Paul Dean’s 26-year journey as a racehorse owner will reach its zenith on Saturday when Sir Ron Priestley takes on the best staying three-year-olds in Europe in the St Leger at Doncaster.
The Classic has been on the agenda for Dean’s imposing colt since he captured the Group 3 March Stakes over 1m6f at Goodwood in August, when the son of Australia produced a powerful display of galloping to defeat Promissory by a length and a quarter.
For Dean, who first visited Town Moor as a 21-year-old for the 1961 St Leger, contesting the final British Classic with his own horse is something he could never have dreamed of happening.
“I went by coach to Doncaster and I watched Lester Piggott win [the 1961 St Leger] on Aurelius, who I had ten shillings on. That was unforgettable.
“Just to have a runner in the St Leger is the pinnacle of my racing career.”
Dean, a member of the Racehorse Owners Association, has always had a connection to racing. His mother, Grace, secured a Saturday job at the Tote and before long, Dean was working in the betting industry. He began working full-time with bookmaker Gus Demmy to learn the trade in betting shops.
In 1969, he branched out with his own shop and it was there he met the man who would come to have his own equine namesake many years later.
“One of my first punters in the shop was a chap called Ron Priestley,” said Dean. “He was a very funny man and he also took no prisoners.
“Just to have a runner in the St Leger is the pinnacle of my racing career”
“We were at a mutual friend’s funeral and I saw him again. I said, ‘I know you, don’t I? You used to come into my shops.’ I knew he loved racing, so I took him racing with me one day and he was in his element. He loved meeting the jockeys and we had some good fun together.
“Then he was diagnosed with a fatal illness and died two years ago. Before he died, I said to him, ‘Ronnie, let’s share a horse and you can name it’. He named it after his dog and his wife in that order. She was called Bonnie Arlene and she won two days after he had died.
“The next horse I bought I called Sir Ron Priestley. I do name my horses after close friends or the odd celebrity I have admired, and I usually give them my own kind of knighthood!”
Dean has a long association with Mark Johnston going back to 1993, when the bookmaker was searching for a trainer for his first horse. Having looked at the statistics, he arranged a meeting with the Middleham trainer at Tattersalls. From there, the pair have remained together as Johnston has climbed up the ranks.
His first horse was Deano’s Beeno, who won once and finished placed on several occasions on the Flat before he was sold, going on to distinguish himself as a top-class staying hurdler. Deano’s Beeno’s most memorable performance was a length defeat of the outstanding Baracouda in the Grade 1 Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot in 2002.
Dean said: “At the end of his Flat career I sold him to go hurdling. He was obviously always going to go hurdling. Martin Pipe took him, and he became a legend in his own right.
“Tony McCoy used to ride him, and he gets a big mention in McCoy’s autobiography. It was a bit like finding a fiver but losing a tenner, in that he went on to good heights in the jumps game.”
“Part of the thrill is to be up there with the likes of Coolmore and Juddmonte”
Over the years, Dean has owned a number of talented horses including the Group 2-winning Bouncing Bowdler, named after John Bowdler, a famous organist at the Blackpool Tower, and Listed scorer Sir Graham Wade.
Most years, he chooses a horse for himself that Johnston has secured from one of the many yearling sales.
“I wait until Mark has bought the yearlings,” explained Dean. “I go down there towards the end of October and they walk each one out for me. Mark tells me the pluses and minuses of each, and never pushes me in one direction. I then go home to weigh it all up and choose myself.”
This was the very process that allowed Dean to pick out Sir Ron Priestley and while he admits he is not a horseman when it comes to looking at thoroughbreds, it was the breeding of the colt that stood out to him.
Dean said: “I’ve always looked at the breeding and Australia was the newest kid on the block and all things considered that’s what I went for. It’s turned out to be a good bet.”
Attention now turns to Saturday’s St Leger and Dean admits that the prospect of contesting the Group 1 is “quite overwhelming”.
He continues: “I’d never have dreamt of ever having a runner in the St Leger. I’m not counting any chickens before they hatch of course, as I like to be a realist. There’ll be plenty of runners and as long as he’s not in the last six, I won’t be disappointed. Anything else is a bonus!
“Part of the thrill is to be up there with the likes of Coolmore and Juddmonte. Mr Gosden is an excellent trainer who is very well versed with horses and you can’t say anything bad about Aidan O’Brien. Full credit to both of them and to Mark as well.
“I think those three are the top trainers in Europe and it’s lovely to rub shoulders with them.”
Sir Ron Priestley will be ridden by regular partner Franny Norton, who at the age of 49 will be bidding for his first Group 1 triumph.
Eleven horses remain in the St Leger on Saturday, the market headed by the unbeaten Logician, representing the Enable connections of Khalid Abdullah and John Gosden.
Aidan O’Brien, successful in the previous two renewals with Kew Gardens and Capri, has six engaged including Sir Dragonet, who went off favourite for the Derby in which he finished fifth behind stablemate Anthony Van Dyck.