Jeff Smith has seen most things the game has to offer. He has been to nirvana, courtesy of the surreal racing exploits of Lochsong and Persian Punch, but he had never previously watched one of his horses win a Group 1 race on television.
Smith is the kind of owner-breeder who lives every second. He thrives on the sights and sounds of the racecourse, in particular the adrenaline rush ahead of a big race. It has been this way since he bought his first racehorse 44 years ago, yet when Andrew Balding saddled Alcohol Free to win the Cheveley Park Stakes he was sitting in his armchair at his Hampshire home.
“I just didn’t fancy it,” Smith reflects of his decision to forsake Newmarket on account of the Covid-19 pandemic. “I haven’t been racing all year but those who have tell me it had been soulless.
“That’s nobody’s fault; it’s just the way it is,” he continues. “You can’t talk to your trainer or jockey, and you can barely see your horse. The day after the race there was a photograph in the newspaper of the Newmarket stands with everyone standing ten feet apart. Not for me, I’m afraid.”
For all that, the former Executive Chairman of AIM Group, a manufacturer of interior fittings for aircrafts, went into orbit as Alcohol Free prevailed under Oisin Murphy. “The winning feeling was still ecstatic,” he says with a beaming smile.
The moment had overtures of the time Smith was in the US on business in the 1990s. Persian Punch, the champion stayer that year, was due to contest a Pattern race in his absence, so he rigged up a telephone connection to his California hotel room and listened to the commentary.
He must have woken the entire floor at the end of it, with ‘Punch’ gaining another narrow verdict after a pulsating race. “I was on my own and it was five o’clock in the morning,” he recalls. “I couldn’t even reach for a drink.”
It’s safe to say Cheveley Park night at Smith’s residence was anything but alcohol free. The filly’s Group 1 triumph was a first for her owner since Arabian Queen shocked Derby winner Golden Horn in the Juddmonte International in 2015. The difference was that Arabian Queen was bred by Smith’s Littleton Stud, whereas Alcohol Free, a daughter of No Nay Never, was bought for €40,000 as a foal by Smith’s Stud Manager, David Bowe.
Smith remembers the occasion of her purchase vividly. “David rang me from Ireland and said we’d bought one, having rung half an hour earlier to say he was coming home empty-handed,” he says.
“Now I’m no judge,” he continues. “I have a fair idea after all these years but that’s as far as it goes. Yet to my eye the filly looked well worth the money when she arrived here. I wondered how David had managed to get her for forty grand. He didn’t know either – and it was euros as well. It wasn’t even proper money.”
Even if she never wins again, Alcohol Free is worth around one hundred times her purchase price. “The great thing about the Turf is that people are more or less equal,” he reflects. “Breeding horses is a kaleidoscope. Nobody knows what’s going to happen, which I find endlessly fascinating. The first thing I ever read about it was John Hislop’s book on Brigadier Gerard. So much was down to pure good luck.”
The contemporary landscape looks very different to when Smith dipped his toe into racing’s pond back in 1975. With the middle-eastern influx still in its infancy, he would have been stimulated by the deeds of owner-breeders who were then in the ascendant.
He had horses with Balding’s father, Ian, not long after Ian had shaped the career of Paul Mellon’s homebred champion, Mill Reef, in 1970. His silks jostled for prominence alongside those of Lord Weinstock, Louis Freedman, Lord Howard de Walden and Sir Philip Oppenheimer, to name but a few.
Now he is among the last of a dying breed among British owner-breeders.
Sir Philip has been succeeded by his son, Anthony, while David and Patricia Thompson and the Lloyd-Webbers have joined the fray. Yet he is unique in that he races all his homebred stock. All the others sell yearling colts to redeem some of their costs.
The very thought causes Smith’s face to take on a look of angst. “Just imagine it,” he says. “What stops me selling the colts is the thought of some other bugger getting a Derby winner at my expense.
“Anthony Oppenheimer put Golden Horn through the ring as a yearling. He said the colt didn’t raise a single live bid, otherwise he might have lost him. I think I’d weep if that happened to me.”
Although the pandemic has obliged owners and breeders to look closely at their bottom lines, Smith has made no such calculations. He has a rough idea what his Littleton Stud costs him each year but those funds are set aside purely for pleasure.
“The truth is I don’t actually know – and I don’t want to know, either,” he says. “If I did look at it that way it would be another business, and I have got enough of those as it is.
“I would have been worried had I been selling horses this autumn,” he continues, “but the only cost that matters to me is the price of stallion fees. I would think they must fall, which is actually a good thing from my perspective.
“Breeding horses is a kaleidoscope. Nobody knows what’s going to happen, which I find endlessly fascinating”
“If the yearling market recedes by, say, 25 per cent, I think it’s reasonable for stallion fees in general to do likewise – although I have my doubts about whether that will happen.”
Covid-19 would only impact on Smith’s passion if he could not go racing for the next ten years. “It’s all very well watching on the telly but it’s not quite the same,” he says.
“Where’s my free lunch, for starters? But seriously, it must be a nightmare for owners in syndicates because I see in my role as Chairman of Salisbury racecourse that they have great fun when they go racing. They absolutely love it.”
Industry-wide discontent at prize- money levels has boiled over during the pandemic. While Smith empathises to an extent, his view is that nobody is ever forced to own a racehorse. People do it of their own volition, fully cognisant of what they are getting into.
Nevertheless, he is emphatic about how the imbalance should be redressed. It is based on historic precedent, rather than Covid-triggered alarm bells. He knows a thing or two about company reports and balance sheets, and through reading those of the betting conglomerates for many years, he believes the answer lies within them.
“Racecourses have done their bit by broadening the base, generating more income and providing better facilities,” he argues. “Horsemen have done their bit with the bookmakers, too: they are helping to improve field sizes, making it more attractive from a betting perspective.
“So we are in a situation where there is nowhere any additional revenue can come from other than the betting industry. It’s as simple as that – and they can afford it.”
He feels the annual levy negotiation remains “an unequal struggle” despite racing’s representatives sharpening up their act. But they are still dealing with professional betting executives whose acumen and expertise Smith admires, and who are highly paid in consequence.
“But there are also shareholders who receive hundreds of millions of pounds while racing is starved,” he says. “If you took racing away, the impact on the betting industry would be significant. It wouldn’t kill it, but it would be hard.”
The solution Smith advances is one being actively pursued by racing’s representatives. “The levy needs to change from [a tax on] gross profits to [a tax on] turnover,” he says. “The gross profit metric is subject to interpretation; it can be expressed in a number of ways. But with a turnover scheme there is no argument.”
Otherwise there will be no winners.
“In any economic model, what happens next is that racing declines,” he says.
“The number of owners will fall and field sizes will fall, which will impact on betting revenues. Everybody can see that’s where we are, so it’s in the interests of government, bookmakers and the racing industry to reach an agreement to head it off at the pass.”
Smith addresses the prize-money debate with a weary sigh. It’s a subject that periodically gathers a head of steam; he recalls with alacrity the instance five years ago when racing got over-excited by an announcement from the-then Chancellor, George Osborne, who declared his intention to set up a “horserace betting right”. That would have led to the Levy Board’s dissolution but Smith saw straight through Osborne’s proposal, which never materialised.
Smith said in 2015: “I think that, like Mark Twain, reports of the Levy Board’s death are somewhat premature. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Levy Board was still there in ten years’ time.” Nothing has since happened to undermine his prediction.
In truth, Smith much prefers to muse over the ebb and flow of events on the racecourse, itself the proving ground for the horses he breeds from 30 mares resident at Littleton. He knows he is most unlikely to breed another in the mould of Lochsong, his champion sprinter and Cartier’s Horse of the Year in 1993. Lochsong threw a pair of Listed winners in Lochridge and Loch Verdi but she has been outdone at stud by her Group 1-winning half-sister Lochangel, whose daughter, Strictly Dancing, has bred two winners of the Group 3 Sceptre Stakes in Dancing Star and Foxtrot Lady.
“Lochsong gave us a wonderful time but with her it was always going to be about what she did on the track,” Smith reflects. “We have five or six of her descendants still on the stud. I have a soft spot for her, of course I do, but you’re hoping for lightning to strike twice. I’m not remotely surprised that it hasn’t.”
This time the roll of thunder comes from a different source. Smith has yet to win a British Classic, but Alcohol Free will bid to go one better than Chief Singer, runner-up in the 1984 2,000 Guineas, when she takes aim at the fillies’ equivalent in May.
“Since she won on her debut at Newbury Andrew [Balding] has been convinced she is a miler in the making,” he says. “Even if she doesn’t stay, what is there to lose?”