It seems fitting Downton Abbey, the major new all star drama series being screened on ITV1 every Sunday at 9pm, was filmed on location at Highclere Castle. For the family home of the Honourable Harry Herbert may well have seen him realise early ambitions of becoming an actor.
Thankfully for the Sport of Kings Harry chose an equine path, eventually leading him to the world famous Highclere stud in Newbury.
A member of The Jockey Club, Harry is also a director of Newbury Racecourse plc and Racing Consultant to Cartier, in addition to being Racing Manager to The Royal Ascot Racing Club.
He told me: “I was force-fed horses as a boy and of course dad was involved with The Queen’s horses so it was all around me. To be honest I stopped riding at the age of ten and as a teenager thought I’d quite like to become an actor.”
Following a spell in the city his ‘horse gene’ as he calls it, began to develop again and, as his mother’s passport was American, off he went to Kentucky to learn all about the breeding business.
“I had a wonderful four years in America coming back In 1984 to represent Matchmaker in Europe. A year later I set up my own thoroughbred management company, HMH Management Ltd, to provide world-wide advisory and promotional services to those in the bloodstock industry.”
Spotting an opportunity in the market, Highclere stud was set up in 1992, and they didn’t have to wait too long for success, as Harry explained: “Our first success was Lake Coniston, the European champion sprinter – bought for 22,000 guineas later selling to the ‘Coolmore Stud’ for £2.5 million. The horse really put us on the map and thanks to the genius of my brother-in-law John Warren, our success has gone from strength to strength.”
Yearling sales begin at Deauville in August and are followed by Keeneland in America, Goffs in Ireland and Tattersall’s in Newmarket.
Harry said: “At the sales John has to be really besotted with a horse before we bid, looking for an athlete with great muscle structure, great movement and the ‘X-Factor’ if you like. We look at thousands of animals to buy just twenty at a time for our syndicates, hoping we have the next great Classical horse. It can be quite pressurised at times.
“We had to dig deep to purchase Harbinger at 180,000 guineas, and to find the winner of The Derby in Motivator was just a dream come true.”
But there can always be frustrations as he explained: “We can fall in love with a horse and then the biggest hitters can come along and just outbid us. Or we can have a horse turned down for various reasons by the vet. But the rewards for all our efforts can be fantastic.”
You can add legends like Tamarisk and Delilah to the list. Petrushka became the first ever syndicate Classic winner by winning the 2000 Kildangan Stud Irish Oaks. Horses with the potential to win material prize money and increase their capital values, are kept in training as four-year-olds. Highclere Thoroughbred Racing will consider key races abroad and in the past has travelled horses to the Breeders’ Cup in America and the Melbourne Cup in Australia, as well as to races in Ireland, France, Italy and Germany.
For the record, the average cost per horse varies from between 70,000 to 150,000 guineas. Each syndicate has twenty shares available with prices starting at £6,950 + VAT up to a maximum of £36,500 + VAT. Highclere also uses the country’s leading trainers who include Sir Michael Stoute, Richard Hannon, Luca Cumani, Michael Jarvis, William Haggas, Michael Bell, Jeremy Noseda, Ed Dunlop and Andrew Balding.
A treble at Royal Ascot with Approve, Memory and Harbinger set the tone for the season, the latter officially rated the best horse in the world following the demolition of his field in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes at Ascot at the end of July. A month later he was sold to Japan in a multi-million pound deal following injury.
“It’s not just about the money though,” Harry revealed.
Ben Fogle (right) with trainer William Haggas
“I’m a people person who loves to se everyone involved in our syndicates having a great time. They come from all walks of life but can also include household names like Elizabeth Hurley, Sir Alex Ferguson, Ben Fogle and many others. To see 20 people celebrating around a horse in the winning enclosure is priceless. I’ve even seen grown men cry – that’s really what it’s all about. We try to make every shareowner feel as though the horse is their own and that’s why we give an unrivalled personal service.”
Given his friendly down-to-earth nature I wondered what sort of boss Harry was. He told me: “Well put it this way, we have an open plan office and the whole team gets to discuss everything about our horses – where to place them etc. It’s a real team effort here.”
This can be a six/seven day a week business so you have to trust people and take on board their opinions. We all love what we do with a passion and we’re always thinking about the next great horse.”
Harry’s favourite course not surprisingly is Newbury: “It’s the best viewing course in the country and very fair to all the horses,” he tells me with a passion, “But I love Royal Ascot as well and we had great success there in the summer.”
As for Downton Abbey, what does Harry think of the series? “It’s great to sit back and watch the drama and of course the views of Highclere are wonderful. I think we all feel quite privileged.”
In rare time away from the industry Harry enjoys his family, a game of golf and the odd visit to the theatre. But with prize money earnings of almost £1.3 million and a record 40 winners on the board this term, the Highclere show deserves West End billing itself!