Ever heard the one about the footballer, the mathematician and the jumps jockey? Jamie Lynch investigates how three men from very different backgrounds have combined forces to take on not only the established racing guard but also some established racing practices...
"While no connoisseur of racing yards, I've seen enough to know that this one is indeed state of the art. In this quiet corner of Cheshire, hundreds of miles away from the established training centres, tradition meets modernity..."
Forget the times when a ridiculous man with a ridiculous plan is summarily disparaged and dismissed, Dragons' Den is at its most compelling on the rare occasions of role-reversal, when the Haves end up courting the Have Nots. Better still, including for the prospective product, when two of the Dragons join forces, venturing capital and enterprise on a substantial scale, with a united ambition.
Now imagine that the Dragons are Michael Owen and Andrew Black, influential captains both, one of his country and one of industry, who've reset their combined might and sight on horseracing. When the captains sought a new manager and asked Tom Dascombe in 2009 to take control at Manor House Stables, to enter the Dragons' lair, what else could he say but 'I'm in'?
Three full seasons have passed, the big bangs few and far between, but all the time the momentum is building, gradually transforming Manor House to a major home on the racing map, and in 2012 only eight British trainers had a better strike-rate, five of them having fewer winners than Dascombe's eighty-one. Add in a triple helping of Royal Ascot success and it's clear that this work-in-progress is both working and in progress, though in a day and age of some heavy-hitting arrivistes with big aspirations and bigger pockets, the Manor House revolution is still somewhat under the radar. Not that Owen and Black - or Bert as he's commonly known - are close to completion. In fact, for them, the project has only just begun.
'We have big plans for Manor House,' says Owen. 'The investment myself and Bert have made is substantial but we aren't resting there. We want to continually compete with the best, and over the next few years we aim to make further giant strides to achieving that. At the outset we had twenty horses - twelve of them owned by myself - housed in a revamped old grain store, and we sit here today with one of the best facilities in the country and ninety-five horses.'
While no connoisseur of racing yards, I've seen enough to know that this one is indeed state of the art. In this quiet corner of Cheshire, hundreds of miles away from the established training centres, tradition meets modernity: the tradition is in the architecture and layout, distinctively a racing complex, wrapped up in furlongs of manufactured gallops, and the outward style compliments the in-house modernity. From the on-site veterinary ward to the heated walkers and equine spa, not to mention the newfangled vibepad, an adapted initiative from the Manchester United fitness suite, no expense has been spared for the horses' benefit, to get and keep them healthy.
And healthy they are, rudely healthy as the saying goes, as testified by seven winners (at a 35% strike-rate) in the last fortnight - an opportune time with Royal Ascot fast approaching. 'Winning any race is great but it goes without saying, the bigger the stage the more important it becomes,' admits Owen. 'People remember the winners at the big meetings and it's a similar scenario in other sports. It's important we have a consistency about us throughout the season but on special occasions we like to raise our game. Thankfully we've managed to do that over the last couple of seasons.'
The stable's Royal Ascot double in 2011, courtesy of Rhythm of Light and the Owen-bred Brown Panther, was supplemented at last year's meeting in the Queen Mary by Ceiling Kitty, a filly who graduated with a distinction from Andrew Black's developing stud, Chasemore Farm.
In the office at Chasemore, hidden in amongst the fleet of photos of his winning horses, is a certificate notifying that Andrew Black successfully reached the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro. Here, then, is a man who climbs mountains literally as well as figuratively, having scaled business heights as the co-founder of Betfair. It really means something, therefore, when he says: 'I'm serious about this - I want to make it the best stud in Britain.'
Where Black and Betfair flourished so spectacularly was in radically challenging the deep-rooted conceptions and practices of one aspect of the horseracing industry, namely bookmaking, and he's setting about the bloodstock world with the same cutting-edge sword: 'I think we're dull in this country. Breeding is so much done by who you know and what deals you can get. The genetics side of it is what interests me. We've moved on so far in the space of the last ten years that everything old-school breeders have learned is just ancient history. There isn't a single thing that they know that hasn't been superseded by something better.
'There was a time when one could accept that it was right because it was the best available back then, but it's not the best available now. Bloodstock agents regard me as a renegade or a maverick because I'm thinking differently and backing my opinion, but it doesn't matter to me what other people think; I know how I want to do it and I'm quite happy to plough my own furrow.'
The science of genetics is the sharp blade on that plough, though the philosophy is simple: for every mare at Chasemore - over thirty and counting - they want to produce a better animal. To that end, the mares are DNA tested and formulas are applied to seek out the 'right' genetic mating, whether the sire is British, Irish, French, American or even Japanese, as is the case with Ceiling Kitty's newest sibling, a well-proportioned foal by Great Journey.
Despite what he says, and despite who he is, and despite the sumptuous setting here at Chasemore, built virtually from scratch, there's not a semblance of arrogance about Black, just an infectious zeal for his scheme and a steadfast belief in the strategy, at the same time acknowledging that there's still a random element to the applied science.
'We're just throwing lots of the right genes into a pot and hoping that a good horse comes out of it, but at least it's the right genes. We're never ever going to get too precise with our genetic research and it's never going to be black and white, it will always be grey, but I'm well equipped to work within that grey area. It's still a pure punt, but I'm a punter, albeit a statistically-minded punter, working on probability, and that's what genetics is all about.'
Like Manor House Stables, Chasemore Farm combines old and new, as all of the innovative work is done under the surface of a conventional, lush, spacious stud farm, the only difference being that this one is inside the M25, not that you'd know it to wander around, or Segway around if you're as lucky as I was, for which the running note reads: sweating, reared start, reared again soon after start, unseated third, recovered but never going pace nor on an even keel.
Chasemore is an independent nursery rather than a feeder school for Manor House, though Ceiling Kitty is the prototype for what that channel can do, she having gone full circle, back to the stud and now in foal to Pivotal, but inevitably a batch of youngsters is sent North each year to be trained by Dascombe.
The intensity gene, in-built in all trainers whether they concede it or not, is towards the surface in Dascombe. You can tell a lot about people by the way they walk, apparently, and I could have done with a Segway just to keep up with Dascombe during the Manor House tour. Ever industrious, ever intentful, ever wanting to get round the next corner, Dascombe is drive personified.
In a sport where fine margins make a big difference, the attention to detail at the yard is perceptible, beyond the high-tech equipment. Each horse has its own bridle, feed bucket and king-size stable within the American barns, and the encyclopedic Dascombe knows the precise status of every inmate, even when it's bemoaning the fact that three of his would-be Royal Ascot ambassadors - Anaconda, Deauville Prince and Kenny Powers - are currently sidelined.
Nonetheless, it's a measure of the stable strength that, despite three temporarily-blunted arrows, Manor House still has others to fire at Ascot, and Dascombe is aiming high with a couple of his juveniles who've already hit the mark at a significant meeting. 'One of the differences between training here compared to somewhere like Lambourn (where he used to be) is that, in the bigger centres, horses get to see other strings and tend to mix, which awakens something in them, something that they otherwise might not get until they've had a run.' Almost like activating a gene, Bert might say.
That's why, forward-thinker that he is, Dascombe made sure that Fine 'N Dandy and Quatuor had the competitive edge put on them ahead of their big days at Chester, and not just any experience, as, all part of the plan, both made their debut at Lingfield, on the all-weather track, which is about as close to Chester in configuration as it gets.
The policy paid off, sensationally so, as Quatuor won by four lengths and Fine 'N Dandy by eight. Dascombe's professional character seems such that he's always nearer a frown than a smile as an expression of passion, yet he can't help but grin when I ask what he thinks of Fine 'N Dandy as the horse glides towards us up the gallops: 'He's quick. He's effing quick. We were toying with running him in the National Stakes but I wanted him bang-fresh for Ascot. He'll be entered in the Norfolk but I'm leaning towards the Windsor Castle. I know the Norfolk is the Group race but we might run into one there, and we want to give him the best chance of winning.'
It's clear that there's a quiet confidence in Fine 'N Dandy for Royal Ascot, and the same goes for Quatuor, perhaps surprisingly, given that her Chester bubble looked to be subsequently burst at York. 'The softer ground was no good to her at York,' he says. 'She's a different filly on fast, like it was at Chester. If they get firm, summer ground at Ascot, she'll be very competitive in the Queen Mary. Very competitive. For me, she's at least as good as Ceiling Kitty was going into the race last year.'
'Now we just need a bit of luck.'
Luck is a fact but it needn't be a factor, and the trio of Dascombe, Owen and Black are doing everything possible to take luck out of the equation, believers more in cause and effect, and the effect so far is positive, a consequence of their commitment to the cause. At the stud, Black is embarking on his pioneering work, designed to make the art of breeding more about science than luck, and when the right horses arrive at Manor House, whether or not they're from the Chasemore academy, the specialised set-up and system only increases their chances of making the grade. Not just anyone could pull this off, but the three men unified in striving for the top aren't your average Tom, Mick or Andy.