By his own admission, Graham Smith-Bernal has swallowed the lure of breeding “hook, line and sinker” since he bought Newsells Park Stud lock, stock and barrel in June.
The man who made his fortune from courtroom software is talking from the stud offices on an afternoon when the skies match his bright disposition. He is contemplating his imminent debut as a leading consignor at Book 1 of the Tattersalls October Yearling Sales, where Newsells Park has topped the vendors’ charts for the last three years.
Is he nervous? He considers the question for a moment before breaking out into a full-on smile. “No so much nervous as excited,” he replies. “I’m too reckless by nature to be nervous. What appeals to me is that there are so many imponderables.”
It is as if Smith-Bernal, 63, is the proverbial child let loose in a sweet shop. His excitement is palpable. He speaks so quickly it’s a wonder he doesn’t trip over his words, yet it is soon evident his mind turns even more quickly. His voice can barely stay abreast, such is the rush of ideas, bon mots and rejoinders emanating from him.
For all that, his diction never falters. He is a rare soul who can introduce two digressions into one sentence before resuming precisely where he left off. “I am always at my most creative at four or five in the morning,” he says. It is three o’clock in the afternoon.
Prior to his purchase of Newsells Park, Smith-Bernal owned four horses in training, together with six mares and their progeny. Now he is up to 180 choicely-bred head, and he’s not entirely sure what to do with them all. It’s something upon which he cogitates as the yearling sales beckon.
Since the stud has turned decent profits in each of the last five years, he has resolved to take a watching brief until the year’s end. That means Newsells Park will send the vast majority of its yearling crop to auction in time-honoured fashion.
“I do love the idea of forming two or three partnerships, retaining some of our yearling fillies to race and really enjoying that experience,” he says of what the future might hold. “There would be residual value there, and if the fillies make it, you’re not just winning with them but you have the mother at home. You can control several other aspects too, such as the trainers they are sent to.”
Smith-Bernal’s plans on this front remain embryonic, although there is no doubt he will introduce new facets to the stud’s modus operandi. The imperative as a commercial venture remains unchanged, as is the commitment to cater for high-end clients who board horses at the 1,200-acre Hertfordshire property. There are also plans to invest further in bloodstock, but Smith-Bernal is bound to implant his own footprint sooner or later.
“Another of my major hobbies is wine,” he says, “and we happen to have 170 south-facing acres of chalk slopes here. It’s chalk that is absolutely perfect for making sparkling wine. Global warming means it is getting too hot [for optimum growing conditions] in the champagne region of France. That’s why the likes of Bollinger and Tattinger have bought sites in England.”
“This is not creating a business from scratch, it’s an established business. I was able to see the results before I bought it”
The project remains a vision, and subject to planning permission, yet it has plainly taken root in Smith-Bernal’s fertile imagination. “We already have a brand name for it,” he enthuses. “Shastye.”
In that event, the wine had better sparkle. Shastye is the mare on which so much of Newsells Park’s success has been founded. In four separate trysts with Galileo she has bred Group 1 winners Japan and Mogul, Group 2-winning Oaks runner-up Secret Gesture, and Group 3 winner Sir Isaac Newton. All told, seven of her yearlings have passed through the Tattersalls auction ring for takings just short of 14 million guineas.
There is no yearling out of Shastye in this year’s 30-strong Book 1 draft, although the blue hen, now 20 after two barren years, has been tested in foal to Dubawi. But that won’t slow the traffic to Newsells Park’s patch of the sales grounds. Not when the nursery has offerings like a chestnut son of Frankel and Without You Babe, and thus a full-brother to St James’s Palace Stakes winner Without Parole, who now stands alongside Nathaniel at Newsells Park.
Two other lots instantly catch the eye. There’s a Dubawi daughter of Waldlerche, herself dam of Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner Waldgeist; and a Galileo filly, this one the first foal of Group 2 winner Aljazzi, who was bought by Newsells Park for 1 million guineas in 2018.
These three yearlings reflect the diverse nature of Newsells Park’s activities. The Frankel colt belongs to John and Tanya Gunther, who are valued clients. The Dubawi filly is owned by Newsells Park in partnership with Dietrich von Boetticher’s Gestut Ammerland, while the Galileo filly belongs entirely to the stud.
There is much to anticipate, although this will not be Smith-Bernal’s first taste of Book 1 action. “I have had the pleasure of selling two or three Book 1 yearlings before,” he says. “One was by Frankel whom everyone loved, but once he got into the parade ring he thought it was showtime and did his prancing pony routine all the way round.
“We were having kittens until Sheikh Mohammed bid 300,000 guineas for him,” Smith-Bernal continues. “That was a great experience but I get the feeling that going behind the scenes this time is going to be a little different.”
So much so that Smith-Bernal intends to station himself in the Tattersalls dining room. “I might slip down to the yard occasionally but I’ll be knocking back a glass or two with some of our clients,” he says.
“Mind you, I’ll have to be careful not to spend too much time in the restaurant or I might buy more horses than I plan to. That happened at a sale I attended some years ago, when I bought two foals on the spur of the moment. I was hooked after that, and here I am.”
Hooked is a particularly apt description. Even though he was a Newsells Park client for six years before he bought the farm, Smith-Bernal acknowledges his enthusiasm is in danger of being run away with. Equally, there is an element of self-reward about the farm’s purchase that he is determined to enjoy.
“I have always been a risk-taker, albeit calculated risk,” he offers. “People say you have to fail once in business before you make it, although that hasn’t happened to me yet. But this is not creating a business from scratch, it’s an established business. I was able to see the results before I bought it.
“The reality is that I haven’t worked hard all my life, I’ve just thought hard. And I love a challenge”
“What has been happening here is a proven formula,” he adds. “It is working, but if I do make any changes it will be with an objective perspective from outside the core business, if you like. People tell me I sold my businesses for a load of money, I have a lovely place in Italy, where I stay 20 per cent of the time, and I have lovely grandchildren. I should be putting my feet up, but that’s not me.
“The reality is that I haven’t worked hard all my life, I’ve just thought hard. And I love a challenge. I bought Newsells Park first and foremost as a commercial venture. It appealed to me as a business I feel I can do something with, but I’m not doing it because I think I’m going to make lots of money. Far from it; it’s something I find interesting and exciting. I want to have a huge amount of fun with it.”
He already has some ideas about what that might entail. He moved in legal circles throughout his professional life, having started as a court stenographer before he developed a range of easy-to-use software that transformed a legal process that was naturally reticent to embrace new technology.
“There are a number of very wealthy people in the legal community who are interested in investing in bloodstock with us,” he says. “Some of them want to get involved at a high level, perhaps in a racing and breeding syndicate where they start with one mare and one yearling.”
Smith-Bernal is also a member of the 125 Club, which was established to commemorate the anniversary of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club in the 2007-08 season. Its limited membership is confined to fans and players past and present. Smith-Bernal would like to involve them too.
“We have our own suite [at the football ground] and Ossie Ardiles [a World Cup winner with Argentina who played for Tottenham for a decade from 1978] is our ‘legend’,” he says. “Ossie has been to Newsells Park a few times already. [Former Spurs captain] Steve Perryman is a good friend, as is Glenn Hoddle. They have all been over to my place in Italy, so the challenge is to set up a syndicate of Spurs fans with these old legends who are idolised by them.”
These will be partnerships with a difference. In addition to racing, Smith-Bernal wants them to get involved in the breeding side. As much as anything, he wants to spread the word about a pursuit that now enraptures him. Among the perks will be the use of his manor house at Newsells Park for hospitality.
He also feels that breeding horses is less of a hostage to the chill financial winds blowing through the industry. Low prize-money affects all owners but the quality of bloodstock based in Britain offers some immunity from the financial deficit of putting a horse in training.
“I think the top ten per cent of the breeding industry is viable and that is what I am interested in,” he says. “I see the top end of the market staying resilient, because of foreign buyers as much as anything else. I’m fairly confident about that, even though we have lost some big owner-breeders like Khalid Abdullah, Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum and David Thompson in the last 12 months.”
It is refreshing to see lateral thinkers such as Smith-Bernal embracing racing and breeding. Innovative approaches to selling the concept have been few and far between. The sport tends to attract either outright dreamers or hard-nosed professionals bent on squeezing out every last penny of profit. Here is a man with a conciliatory foot in both camps.
The sense of attainment at having made it, in counting your worth by seven- or eight-figure digits, has long ceased to matter to Smith-Bernal. In business he outsmarted and out-thought his competitors by innovating to stay one step ahead, selling companies he founded before setting up the next one. It was water off a duck’s back to a nascent entrepreneur who left school at 16 and married his Bolivian wife, Marcela, two years later.
His father was of a similar mindset: he established successful PR and promotions businesses while simultaneously founding the London Bach Orchestra and umpiring the inaugural world table tennis championship. His mother, meanwhile, was a professional pianist. Such an eclectic family hub may well have shaped Smith-Bernal’s moral conscience on the subject of wealth.
“To me, money is not a thing to be treasured,” he says. “It’s the consequence of doing things right. Capitalism is not as bad as socialism, but at the end of the day just hoarding money for money’s sake I don’t think is particularly exciting. I think there’s a duty for people, particularly those who are good at building businesses, to take on a challenge and, post-Covid, try to create meaningful businesses that in turn create meaningful jobs. That is what I would call rewarding.”
It wasn’t dyslexia that afflicted him at birth; more a condition he equates to being very strong on the right side of his brain but not on the left. “My attention to detail is not very good,” he says. “I am not a structured person, I’ve never written a business plan in my life. My businesses just grew.”
It will be fascinating to see how Newsells Park grows over the next decade. We can be sure it will change some of its shape, and Smith-Bernal’s intention to invest further in breeding stock affords the nursery every prospect of spawning new female lines that find favour with yearling buyers.
It has been a whirlwind beginning for Smith-Bernal, and the tempo is soon to rise again at Tattersalls. In assimilating what he has taken on, has he learnt one thing that has taken him by surprise?
“Not really,” he replies, before he smiles once more. “Actually, we need a new boiler in the house, but I don’t suppose that’s what you were really asking, was it?”