For a couple who explain that there was no real plan behind their initial investment in thoroughbreds, save for wanting to have plenty of fun and enjoyment, Jon and Julia Aisbitt have achieved some remarkable things during their relatively brief time in the sport.
What started in 2006 as a single horse operation has grown steadily to now include multiple horses in training, broodmares and youngstock across various establishments. Indeed, so successful have the Aisbitts been since turning their attention to breeding that restocking at the sales has become unnecessary; all their runners are now homebreds, among them a genuine top level performer.
Star filly Lilac Road, winner of the Group 2 Middleton Stakes and third in the Group 1 Nassau Stakes, has spearheaded a superb campaign for the Wivelsfield-based owner-breeders that began domestically in the best possible fashion with Johan’s victory in the Lincoln Handicap at Doncaster. Yet that wasn’t the Aisbitts’ first high-profile win of 2022 – over in Dubai, Pevensey Bay claimed a Group 2 prize in January for the Chantilly stable of Hiroo Shimizu.
The statistics show that six of their eight runners in Britain so far this season have won at least one race for a combined total of 11 successes – representing a 34% trike-rate — with over £350,000 banked, making it their best season to date both numerically and financially.
Yet with neither having grown up following racing, what made the Aisbitts take their first tentative steps in a sport that now plays such a big part in their lives?
Julia explains: “It was very simple. Jon and I attended a charity dinner for Barts Hospital where we met Mick Channon, who was providing one of the auction prizes of dinner and a morning on the gallops. Jon has always loved football, so we made a bid.
“We went to the stables and had a wonderful time, I took my brother and sister-in-law, but we didn’t do anything for just over a year. Then in 2006 Mick dropped us a Christmas card and we decided we would do something. We called Mick and he said he had two horses for sale. One, by Xaar, was a grey and I told Jon to go for the grey, although we knew nothing about horses. That is how we bought Lunces Lad, our first horse and winner.”
I thought this is it!
Jon says: “I’m a Manchester boy from Cheadle, a big United fan, and Mick had played for Manchester City so there was plenty of good banter.
“I don’t know what I expected from Lunces Lad’s first race at Goodwood, but he was well beaten. Being an also ran didn’t do anything for me. But the second race at Newbury – Julia couldn’t go – I cheered our horse home to victory with Alan Ball on one side and Mick Channon on the other. As a boy who’d grown up loving football, the idea that I was standing with these football greats, I thought this is it!”
Julia adds: “It seemed easy in the early days. You choose a decent horse and off you go. Little did we know! But Mick is a lovely guy, very genuine, and the yard was very welcoming. That’s how our story began.”
The Aisbitts are reflecting on their racing journey at home in Lunces Hall, set upon 32 acres of picturesque Sussex countryside. There are no horses on the property, just sheep – 47 in total – a mixture of Southdowns and Jacobs, for those who know their breeds.
“It’s purely to keep the grass short,” Jon explains. “We used to pay someone to graze our fields, which seemed ludicrous. So, we thought, why don’t we just have our own sheep?”
That example provides a small insight into the mind of the man who made his mark with Goldman Sachs, spending 16 years with the global investment bank, during which time he became a European partner and Chairman of the Australian business, relocating to New York then Sydney. He was also Chairman of the Man Group from 2007-206.
Jon has applied his analytical brain to the world of racing and breeding, yet there was never any masterplan, financial or otherwise. Rather, the Aisbitts’ interests have grown organically over time.
Jon explains: “We only won two races in our first three seasons. It’s not as though we had immediate success. Then we had Gallic Star, who won a Listed race at the end of her two-year-old career [in 2009] and that’s what really kicked it off.
“She went to the Ribblesdale at the royal meeting, finishing third – all of a sudden it started to get interesting. That fourth season in 2009 we won four races and went to Royal Ascot. It began to get exciting.”
Julia, who joined the magistracy in 1994 and is a Deputy Lieutenant of West Sussex, says: “After buying our second horse, Kashmina, we both became interested in going to the sales. Jon started to look at the stallions and breeding. We’d been introduced to Gill Richardson, who became an amazing bloodstock agent for us. Jon would go through the catalogue, come up with a shortlist of 25 horses and Gill would then look at the horses in person.”
Jon continues: “I’ve been involved in all sorts of different markets and all sorts of different businesses. I was just interested to know how other people did things. To me, it’s great that this horse is a stallion, but what had Timeform rated that horse and over what distance and at what point in his career? I was interested to know all of these things.
“One of the other things that drove us at the time is that I became very conscious of the fact you paid a good bit more for a good-looking colt as a yearling that you did for a filly.
“The wonderful thing is we were genuinely shocked we could buy her for the price we did,”
“In the first phase of our ownership we tended to buy colts. In the second phase, before we starting to breed our own, we were just buying fillies, so we ended up with mares that we’d raced. I thought there was better value in fillies.”
The focus on fillies paid dividends with Malabar, a daughter of Raven’s Pass bought for 70,000 guineas at Book 1 of the Tattersalls October Sale in 2013 and sent into training with Channon.
Winner of the Group 3 Prestige Stakes at Goodwood as a two-year-old, she finished fourth in three consecutive Group 1s, including the 1,000 Guineas, before returning to Goodwood for the Glorious meeting and bagging the Group 3 Thoroughbred Stakes. Retired at the end of her three-year-old season, she is the dam of Listed-winning sprinter Tiber Flow.
“The wonderful thing about Malabar is we were genuinely shocked we could buy her for the price we did,” Jon states. “Had she been a colt it would have been beyond us. Gill found her and we thought we had such good value. We warmed to her breeders, Barry and Fiona Reilly [of Woodcote Stud], and thought we’d give it a go. She won at Glorious Goodwood and it was a wonderful day.
“There was a period when we started to breed when we also went to the sales. Luck plays a big part in this sport, but in truth we didn’t have much luck with the ones we were buying. That helped push us towards breeding our own.
“What is clear is that starting with good-quality broodmares is critical. It’s not just a question of sending your mare to a decent stallion. You also have to recognise that you will get things wrong – and things will go wrong.”
Julia adds: “Another important point in our ownership was buying Elidor as a foal in 2010. We knew it was a gamble but his half-brother Treasure Beach [future Irish Derby winner] was doing well.
“It was a beautiful late November night at Tattersalls. We came out, it was dark and snow was falling. We’d just bought Elidor and we were so excited driving home. He became our only Royal Ascot winner [in the King George V Handicap]. He took us to the big days and good races. Everybody loved him and he was a wonderful horse.
“We’d often be looking at something we really liked [at the sales] and realise we weren’t going to get close in terms of the price we were prepared to pay. We’d seen with Elidor you could buy a foal and it could work out. We thought then maybe we should start breeding our own.”
We’re adding quality to our breeding operation.
The Aisbitts covered six mares this year, spread between Norman Court Stud, New England Stud and Coolmore Stud, with one in France. The French connection was initially through John Hammond – trainer of Lilac Road’s dam Lavender Lane – who has passed on the reins to Shimizu. Pevensey Bay, who made her breakthrough at Pattern level aged six, has now joined the broodmare band. “
The important thing for us is that at least one of our black-type mares, Pevensey Bay, has been retired and covered,” Jon explains. “We’re adding quality to our breeding operation.
“We’ll also have to move some mares on – we’re planning to sell three this year – but we are upgrading with our own runners. I would love us to continue to race our own homebreds and I would love them to be good enough over the years to replace broodmares that get to the point where they need to be retired or aren’t producing. That is the plan.”
He continues: “The owner-breeder process is interesting when you’re trying to identify your future mares. Not many horses like Pevensey Bay are kept in training for so long. Yet she was first and second in Group 2s aged six. For slower developing horses it can pay off.
“We have splashed out from time to time in terms of sending our mares to a small number of expensive stallions, but we’ve tended to stick with proven sires. This year we’ve got mares in foal to Toronado, Churchill, Australia, Ulysses, Aclaim and Almanzor. Those are good stallions but we’re not paying £150,000 or £200,000 for a cover.”
Racing and breeding in France has given the Aisbitts an insight into the superior financial rewards available across the Channel. At a time when prize-money in Britain is under the microscope more than ever, the temptation for some owners might be to go where the rewards are greater.
Jon says: “The first time we won a race in France I was genuinely shocked when I realised what the prize-money was. It’s not like it was twice what you’d get in the UK, it was four times more. I think we won around €22,000 with the premiums.”
“Prize-money here is ridiculous,” says Julia. “You don’t go into this sport and think that you’re going to make a lot of money – thankfully! That being said, you expect that when you’re competing at a certain level that you’re going to get a reasonable return in terms of prize-money, which doesn’t always happen. That’s the frustration.”
She continues: “Our life is here with our children and we’re now grandparents to two three-year-olds and two babies. We do this because we like going to the races, we love going on the gallops and enjoy seeing our mares, foals and yearlings. That in itself is such an enriching experience for us that to just say the prize-money is poor so we’ll up sticks and do it in France would never be an option.
“The whole reason we ended up in racing is because of the pleasure and enjoyment and seeing our babies winning decent races. That’s what makes it work for us. Jon called one of our horses Why We Dream, who is now a broodmare. But that’s why we do this – it’s the dream. When you go on the gallops in February and early March, you’re looking at the youngsters coming through and your horses from the previous and you’re thinking of the season ahead.
“We’ll keep ticking over in France because of the prize-money. We discussed closing up shop when John retired. But we thought no. We have a lovely relationship with Hiroo and will support him in future.”
As for the rest of this season, hopes are high that Lilac Road, last seen finishing fourth in a high-class renewal of the Yorkshire Oaks, will continue to acquit herself well at the top level. Tiber Flow will be aimed at Pattern sprints while the frustrating Ingra Tor might benefit from some ease in the ground. Waiting in the wings are such as two-year-old Godwinson, Malabar’s second foal, who like Lilac Road is trained by William Haggas, enjoying a superb season thanks to the exploits of unbeaten star Baaeed.
Plenty to look forward to, then, for the Aisbitts, who happened upon racing by chance but have each fallen in love with thoroughbreds, a passion which is very much shared.
Jon says: “When we were coming back from Australia and entering a new phase in our life, we talked about the fact we should identify certain things we could do together. I think that’s very important. We now have grandchildren, which is great, and we have the horseracing and breeding side as well.
“Mrs Aisbitt is a fantastic provider of the best chilli in the car park at Twickenham where we have debentures. We love rugby and watch all the England home games with friends. We have supported productions at Glyndebourne opera house. Rugby, opera, horses and family. I don’t get involved in the courts and Julia doesn’t get involved in the business world. But we have plenty of things to do together.”
The importance of giving back
Being awarded a ‘free place’ to Manchester Grammar School (MGS) helped shape Jon Aisbitt’s outlook on education and life. The foundations for his success and subsequent philanthropy were formed during those school years and he is now one of the biggest supporters of the MGS bursary fund.
“I feel very lucky that I was able to get the education I could get because I had a scholarship,” he explains. “My parents could not have afforded to pay for me to be privately educated. I was on a path that other people were not going to be able to follow.
“One of the things I was keen to do, when I was in a position to do it, was to support the bursary at MGS so other smart boys whose parents couldn’t afford [private education] would benefit in the same way. It struck me the time do that was not when you’re 80.”
Jon read English Literature at Pembroke College in Oxford, meeting Julia, who was studying at the city’s polytechnic, in 1977. Qualifying as a chartered accountant, he worked for Arthur Andersen before moving to SG Warburg, a London-based investment bank, joining Goldman Sachs in 1986.
Julia, who had a successful career in the hospitality industry, was involved with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) and with Jon’s help, Goldman Sachs managed the digitization of the charity’s helpline. Jon ended up as the NSPCC’s honorary treasurer and helped raise over £250 million for the Full Stop campaign in 1999.
Since leaving Goldman Sachs in 2002, Jon has fulfilled a variety of non-executive roles and chairmanships and one of his current positions is Chairman of New Forests Holdings, an ethical forestry company in East Africa.