“I’ve decided that I’d like to breed a Derby winner,” explains Emma Banks towards the end of our socially distanced chat, conducted on a bench in a small park near her south London home. “Which is so simple because no-one else wants to do that, right?”
The words might appear tongue-in- cheek but then maybe not. Banks is not a woman who does anything by halves. Just a few days later the owner’s star racehorse and future broodmare, Lady Bowthorpe, produces the run of her life to chase home brilliant miler Palace Pier in the Group 1 Lockinge Stakes at Newbury. The dream is well and truly alive.
For Banks, identifying and nurturing talent, equine and human, is her modus operandi. The music agent extraordinaire, Co-Head of Creative Artists Agency’s London office, has spent more than three decades working with some of the biggest names in the business, from Kylie Minogue to Florence and the Machine and Katy Perry.
The impact of Covid-19 caused havoc in the hospitality and entertainment sectors and live music was one of the earliest casualties of the worldwide restrictions on movement. The impressive roster of artists at CAA, which employed 2,000 people globally and was valued at £200 million before the pandemic, may have been confined to home like everyone else but that doesn’t mean Banks has been idle for the last 14 months. Far from it.
“A colleague told me we have all been busy fools,” Banks says. “The last 14 months have been frustrating, sad, and worrying at times, because there were moments when you didn’t really see a way out.
“We’ve been making plans for tours and gigs the whole way through the pandemic. We had to move events that had already been scheduled, which was challenging. There was a huge amount of work to do when you didn’t really know what was going on.
“I’ve had tours that were supposed to take place in May 2021 moved to May this year – at the time people said it was ridiculous to delay by so long. Those tours have now been rescheduled for May 2022. Hopefully we’ll be looking good by then – in fact I’ll be very disappointed if we don’t see live shows with significant audiences from July and August onwards.
“The vaccines have been a game-changer. You have to say well done to the scientists. We all hoped they’d get us out of this – and they have.
“I love horseracing, while music has been the thing that I’ve done for the past 30 years. Lots of people in racing were moaning about how terrible it all was but at least the sport has been able to continue, and money has been coming in because it’s on the television. If you are a musician or work in a theatre there’s been nothing.”
Growing up within a farming family of Luton Town fans in the market town of Sandy in Bedfordshire, Banks pestered her father, a successful grain merchant, for a pony and Popeye duly arrived when she was ten years old.
Her connection to the sport of kings came via her uncle, Michael Banks, who trained National Hunt horses successfully under permit for many years, and her grandfather, Sidney Banks, an owner who has a race named after him at Huntingdon, the scene of many Banks family outings over the years.
Banks explains: “I’ve always loved horses – I wanted to be a vet at one point. My uncle, Michael Banks, was very horsey and trained, and my grandfather, Sidney Banks, had horses with the legendary George Todd.
“I went to university and did a degree in Food Science, then after leaving university I moved to London and got a job in the music industry. It wasn’t that I didn’t love horses any more, but I couldn’t accommodate them in my world at the time.
“My time became taken up by work and a lot of travelling – I’m a workaholic – so I didn’t have anything to do with horses for quite a while. Then my father suggested I should buy a racehorse. I dismissed him originally but slowly I came round to the idea.”
It was a visit to Goodwood that convinced Banks she had to take the step into ownership. Invited to a special lunch at the track for women in business, she discovered that her aunt, Michael’s wife Rosalind, had a horse running that day, trained by William Jarvis.
She picks up the story: “I went into the paddock and it was like being backstage at a gig – you’re in the know. It was a lot of fun and I had a great day.
“That was in July 2014 – Glorious Goodwood – and I thought after that I would like to buy a racehorse. So, uncle Michael and William [Jarvis] went to the horses-in-training sales and called me when I was in New York to say that had found one for me. My first question was, ‘What colour is it?’ I was told he was grey, so I bought him! That’s how I ended up with Lackaday, my first ever winner – though I was in the Philippines at the time.”
“At least the sport has been able to continue, and money has been coming in because it’s on the television”
If Banks’s initial approach to buying thoroughbreds sounds somewhat amateurish, it has been replaced by considerable thought and strategy. Former trainer James Toller, who handled the career of Classic winner Bachelor Duke, has been enlisted to the help on the buying front, with considerable success.
Mrs Gallagher, a wonderfully fast daughter of Oasis Dream purchased for 140,000 guineas at Tattersalls’ Book 1 Yearling Sale in 2016, captured Listed prizes at Bath and Naas before retiring to the paddocks at the end of the three- year-old season.
The aforementioned Lady Bowthorpe, secured for 82,000 guineas at Book 2 in 2017, has soared even higher, taking the Group 2 Dahlia Stakes at Newmarket in early May, exhibiting her terrific turn of foot, before finding only Palace Pier too good in the Lockinge.
Older geldings Wimpole Hall and Arigato are no less loved for plying their trade in middle-of-the-road handicaps but it is fillies in which Banks sees the future for her racing operation, which also includes Code Name Lise and Brandisova on the jumping front, following the exploits of talented hurdler The White Mouse, now retired.
“I struggle with the idea of removing testicles [from racehorses] so I generally buy fillies,” Banks says. “I can see a life for a filly that I don’t see for a gelding. They hopefully have some residual value too.
“I’ve told myself that I’d like to breed my own good horses. I’m not very good at being peripheral about it. It’s all or nothing. Now I look at studs for sale!
“Mrs Gallagher – she is a fantastic girl, she just looks at the boys and it happens! – has a yearling filly by Dark Angel and a Starspangledbanner colt foal. She is in foal to Frankel. I rarely sell anything so right now my plan is to keep the filly. We’ll see about the colt. The Frankel will have to go to the sales.
“The White Mouse is in foal to Nathaniel while Illuzzi is in foal to Advertise.”
Mention of Illuzzi shows how the rollercoaster ride of racehorse ownership can change literally overnight. This daughter of Kodiac, who produced three underwhelming efforts on the racecourse, saw her half-brother Lusail produce a sparkling debut at York in May, looking very much a horse to follow for the rest of the season. If he secures black type, it will only enhance the value of Illuzzi and her progeny.
Banks says: “You don’t get into something like this and expect to win all the time. I expect to lose so when I’m associated with a winner it’s really special.
“The first yearling I ever bought had to be put down. He had cysts and the vets said he would never be right. It hasn’t all gone well and there have been some expensive disappointments along the way.
“Lady Bowthorpe has also had her problems. Unless you’ve arranged to speak to your trainer, when you get a phone call before 8am, it’s never, ever good news. I had that call when Wimpole Hall fractured his pelvis. He recovered. And I had that call when Lady B fractured her leg.
“She’s got five screws in there. That’s why she didn’t race much at three. We took our time – and that’s the key with horses. Sometimes you have to be really patient.”
“I went into the paddock and it was like being backstage at a gig – you’re in the know. It was a lot of fun”
Banks’s patience with Lady Bowthorpe is now paying off and shows the benefit of treating each horse as an individual. It’s an approach she employs in her day job as a music agent to great effect.
She explains: “I look after some incredible artists with a team of people. My role predominantly is to figure out where they are going to play, when they will play that venue, will there be festivals or headline shows. There’s strategy involved, like plotting a horse’s career.
“If you have horse that’s fragile you don’t run it too often and it’s the same with some artists. Some thrive on touring and working and the more gigs you give them, the happier they are. There are others that cannot work like that and have other stuff going on.”
Jeff Buckley, the son of singer-songwriter Tim Buckley who Banks worked with in the 1990s, left behind a solitary and much-lauded album, Grace, before his untimely death aged 30 with the world at his feet.
“When you don’t see someone’s full potential because they leave us too soon you don’t know how things would have turned out,” Banks says.
“I keep all my tour laminates, boxes and boxes of them, and when I moved house about ten years ago, I kept finding more and more Jeff Buckley ones, all from different tours. He worked really hard for the short amount of time he was around. There was a fragility but also a strength and toughness to him.
“Jeff could easily have been one of the biggest artists in the world. But that’s not necessarily what he wanted. The first time we met he told me he didn’t ever want to play an arena. So I booked him some ludicrously small gigs, which he loved. As an agent to artistic people, you need to listen to what they want.”
The 2021 Lady Bowthorpe tour will continue and likely take in the venues of Royal Ascot, possibly for the Duke of Cambridge Stakes, and the Qatar Goodwood Festival for the Nassau Stakes, which would see the daughter of Nathaniel step up to a mile and a quarter for the first time.
Further black type – and a Group 1 strike – would be the icing on the cake, while the better prize-money would also be welcomed after a year in which purses have been greatly reduced by racecourses that have struggled financially without paying customers.
“You don’t get into something like this and expect to win all the time. I expect to lose so when I’m associated with a winner it’s really special”
“The prize-money has been absolutely rubbish,” Banks exclaims. “It does piss me off that I have a really good horse when the prize-money is worse than it has been for a long time.
“However, I write it all off. Any prize-money for me is a bonus. I spend what I can afford to spend without expecting any kind of return.”
She continues: “The majority of owners never have a horse in a Group race, let alone win one. It’s a positive because it adds value to her and the babies she has. But the prize-money is not an incentive.
“You look at the money in Ireland, France and America and I totally understand why people move their horses abroad. But I love going to stroke them and if they were in another country then I couldn’t do that. I love my horses and I like to know them as individuals.
“When the horses are on holiday or not racing they go to my cousin’s, where uncle Michael trained, which is close to my parents. I’ve done evening stables on Christmas day, mucking out my own horses, and I love it! I get to know them better and hang out in the field with them.
“It is an emotional sport. William Jarvis tells me not to get emotionally involved but I can’t help it.”