Champagne Charlies hoping to toast further racing success
Two rugby league players and their agent formed the partnership in early 2016
One of the beauties of shared ownership is that syndicates or racing clubs can take on the kind of identity that lone individuals rarely can.
There are syndicates for serious investors and syndicates for those simply looking for a bit of fun. The pseudonym the members race under often says plenty about their outlook on the sport and their aims within it, and that is certainly the case when it comes to the Champagne Charlies. As owners they have already tasted success and are hungry for more, but are well aware that enjoyment and engagement are equally important parts of the experience.
The syndicate was formed in early-2016 by rugby league agent Craig Harrison, businessman Peter Taylor and professional rugby league players Luke Gale and Danny McGuire, and now has seven horses spread between three trainers, Mark Walford, Karl Burke and Bryan Smart.
Racing manager Paul Brierley entered the fold soon after the partnership began, and brought with him valuable experience of being both a paying member of a syndicate, and managing one.
“I started off in racing with shares in a horse called War Whoop with Lucinda Russell back in around 1996,” says Brierley. “He was no world-beater but when it’s your first winner you don’t forget it.”
He then went on to form his own syndicate Milnathort Racing, and through his association with Russell became jockeys agent to both Campbell Gillies and Peter Buchanan before being contacted by Harrison about accompanying him to the sales.
“Craig got in touch last January and asked if I fancied going to the sales just to have a look. We ended up coming home with two; Mountainside, who turned out to be a good flag bearer for us, and Allez Encore. From there we’ve kept expanding to the point that we now have seven horses.”
Brierley says that the involvement of England internationals Gale and McGuire, who have been joined in the syndicate by rugby league legend Jamie Peacock MBE, has helped to raise the profile of the Champagne Charlies. But he stresses that the trio are involved first and foremost because of their love of the sport, a point Gale is only too happy to reinforce.
“I’ve loved horse racing for a long time,” says the Castleford Tigers halfback, before detailing how he first became involved in the syndicate. “My agent suggested a few of us chuck a few quid in and go to the sales and get a horse, just to have a bit of fun with. I couldn’t make that sale but when I got out of training and rang Craig he told me he’d bought two! Once we advertised it on Twitter people started asking how they could join in and it’s just gone from there.”
Despite the glamour of a day at the races, Gale says the best part about being an owner is getting the opportunity to see behind the scenes of the career of a race horse.
“I love going to the gallops. Just last Saturday I went to watch our Harbour Watch two-year-old that’s with Mark Walford do her first piece of work, she went really well,” before adding that his rugby background has helped to give him a greater appreciation of the thoroughbred. “To be honest I’m a bit of an anorak, I love the breeding and going to the sales and looking at horses. I have a lot of admiration for how horses are trained as they’re serious athletes.
"They all have their own quirks, some more than others, but I definitely find it interesting looking at their different physical traits.”
Gale’s frequent visits to the sales ring have also led to an unlikely friendship with one of the biggest names in bloodstock, Roger O’Callaghan of Tally-Ho Stud.
“I met Roger at the breeze-ups last year,” he explains. “Craig got talking to him and he knew I played rugby so we got chatting and it went from there. We haven’t bought a horse from him yet but hopefully we can work with him in the future.
“I’m in contact with him quite a lot and went to Tally-Ho back in December. Roger knows the business inside out so I’m alway picking his brains. I pester him about horses and breeding and he does the same to me with rugby so it’s a good relationship we’ve got. He loves his rugby league, he’s a massive Wigan fan.”
The syndicate has a mix of Flat, jump and dual-purpose performers on its book, and with a couple of unexposed or unraced horses not far away from hitting the track, it’s members will be have high hopes they can add to the current tally of winners.
“We have Faulkwood, at one point he was entered in the Gimcrack so we think a bit of him,” says Gale. “He ran disappointingly on debut but then finished fourth in a decent York maiden. He’s in training with Karl Burke and we’re looking forward to getting him back on the track. We also have an Equiano filly we got from the breeze-ups that’s with Bryan Smart. I know Bryan thinks a fair bit of her so fingers crossed she can do it on the track.”
Brierley goes on to explain that the sourcing of stock has been a collaborative effort, an approach that runs right through the partnership.
“The thing about the Champagne Charlies is that it’s a team, it’s not about individuals. At the sales we each make our own shortlist and we work with the trainers until we have a final list of about a dozen, then it’s a case of bidding accordingly,” he says. “We started off with two horses but as more people joined up our finances became stronger so we went to the breeze-ups and then back to the yearling sales. The finances tell us when it’s time to go buying again, but I’m sure we’ll be present at the breeze-ups and the spring sales.”
So far all of the horses that have run for the syndicate have been bought from Goffs UK at Doncaster, which is a fitting approach for a group that has it’s roots firmly in the north.
“The guys selected trainers in Yorkshire as that’s where they’re from,” explains Brierley. “It was basically set up with the intention of getting the rugby lads involved but also businesses in Yorkshire as well. It’s not only about racing as there’s networking opportunities and a social side to the syndicate too.”
He adds that not only are there other benefits to being involved in ownership than simply watching a horse you have a stake in run, but that the costs involved with syndicates are often far less than people imagine.
“People don’t realise that when you’re in a partnership with like-minded individuals you’re not going to be overburdened financially,” he says. “We go from two and a half per cent to 100 per cent shares, which start from as little as £60.50 a month.”
While Gale comments that the down-to-earth nature of the Champagne Charlies, and the fact that the members know how to enjoy themselves, is what makes being involved in a syndicate such fun.
“The club is based around going to the races and having a good time, no matter who’s involved in the horse, and win lose or draw we enjoy ourselves and have a bit of craic,” he says. “It’s been great for me to get away from rugby but it’s become more than a hobby, I absolutely love being involved.”