The international agent
Kimberley Priori on the annus mirabilis of Richard Brown
Checkmate. Holding court with Richard Brown is a leisurely game of chess. The writer has now managed to disarm the self-professed pokerface of the British bloodstock community. This is part of the strategy of lifting the lid, into the inner wirings of this overachiever.
Which chess move? An innocuous, albeit private gag I offer, to gauge his response. One that cannot be printed. Brown laughs, beams in fact. This strategy is working.
“We can’t go there. I’d get into a lot of trouble”.
‘Brownie’, as friends call him, is compelling in our discussion of an annus mirabilis. Talent spotter of this year’s Epsom Derby winner. FBA Bloodstock Agent of the Year. Willie Stephenson Memorial Trophy recipient. Ardad now technically a sire-of-sires, his son Perfect Power in berth at the choicest of Newmarket cradles.
We dissect sepia prints of father and son. These conformation shots reign all before the home office they survey. They are also the only photographs I intercept within the space. It shows how much they mean to Brown.
Those who have trodden sales complexes at a range of ilk, stand united in how correct this stallion gets them - if you know, you know.
I offer that it’s extremely hard to fault this horse or his stock. This is not fawning.
He swivels around and lock eyes with the portraits. A pregnant pause. He hones in on Perfect Power. “Yes, but he could have slightly shorter pasterns.”
“Add-aad” as is pronounced, achieved a feat with more first-crop juvenile winners by Royal Ascot, than any other British stallion. Only Acclamation of 2007 had ever yielded more. Opening odds of 20-1 in the betting market with Fitzdares preceding his freshman crop run, meant he really snuck up the inner.
Did Brown expect Ardad to frank his success in the breeding shed?
“My brief at that sale (Goffs Doncaster Breeze-Up) was to buy the two best horses. There were the two (shortlisted) Kodiacs and I just felt the second one (Ardad) had more scope, a better physical. Just a great-looking horse. I called Abdullah (Al Naboodah) and suggested we forget the first one, and let’s just buy the second one - and make sure we do - and that’s what we did.”
“I mean, it has to happen. So when he goes to Royal Ascot, and goes on and wins a Group 2, great. But the strength in the stallion part of his success? That caught everyone out.”
Brown has cherrypicked and shaped the careers of champions. He nurtures the aspirations of loyal patrons, in conjunction with his three partners at Blandford Bloodstock. Who influenced Brown’s own career arc?
Enter Joss Collins. The debonair whose hallmark colourful shirts distinguished him at sales complexes; his readiness to pass on the fabled eye for the blood horse, lives on in Richard.
“Joss was a second father to me. I met him through Minty (David Minton) and I’d shadow him at sales on my days off. He took me under his wing and sent me off on my education, to America and New Zealand.”
“David was a huge force in getting my career to where it is now. Before meeting Joss, I had ridden in point-to-points back home in Shropshire. Through the riding circuit is how I forged a relationship with Minty.”
Stints at Snailwell Stud and Furnace Mill Stud were a forerunner to his apprenticeship across the pond, under Wayne Sweezey at Darby Dan Farm and at the Schick family’s Windsor Park Stud in New Zealand.
Collins’ passing in 2004 meant Brown would assume second pillar at Blandford. The inner workings of the now quartet are curious. It’s easy to over-transact in this business.
Do they fall on the same horses? Do the domestic clients’ needs intersect with those of the colonial portion of their business? Global trade being more enmeshed than ever.
“Sometimes, but we all have pretty distinctive tastes. Stu Boman being from Australia, would have a slightly different eye. I’d say Tom (Biggs) and I share the same eye. ‘Biggsy’ started coming around with me, right through to him becoming a successful agent in his own right. Tom Goff and I have worked alongside each other since 2001, so yes. But it is four individual sets of eyes.”
There is then the pooling of ideas. It becomes immeasurably valuable when talking horse flesh.
“It’s an ever-moving piece. If you each buy three horses in a row with slack pasterns and they break down, you wouldn’t go back again. But I’ve had success with certain things I’ll forgive, as has Tom.”
Resale markets have enjoyed a reliably upward curve. The Never Say Die partnership, which purchases horses solely at breeze-up sales, centres around this business model. An investment syndicate, whose chief racetrack success has to be their French 1,000 Guineas heroine Teppal, is thriving on its seventh outing.
There is a tenet to keep things lean. A brace of ten investors and only ten shares, clients and existing friends handpicked by Brown. It lends a cachet to this circle.
“It’s my baby and I’m very protective of it. I’m its biggest shareholder. The other shareholders are super. If we closed it tomorrow, it will show a profit, something I’m very proud of.”
Those big trades that happen every two to three years, would give the group more platform with which to bat further.
“Resisting offers from Hong Kong in the winter for a million, a million two was hard with an investment syndicate (for Light Infantry). But we believed there was more juice in the tank. And he ran a blinder to place second in the Prix Jean Prat. Ciaron Maher approached us to buy fifty per cent before his run in the Prix Jacques Le Marois. He ran a blinder again, second to Inspiral and heads to the Golden Eagle. A favourite in a $10 million race and having money on the table, for him and for Adjourn, is just hugely exciting for the shareholders.”
The brainchild of Sheikh Rashid, the inaugural Goffs Dubai Breeze-Up sale in March this year was a moment of joy for Brown and his patrons.
“I’m a sales junkie, all sales, but I do particularly enjoy the breeze-ups. It’s an area where we’ve had a lot of success, and where we operate as a team with a lot of confidence.”
“I’ve worked for Sheikh Rashid, and his brothers, Sheikh Juma and Sheikh Hamed for over ten years. They’re tremendous to work with. Sheikh Rashid’s doing a superb job as chairman of the DRC (Dubai Racing Club). It was absolutely brilliant for year one. Real razzmatazz feel about it. Great trade. A lot of people there. Sheikh Mohammed visited; he supported the sale coming away with five or six; I bought two for Sheikh Rashid and one for Sheikh Hamed. We tried numerous others, but got beaten. He’s a real supporter of his own concept. I think it’s going to go from strength-to-strength - I really do.”
No initial sale presents itself without plight. Brown is adamant that once is all it takes to fine-tune the event and calibrate the type of horse catalogued, for true excellence.
“Look, the guys who sell these horses are some of the best brains in the business. I think there were a couple of horses that didn’t work, but it doesn’t take more than once. I think you’re going to see more American-bred horses, a bigger physical overall, and more of a dirt-type horse.”
Exclusively dirt or dirt-and-turf? “No, not solely dirt, but those were the horses that sold well. And they do appeal to that region. And of course there’s a place for European horses in that catalogue. I just feel that the sale overall is going to up in strength.”
As if to underscore the point, lot 29 of the sale has just rewarded owner Sheikh Hamed and selector Brown, around the time of this book going off-stone. Laafi, an athletic, freshman son of Cloth of Stars has won his juvenile maiden at the second time of asking.
A prophetic tangent is that the Golden Horn Maiden Stakes at Nottingham has been the rite of passage for two Derby winners, through its namesake - whose stud transfer Brown solicited earlier this year - and in Adayar.
Though a miler-plus prospect, his contours remind the writer somewhat of Ardad. Ample bone, the disgustingly good set of wheels. Workmanlike, with an honest eye. The victory underlines the very necessary place that the European grass horse has in this catalogue.
The conduct of the Dubai breeze-up was as inventive as its location. It was pleasing to see a style of breeze suit the type of horses on offer.
“A lot was made that they did a swinging canter, a strong canter rather than a flat-out gallop. It goes back to the way we used to judge breeze-ups.”
“I’ve been doing this for about twenty years. About ten of those were without times and the latter with. It really goes back to the old-fashioned way of watching how horses move and observing how they behave. There’s a huge market over there for horse lovers and racing enthusiasts. It has got a huge future.”
For those not in attendance. Can Brown offer a barometer for its tangible atmosphere?
“I was there in Florida when The Green Monkey sold for $16 million. I know Mandy Pope well. I was there when she purchased Havre de Grace for $10 million at Fasig, and I spent time with her at dinner after that purchase.”
Some context around that 2012 trade. Analysts were not only perplexed at the final bid going anywhere but the way of a regular big-hitter, ruler or conglomerate. It was the ferocious pace of bids dealt for Havre de Grace, accounting to a relative whisper of time - just over four minutes in total. She was considered a local objet d’art, the 2011 Horse of the Year whose retention in the US and for its breeding programme, drew relief for domestic powers of the Bluegrass state. Back to Newmarket.
“When Marsha sold for 6,000,000gns, it was silence. Her auctioneer (Simon Kerins) spoke so softly that all you could hear were her hooves. The ring was packed and you couldn’t move left or right. It was pure theatre. There have been some big moments in the last twenty years.”
A preface for those not in attendance.
It’s a sultry Dubai evening. The Meydan Hotel foyers are faintly perfumed by a pared-down Oud. The outdoor rostrum is framed by a floodlit skyline and a restless energy bouncing on the horizon, by refractional heatwaves from the day that preceded it, as if the atmosphere of a year’s anticipation has been compressed into this one night.
Glitterati of the major racing territories congregate in cool, tropical linen suits, crisp Windsor-knotted ties, cravats, Panamas. Ladies hold court sporting richly shaded A-line dresses and subtle headpieces, choicely paired jewellery with a nod to power dressing, Arab-style.
Vendors, in their extended stay who carried out the acclimatisation of the sixty-nine horses, have taken on the warming veil of a Gulf glow. The sheer thrill in having their prized horse’s wither clinched, their saunter assessed at leisure and coveted by the entourage of Dubai’s ruling family, has left stars in their eyes.
The atmosphere beats with a palpability of the history about to be made. Not merely another sale, rather a vision to be saluted into the calendar of the global Thoroughbred business. Brown’s story reaches a crescendo.
“I was sitting with a few friends waiting for the evening to start. And then Sheikh Mohammed walks in, when no one expects it. Full entourage. You could have heard a pin drop. Every single person at the tables turned around to check the screen. That was a cool sales ring moment. It turned into a bustle of excitement from the vendors. It was just an unforgettable moment.”
Brown’s foresight is decidedly upbeat regarding British shores.
“I think there’s a massive moment ahead of us, and that is the Tote. The World Pool is making a difference by how much they’re putting back into prize money. If people continue to bet on the Tote - even on non-World Pool days - if it continues in its upwards trajectory, there’s a very bright future for British racing. It’s extremely significant. We as professionals need to get behind this concept.”
Brokering essentially what are leisure products during the Lehman Brothers’ crash of 2008, has taught him about the rhythm for these things.
“I’ve traded through big highs, big lows. But it never ceases to amaze me - the hunger for horses. I’m pretty firm that the British and Irish Thoroughbred is the best in the world. You’re seeing this huge international participation across our major yearling sales. All corners of the world. Whilst there’ll inevitably be dips, the market seems robust. We also have a phenomenal product.”
What about the ‘bad’ horses? Or those in no man’s land - the ones you can’t settle on, nor assign to the A or B list. What happens once he switches off from a horse?
“I actually, even if I don’t like one, still take quite in-depth notes. I have boxes and boxes of old catalogues I’ll keep. I look back at my notes of all stakes winners sold at auction. That’s how you learn.”
Back to the much-beloved Collins. “I have a ratings system that I learnt from Joss. But the fact that I advised Saeed (Suhail) to go to 280,000 for a Nathaniel colt, probably tells you I’m more driven by dam performance and physical.”
“Nathaniel is a tremendous stallion. It’s just that his exploits on the racecourse haven’t been as respected as they ought to have been, for the breadth - and level - of success he’s generating with his progeny.”
“It’s all market-driven of course, but he cannot be overlooked as a stallion. Look what Desert Crown has done.”
“For me, he (Desert Crown) was about the most unfurnished horse walking around the paddock at Epsom. I think next year will really be his year. But as a yearling, he was then and is a top-quality physical.”
“Likewise with Dream Ahead. With Diktat, he was somewhere in Spain standing for about €2,000. But, there again, the mare was very good, proven, and the physical was certainly there.”
As one who prefers the physical catalogue over an iPad, I comment that some mentors have been known to draw pictures next to lots that won’t make the cut. A rabbit, a tugboat, a snail et cetera. A hieroglyphic or code, in case of becoming stranded in the back bar and into furtive hands. Not that anyone dare peer over Brown’s shoulder.
“I was at Keeneland about ten years ago. My very good friend, a pinhooker - who I won’t name - and I pulled out a yearling. My friend wrote in large letters, S.K.U.N.K. across this lad’s page.”
The fated vendor of this horse innocently asked for feedback later at the bar. “Hip 1033.” In that darling South American drawl, he squawked a response when the book opened: “Oh maaa Gaaawwwd. A skeeerrrrrnkkk. What could thaaaat mayyynn?!”
Epsom Derby winner, a stallion sensation whose first-crop son enters service for his own ascent of the stallion business, and two industry awards, inducted before the fraternity of a sport he delights in.
Not bad for the boy who got kicked out of school, aged sixteen. Checkmate.