“I don’t think there’s a huge difference between the mental process of selecting a horse to back and selecting a stallion for your mare. There’s a lot of overlap in that thought process.” Andrew ‘Bert’ Black is reflecting on the similarities between betting and breeding having just finished giving the guided tour of his Chasemore Farm in Cobham.
It’s a crisp spring morning in March and many of the broodmares on the impressive 330-acre property have recently foaled, or are due to foal at any moment, providing an unmistakable air of optimism in the Surrey countryside.
For Black, who revolutionised betting in Britain by launching the Betfair exchange with Ed Wray in 2000, Chasemore Farm represents his love of the sport of horseracing, a serious investment in an age when the British owner-breeder is said to be in terminal decline.
The animals on the property – and their pedigrees – reflect a man who has always backed his own judgement in his business ventures. Fourteen years ago, before a horse had barely set foot on the farm, Black told this magazine that bloodlines on these shores were becoming “a little bit stale”, as he explained why he had invested in two filly foals by Japanese sire Deep Impact.
His natural inclination to think outside the box continues to this day as, sat with wife Jane in the stud office, he expands on his thoughts about breeding thoroughbreds.
“When you look at a mating, you picture it as preferring to have either a filly or a colt,” Black explains. “For me you want to have a filly that has a slightly distorted pedigree – that might be an outcross or inbred to an unusual animal.
“Most interesting mares have pedigrees that I consider to have a certain distortion that you are looking to correct with a good mating. So, you would almost look for that deliberate distortion.
“Look at Kenzadargent – she has almost no Northern Dancer in her at all. She is inbred to a couple of unusual horses in Kalamoun and Gay Mecene.
“We went to Japan years ago and bought two Deep Impacts and one by Kurofune. They have low numbers of inbreeding in Japan. I’m very conscious about inbreeding, looking at the way we breed.
“I’m more concerned about it not so much for individual horses but looking further into the future – it’s important to have variety in your gene pool. I don’t mind looking to other countries in order to get hold of that.”
He continues: “The most interesting observation I have made from breeding that impacts my thinking is from dogs. For example, if you want to have a Labradoodle, you have one parent that’s a Labrador and the other parent that’s a Poodle. Then you’ll have a consistent result because a certain number of genes will always come out one way for you. All Labradoodles look very similar.
“If, however, you mate two Labradoodles, then there’s a huge genetic variety to their paths – they could come out looking like a Labrador or a Poodle, and almost anything in between, because the dominant recessive relationship from the first mating is lost in subsequent matings.
“When you have horses that are very different, bringing them together you can get consistent results that you wouldn’t get if they were very similar to each other.”
The aforementioned Kenzadargent, a daughter of Kendargent out of the Epistolaire mare Quiza Bere, has had two runners so far and both are black- type performers.
Taipan, by Frankel, was sold for €500,000 at Arqana and has shown useful form over middle distance and staying trips while the Black-owned Brad The Brief, a Dutch Art gelding, is a Group 3-winning sprinter who remains in training aged five.
Kenzadargent was purchased for 210,000 guineas at Tattersalls in 2015 yet the sale ring is not the only route to securing a high-class broodmare. Baldovina, who established a legacy at Chasemore through her late daughter Ceiling Kitty, was picked up for just £17,000 after finishing third in a claiming race at Lingfield in 2007.
Ceiling Kitty, produced to a mating with Red Clubs, won the 2012 Group 2 Queen Mary Stakes at Royal Ascot and retired after her two-year-old season. Tragically she died foaling her third offspring, Arthur Kitt (by Camelot), who had to be resuscitated six times, yet amazingly he recovered from that shocking start to life and emulated his mother by triumphing at the royal meeting in the 2018 Chesham Stakes.
In leaving Chasemore with her daughters Eartha Kitt (Pivotal) and Formidable Kitt (Invincible Spirit), Ceiling Kitty will continue to influence the farm’s future and Black is aware how much luck can play a part in the fortunes – or otherwise – of a breeding outfit.
He says: “Baldovina, who we subsequently sold to King Power Racing [for £300,000], didn’t produce another Ceiling Kitty. We got very lucky. Ceiling Kitty had three foals, and they were all good.
“In my first year in breeding, when I was making the decisions myself
“In my first year in breeding, when I was making the decisions myself, I had three mares, two of which were Wall Of Sound and Ceiling Kitty. Both went on to become proper foundation mares for this stud. That’s when I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I don’t know how you make sense of that.
“I’ve spent a lot of money on more expensive animals that haven’t worked out. Yet so much of the success here came from a time when I was learning and didn’t know an awful lot.
“If we don’t have strong sales this place doesn’t work. It’s nice that we don’t have to prop Chasemore up now. I don’t want to pretend that we’re making fortunes but we’re turning a small profit.”
A semi-commercial operation, with the majority of the colts offered at auction – Eartha Kitt’s yearling colt by Kingman was purchased by Godolphin for 525,000gns at Book 1 last year – and the fillies retained for breeding, Chasemore is instigating a new strategy with some of its horses in training this season.
Black has co-owned Manor House Stables in Cheshire for over a decade, yet he is currently in the process of selling his stake to Michael Owen, with whom he campaigned a number of top horses, including Irish St Leger winner Brown Panther.
Owen recently took the decision to replace Tom Dascombe with Hugo Palmer, who has made the move north from Newmarket where he established a reputation as one of the best young trainers in the sport.
While he plans to keep a horse in training at Manor House for the foreseeable future, Black is keen to support his local training community and to that end has decided to send a couple of homebreds to the Epsom stables of Simon Dow and Jim Boyle.
“I want to keep having a relationship with Manor House Stables but not as an owner of the yard,” Black explains. “I’ll sell my half back to Michael at some point soon and have an agreement to do so. I’m still friendly with Michael – I’ve always got on very well with him. But it doesn’t really work for us because it’s too far away.
We have reached out to Epsom
“We have reached out to Epsom. We know the town is not the force it was. It hasn’t had the same level of support [as other training centres] and some of the facilities are a bit run down, which is a problem. We have been part of a campaign to get reinvestment in some of those facilities, such as the gallops, and to try and get the Jockey Club to up its game. Those conversations have been very positive.
“I have sent three-year-old gelding Woe Betide [Siyouni-Kenzadargent] to Simon Dow and a two-year-old colt [Le Havre-Clotilde] to Jim Boyle. They could be anything. We’re trying to be part of something, although the concern about Epsom is the quality of animal is not what you would want it to be. So we are sending a few of our nicer animals to be trained there.
“We think Epsom has a natural community and we want to be more closely involved and supportive of that. Ultimately the facilities must receive investment for us to send more horses there – we have sent two in the hope that will bolster the argument for improvement”
That sense of wanting to be part of a community extends to the working practices at Chasemore Farm itself. When Paul Coombe departed as general manager in 2018, it was decided not to replace him. Instead, Black and Jane took on additional responsibilities, aided by stud vet Pat Sells and farm manager Jack Conroy.
Black says: “All our staff members carry a card on them referencing the values of the stud: integrity, professionalism and community. It was a big reorganisation after Paul left and we became much more focussed on organisational structure, safety and HR.
“It sounds like a trendy mission statement, but we really believe it. If at any stage anybody does anything inconsistent with our values, then it gets raised at a board meeting.
We believe that a stud should be a place of peace and harmony.
“For a long time, the farm was a little bit military, an autocratic regime almost. Orders were barked down. It creates efficiency but not good karma. We believe that a stud should be a place of peace and harmony.
“We want to train the staff and bring them on so when they leave here, they’re better qualified for bigger jobs. The shift into community thinking was an effort to try and make this place calmer and happier. A lot of studs and training operations are not like that – I don’t knock it and lots of people are comfortable in that regimented environment.”
Jane, who has just completed her Thoroughbred Horseracing Industries MBA from the University of Liverpool, explains: “Sometimes your employees are new to the area, often coming from overseas, so you do have a duty of care to your staff.
“I was a lawyer previously and I’ve always been interested in the employment angle. My dissertation was on employee retention in breeding. Training yards struggle to retain staff but so do studs.
“The main issue it seems is the working pattern and achieving a happy work-life balance. Staff here work one weekend in three – we want to make Chasemore Farm a pleasant place to work as it helps in attracting the right calibre of staff.”
Aside from the staffing crisis, British racing faces a number of challenges, including the perennial debate about poor prize-money, which continues to see a ‘talent drain’ as foreign buyers pick off the choicest youngstock at the sales plus assorted horses in training.
Black understands only too well the mindset of the owner who receives an offer they cannot refuse – his talented homebred Uncle Bryn, formerly with John Gosden, is now stabled in Melbourne with Trent Busuttin and Natalie Young, having sold a 50 per cent share in the Sea The Stars gelding to Seymour Bloodstock.
He says: “Australian racing has so much money. The situation doesn’t seem to have an obvious resolution – there simply isn’t enough money here. You can’t apply the same economic rationale to racing in the UK as you do in Australia.
“An international audience is what you need at the sales, which is a positive, but more horses are leaving these shores and we don’t want to see any further erosion of the product. We’ve got to push forward, and I believe we need more support from the government.
Inevitability change needs to occur
“Inevitability change needs to occur and we will need to move away a little from our history and adapt to the 21st century. We need to have people at the head of the game who really empathise with the sport and are forward-looking.
“If our only plan is to sit here looking at our history, desperately trying to preserve it all costs, we’ll have a hard landing. Maybe we have too many small racecourses and races. We must embrace economic reality, whatever that means.”
The ongoing Gambling Act Review is another bone of contention for Black. Echoing the view of ROA President Charlie Parker in this month’s Leader column, he feels that imposing restrictions on an individual’s right to wager would be a concerning development for a sport that relies on betting turnover to fund the levy system.
“I’m a little worried about the affordability checks,” he explains. “Racing needs betting to generate revenue and the numbers are falling, more sharply than I’ve seen before. It’s because people are fed up with the affordability checks. The impact is starting to hit. If at some point the levy money starts to fall it will have a huge impact across the whole industry.
“Maintaining gambling turnover where it’s always been and keeping racing’s percentage up is a challenge. People have also voiced concerns about the rise of the black market – I don’t know if that’s true.
“Joe Saumarez Smith will take over as Chair at the BHA and it’s an interesting appointment. I believe that racing needs to be as commercial as possible. For a while we have not been focused on the commercial aspects and I hope Joe as Chairman will shift that axis back because to me it’s mostly about money.”
Finances aside, it’s foals, pedigrees and runners – plus the odd game of bridge, as he continues to represent England in tournaments around the world – that mainly occupies the thoughts of Chasemore Farm’s founder, who is sticking to a strict healthcare regime following a period of ill health, much to the relief of Jane and their four children.
“I suffered a heart attack at Christmas – it was the best thing that could have happened to me,” Black explains. “I didn’t have either the resolution or discipline to lose the weight that I needed to shift. I’ve lost three and a half stone in two months. That’s a big difference to me physically. It was absolutely a wake-up call.
“If you’re running a stud where it’s all about keeping the animals healthy and getting the feed and exercise right, yet you’re not looking after yourself, that’s not a very good sign. It’s been interesting to impose the sort of discipline on myself that we impose on my horses.”