bonded over discussing fancies in the Hennessy Gold Cup at University; Mick Corringham, Patrick’s friend and postman, and Trevor Wyatt, who Tony had been in syndicates with, decided to create a syndicate of their own. The name ‘North South Syndicate’ was derived from the fact that two members live in the North of England and three live in the South.
The aim within their Syndicate was that they would do it all themselves – pick the trainer, select the horse, name the horse, be able to pick the races for them and be completely involved in the side that you don’t really get to be a part of in larger racing clubs. They decided that Newmarket-based trainer Tom Clover would be entrusted with their horse. He had worked as David Simcock’s assistant for six years and had made a promising start in his first year training. His partner Jackie had lots of experience of dealing with racehorses too and had worked for Roger Varian. They had a trainer – now they just needed to buy a horse.
Each member invested £6000 into a Wetherby’s account to get them through the season. The group all knew the truth of the matter – they could be lucky and get a horse that would give them good fun for the season and maybe enough reason to carry on for the next year or they could find themselves with a horse that never even saw the track, worse case scenario. A budget of 10,000 Guineas was decided on for the purchase of their horse. To get the most out of their time as owners, they decided they would purchase a precocious, early-season two year old filly and, with their budget, it put them within the ball-park of the Tattersalls Book Three Yearling Sale on October 12th 2017.
Only Tony and Pete could make it to the sale at the Historic Tattersalls Sales Ring in Newmarket. One of the most attractive fillies on paper was Lot 1383. Her sire was Equiano, winner of the 2008 and 2010 King’s Stand Stakes and sire of sprinters The Tin Man, Dakota Gold and Final Venture. Her dam was the one-time winner Peace And Love. Interestingly, this filly had two full siblings. Lydia’s Place notched up an impressive three timer at the start of her two year old season over the minimum trip, earning a peak rating in her career of 90. Lawless Louis won twice as a two year old and finished sixth in the Two-Year-Old Trophy at Redcar. As well as an ideal pedigree, she was small, attractive and Jackie liked the look of her so they decided to go for it.
Tony and Pete stood in the standing area as the filly was led in and the bidding began. The price steadily increased and, at 8000 Guineas, Tony thought they had a chance. But all too soon the price skipped up to 11,000 Guineas – exceeding their budget. Despite the bidding reaching 11,000 Guineas, the filly had gone unsold. This meant that they could make a private offer to her breeder, Brendan Boyle. Jackie managed to bargain for the filly to the maximum price of 10,000 Guineas. The North South Syndicate had a horse!
Through what felt like a long winter, the syndicate received frequent updates from Tom on the WhatsApp group chat about the progress their new acquisition was making. There were videos sent through of her being backed, doing her first few pieces of cantering and then proper work on the famous Warren Hill Gallops. The vibes were good from the yard – she went about her work nicely and had a really genuine attitude. What more could an owner want?
Now, the syndicate had to decide on her name and their silks. The first decision happened fairly easily. Her sire was named after Olaudah Equiano, an ex-slave who wrote a book and promoted the anti-slavery movement around the world, and her dam was Peace And Love. Tony and Pete came up with two options, Free Love and Slave To Love, favouring the former. When Patrick emailed the name ‘Free Love’ over a few days later, it was all settled. Inconveniently, there was a mare of the same name somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere but she didn’t achieve much and, fortunately, the BHA allowed the name and The North South Syndicate were on their way. Next to decide were the silks. Tony liked the idea of having orange and green, the colours of Old St Mary’s FC, the club that Tony and Pete were one of the founding fathers of. Tony allowed his then sixteen year old son Joseph have a go at creating some colours on the BHA website. They chose to use his design – orange with green hoops on the body with orange sleeves and cap. They were ready for her to run!
It wasn’t all smooth sailing though and, on the 29th March 2018, Tony’s 60th Birthday, they received a message on the group chat from Tom saying that Free Love had “sore shins”, which delayed her debut. The group decided that this wasn’t the end of the world as she wasn’t yet two. Tom’s horses were in good form after their first two year old of the year, Gypsy’s Spirit, cosily won her debut for a similar syndicate. This filly didn’t win again for the yard but placed in a few listed races, including at Chantilly, Maison-Laffitte and Dusseldorf. They sold her at the backend of the 2019 season to America for a whopping 160,000 Guineas, a huge raise on the 6000 Guineas price they bought her for.
All the vibes were good as Free Love lined up at 6:15 at Kempton on Tuesday 1st May 2018 for her first ever race. The race was over five furlongs and there were eight runners. She was partnered by Josie Gordon, who had ridden her a couple of times at home and liked her a lot. The North South Syndicate found a space to watch their filly and soon the commentator announced, “They’re off!”. Free Love didn’t jump off as quickly as the others and Josie was scrubbing away at her for the whole race. Free Love looked like she had no idea what was expected of her. Tony couldn’t believe it. Free Love finished last of the eight runners, sixteen lengths behind the seventh horse and beaten twenty eight lengths in total. Tony described Josie as “shell-shocked”.
The team were left scratching their heads in the lead up to Free Love’s next race at Nottingham twenty-nine days later. They decided to draw a line through her debut – it was too bad to be true. She broke well in the twelve runner field but got very little cover all the way. In the end, she managed a solid eighth, on ground that wasn’t ideal. The North South Syndicate were delighted. No bewilderment this time – “Josie simply told us that we should have a lot of fun with our filly.” Free Love’s next run was at Yarmouth under Jack Mitchell. Once again, she broke better than her debut but was really keen. When push came to shove in this race, she knew what to do. She put her head down and galloped on, hitting the front at the one furlong pole, but was overtaken by two decent horses.
Subsequently, this filly was fourth, giving weight; sixth in a hot race at Sandown; fifth at Chelmsford and then third at that same track eleven days later. At this point, Tony decided to take stock. Money was in short supply as the filly hadn’t earned much prize money. The Newmarket training fees looked increasingly steep too. If they wanted to keep going, they’d have to find a new trainer, “I felt bad about moving Free Love from Tom and he and his wife, Jackie, had helped us with the purchase of our yearling and had done all the hard work breaking her in and getting her ready to race. The decision was entirely practical. By August, we had run out of money and I was looking at what was our best chance of keeping the partnership going not just up until the Tattersalls horses in training sale at the end of October, but beyond that as well. Newmarket was proving to be an expensive place to have a horse in training. Tom’s daily rate (£52 at the time) was cheap by Newmarket’s standards but there are also heath fees to pay which are about £130 a month.”
The North South Syndicate decided to move Free Love to Mick Appleby, who is based in Oakham, Rutland. This move would help the bank account and the ‘North’ members of the syndicate. “Having Free Love based in the Midlands gave us access to some of the northern courses which were much nearer to Patrick and Mick, the two York based owners. I’d not met Mick Appleby before. I just did a bit of research on where trainers were based, what there fees were and ended up with Mick. In a nutshell, the two considerations were cost and geography. We were perfectly happy with how Tom had treated us but felt a move had to take place.”
The syndicate pin-pointed a race at Catterick, a nursery handicap over five furlongs for Free Love to make her debut for the Appleby stable. Free Love arrived at Mick Appleby’ yard, a former polo centre, on the 4th September 2018. Despite this move, they still entered her for the Horses In Training Sale in November, just in case she didn’t show the relevant improvement to warrant another season. Eleven runners lined up in the Nursery. There were two runners at shorter prices than her 8/1 SP. She was to be ridden by young apprentice Theodore Ladd, who claimed 5lbs, taking her racing weight to 8st4. With her new sheep-skin noseband, the filly made a good start but was momentarily squeezed for space. Theo didn’t panic and eased the filly into contention. He gave her a couple of taps as the furlong pole loomed. She skipped clear going to the line, winning by half a length. Free Love had won!
“I don’t have words to adequately express how I felt when Free Love won at Catterick. The dream of owning my own racehorse had been fulfilled and although I kept telling everyone that the most likely outcome was a few runs, a bit of fun but no trip to the winner’s enclosure, I secretly hoped for much more. I tried to put into words on page 212 [of A Year Of Free Love] just how I felt and I think ‘ecstatic’ is the single word I’d use. There really isn’t a feeling like it, and unless you’re personally involved with a horse, it’s impossible to understand how much winning a class 5 nursery handicap can mean. Those few minutes afterwards were a euphoric blur. It was a day never to forget,” Tony told me.
After Catterick, Free Love was partnered by Theodore Ladd once again in a nursery at Nottingham in early October. She couldn’t quite repeat their previous form and finished a good fourth. Next, she went to Haydock on heavy ground and, considering this wasn’t ideal conditions, she ran a blinder for third after leading over two furlongs out. Around this time, The North South Syndicate decided to carry on for another season. Bearing in mind, there was a Horses In Training Sale in June if things got tough. They ventured into new territory at Doncaster by trying out six furlongs on November Handicap day. She only managed eleventh and they dropped back to five furlongs for her final start of her two year old season at Southwell. In the end, she couldn’t quite get past Sandridge Lad, who made all, but she only went down a neck.
Free Love made her seasonal debut at Nottingham in early April. The team at Mick Appleby’s had worked hard to get this filly in tip-top condition so she’d be going into her first start of the campaign with a chance. The race was a class four Handicap for three year olds. Theodore Ladd popped her out prominently so she was contesting the lead with a couple of horses, wide across the track. When the half a furlong pole flashed past, she had skipped in the lead and was going away from the field at the end. Winner number two!
The handicapper gave her a 7lbs rise to a mark of 81 in response to that effort and, twenty days later, the syndicate went back to Nottingham with Free Love to run in another class four handicap. Only six runners took their chances and she was 5/2 favourite. Theo positioned her just behind the leaders. She hung down the straight but this had very little impact as she won by nearly two lengths. Two wins on the bounce for Free Love and The North South Syndicate were elated, Tony remembers: “The start of the 2019 season was just sensational. We all hoped that Free Love might improve to be a solid 75-80 rated handicapper who we could afford to keep in training until at least the July sales, but that first win at Nottingham when she careered away from a smart field to bolt home in a class 4 handicap was unbelievably thrilling. It prompted excitable talk of big race targets and even listed races. When she went back to Nottingham and repeated the performance catapulting herself to a rating of 88, we could barely believe our good fortune.”
“After Nottingham we knew we could carry on until the end of the season in October. We also knew that we could go to the sales in July and make a handsome profit. Free Love’s value at this point was probably upwards of 40,000 guineas. I’m sure more shrewd owners would have sold but we’re not in it for the money. It’s all about the exhilaration of owning a thoroughbred racehorse and being there when she runs. There’s not a feeling in the world like it!”
For her next two runs, she was stepped up to class three company but struggled in a competitive York handicap and on testing ground at Chester. She went to Windsor off a mark of 86 in a class three handicap. Theodore Ladd rode her and crossed her behind the front runners to get a little bit of cover. When push came to shove, she really knuckled down and tried, drifting left again but that didn’t matter because she hit the front when it mattered and got her winning tally to four. In five starts, she had won three races and roughly £20,000 in prize money. Her rating was now 90. She struggled in eight races subsequently, causing her mark to drop. However, she has managed to keep it in the mid-80s, which makes her a smart horse.
The North South Syndicate have decided to keep going with their beloved little filly for the 2020 season and listed races don’t seem out of the realm of possibility, “I’m sure she will win another race and, if it happens to be a handicap – fine. If she gets the right conditions, the right ground and everything and she’s in good nick, she could easily, I think, pinch that little bit of black type.” Tony told me. Their plan is just to try and keep enjoying their syndicate, “What we’d love to do is keep her in training for the whole of next season (2020) all the way through to October and take stock then. If we felt that she really needed to go to the breeding sheds, there’s a mares’ sale in December. If we felt that it had been successful and we could afford to go for one final season, we’d probably keep her in training as a five year old.”
When I asked Tony about the future of syndicates in general, he said that the finances are getting harder, “Our prize money in this country doesn’t compare very well with other jurisdictions. To give you an example, our filly won three races last year. She won two class fours and a class three, so they weren’t bad races, and we just about broke even for the year. Nobody is saying racehorse owners are entitled to earn lots of money, you should pay for your pleasure, but in three races you’d think you would do a bit better than just break even, wouldn’t you?”
Prize money has been a big talking point for a while and there is no doubt that British Racing is at a disadvantage to other countries in terms of prize money, “The only thing that is making it [ownership] hard is the finances. There should be more reward when you’re successful – not rewarding failure. It’s not to say that if you’ve got bad horses you can have them paid for. Success should be rewarded. If you win a couple of races, there should be a chance to break even but, in most cases, that’s not true.”
The current Coronavirus pandemic has the potential to have a devastating impact on horse racing, “There is a problem with how to get out of the other side of it. Can trainers hold onto staff? Can they afford to pay them? Can the trainers themselves afford to stay in business or are the smaller businesses going to go bust? So, I think it is a big challenge.”
“I think that if we start edging back towards racing in the next two months then I think we’ve got a chance of coming through this relatively unscathed. We need to keep people in the industry. We need to keep stable staff and work riders in. If we lose them, we’ll lose them forever and that’s a problem. There’s already a staffing problem in racing.” This is something we have addressed at Rein It In Racing before and trainer John McConnell has told me that he doesn’t think there are many yards in Ireland “who wouldn’t immediately take on another skilled rider or grounds person if it was offered to them tomorrow morning.”
“I think the staffing issue is still there and it’s linked to prize money. How much can a trainer charge an owner and still have his or her boxes full? As a result, how much can a trainer afford to pay his or her staff in what hasn’t traditionally been a highly-paid industry. I think that is a problem but it is all linked to the prize money structure and how much it costs to keep a horse in training.” Tony continued.
If racing returns by May, the North South Syndicate and Free Love won’t be too far behind what they originally planned. Ideally, she would’ve been out in late April but that is unlikely now. It is wonderful to see how much Free Love means to the five members of her syndicate, “One thing she’s got, and you can’t coach it, is that she’s so genuine. She just loves it. She puts her head down and runs. She’s got a lovely, friendly temperament and you could take her home as your pet. She’s really lovely – anyone can go up to her and make a fuss of her. We’d like to go on for as long as we can because we’d all miss her!”
Free Love is no Enable or Magical, but what she is is a genuine, loveable little filly who wears her heart on her sleeve and who can fault that? It hasn’t all been smooth-sailing but, as Tony says, “It’s all about peaks and troughs and if you can’t manage troughs as a trainer, jockey, owner or punter, then you’re in the wrong game.” This filly has given The North South Syndicate some incredible days on a shoestring budget and long may that continue. I have really enjoyed reading Tony’s book and learning about this wonderful story. I’d like to thank Tony for speaking to me about their journey and I wish them lots of luck in the future.
You can purchase Tony’s first book A Year Of Free Love here (and I strongly urge you to – its excellent) – Click here to go to Amazon
The second instalment, detailing the trials and tribulations of Free Love’s three year old season, will be out in May.