It’s near the end of our chat when Michael Buckley contributes perhaps his most succinct assessment of why he continues to invest in racehorses having ridden the ownership rollercoaster for close to 50 years.
“I’m always amused by people’s attitude to risk. Starting a new business is a risk but so is getting in the car in the morning,” Buckley says via Zoom. “I suppose I’ve got an appetite for trying to make my life a little bit less predictable than it otherwise might be.
“I’ve had a quieter time with the National Hunt horses for the past three or four years, Brain Power apart. So, I thought, why not spin the wheel again?
“I decided to buy this horse at the sales last year and it’s possible I’ve got lucky. Well, I have got lucky – maybe I’ve got very lucky. The horse has to do it on a much bigger stage now – but he looks very promising.”
The horse in question is Constitution Hill, trained by long-time ally Nicky Henderson. The exciting five-year-old is the winner of both his starts for Buckley and already a bonafide Grade 1 performer following his facile victory in the Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown in January.
Picked up for £120,000 after a close second on his only point-to-point outing, the Blue Bresil gelding is now a leading fancy for the Grade 1 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, the opening contest at the 2022 Cheltenham Festival, where Buckley’s silks have previously been carried with distinction by the likes of Finian’s Rainbow and Spirit Son.
While Finian’s Rainbow provided his owner with a top-level Festival success in the 2012 Queen Mother Champion Chase, following up in the Melling Chase at Aintree, it is Spirit Son that Buckley believes could have jumped right to the top of the tree granted a fair wind. Yet rather than acting as a springboard to better things, Cheltenham proved to be his penultimate appearance.
Buckley, speaking in February from Florida’s west coast, explains: “I’ve had a hell of a lot of jumps horses – and I’ve been lucky and had some very good ones. Like Finian’s Rainbow; he was very good. But there are a few horses that have that extra little bit of brilliance.
“I’ve had two horses before that I thought were exceptional. One was The Proclamation. The other was a horse bought in France, Spirit Son.
“Nicky Henderson described Spirit Son as a ‘little Ferrari’. After his second in the  Supreme Novices’ – he was up against Sprinter Sacre, Cue Card and Al Ferof – Spirit Son ran at Aintree and beat Cue Card by 13 lengths, with Rock On Ruby, the following year’s Champion Hurdle winner, eight lengths further back in third. A month later he was found lying in his box having picked up a virus and never ran again. He had a brilliance that was just starting. Who knows what he might have done?
“Our view of The Proclamation was based on what he could do at home. Nicky said he’d never seen a horse do what this horse could do. Corky Browne, Nicky’s head lad, said he was the best horse he had seen since Killiney [trained by Fred Winter to win eight successive races over fences before a fatal fall at Ascot]. The Proclamation won easily at Punchestown, had one run over fences [winning at Ascot] and then in his next race he was killed.”
If Buckley came to understand only too well that ecstasy and tragedy were part and parcel of the jump racing experience, his early days in the sport made it all look decidedly easy.
Having grown up on a farm in Sussex – “horses were in your life in those days whether you liked it or not” – and attended the odd point-to-point, Buckley, who left boarding school at 16 to enter the world of chartered accountancy, gained his first experience of horseracing at grassroots level.
He says: “When I worked in Sussex, family friends used to love National Hunt racing and often went to Plumpton, which raced on a Monday. I used to get out of the office on a Monday afternoon and found that winning some money on a horse was really thrilling.
“Later on, some friends took me to Cheltenham, and I generated an interest in racing and thought it would be fun to own a horse. “I went with a friend to visit a trainer called Peter Bailey, who was based in Sparsholt near Lambourn. He was doing a form of training, without realising it, which was a less sophisticated version of what Martin Pipe later did. He was remarkably successful for a small yard.
“I thought it was an easy game. You found a nice horse in Ireland and if it was any good it would win. I couldn’t understand how everyone found the whole thing so difficult”
“Peter bought a really cheap horse for me called Game Moss, a scrubby-looking ex-Flat animal. His first race for me was at Windsor in a novice hurdle, when he was up against a horse called Pitpan. I remember them coming to the last with Terry Biddlecombe on big Pitpan and Jeff King on my tiny little horse.
“The worst thing that could possibly happen, in one sense, happened – my horse won. Had he been hammered, that probably would have been the end of it, and I wouldn’t have spent so much of my life trying to make money to buy horses!
“Anyway, that day at Windsor, it was absolutely thrilling. My pal who had come along with me burst into tears. We went to the bar afterwards and stayed in there for a couple of hours. That got me going, life went on, and I bought more horses.”
Following that first victory on February 20, 1974 – which was worth £238 to the winner – Buckley did not have to wait long for success on a far grander stage.
Zeta’s Son, ridden by Ian Watkinson, captured the Hennessy Gold Cup (now the Ladbrokes Trophy) at Newbury in 1976 and two years later, Tommy Stack partnered Strombolus to victory in the Whitbread Gold Cup (now the Bet365 Gold Cup) at Sandown.
Indeed, such was his apparent Midas touch that on the same day that Zeta’s Son struck in Berkshire, 4,000 miles away in South Carolina, Grand Canyon, whom Buckley co-owned with Pat Samuel, won the Colonial Cup, North America’s most valuable steeplechase.
“I thought it was an easy game,” Buckley relates. “You found a nice horse in Ireland and if it was any good it would win. Peter kept turning out these winners for me and I couldn’t understand how everyone found the whole thing so difficult. It took a few years for me to realise there was another factor in jump racing, which is injuries.
“I was visiting America for the first time when I travelled to watch Grand Canyon in the Colonial Cup. We picked up $60,000 in prize-money. The organisers paid for everyone to get there except the owners, so I was flat broke! I had to ask the committee for an advance on the winnings because I wanted to visit Las Vegas with Pat.”
Buckley continues: “Zeta’s Son then won the Anthony Mildmay Chase at Sandown, beating a mare called Eyecatcher. That April he ran in the Grand National and Ron Barry, who used to ride for me, had said to his wife – unbeknown to me – that he would win the  National on him and then announce his immediate retirement.
“Unfortunately, Ron got injured and Mouse Morris rode the horse. Eyecatcher finished third to Red Rum [winning his third Grand National] and sadly my horse put his foot in a hole in the course and broke his leg. I found out that jump racing can carry a lot of tragedy as well.”
Celebrating the good days, or commiserating after the bad ones, is the racehorse owner’s lot and in Nicky Henderson, Buckley has found a kindred spirit with whom to share his racing journey.
Their enduring partnership, now in its fifth decade, has stood the test of time while others have fallen by the wayside.
“I first met Nicky when he was a young trainer,” Buckley says. “What’s kept us together? Firstly, he’s just a really nice person, who is patient with his horses and patient with his owners.
“We’re very different people. He lives for his horses and that’s his life. I’ve got lots of things that interest me away from horses. But I like Nicky. He’s a very gifted trainer and he’s a good guy.
“If you win a big race, you’ll have a great day whoever trains your horse. But it’s about getting through the days in between and the rough days – he’s a sympathetic and caring human being.
“When I first bought a horse, I thought it would be a bit of fun. Then I found out after a while that I was really fond of the horses as creatures. We have that in common. Nicky regards them as you would people.”
He continues: “It’s true to say I haven’t jumped from trainer to trainer. When Tom Symonds set up on his own, I sent him a horse, but I don’t have any desire to have a horse with anybody else in England. I’ve had jumpers with Jessie Harrington but she’s a dear friend and in a different country.
“I don’t regard it as patronage. I enjoy having jumps horses when I can, and I know they’ll get the best care with him.
“That’s why I still listen to Elvis Presley and Leonard Cohen. There may be a hot new band in town, but I like what they do so I don’t go for the latest fad.”
Buckley has just the two jumpers in training at Henderson’s Seven Barrows stable although a decade ago he had 17 individual runners in one season. Despite the considerable increase in numbers, it wasn’t a particularly fruitful period.
“People talk about it being a numbers game,” says Buckley, who sold a business in 2009 to help fund his racing expansion. “I had the most jump horses I’d ever had, yet it didn’t lead to a marked increase in success. I had Finian’s Rainbow and Spirit Son but most of them weren’t very good, truth be told.
“Covid hasn’t been the most inspiring environment to think of buying more horses. I also had Brain Power, but he suffered an overreach and was retired. He’s now back with Warren Ewing and recently won a point-to-point in Ireland. I’m thrilled he’s having an active life.”
“The one advantage he has is his temperament. He doesn’t get overexcited or too fussed about things. I hope he gets there in good shape and has luck in the race. And I hope he wins”
Buckley has also made his mark on the Flat, notably with Toast Of New York, trained by Jamie Osborne to win the 2014 UAE Derby and later beaten a whisker in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, failing by a nose to reel in Bayern under Jamie Spencer. A stewards’ enquiry only added to the drama, but the places remained unaltered.
“He was beautifully trained and beautifully ridden,” the owner states.
“To come closer than all the big owners on dirt was a real achievement. I was just sad not to see his name on the winners’ board at Santa Anita.
“With the prices people are paying for jumpers now, Flat racing is much more economically viable. I hope I’ll have another really good Flat horse.”
Yet that’s for another day. Now it’s all about the home of jump racing and whether Constitution Hill can confirm his brilliance in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, when the opposition will include his supremely talented stable companion Jonbon, owned by Buckley’s good friend JP McManus.
“Nicky keeps churning out these good horses, nurturing and bringing on the likes of Sprinter Sacre, Altior and Shishkin,” Buckley says.
“Somebody’s going to be lucky and have another one of those and who knows, maybe it will be me.
“At the moment the horse could have been flattered or he might be exceptional. The one advantage he has is his temperament. He doesn’t get overexcited or too fussed about things. I hope he gets there in good shape and has luck in the race. And I hope he wins”
From Ford to Foxy Bingo via the Falklands
Michael Buckley has enjoyed a varied business career, which he himself describes as “up and down”. Qualifying as an accountant, he moved from Sussex to London to join a big accountancy firm, only to find he was spending little time in the capital and instead travelling around the country for audit work.
He recalls: “You would sit for weeks on end in some large outfit doing the audit. It was insufferably boring. But I’d already realised that straightforward accountancy wasn’t for me.
“I went to see the personnel manager to complain that I was never in London. I was then told to join an audit group for the Ford company in Dagenham. That would have meant that for 48 weeks of the year I would be heading out to Dagenham. I told him this life wasn’t for me and left the next day.
“I’m interested in a lot of stuff – sports, business, theatre, movies. My temperament is not suited to a routine that doesn’t have a bit of variety.”
His next move was pivotal in shaping the rest of his working life. After making some calls, Buckley ended up working for Oliver Jessel, the pipe-smoking City dealmaker once described as “a master of the financial universe”, though he later suffered severe losses in the financial crash of 1974.
Buckley explains: “He had built up a significant shareholding in a business in the West Indies called Demerara, and he wanted someone to go and look at the firm surreptitiously. I was the only unmarried employee so was sent off to Guyana in South America and to Trinidad.
“I met the director of the company at a party in Georgetown, Guyana and he got drunk and told me all sorts of things. I came back with lots of information and photos, so Oliver gave me a rise. Then he made a takeover bid for the company the following Christmas. I was left out there to run the company, aged 24. It was a rough ride, but I learnt a lot.
“After a couple of years with him I went off, got some backing and bought control of a public company. In the 70s there were a lot of people doing that sort of thing and plenty of poorly run businesses to buy. I didn’t have any formal business education. I learnt it all as I went along.”
Later investments included purchasing the Falkland Islands Company, which owned around 350,000 sheep. When the price of wool per kilo quadrupled in nine months, deals were done to sell the wool in advance – “we just had to keep the sheep alive” – and the money spent on buying the company was swiftly recouped with interest.
There was also a move into television; Buckley was involved in SelecTV, which made programmes including Birds Of A Feather and Lovejoy, later becoming a founder director of Meridian, while a brief flirtation with Broadway was exciting but less financially rewarding – “I invested in a show, and it was popular, but I didn’t get my money back”.
Buckley was quick to realise the potential in the embryonic online gaming sector in the 1990s, establishing Cashcade in 2000 after meeting two graduates who excelled in internet marketing.
Helped by his friend Victor Chandler, who became a client, Cashcade launched Foxy Bingo, aimed primarily at the female market.
“We spent a fortune on advertising,” Buckley explains. “But it was a punt that worked, and it became a huge thing just as the British population was latching on to the online world.
“By 2009 the company was making £12 million a year and the shareholders wanted to cash in, so we sold up to Party Gaming.”
Chairman of Gaming Realms PLC, listed on the AIM market in London, Buckley is still looking to expand his business interests in the online sector, building and licensing games, including Slingo, that are carried by the likes of William Hill, Ladbrokes and Coral in the UK, and DraftKings and Flutter in the US.
Buckley adds: “We also supply games to operators in Spain, Holland and Romania. Hopefully we can do more business with European countries and in the United States.”
One thing’s for certain – you wouldn’t bet against him making it happen.