Author: Howard Wright
WHAT WAS THAT about little acorns? Ah yes: ‘Mighty oaks from little acorns grow’ is the phrase. This is a story of how a single acorn grew into one of the mightiest oaks in the bloodstock forest. And it starts in a place and at a site that I don’t believe has been acknowledged for 45 years.
Let’s go back to 1975. Having left Timeform, my first employer in racing publications, in 1969, I was into my sixth season as racing correspondent of the Sheffield Morning Telegraph, a daily, Monday to Saturday newspaper, whose main circulation area covered South Yorkshire and North Derbyshire.
There was one racecourse on the patch, Doncaster, but several others such as Pontefract, York, Beverley and Market Rasen that frequent readers of the racing page would visit regularly, and there were half a dozen trainers occupying small stables that housed mainly below average horses.
It was not the most prolific area for instant news, yet I made it my business to know everything about racing that moved in the region. Any slight connection with the sport, which after all was a national pastime, was there to be teased out, and being there at the start of a career often had enormous benefits later.
Thus the son of a Barnsley miner who was riding as an amateur over jumps for Jenny Pitman blossomed into the Group One winning trainer Bryan Smart; a late evening phone call from a proud mother signalled the start of a career long involvement with an aspiring new trainer called Mark Tompkins, who was soon to taste Classic success, and a former jump jockey was found building his own stables, with his wife mixing the concrete, and became none other than Jack Berry.
This spirit of inquiry led me in June 1975 to a large brick building on a small industrial estate about a mile out of Doncaster town centre, where the sign over the main door referred to an ice making plant. Summer quickly disappeared once inside, and it became obvious that the ice was necessary because the main business was meat importing.
I was there to meet Ken Mackey, the managing director, but not to discuss ice making or meat packing. I was there because Mackey owned a 2yo called Music Boy, who had won his first four races, and I imagined there was a story to be told, if the owner was happy to tell it. He was. Mackey had been interested in racing for a while but Music Boy was his first horse, and he had not even registered his red, white and blue colours a year previously.
At the age of 54, he took up the reins like many a successful businessman before him, and since, as an outlet for a hobby. He was introduced to trainer Snowy Wainwright by a neighbour, former jockey Joe Sime, and at the 1974 Doncaster Yearling Sales, according to my subsequent Sheffield Morning Telegraph story, “There was one I saw immediately and liked.
Snowy said the yearling would probably fetch 4,000gns, but we bought him for 1,800. And that was how I came to buy my first horse, Music Boy.” It began a massive switch of circumstance for Wainwright, who a year earlier had been on the brink of giving up training in Malton because of failing economics.
As I wrote: “Last week Mackey and his associates became the owners of a 279 acre stud farm in Newmarket and Wainwright was persuaded to move out of Yorkshire. Later this year Wainwright will start training at Cheveley Park Stud. For this dramatic change of fortune, Wainwright can thank one horse, the four times winning 2yo Music Boy, and a group of businessmen headed by Mackey and his Londonbased associate.”
Explaining the case for expansion, Mackey told me: “Breeding horses had always been my interest, rather than racing them, but when we looked around the North for something, we were either outbid or nothing seemed suitable. Then in December, [Mackey’s London associate] rang me to say there was a very nice place in Newmarket, the Cheveley Park Stud, which was coming on the market and would I be interested in going into it with him.
I thought it over, said I would, and we put in a bid. We raised the bid later, and then last week came to know we had been successful and were the new owners.” Cheveley Park had been owned by the Stafford Smith family and run as a stud since 1942, and Mackey and his men were aware that mixing racing and breeding was a tricky cocktail.
“I realise that mares and horses in training don’t mix,” he told me, “but the stud can be split into two separate units, and from the advice we’ve had so far, I’m very hopeful it will be feasible to train horses without jeopardising the stud side. In this day and age it will be better for us to use all the facilities to the best advantage.”
Cheveley Park was indeed split into two units by its new owners, although Snowy Wainwright did not benefit for long. He moved to Newmarket but by December 1975, after one season, he decided to return to Yorkshire, leaving Brian Lunness, formerly head lad to Bruce Hobbs, to take over the yard, and Music Boy.
The colt who gave Mackey his first and greatest taste of ownership won five of his seven races as a 2yo, earning £28,000 from the initial outlay of 1,800gns, and although he failed to hit the same heights the following season, he still fulfilled Mackey’s secondary ambition. “If I had one wish in life,” he told me in that June 1975 interview, “it would be that Music Boy would one day stand at Cheveley Park.” He did, and who stood alongside Mackey to make that decision?
None other than his ‘London associate’, David Thompson, whose death at the end of December, aged 84, drew many accolades for developing Cheveley Park Stud into one of the world’s foremost breeding establishments, responsible for such as Pivotal, alongside a racing operation whose success has ranged from Classic winners Russian Rhythm and Confidential Lady to Grand National hero Party Politics.
Thompson, a hugely private person, left his family firm in 1968 to strike out on his own and began a portfolio of acquisitions that were eventually bundled into one company, Hillsdown Holdings, which shortly after its founder sold his final 14.5% share for £154m in 1989, was described as the UK’s largest egg packer, poultry and meat processor and producer of canned goods.
It was through Hillsdown Holdings that Thompson and Ken Mackey, the Doncaster ice maker and meat importer, became business associates. And it was through this association that Cheveley Park Stud began on the path that had led to today’s operation.