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Dance pulling some smart moves as he makes investments pay

Martin Stevens meets the charismatic owner of Laurens

A jubilant John Dance (left) with trainer Karl Burke, retained jockey PJ McDonald and Laurens and her groom Lucy Burke
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Having treated TV viewers, and appalled wife Jess, by performing the robot after Laurens won the May Hill Stakes last month, owner John Dance pulled out a new move – a sort of knee swivel? – after the apple of his eye took Group 1 honours in the Fillies' Mile at Newmarket on Friday.

Laurens is now firmly in the frame for next year's Classics, while Dance's growingly familiar white silks with maroon and purple striped sleeves were carried to victory by three other winners this week – by Beatbox Rhythm in a competitive nursery at York, Fool For You in a novice stakes at Catterick and Landing Night in a Newcastle handicap.

News exclusive: Dance set to purchase noted British stud

At this rate, Dance will have to hire a choreographer for all the new celebratory routines he'll need in future. And isn't that joie de vivre refreshing in the Flat sphere, where winning a race worth hundreds of thousands of pounds is so often greeted by owners with little more than a fleeting smile of satisfaction?

But a sense of humour should not be confused with superficiality, and behind those exuberant celebrations lies a whip-smart business brain and carefully thought out plans to make racehorse ownership pay.

A background in finance

Dance, 42, founded Vertem Asset Management in 2010 after cutting his teeth in finance with the northern England-based investment firm Wise Speke and then working in the City for international banks such as Merrill Lynch and ABN Amro, before returning north to work for Brewin Dolphin, who had acquired Wise Speke in the late 1990s.

“We've been operating with clients for seven years,” says Dance in the boardroom of the Vertem offices in Newcastle, where he employs 20 staff. “To start with it was quite slow, we were undershooting expectations, and then it absolutely snowballed. Now we manage three and a half or four times as many investments I dreamt we would. We're talking of takeovers – it's ridiculous.

Laurens (right), a £220,000 yearling buy, sees off all-comers to win the Fillies' Mile

“Actually, one of the international insurance giants approached us to see if they could buy part of our business. I never expected that. It's been a crazy journey.”

Tyneside is a long way from the Square Mile, the financial centre of Britain, but that, insists Dance, is a blessing for Vertem.

“We try to use what people might perceive to be a disadvantage to our advantage,” he says. “When I worked in London it didn't matter wherever you went, everyone you socialised with was in the industry one way or another. Whereas here, we talk about football and racing.

“When everyone in London only ever talks about markets, you can't help but be affected by the herd mentality. When everyone is positive about the market, you feel you have to be. Here we feel we're away from what we call 'the noise', so we can be very clear in our thinking and not get seduced by what the mass market thinks is going to happen.”

It was while in London that Dance became engrossed by racing.

“The trading floors are stereotypical – we were booting footballs across pitch-sized desks, it wasn't a particularly PC environment – and there were all sorts of screens showing market information, news and sport,” he says. “Traders will always find a sport somewhere in the world they can spread bet on and when it came to racing o'clock each afternoon, any day of the week, we'd turn our attentions to that.

“It got to the extent that even in the lower-grade races you'd become familiar with some of the horses and remember those that had been unlucky and follow them in their next races. The finance industry is very analytical, so it lends itself well to form study – looking at quality and not the absolute result.”

Getting into ownership

What converted Dance from enthusiast to owner was an edifying experience supporting his local track: after Vertem sponsored races at Newcastle and he handed out trophies to jubilant owners, he decided he wanted a piece of the action.

“After I'd done a few prize-givings as sponsor and seen the joy on people's faces, I started hankering after it a little bit,” he says. “What it meant to some people was just unbelievable. So I said to Jess, I'd love to get a five per cent interest in a horse. I did a little research, went to a yard and six weeks later we had six horses. It's spiralled further out of control since then.”

Quite how the toe-dipping has turned into total immersion in the sport is illustrated by the size of Dance's string: 31 horses in training, 22 broodmares and 27 yearlings bought this year, although going harder at the sales means "the end of season clear-out might be more dramatic than we first thought".

The sharp increase in quantity is not, however, completely by accident and is rather reflective of a finance guru's approach: minimising risk by spreading it, and diversifying the portfolio of investments.

Dance says: “We never really meant to have 30 or 40 horses a year – but you get a bit addicted to it and we did think that if we had ten or 20 coming into training each year, as unraced, unproven horses, there's a chance you could find an impressive winner that you can sell on for enough money that will subsidise the fact that 80 per cent of what you have is rated 50 or 60 and has very little value.

"If you can keep recycling that year after year, then there's the chance you might find a Laurens.”

John Dance (centre) with Dan Creighton and wife Jess after signing for Laurens in the Goffs UK ring

Purchases – including Laurens for £220,000 as a yearling at Doncaster – have been made with Dan Creighton and Josh Schwartz of Salcey Forest Stud, with agent Ed Sackville joining the team more recently to give a valued outside opinion.

Crack team of assistants

“Dan is my bloodstock manager and is responsible for both buying the racing and breeding stock and also mating plans and guidance,” Dance explains. “It's fantastic that in such a short period of time he has already unearthed a Group 1 winner as a yearling.

“As in any healthy working relationship, we don’t agree on everything and as a result we also work closely with Ed for additional experience and opinion. More often than not he confirms Dan’s opinion versus my own, but occasionally it also confirms my opinion versus Dan’s and lets me know that not all my ideas and thoughts are crazy!

“It would be very rare that they would both think one thing and I still went against them, but we've got where we are by being a bit different and just because something is tradition it doesn’t mean it's right.”

A different approach

Being a bit different: just as Dance is able to take a different approach to the financial markets away from the hubbub of London, so as a newcomer to racing and breeding he sees the industry through an unprejudiced pair of eyes.

“Alongside the obvious value of a horse’s pedigree Dan and I have a scoring system for rating horses physically that we use to influence whether we're interested in a horse at the sales, and how much we're willing to pay for it,” he says. “Buying horses is quite subjective but our process is very much like that of my business Vertem, subjectively influenced within a quantitative framework.

“Having recently looked at the yearlings we've purchased this year solely on that process, I believe next season will prove it to be a very effective system. At our level of the market we wouldn't get anywhere just throwing more money at the sales; we need to play smarter in the overall buying and breeding strategy.”

Among Dance's yearling purchases this season that his retained rider PJ McDonald can look forward to getting a leg up on are a Lope De Vega half-sister to Anjaal bought for 155,000gns and another filly by Laurens' outstanding young sire Siyouni from the Fillies' Mile heroine's vendor, Coulonces Sales, acquired for 120,000gns.

McDonald is more than just a jockey to Dance; he's an integral cog in his growing racing operation. “We're dependent on him,” the owner says, “because his feedback on where's the best place to send a horse, how much time to give a horse, which ones need selling, is an important part of us recycling the stock correctly.

"We've got a lot of horses with a lot of trainers and we need to make sure we have horses going for the right race. There might be a few trainers that want to enter horses in the same race. When you've got a constant, he can tell us which one to send.”

Hoping to turn a profit

Dance's roster of trainers next year will comprise Karl Burke – of course, having nurtured the career of Laurens – James Bethell, Keith Dalgleish, Tom Dascombe, Richard Fahey, Rebecca Menzies, Jedd O'Keeffe and Hugo Palmer.

Should any uncover another high-class talent for Dance, though, there is no guarantee that next one will not be sold.

The sentimental value attached to the oil painting-attractive Laurens is priceless: she is a first Group 1 winner for Dance, whose youngest daughter is called Lauren (the filly had already been named by her breeder: that's kismet), as well as a first Group 1 winner for friend and colleague McDonald, so will likely become a foundation broodmare.

But if another filly comes along who shows the talent Laurens has, the financier's relish for a profitable investment would kick in.

“If we had another May Hill Stakes winner next year, I'd be licking my lips hoping for a knockout offer,” says Dance. “There's been a few tentative enquiries for Laurens but I think everyone knows it would take really silly money for me to sell for those sentimental reasons.”

So Dance has a strong broodmare band taking shape, ambitious plans to source more stars and a crack team of assistants to help him achieve that. He'd better start preparing more dance moves; perhaps, with Laurens given a long-range target of the Prix de Diane, it will be worth brushing up on the can-can over the winter.

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If we had another May Hill Stakes winner next year, I'd be licking my lips hoping for a knockout offer
E.W. Terms