Kimberley Priori meets a new kind of bloodstock investor, Hong Kong-based Marc Chan
Who needs stats anyway?
“I’m a big believer in spontaneity when it comes to the horse business.” Jamie McCalmont reflects on a merit-filled association with his friend and eminent client-owner, Mr. Marc Chan.
“Would this mare suit a Galileo better? I have a quieter mare, is this a better fit for a hotter stallion? Is this the right colour for a Dark Angel? People get far too technical about it all nowadays.”
The moth-grey shade of Angel Bleu as a youngster may well have thrown off some agents. Constrictions that many modern agents face such as not being a true-breeding bay, not made in the sire’s mould or whether or not they are ‘low enough to the ground like their sire’, et cetera.
“Why would his colour put me off?!” A rose-grey with shades of chestnut. McCalmont smiles. “He was a real moth-grey as a yearling. I’ve nothing against colour, or greys for that matter. My grandfather owned The Tetrarch. He is responsible for the grey horses alive today.”
History is thematic with McCalmont and Chan in particular. It was back in 2021 that Michael Tabor, upon the place of pedigrees, offered that “in life, there are two things you can’t beat: history and experience.” All the anecdotes in the world will never usurp proven genetic patterns.
Some recent outlays identify strains of interest; A Too Darn Hot whose third dam is Miesque is a Niarchos family is on the radar. The More Than Ready foal secured in Kentucky last year by McCalmont’s assistant Kelsey Lupo, out of a Street Boss mare. This inbreeding to Hail To Reason, the sire of Halo, is a line they follow closely. Bolt d’Oro the sire of Bold Discovery stirs excitement, third in a Group race on Champions Day at Leopardstown and “a horse for next year.” The arc of Machiavellian in there, through the son of Street Cry, Machiavellian himself out of a mare by Halo…
A strategist, Chan keeps tabs on Japanese pedigrees, the belief of their mutual suitabilities to the firm Hong Kong going. A select band of mares are to be entertained by Japanese stallions in time.
“But he doesn’t give me a brief, or a set budget or number.” Though the busy venture capitalist, who McCalmont describes as “seriously cool, mixed with a bit of California tech guy”, Chan is a present owner whose sharpness has not gone unnoticed by his camp.
McCalmont’s initial agency for Chan was advising the signing for Prix du Jockey Club-second, The Summit – a belter of a first horse for a new client – the mark of confidence was set when Peslier declared he would voluntarily pilot the Wootton Bassett colt in the French Derby.
New Mandate’s acquisition was not a linear process. As the first horse Marc sent to Ralph Beckett, he would preface the purchase of Kinross, upon the trainer’s express recommendation. But Jamie illustrates: ”This is where Marc is really smart.”
There is a distinct emotional intelligence to Chan. Almost a mentoring quality. His words to Jamie were that “I know that you were disappointed not to get the horse - I know you wanted that horse.”
Without compromising the finer details in print, the agent explains that Chan counters with a strategy to secure the horse. “We would make contingencies based on a set of results, in order to discount what we would have originally paid and re-negotiate the deal.”
It was a smarter-than-smart business pivot that secured them the son of sire du jour New Bay.
But the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Chan is honourable enough to acknowledge the agent, trainer and jockey axis.
A lithe pair of legs can now be seen trotting down the subterranean steps of McCalmont’s Newmarket pied-à-terre. Before the face appears, first glance would have thought this was a spotter, darting in to drop off an iPad or a sales docket, as the curtain drops on the nearby Autumn HIT sale. It is instead Chan’s good friend and catalyst of the whole association. Lanfranco Dettori enters the room. He greets us, opens the fridge and produces a bottle of Pol Roger, the town shampoo.
The process of acquiring Lezoo is the spontaneity Jamie speaks of. It was his first-time ever at public bloodstock auction, on account of friendly invitation by the agent, as Chan solicited wine dealings in the neighbouring terroir.
“There was a fairytale quality to that meeting in Deauville, meeting Andrew (Rosen) for the first time and then coming away with Lezoo the same day.” There is the spontaneity again.
“I have to give Marc credit for the Zoustar. Believe me. He immediately connected with that filly.”
On presentation by the consignor of three from their draft, tradition dictates the Hong Kong-based investor would have interviewed either colt first. Chan instead makes a marked beeline for the filly.
“He’s intelligent and he likes seeing the animal. He will go up to any horse at the sale and look them right in the eye. What people don’t know is that she (Lezoo) shows nothing at home and brings her A-game, when out racing. Except for that one second, she hasn’t really been beaten.”
McCalmont has now dealt a knowing smile at her pilot from across the kitchen island. “Well, not yet…”
Dettori throws a middle finger at the agent, and the pair cackle. The repartee is boyish and fun, as if back in California years ago when they rode track work together. No wonder the ownership journey through McCalmont is so intoxicating. Charming and glossy, he is upfront and full of unprintable jokes. Frankie tops up my glass and we peruse the legalisation of gambling in other areas of Asia.
Marc is a new breed of informed owner. Transacting with vendors. Gleaning the information. Having a presence appeals deeply to Chan. “I’m glad I decided to go to the sale. They are incredible animals. To look back at the Asian dynasties, most if not all of the greatest rulers had horses. You could shoot a bow-and-arrow, but if you did not have a horse and could not ride, you would not succeed.”
The average time-poor businessman would readily have exited mid-breeze to jet off for work obligations, croissant to-go and a half-thumbed Jour de Galop. But Chan is different. Disruptive to the norm.
“He arrived on the Tuesday night, (of the Arqana May sale), we looked at horses all the way through from inspection on the Wednesday, the breeze on Thursday to the sale the day after.”
McCalmont encourages his owner’s participation. The breeze-up sale with its extra layers of data to base buying decisions facilitates this, Deauville’s flat and fair track still exposing weaknesses to help sort the wheat from the chaff.
“Actually, they have the time, they can watch the horse move. With youngstock, all the owner has a say in is the pedigree. At the two-year-old sales, they can watch any horse move, react and say ‘do you know what? I really like that one’, and decide for themselves.”
There is a distinct emotional intelligence to Chan. Almost a mentoring quality. His words to Jamie were that “I know that you were disappointed not to get the horse - I know you wanted that horse.
I’ve been lucky with investing (through biotech). But it’s similar in that you’re taking something from the bottom line and building it up. The idea of risk versus reward
All that is audible are the bubbles of the Pol Roger, when we turn to the bay window. A parking attendant slaps a yellow one on the windscreen of the Italian’s supercar.
Dettori darts up the steps like a whippet, meanders around and through the gate, appealing to a scholarly figure. A few moments pass. The phone rings with Dettori’s allocated ringtone, the loudspeaker delivers: “I got away with it!!!!!” A jubilant eruption of laughter follows. Back to Chan.
All passion markets have risk attached. There additionally comes a set of external influences on their value. Wine being dependent on meteorological patterns and soil quality. Fine art by a given number of units and from lobbying by the auction houses themselves. But horse flesh is entirely a force of its own, the lofty clearance rates and average indices in the pandemic year of 2021 across sales in Europe, America and Japan are enough corroboration.
There is then the continual volatility of markups in value, for export prospects within the horses-in-training market segment. But the most long-term of the sectors, breeding stock returns have long-signalled that buyers will stake in aggressively - and exorbitantly- for something they perceive to be aspirational, a collector’s item. Risk very much thrown in.
How does the Thoroughbred business compare, in his eye, to other investment lines?
“Horses are very similar to venture capital.”
“I’ve been lucky with investing (through biotech). But it’s similar in that you’re taking something from the bottom line and building it up. The idea of risk versus reward. There is an inordinate amount of risk to having (young)stock.” This implies he draws much reward.
“Growing wine is similar to raising horses. You need the best grass and terrain to raise the best Thoroughbred.”
“When I ventured outside of Hong Kong, I learnt a lot through Jamie, talking to breeders, vendors, pinhookers and that the more you know, the less you know. Over there, they don’t invest at large, they stake in by owning the horse and then they are retired. When I came to the sales, I observed the trading angle that we don’t have back home– and realised like venture capital, it was fun.”
The dearth of fillies in Hong Kong can only have compelled him to the distaff and the breeding side at large. Its region is not set up to cope with an overstock, other than its current runners. It is instead the expressly ideal aftermarket for geldings, of an ilk and model for that particularly taxing ground.
Are we seeing a shift across Asia, from that box we put them in as the horses-in-training importers, to now participating at the most embryonic level? Enter the Asian owner-breeder?
“It’s a symbol of prosperity to have a horse in training, per se, in Hong Kong. It’s not about investment, the drive around horses over there is more about the participation of being an owner.”
The motivation stops there for those in the city state. “You need not go further and become a breeder somewhere else. Having a horse in-training is in itself a symbol of success over there.”
That isn’t why Chan is doing this though. It’s deeper than that.
“If you like golf, the pinnacle is St. Andrews. Golfers make their pilgrimage there. For me the pinnacle is Royal Ascot. Goodwood. York. The variety of these tracks. In Hong Kong, it’s the same layout everywhere, but the British tracks are so unique and they make it more fascinating to work out the outcome.”
Our FaceTime takes its wrap. Chan extends his thanks for our call and wishes me a safe drive back to Newmarket. He reads as cerebral, switched on, deeply informed, honourable and honoured, with a faint dash of California tech guy. Chan is an overwhelmingly cool guy. He departs our FaceTime with yet another fan from this region of the world.
No wonder Lezoo wanted to make her owner proud at headquarters that day.