When Mick Mariscotti retired from his position as Coral’s Finance Director in 2005, he and his wife Janice decided it was time for a new hobby. Working for a major bookmaker meant the couple had spent many an enjoyable day at the races, so something that could take them back there seemed eminently sensible.

Owning racehorses rapidly developed from a pastime to a passion, and now the couple could be about to see their colours carried to Gold Cup glory by the progressive stayer Coltrane.

Having been born and raised in Epsom, Mariscotti was exposed to racing’s allure from a young age. However, despite some early success, too early perhaps, as a punter, he concedes he wasn’t immediately hooked.

“I was born and brought up in Epsom, so the Derby was always a big part of life in that area,” he explains. “I was at school in the days when it used to be run on a Wednesday. We used to get the afternoon off, so we’d go to watch the race. I actually backed Snow Knight when he won in 1974 at 50-1, despite being too young to bet!

“My dad was interested and took us to the races, although he didn’t own horses and I wasn’t exactly immersed in it. I suppose latterly it was working for Coral that got me really interested. I used to do a fair amount of hospitality at big meetings and Janice used to enjoy that, so buying our own racehorse seemed like a good idea when we decided we needed something to do when I retired.”

Mariscotti turned to two of his Coral colleagues for advice as to who he should approach to train his horses.

“When I retired, I asked David Stevens and Simon Clare which trainer we should look at having a horse with,” he states. “They gave us a list of three names. I don’t know who number two and number three were because I only got as far as Andrew and Anna Lisa Balding. We went into owning racehorses thinking we’d have one or two, but it’s grown from there. I was adding it up recently and we’ve actually had over 100 horses since we started in 2007.”

He would’ve been a little superstar

Their time as racehorse owners did not get off to the most auspicious start, however. The couple’s first runner, Arrewig Lissome, was beaten an aggregate of 60 lengths from just three starts and just when it seemed their fortunes had turned, with Celtic Spur scoring at Great Leighs, fate took a cruel twist.

“Celtic Spur was a lovely little horse, but he only ran twice at two and then sadly broke down on the gallops so never got to fulfil his potential,” says Mariscotti. “I certainly believe, and Andrew certainly believed, he would’ve been a little superstar. Anyway, that win was enough to get us hooked. It was a unique experience for us as that was only our fifth ever race.”

Although no thoroughbred pursuit is without its challenging moments, the couple have had more highs than lows since, with notable successes coming courtesy of the stakes winners Goldoni, Dashing Willoughby, Havana Beat, Masekela and Zanetto. Mariscotti wastes no time in nominating Dashing Willoughby’s Royal Ascot victory, which came in the Queen’s Vase in 2019, as the highlight so far, particularly as the Group 2 triumph so nearly never happened.

“The horse actually had an infection in his hoof the week before the race and the stable staff at Kingsclere nursed him through over the weekend,” recalls Mariscotti.

“By Tuesday he was ready to run, but it was touch and go. That was an incredible rollercoaster because we’d targeted the Queen’s Vase with him from when he was a two-year-old so it would’ve been a massive disappointment if he couldn’t have run. That was very special and is definitely the highlight, although I’ll be very happy to surpass that this year!”

Surpassing the highs of that Group 2 victory seems a distinct possibility given Coltrane’s rate of improvement. The son of Mastercraftsman, named after the jazz saxophonist John, rather than the late Scottish actor Robbie, heads to the Gold Cup on a sustained upward curve, with the latest of his six wins gained in impressive style in the Group 3 Sagaro Stakes.

The six-year-old’s resume also includes last season’s Group 2 Doncaster Cup and the Listed Esher Stakes, although Mariscotti admits that the 50,000gns purchase hasn’t always been regarded as a viable Flat performer, never mind a potential Group 1 talent.

“He was very backward and it would be fair to say that he didn’t shine on the gallops to start with,” says Mick. “Andrew wasn’t convinced he was going to be a Flat horse at all. It was actually  Andrew’s son, Jonno, who was riding Coltrane at that time and he said to his dad, ‘You need to get this horse to the racecourse because he’s better than you think.’

“He came out and ran really well to finish second on debut, which was a surprise to the trainer and the owners. Andrew had rung me before his debut and said, ‘Look, I’m going to apologise in advance because, honestly, anything could happen. He’s really slow on the gallops.’”

He’s the gentlest horse we’ve ever owned

Coltrane certainly showed more once he reached the racecourse though as he followed that debut effort up by breaking his maiden at Chepstow, finishing first past the post at Newmarket (he was later disqualified for traces of a banned substance in his post-race sample) and then winning the competitive Melrose Handicap at York’s Ebor meeting. Just when his progress was gathering momentum, there was a significant bump in the road.

“Sadly, he got injured so he missed all of the Flat season in 2021,” says Mariscotti. “He came back at the end of that year and ran rather unimpressively on the all- weather. I looked back on my pre-season notes with Andrew and we had thought that he might be a Group horse when he won the Melrose, but we agreed that he probably wasn’t a Group horse anymore.”

However, when Coltrane got back on turf, he quickly regained the progressive thread. He finished a neck second to Cleveland in the Chester Cup before a thoroughly game effort to win the Ascot Stakes, a ten-length romp in the Esher Stakes and a gutsy neck defeat of Trueshan in the Doncaster Cup.

Coltrane’s character, as well as his latent talent, has made him a firm favourite with the team at Kingsclere. Mariscotti credits groom Ryan Gradwell and regular work rider Chris Hannaford for helping the horse to fulfil his potential.

“He’s a lovely horse, he’s the gentlest horse we’ve ever owned,” he says.

“Everyone in the yard loves him to bits and because he was injured and there was a chance that he’d never come back, he’s very special to us.”

Unearthing such a regular supply of above-average talents is no mean feat, especially for owners who don’t buy a significant number of yearlings each year, nor spend a fortune doing so. Their growing roll of honour speaks to the shrewd moves they pull, and the hard yards they put in, at the yearling sales.

“We love the sales,” says Mariscotti. “We only go to the Tattersalls yearling sales and we only do Book 1 and Book 2, but we’re there for as long as it takes, so we’re definitely hands on. The Andrew Balding buying team is Andrew, his mother Emma and Tessa Hetherington, and we trail around and look at lots and lots of horses. They’re the experts but Janice and I think we know what we like, so we do play our part.

“One of the things Emma Balding in particular has taught us is that, at the price we’re buying, bearing in mind we’re not paying hundreds of thousands of pounds, you can’t be too dogmatic on
pedigree, so we buy the individual rather than the page.”

Expanding on the kind of animal that makes the Mariscotti shortlist, Mick continues: “A typical horse for us is a distance horse. We prefer to have a horse that takes a little while to show its best. It just feels more rewarding. We’ve probably bought fairly unfashionable horses from time to time, and we’ve had success with horses by unproven sires, so we’re not afraid of that.

“I know a lot of people want to buy something that’ll come out as a two-year- old and show its stuff, but we’re quite happy to wait and see the horse develop during its three- and even four-year-old career.

“We’ve had sprinters and early two- year-olds but the disappointment can be that after they’ve run three times you’ve fully explored what the horse is likely to be able to do. That isn’t the case, I feel, with horses who get a longer trip.”

The Mariscotti methodology also involves knowing when to sell, as well as when to buy. Plenty of their more lucrative transfers have occurred on the private market, but one notable exception was Le Don De Vie, who was sold to Howson & Houldsworth, Group Bloodstock and Aziz Kheir for £460,000 at the Goffs London Sale in 2019.

The son of Leroidesanimaux was last seen finishing second, beaten just a nose, in the Group 1 Metropolitan at Randwick having subsequently moved to the leading Australian stable of Ciaron Maher and David Eustace.

“We still enjoy watching them race afterwards even when they’re not owned by us,” says Mariscotti. “We follow ‘Le Don’ and we’ve got a horse who was sold to Hong Kong last year [Swilcan  Bridge, now named Young Brilliant] that we still track, so we enjoy them from afar.”

The Mariscottis certainly aren’t expecting to profit from racehorse ownership, but their willingness to sell when the price is right reveals a certain pragmatism towards the financial pressure of having horses in training.

“It’s a very expensive hobby and our view has always been that if we have a good horse and we feel that someone offers us the right price, then we will sell,” says Mick. “We don’t run it as a business and we don’t make money out of it, but we try to keep the money rolling in so we can play for another year.

“One of Janice’s regular comments is ‘Why do we have to sell all the good horses?’ Unfortunately that’s just the financial reality. It’s always difficult because we love all of them, but if we want to  carry on there has to be an in-flow as well and sadly prize-money is not going to keep us buying racehorses.”

To that extent, maximising a horse’s resale value is vital.

“To a degree we choose the races we run in with an eye to getting the horses noticed,” he continues. “We’ve had relatively few Group winners, Coltrane and Dashing Willoughby aside, but most of the ones we’ve sold have been improving three-year-olds.

“We’ve won the three-year-old handicap that’s usually the first race at Epsom on Derby day three times now. It means a huge amount to us, especially me having been born and brought up in Epsom, and that race has a track record of throwing up good horses. There are people looking at that race, amongst others, with a view to buying horses.”

We’re delighted that he’s now having the kind of success he deserves

Devising a sustainable strategy is one thing but collaborating with those capable of delivering on the vision is equally important. Andrew Balding trains eight of the owners’ 11-strong string, with Eve Johnson Houghton, who joined the fold in 2018, entrusted with the other three.

“Andrew was the first trainer we ever approached about owning horses and he and Anna Lisa run a superb operation at Kingsclere,” says Mariscotti. “He’s approachable, knowledgeable and a really good trainer. We’re delighted that he’s now having the kind of success he deserves. He was always successful but he’s now getting better horses and more owners.

“We’re relatively small owners for him now, and we certainly don’t spend the big money that some of the others do, but he still devotes time to us and he’s a superb professional.”

He continues: “We’ve known Eve for a while, she’s a lovely person and we always had a good rapport even when we didn’t have any horses with her. She shares a lot of the things that we found with Andrew. She’s very hands on, she loves her horses and is approachable and knowledgeable. She was the first trainer other than Andrew to have a winner for us, which puts her in a special place.”

As an Epsom native it is of little surprise that the Derby figures prominently in Mariscotti’s racing ambitions. However, just as he is pragmatic when it comes to buying and selling, he is aware the type of horse they own lends itself to slightly longer-distance targets.

“I’d love to win the Derby but we’re realistic enough to know that’s unlikely to happen,” he says. “Masekela was the only time we’ve had a Derby runner, but it was fantastic when he finished fourth [to Desert Crown]. With my Coral connection, if I could pick a race that Coral sponsors, it would definitely be the Eclipse, but, again, we don’t tend to buy horses that get that sort of trip.  Realistically the longer distance races are for us.”

As far as distance races go, they don’t come any bigger than the Gold Cup. Mariscotti says he hasn’t allowed himself to imagine victory in Royal Ascot’s flagship race but acknowledges that Coltrane possesses exactly the right sort of profile for the race.

“He obviously likes Ascot and he’s won over the Gold Cup trip before,” he says. “It was always the aim this year to head for the Gold Cup and, touch wood, we’re on track. It’s important for us and I know it’s important for Andrew as he tells me it’s one Group 1 race that he hasn’t won and is very keen to win.

“There’ll be a lot of pressure on us, but we always enjoy going racing, particularly the big days, so we’ll enjoy it whatever the result.”

Win, lose or draw, anyone who sets out looking for a hobby and ends up at the Gold Cup is plainly doing plenty right.