It is midday on a regular Wednesday when Chris Wright sits back in his London office to chew the cud. His phone barely stops ringing; he deals with each call quickly so as to fully interact.
In the process Wright offers affirmation of an old truism: if you want something done, ask a busy man. On this morning he has already played tennis, a favoured pastime, and attended a Brexit strategy meeting that has left his head spinning with the ongoing complexities of travelling horses to Ireland and France.
He outlines some of the issues with a furrowed brow, yet his expression changes instantly at the mention of two words. Wonderful Tonight is the apple of his eye, and no wonder. The promise of soft autumnal ground beckons his filly invitingly. There is no telling where her fairytale journey might end.
“If I was asked which race in the world I’d most love to win, I’d say something like the Queen Mary because it’s something I can aspire to with my mares,” he says. “It’s within my scope; I’ve been second and third in it before. But if had a totally unrestrained choice, the race of my wildest dreams, I would say the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.”
That was where Wonderful Tonight was heading until the cruelest of blows came on Friday when the four-year-old was retired after suffering a fracture to her right-hind fetlock on the gallops.
“The race of my wildest dreams is the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe”
And as Wright intoned, it’s an unusual departure for him and his Stratford Place Stud, which was established in 1983 to house Wright’s first racehorse of note, the fast filly Crime Of Passion. Speed has been Wright’s creed ever since.
Runner-up in the aforementioned Queen Mary Stakes in 1982, Crime Of Passion won the Cherry Hinton Stakes on her next start. Stratford Place, in Gloucestershire, has since become a monument to Crime Of Passion’s daughters and granddaughters but Wright’s designs on breeding might have ended before they started.
“I should have sold her after the Cherry Hinton because we had an astronomical offer,” he reflects of Crime Of Passion. “I didn’t know what to do; I never thought she’d be worth anything like that much. Frankly, it was the sort of offer I should have accepted, but I didn’t.
“They then came back with even more and I still didn’t take it,” he continues. “The agent told me his client wanted to buy two fillies that ran at Newmarket that week. They’d bought one of them, and that was the Queen’s filly, Height Of Fashion [subsequently dam of Nashwan et al]. So it was Sheikh Hamdan, just at the time when he was starting his Shadwell operation.
“Was I stupid? Yes. Do I regret it? No.”
Wright, who turns 77 on September 7, can have few regrets about a life well lived. The son of a Lincolnshire farmer, he was charged with organising music entertainment as social secretary of the students’ union at Manchester University, and advanced from there to establish Chrysalis Records, with partner Terry Ellis, in 1968.
He bought Ellis out in 1985 ahead of taking Chrysalis public, having produced a succession of successful acts including Jethro Tull, Ultravox, Blondie and Spandau Ballet. He subsequently diversified into commercial radio and television production, notably the Midsomer Murders drama series, and at various times bought into high-end sports teams.
Wright’s first venture in that domain saw him align himself with the US soccer franchise Philadelphia Fury in 1977, since when he has been involved with the Sheffield Sharks basketball team, the London football club Queen’s Park Rangers, and the rugby union club Wasps, winners of 11 trophies in as many years until he sold out in 2008.
All that has come and gone, yet Wright’s involvement with racing and breeding remained constant. It has endured for 40 years now and he remains as much in thrall to it as he was when he bought his first horse in 1981.
As much was evident when Wonderful Tonight, named for Eric Clapton’s lyrical ballad, won the Hardwicke Stakes at Royal Ascot in June. Wright’s face glowed with pride. Words all but escaped a man who is rarely lost for them. It was his inaugural winner at a venue where he had come close too many times to mention. He said he felt “like I’ve died and gone to heaven”.
That Wonderful Tonight carries his silks is down to a spirit of adventure redolent of the man himself. In August 2018 he was feeling flush at the Arqana yearling sales in Deauville, where he had just sold a son of Siyouni for €380,000. David Menuisier then alerted him to a daughter of Le Havre who had failed to make her reserve.
“I didn’t know what to do; I never thought Crime Of Passion would be worth anything like that much”
“We went to look at her and that was that,” Wright recalls. “We bought her for €40,000.” It was a celebratory purchase of the kind which tends to end in regret. Not this time.
“It was one of those things where everything worked out,” Wright relates. “Along with everybody else who was involved, we have to thank Hubert Honore [proprietor of Haras d’Ommeel]. If he hadn’t sold my Siyouni yearling so well, none of it would have happened. There was a lot of luck involved.”
There was also Menuisier’s involvement. Wright has come to respect the trainer who has brought Wonderful Tonight through the ranks with great patience. “I’d had a horse or two with David before but when he comes down to the stud to look at the horses he sees things not everybody would see,” Wright says. “In my view there is something quite special about him as a trainer.”
Wonderful Tonight is right up there with the best horses Wright has owned. Together with Crime Of Passion, the yellow and blue livery has been carried by Poule d’Essai des Pouliches winner Culture Vulture and Chriselliam, brilliant winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf in 2013. Tragically, she had to be euthanised after she contracted a rare hoof infection the following year.
It was a shocking denouement, all the more so for the seemingly innocuous initial veterinary diagnosis. But Wright has become accustomed, if not quite immune, to the thoroughbred’s vicissitudes.
He also savoured giddy moments with 1993 Irish 1,000 Guineas heroine Nicer and 2007 Middle Park Stakes winner Dark Angel, both of which he owned in partnership, yet the fact remains that the four best fillies to sport his silks were all sales purchases, rather than homebreds. Wouldn’t it make more sense for him to buy his racehorses instead of breeding them?
He is slightly affronted by the question. “Well, I bred [dual Group winner] Bungle Inthejungle,” he responds in a flash. “There have been others too.”
And with that, he delves into a file containing not just his mares but their close relatives. He flicks through the pages at speed, pausing occasionally to remark: “I’ve bred an Italian Oaks winner, which we sold as a yearling… and Muarrab, who won the Golden Shaheen… and Dr Zempf.”
He would have carried on but for a recalibration of the question which, for all its fickle tendencies, was really a prompt on the joys of breeding. “Ah yes,” he says.
“The best way to describe it is the way I think about Crime Of Passion’s descendants. Everything from her I feel is mine, even members of the family I have sold on. I see granddaughters of hers running and still feel really emotionally attached to them even though they no longer belong to me.”
He shudders at another question: had he ever thought about selling up during the worst of times? He pauses at length. “There are probably times when I should have done, but no time when I thought I would,” he says. “I have never even been close. We built the stud from land surrounding the house which we bought from a local farmer. You couldn’t reproduce that now if you wanted to.”
“If I hadn’t sold my Siyouni yearling so well, none of it would have happened”
Wright’s involvement with the 20 or so mares based at Stratford Place, which is named after the London location of the old Chrysalis office, went up another notch during the Covid lockdowns. They obliged him to spend more time at his Gloucestershire home.
“Being there permanently meant I got to know the horses a lot better,” he says. “I used to see them only at weekends before, and you get quite attached to them watching them grow up.”
That pleasure has been mitigated since Britain’s trade deal with the European Union ended at the end of last year. Transporting horses across borders now involves veterinary checks, extra bureaucratic costs and VAT payments on estimated bloodstock values. But the worst may be yet to come.
“Don’t forget that some of the Brexit regulations were deferred and are due to become applicable on September 1,” he says. “It could get a lot more complicated.” He keeps his counsel on the possibility of basing some mares outside Britain on a near-permanent basis. Just because he has never considered selling does not mean he won’t recalibrate the geography.
It is part of Wright’s make-up to want to know as much as possible about any new venture he engages with. He has come to understand the labyrinthine world of racing politics, which he now observes at close quarters from his place in the Racehorse Owners Association council.
Wright believes the concept of a BHA overlord in the Bernie Ecclestone mould is possible but would ruffle too many feathers. And he is mindful of a widescale revamp of the racing canvass for the danger in tradition becoming a casualty.
He is largely sanguine about the state of play, although, like many, he is left feeling deflated by poor levels of prize-money in Britain. As somebody who travels frequently, he sees far more prosperous relationships between racing and betting models in other countries – in particular, France and Australia.
He knows there is no prospect of a pari-mutuel monopoly, as there is in France, or the strictly on-course presence of private bookmakers in Australia. Nor does he foresee a day when visiting a betting premises in Britain will allow for the consumption of a decent glass and a sandwich to enhance the experience.
“I can’t see that there is any magic solution,” he says of the prize-money impasse. “As for possible new income sources, you’re then on to media rights. A while ago I lined up an expert who could genuinely have found out if there was potential to generate income from media rights, but that didn’t go anywhere.
“I felt we should engage somebody to get to the bottom of it,” he continues. “It’s a very complex subject, but there’s no point in continually saying there is loads of money in media rights. We must get under the skin of it and find out if that is actually the case.
“If not, then we’ll know where we stand, and we can stop talking about it. But there wasn’t the appetite to engage with somebody of that expertise and the degree of compensation he would require. Experts like that cost a bit more than £5 per week.”
“We built the stud from land surrounding the house which we bought from a local farmer. You couldn’t reproduce that now if you wanted to”
Wright’s investments in the orbits of racing, football and rugby weighed in at considerably more than £5 per week. He has had to assess those costs in tandem with the pleasure he has derived – or not, in the case of QPR football club. Nevertheless, it has been quite a ride.
“Yes it has,” he says, “although if I’d been entirely focused on the business, I would have been a great deal more successful and a great deal wealthier if things like racing, football and rugby hadn’t come into my life. There’s no question about that.
“I think back to 20-25 years ago, when I flew to the US every week, and I wonder how I fitted it all in. God only knows, but at the end of the day you don’t have money and possessions, you have nothing but memories.”
This begs one final question. Would he swap those memories in exchange for the money he has spent pursuing them? There is another long pause before he replies: “Well, I think I could have done better.
“You’re bound to have some regrets. But when you go you don’t take your country estate with you, that painting on the wall. It might be worth a fortune but you don’t really own that painting, you’re the custodian of it. Someone else will be the custodian, but the memories are all yours.”
There are almost certainly further memories to come from Wonderful Tonight’s future broodmare career.