Outrageous Fortune

Milo Corbett on the nine lives of David Redvers

Winter
2020
Buying Horses

Four Septembers ago, David Redvers went to Keeneland and came back with a Kitten’s Joy yearling who would become a champion. Two years later, he went back to Lexington and repeated the trick with another Kitten’s Joy colt, one who subsequently won this year’s 2,000 Guineas. Right now, though, he’s telling me about what would prove to be an entirely different milestone along the way: the evening he sat outside his house, cradled a shotgun in his lap and contemplated an extreme way of getting out of the enormous mess he’d managed to get himself into.

“I had an insurance policy which would pay ten thousand pounds per finger, if you lost one in an accident,” he recalls. “I was sitting there in the garden at Tweenhills, with a finger down the barrel, thinking that if I claimed I’d had an accident while cleaning the gun, then there it would be: ten thousand. It was only when it dawned on me that ten grand wasn’t even going to touch the sides of the trouble I’d got myself into that I put the gun down.”

Redvers’ father, John, is a portrait painter. The son found inspiration only in History of Art in an undistinguished school career that otherwise never left second gear. Both would therefore know about chiaroscuro, the artistic effect of bold contrasts between light and dark. The idea that you can create highlights of blazing brightness only by also having large areas of contrasting darkness on the canvas found its greatest proponents in Caravaggio and Rembrandt. It has been a recurrent theme in racing and bloodstock lives, too: in layman’s terms, months of misery, moments of bliss, as trainer Bill Wightman put it.

Racing’s got an amazing way of burying you but also has a remarkable way of resurrecting you; and people you meet on your journey can, through very simple things, save you from extinction.

Looking back on the shotgun incident twenty years on, and at the journey from there to here, Redvers admits, perhaps rather understating its severity, to it being a ‘tricky period’. “I’d been spotting yearlings for Mark Johnston for a few years,” he says. “We’d bought some good horses and I made up my mind that I knew what I was looking for, and could spot the common denominators among those good ones. To tell you the truth, the single most common denominator among the good horses we’d bought for Mark could well have been that they were trained by him. When you’re young, though, it’s easy to be bold and brazen; and I’d never lacked what I thought then was courage but know now to be recklessness, so I’d set up an ownership syndicate, Tweenhills Racing.

“I did it on my own, and without any backing, to compete with the likes of Highclere, which of course was fairly futile. And it got to the point where I really was staring down the barrels, literally as well as financially.

“I hadn’t sold many of the shares I was sure I was going to sell,” Redvers continues. “We had six horses in training, and I had recklessly driven on, and nobody was showing an interest in buying a slice of the action. Mark trained a horse for us called Falcon Hill, by Polar Falcon, and really liked him. He told me not to worry, that this horse would win first time out and I’d get all the shares sold on the back of that. The horse went to Musselburgh, fell out of the stalls and trailed home last by 15 lengths. By the end of that month, I had run out of money. I didn’t know how I was going to pay the training fees, I hadn’t told anyone quite how much shit I’d got into and I was in pure panic.”

Redemption would come in unlikely forms. His great friend Ed Clarkson asked Redvers to run a marathon in Kenya with him. “That basically saved my life,” he says. “It’s why have I run a lot ever since. It clears your head, and when you’ve got the pressure of the ‘black dog’ or depression, whatever you want to call it, and you’re running, everything sort of eases. There’s no doubt about it, I was definitely deeply depressed, worrying so much about the consequences of running out of money.”

While Redvers was in Africa, Falcon Hill got his act together, winning a maiden at Pontefract five weeks after that ignominious debut. A glorious week followed, with Falcon Hill successful in a conditions event at Ascot the day after Michael Blanshard had saddled another of the syndicate’s two-year-olds, Greenhills, to win well at Lingfield Park. “Suddenly we had two genuine candidates for the Super Sprint at Newbury,” Redvers recalls. “Alex Hammond, whom I’d met through Mark as she was living in Middleham, was racing correspondent for The Sun at the time. Incredibly generously, she wrote a column headlined redvers the speed merchant, with the story about these two horses I’d bought relatively cheaply and which were now favourites for the Super Sprint. Between that piece coming out and the race itself, I sold all the rest of the shares, which got me out of jail.”

He pauses, and then speaks slowly and carefully. “It tells you a few things, doesn’t it? Racing’s got an amazing way of burying you but also has a remarkable way of resurrecting you; and people you meet on your journey can, through very simple things, save you from extinction.

“I’ll forever be grateful to Alex and Mark for what they did. Actually, the whole episode is something I still think about now and then, with my children in mind: do they need to be absolutely on their uppers at some point to really want to fight for it, and to make a go of their lives and to be successful? And whilst, at the time, what happened was fairly grim, it’s probably what’s made me what I am today. The fact that I was so badly on my uppers, and ended up literally staring down the barrel, has made me be more careful, made me focus and work twice as hard, ever since.”

Thoroughbred racing and breeding weren’t part of Redvers’ childhood, even if horses and ponies were. Dawn Run’s Gold Cup and Shahrastani’s Derby obviously had an effect on him as a 16-year-old (“the first races I remember watching on television”) and after leaving school he found the inkling of his vocation working on a rough-and-ready country stud farm in Australia. “I went out on a six-month visa and came back after a year and a half,” he recalls. “I’d never been as scared as I was going through emigration at Sydney airport, convinced I was going to get locked up. Before I went, I had been interviewed by Andrew Parker Bowles [then Commanding Officer of the Household Cavalry] with a view to my joining the Blues and Royals on my return. When I came back, I had to tell both him and my father, who had despaired of me on many occasions, that I wasn’t going to join the army, I was going to go and shovel shit on a stud farm instead. I don’t think either was terribly impressed…”

Hands-on stud job after hands-on stud job followed: initially from the Hambros’ Waverton Stud to James Delahooke at Adstock Manor, near Buckingham, where the stud manager was a young Ted Voute. “At the time, James was my idea of God and all that I aspired to be,” his student recalls. “I’d actually met him a couple of years before, when I’d had a seasonal job ‘loading’ on a grouse moor. One day, he turned up to shoot with trainers Guy Harwood and Peter Harris, and I remember thinking, ‘This racing game must be all right if these racing men can afford to come here and do this!’ I then went to Shadwell, under Bill Cornish, where I remember holding Salsabil in the covering shed when she was being covered by Nashwan. We all thought that a Derby winner covering an Oaks winner must be relatively unusual, but when before had a Derby winner covered a Derby winner?”

He then did sales seasons with the likes of Amanda Skiffington, Luca Cumani and Geoffrey Howson before landing at auctioneers Russell, Baldwin & Bright (later Brightwells). “They’d watched Tattersalls make a half-hearted attempt at running a sale at Cheltenham and decided that they’d like to take on the National Hunt market,” Redvers explains. “They had Terry Court, who was all energy and vision, and he was looking for someone young and ambitious to join the firm. It was brilliant for me for many reasons, not least because I got to know so many National Hunt players, in both the UK and Ireland.”

When Lucky Story and Ishiguru died, the industry was falling to bits around Redvers in the global financial crisis. In his own worlds, he felt “tested by God”

One after the other, three important stones in the foundations of Redvers’ career were laid in quick succession. On one bid of 400gns, he bought a diminutive yearling who, as Lady Rebecca, would go on to win seven races at Cheltenham and become one of the most popular racehorses of the late 1990s. Her success meant that people were more likely to take him seriously as a bloodstock agent. Through Russell, Baldwin and Bright, his path crossed with that of Paul Venner of Baileys Horse Feeds, a connection which would lead him to Mark Johnston. “In due course, it led to Mark offering me a position to help him buy yearlings – my dream ticket, really,” he says. And the very first stallion appeared on the Tweenhills production line: a second-hand National Hunt sire called Afzal.

“Afzal was standing in Carmarthenshire in Wales and had started off as a hunter improvement stallion,” Redvers recalls. “He suddenly started doing phenomenally well with his runners in point-to-points and over jumps, and had two Grade 1 winners over fences. I bought him with the intention of selling him on. However, I was away from home a lot and my mother, who was looking after him and is still a massive part of all we do here, fell in love with him as he had the most beautiful temperament. We converted the old dairy and built some stallion boxes: in that first year, we had only 16 stables. We bought him for £8,000 and he covered 98 mares that season, at a stud fee of £500. Buying him turned out to be a brilliant deal, helped no end by his results on the racecourse and Horse & Hound magazine doing a profile on the farm.”

You might call it a hornet’s nest. What Redvers had perhaps not bargained on, as he entered the stallion business, was how much and how quickly the tectonic plates of that industry were moving. Afzal may have been a commercial success, but only relatively so and at the £500 level, and it was a business model more suited to flat breeding than the National Hunt market. At the same time, there was a ceiling: it was hard even then, as it is now, to find a commercial stallion prospect in a viable price bracket. The traditional ‘small’ breeder was also becoming an endangered species. To cap the ‘perfect storm’, Darley then moved into ‘his’ end of the market, standing a cheaper kind of stallion than they had before and with an aggressive ‘Darley deal’.

Redvers gained a bit of a reputation for being outspoken and for upsetting the applecart. He probably didn’t exactly do himself any favours with his involvement in the infamous pro-hunting protest that stormed the House of Commons in 2004: he and seven others were subsequently convicted of violating the Public Order Act and given conditional discharges, to the enormous amusement of the British tabloid press.

“With our stallions, the thing was just that everyone at Tweenhills had worked so hard to establish them,” Redvers reflects. “I was really angry because we had put so much work in and yet we just couldn’t compete. It was really difficult, and we very nearly went out of business.”

The wheel turned full circle when Darley sent him Lucky Story and he secured Ishiguru, a son of Danzig, for stallion duties from Ballydoyle. However, back to that chiaroscuro, that light and dark.

Professionally – and personally, too, to a degree – our lives revolve around finding the best horse

“In Ishiguru and Lucky Story, I had managed to find two leading first-season sires in quick succession,” says Redvers. “Sam Bullard and John Ferguson from Darley had asked me to look at Lucky Story. I rang Mark [Johnston], who had trained him, and asked what he thought. ‘Stand him, whatever you do, stand him,’ replied Mark. He became leading first-season sire, with a Coventry winner in his first crop in Art Connoisseur, who then won the Golden Jubilee the following year. Meanwhile Ishiguru, whom I’d bought with the help of a great Australian called Richard Pegum a couple of years before, sired Hellvelyn, also a Coventry winner, in his first crop.

“Unwittingly, though, we had a shocking run of events and I was back on my uppers again,” he says. “Both of them died within the space of about six months. I went from having two of the most exciting young stallions in England to having two dead stallions. Both were freakish things: Lucky Story suffered a heart attack, while Ishiguru was just galloping exuberantly around his paddock and broke a knee, and that was that.”

At the time they died, the industry was falling to bits around Redvers in the global financial crisis. In his own words, he felt “tested by God”. Yet you know how, just occasionally, a deus can also turn up ex machina: from the depths of despair, salvation would come in the most unlikely of circumstances. And you already know the gist of the story, and can tell the way in which it is now heading, even if not the detail of it.

“Ishiguru had done very well here and was six months ahead of his time in New Zealand, where he had been shuttling,” Redvers explains. “I wanted to go and look at his first crop of yearlings there, with a view to buying one or two of them. I thought we could prepare them for the Ready-to-Run sale and make a profit.

“I landed on the other side of the world on the Thursday night, and on the Friday morning I got a message from my little sister, saying that a friend of hers had a client, a young Sheikh, whom she wanted me to meet, and could I be at the Lanesborough Hotel at Hyde Park Corner on Tuesday at 10am? Naturally, she had no idea that I had just arrived in New Zealand. There’d been a few ‘Fake Sheikh’ stings in British newspapers, so I asked an ex-military friend of mine to check this fellow out, and when he replied it was with a three-word text message: ‘get on plane’.

After an epic journey, I made it to the Lanesborough with minutes to spare. It was quite clear from the way the staff in the hotel were behaving that Sheikh Fahad was big news. Maybe, when we first met, he was quite impressed by the effort I’d had to make to be there! Anyway, we hit it off and he told me he had an interest in ‘dipping a toe’ into racehorse ownership…”

A decade on, and you can see the changes the relationship has brought. In appearance, Tweenhills is now all that it needs to be to stand alongside the traditional large names in the market, as befits a place whose stallion fees are now five figures, not five hundred. Sheikh Fahad joked to Redvers one day that he was coming to visit his stallions “in the middle of nowhere, outside your back door,” a remark that precipitated a massive investment in the place to bring it to level befitting the Qatar Racing stallions. The major catalysts were the arrival of Roaring Lion and Zoustar, which resulted in a further million-pound investment in the facilities and infrastructure at the farm.

I catch him slightly unawares, as if it’s a possibility that’s never really registered, when I ask Redvers what would have happened had he never met Sheikh Fahad. After a pause, he replies: “I’d be out there, working every hour of the day and night, looking for him” – and laughs. It suggests that the relationship between the two men has made the light and dark of Redvers’ past now seem more balanced, too.

“It could well have been before Dunaden’s Melbourne Cup” he says, “but I remember Ed Dunlop coming up to me at the races one day. [By this time, Dunlop had already trained two horses of a lifetime, Ouija Board and Snow Fairy, with a third, Red Cadeaux, already a work in progress.] He could see I was as tight as a drum. ‘You’re going to kill yourself if you keep going on like this before a race,’ he said. ‘You need to chill out.’ And, yes, I am much more chilled out now.

“I look at my great friend Ralph Beckett and I can see that he was a very angry young man until he finally won a classic. After he’d won the Oaks with Look Here, he seemed to somehow take a deep breath and concentrate on the things that matter in life, rather than beating himself up. Maybe Ed and Ralph had been through something similar, and I had to go through it, too.

“You can’t underestimate what it means to have a good horse or two,” he explains. “Roaring Lion was to that point certainly the best we’d ever had. Professionally – and personally, too, to a degree – our lives revolve around finding the best horse.

“For a long time I’d been thinking that surely, at some point, we were going to find a proper champion – not just a champion stayer, a champion sprinter or a champion mare, but one who’s genuinely at the top of the tree. And when you finally do get a bona fide champion, that horse changes lives. I’m very conscious now of the fact that with the farm, there’s a lot going on, there’s a lot of responsibility, there are a lot of staff and there’s a lot of ongoing expense. And to make it all work, we have to keep looking forward, keep trying to find the next Roaring Lion or the next Kameko.”

Redvers was 50 this year. I ask him if passing a milestone birthday causes you to reflect, to think about when the sunbeam has been its strongest. “Of course my children are my greatest source of pride, but perhaps my greatest achievement is everything that’s around me,” he says. “We have now brought Tweenhills up to the stage at which, if I did get hit by a bus, it would all still run pretty much as it should. I am achingly proud of the people who work here, what they have achieved and the place itself.”

Don’t be fooled, though: the grass may be greener now but neither the ambition nor the competitive nature have dimmed. In many ways he is doing the same things he has done for the last twenty years, and with the same verve, just fishing in deeper waters now. His telephone calls stack up like aeroplanes waiting to land at Heathrow, the difference being that he’s now the one receiving the calls, rather than the one making them.

You don’t ever enjoy them if you pay fortunes for them. If they do well, then it’s because they damn well should have done well anyway; and if they don’t, then you’re an idiot for buying them!

He accepts that greater responsibilities mean that he picks his fights more carefully these days, and says that he’s certainly not doing things only for posterity, as I quote Lytton Strachey (‘What has posterity ever done for me?’). Instead, a hunger for success still drives what he does. Maybe what’s really changed in twenty years is the realisation, as all angry young men find out sooner or later, that your choices are half chance, just as everyone else’s are, and that in the end the race is only with yourself.

We talk about something that Stirling Moss, the racing driver who died this spring, once said. Moss claimed that there was no big bang in driving a car at 180mph, just because the car could go that fast. Instead, it was all about taking an 80mph corner at 81mph, and thinking, ‘there, you bastards, try matching that’. In other words, the thrill is the skill and the skill is the thrill. When it comes to buying horses, therefore, is there an irony that the two horses who define Qatar Racing and Tweenhills were both if not cheap then still relatively inexpensively bought, while the very high-profile yearling purchases have been what Redvers’ former tutor James Delahooke would have a one-word tag for: ‘meatballs’?

After all, only someone with a propagandist’s disconnect from reality would think that there’s much prospect of the three-year-old Darain (a full-brother to champion two-year-old Too Darn Hot) coming good: success in two Class 5 Novice events means he has won back one quarter of one per cent of his 3.5 million-guinea yearling purchase price. And there’s no hope at all for his predecessor, Hydrogen, a 2.5 million-guinea tour de force of nothing so much as Marlon Brando as the ruined boxer in On The Waterfront: the horse could have had class, could have been a contender and could have been somebody, yet ended up as none of those things.

Palookaville? “Hydrogen was a shocker,” Redvers admits. “An ultra-expensive dud. Just one of those things and bad luck.

“It reminds you that with every horse you buy, there are any number of eventualities and outcomes depending on all sorts of risk factors,” he reflects. “In Hydrogen’s case, he was showing up well on the gallops and he could have been anything. However, he got cast in his box at Peter Chapple-Hyam’s, kicked the wall and fractured a hock. After that, he wouldn’t ever come out of third gear, he’d never let himself down. It was a mental thing: he just wouldn’t do it.

“Who knows? If he’d run first time out with an easy start to life, and had won impressively, would he have gone on, and got his confidence and been on an upward curve?

“He could have become anything, but he became a sports horse stallion standing in Leicestershire for £500.” Redvers winces. “That’s the nature of buying horses, you know. You don’t ever enjoy them if you pay fortunes for them. If they do well, then it’s because they damn well should have done well anyway; and if they don’t, then you’re an idiot for buying them!”

From a (quite literally) ridiculous horse, then, to a sublime one. “The credit for finding Roaring Lion all belongs to [assistant] Hannah Wall,” Redvers says. “We’d discussed before that September Sale at Keeneland that if there was a smart Kitten’s Joy yearling on the premises, then we wanted to see it.

“I had been underbidder [at $350,000] on Hawkbill, who was the most gorgeous horse by the same sire, and by that point was a Group 1 winner. Dare I say it, we’d seen a lot of incorrect horses by Kitten’s Joy and many of them had gone on to be good racehorses. Having been underbidder on a very good one, I’d said to the team that if they found an athletic-looking one who moved nicely, I wanted to see it, no matter how incorrect it was.

“Early on in the sale, Hannah said she’d seen the most beautifully-moving Kitten’s Joy colt in the Taylor Made consignment, and that I must make sure I saw him. And when I did, she was right – he stood out a mile.”

Redvers’ catalogue notes say, in shorthand: ‘very good walker (‘VGW’), quality colt, feet question mark, on leg, turns in off-fore, fraction offset, toes out near-fore a fraction’. “I thought we’d have to pay something like $300,000 for him,” he says, “so of course I was delighted to get him for $160,000.

“By the time we bought Kameko, Roaring Lion hadn’t won his Irish Champion Stakes,” he continues. “However, he had won an Eclipse and a Juddmonte International. That made Kameko, as a son of Kitten’s Joy, a fairly obvious shout for us as a yearling at that year’s September Sale. What did weigh heavily on my mind was that the mare had been a graded stakes winner but had been disappointing so far as a broodmare, with four other registered foals and none to race.

“My notes say: ‘fraction tied in below the knee, very attractive side-on, walks well, sweet colt.’ And he, too, was a standout of the Kitten’s Joys at the sale. On my ‘desirability’ scoring, Roaring Lion was a seven, which is a must-have, while Kameko was a 6.75, downgraded only because of his dam’s record at that stage. I have only ever given one eight, I think!

“We only had to pay $90,000, and basically got him so cheaply because Sheikha Melissa, Sheikh Fahad’s’ wife, was keen to bid herself and I don’t think the vendor or anyone twigged about who she was, so it was fairly plain sailing. These Kitten’s Joys are competitive, and the two big ones we’ve had have both had an excellent turn of foot and – more importantly – the will to win.”

In every sport, winning matters. Redvers is pragmatic about horseracing being a business in which money isn’t the only factor that contributes to success. “[With Kameko] we were skilful, did our job well and turned $90,000 into many multiples of that,” he says. “You need an awful lot of luck in this business, though. I have been at it long enough now to know that everyone’s had a horse who would have been a champion, had it not ended up with colic, got cast in its box or met with any number of hazards.

“Unfortunately, you need that luck to go your way. You also need to have a client like Sheikh Fahad, who has a tough enough stomach and a great sporting hunger to sustain him and ride out the bad luck. From our own experience, with Roaring Lion dying, and with umpteen things along the way, there have been plenty of bad luck stories to go with the good ones.

“Sheikh Fahad is in it for the long run,” he continues. “If we can keep on finding the next Roaring Lion or Kameko every two or three years, then at some point one of them will turn into a legacy-creating stallion for him, which is no less than he deserves.”

And when that happens? “We’ll have secured something lasting, something permanent,” he says. “That’s what it’s all about now.”

Other Notes

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