25 Mar John Dance: Living the dream with Laurens
Pic: Racing Post. FIVE years ago, John Dance decided to dip his toe into the waters of racehorse ownership. The investment expert, founder of Newcastle-based stockbroker Vertem Asset Management, admits he has become a little “carried away” and is now one of the biggest owners in the north. He goes into the Flat turf season with a genuine chance of Classic glory with Laurens and an enviable string of thoroughbreds. Here John talks to Racing Up North about his hopes and dreams for the new season…
John, how many horses do you own going into the new Flat turf season?
We have 51 at present, which is considerably more than we wanted, but we got carried away buying yearlings last year and didn’t really get the chance to move on as many as we’d hoped either. We’ll have to be a bit more clinical sending horses to the sales this year.
Which trainers have you got horses with?
We have horses with Karl Burke, Jedd O’Keefe, James Bethell, Rebecca Menzies, Richard Fahey, Alistair Whillans, Tom Dascombe, Keith Dalgleish and Hugo Palmer.
How and why did you get into racehorse ownership?
I’ve always been a horse racing fan and follower. We started off by sponsoring races at Newcastle but before long we also wanted to be on the receiving end of the prize-giving rather than just the giving. The joy and thrill it clearly gave some owners was clear to see and it progressed from there really. A toe in the water five years ago has spiralled massively you could say.
Laurens really put you on the map last season by winning the Group One Fillies’ Mile by a whisker. In an ideal world, how do you see her season panning out?
It’s no secret that both Karl and ourselves have always had an eye on the French Oaks [Prix De Diane], not just because Laurens qualifies for French premiums but more because we always felt that particularly as a three-year-old that was likely to be her optimum trip and it is obviously the only major European classic over the distance (10 furlongs). Prior to that it’s quite likely but certainly not a given that we will start in the 1000 Guineas at Newmarket. We won’t rush her for it or take any chances, but having a horse worthy of a British Classic option could easily be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us. Where we go after those races will no doubt depend on what we learn about her ideal trip from them, but there is no end of dreams that could develop thinking about races from a mile to a mile and a quarter.
How much did she cost? And what was it that drew you to her?
She cost £220,000. It’s a ridiculous amount of money, but at that yearling sale at Doncaster (Goffs) she just had the X factor for Jess (my wife) and I, and also for our agent Dan Creighton who spotted her for us and had also already fallen in love with her. With hindsight she was clearly a bargain, but I must admit in the following days I had a touch of buyers’ remorse, thinking that there was very little upside on such a lofty price. Our plan had really been to buy reasonably priced horses and hopefully sell a few on to help fund the overall operation. However, as soon as I saw her again a week later, I knew it was money well spent, she always had this aura about her that oozed class. Thankfully she’s subsequently proved she was worth every penny and justified the faith in her, though so much credit has to go to Karl Burke, his daughter Lucy (her regular work rider) and PJ McDonald, they have all done an amazing job bringing her along.
There is a bit more of a story behind buying her. I had gone through the yearling catalogue identifying pedigrees that I was potentially interested in. I’d identified a few already and then noticed a French horse, already named Laurens. My youngest daughter is called Lauren and so I circled the lot number as it would have been silly not to have a look at the horse, especially as it was by Siyouni of whom I held in high regard. Dan Creighton had gone to Doncaster early for ‘first looks’ and rang me in the evening, the first thing he said was that he had just seen by far the nicest horse in the whole sale, she was gorgeous. He told me the lot number (376) and I flicked through the book to find it and, lo and behold, it’s the already named Laurens. I suppose it was already fate at that point but as soon as Jess and I saw her we were in total agreement, she was stunning and as the aforementioned price would testify, we had to have her.
If she wins another Group One, will you be doing your customary celebratory dance? Or have you got something new up your sleeve?
The customary dance was very impromptu originally. Shortly after the photo was awarded her way when she won the May Hill Stakes, I found myself totally alone in the parade ring (as everyone else had rushed to corners to watch replays) and I had already pre-emptively celebrated with Karl. An ITV camera was close up pointing at me and I was a little shell-shocked. I had nobody near me to talk to or even ‘fake talk’ to, so as to look relaxed or pretend I hadn’t noticed the camera. I was literally frozen but in my head I bizarrely remembered my best friend tagging me on social media on a video of an exuberant owner’s celebration and demanding I did likewise one day. With this in my head I suggested to the cameraman that he ought to go elsewhere or I might do something stupid, so naturally he gets closer. Despite having never done a “Robot” in my life I somehow broke out into a very poorly executed version of one. It has taken on a life of its own since. When we subsequently won a race at Newcastle the course staff asked if I would do it on the podium for a Twitter video and then whilst we were away in Dubai and Beatbox Rhythm won a Fast Track Qualifier (also at Newcastle) the course staff then filmed themselves doing it in our absence. I tried to introduce a different (also badly executed) move at Newmarket after the Fillies’ mile and whilst that made it on to ITV, it wasn’t much of a surprise when Matt Chapman requested the now customary Robot. I think I need to work on my skills in that respect for this year, whether it’s a Classic win or a Class 6, I suspect the requests will continue to come.
A dark horse to follow
Could you give our readers a “dark horse” to keep on the right side of for the new season?
I’m sure we haven’t seen the best of Valdolobo yet, a back end of the season two year old. He was beaten in a photo on debut at Haydock by Hugo Palmer’s White Mocha, who subsequently went on to prove he is a very good horse and even retains a 2000 Guineas entry. He’s a big horse with a lot of scope and next time out he potentially fell victim to a further growth spurt, he travelled like a dream but fell to pieces when asked for his effort. PJ felt he had just gone very weak, probably a result of having grown more in the six weeks since his debut and so we tucked him away for the winter, He looks great now and although Karl and I haven’t talked much about him so far this year he is one I’d be hopeful of for 2018.
Flat racing in the north appears in good shape especially with the success of Richard Fahey, Mark Johnston, David O’Meara, and of course, Karl Burke. Plus there are a lot of other upwardly mobile smaller yards. Is that fair comment?
Yes I would 100% agree, Richard and Mark having been proving themselves as being every bit as good as any big trainer in the country, David O’Meara has joined them recently as another successful trainer and what can I say about Karl Burke? The guy is just a genius, Laurens was clearly expensive but look at what he has achieved recently with more modestly priced horses such as Quiet Reflection, Toocoolforschool, Havana Grey, Unfortunately and many many more. Even when they are in training he sees things in horses that others don’t (including those that are riding them) and he knows how to get that magic out of them. But as you say there are a number of smaller yards that are punching above their weight and could easily be not that small much longer, I think there is a lot of talent around.
Is there anything in particular the racing authorities could do to support northern racing?
In so many ways, in both Flat and National Hunt, many of which are often brought up. Personally my main one would be that I would like to see more middle tier races (handicaps and conditions stakes) moved up north and more lower grade handicaps moved down south. We recently looked for a fillies’ 0-80 up to 0-90 race, 7 of the 8 between March and June inclusive were down south. I’d make those soft southerners travel up here more often 🙂
What’s your favourite racecourse in the north and why?
This is such a tough question, there are so many likeable courses but for different reasons, whether that’s because they are impressive (York), quaint (Musselburgh), a nice track (Redcar) or for owners (Wetherby and Ayr). I think my overall favourite would however have to be Musselburgh, it’s a lovely place to be on a sunny day and I really hope the current difficulties can be overcome.
Away from work, how do you unwind? (Apart from watching your horses win Group Ones).
Mainly due to work, especially of late, I find very little time to unwind but I have always been a DJ in one way or another and when I find a moment I still enjoy escaping to the very unused gym/mancave at home to have a little mix on the decks. Having started off in the vinyl era and breaking my back lugging ton weights of tracks around, it’s taken a while to get used to digital decks and the fact that I can stick a weekend’s worth of tracks on a memory stick and pop it in my wallet!
Which race is your ultimate ambition to win?
I have slightly less-than-obvious ambitions that I would like to achieve one day, such as the Gimcrack or Musidora at York along with the Burradon Stakes on Good Friday at Newcastle, although for now I’d happily take the Two Year Old Fillies conditions race on the same day there. My ultimate ambition though would be to win a Guineas (1000 or 2000) as I have always seen the mile as the perfect combination of speed and endurance and thus is my favourite distance. Rightly or wrongly I see the Guineas as the prime mile events, I can’t see us ever really winning one though…….or can I? 🙂
You’re a Newcastle United fan. Is Rafa going to take you down? And how frustrating do you find the ownership situation.
Hopefully in recent games we have done enough to give ourselves a more confident chance of staying up. I feel for Rafa, he has been given many false assurances and bum steers by the owner and even if we stayed up I couldn’t blame him for leaving, it would be a shame for the fans but he deserves better, I suppose we all do. The current situation is ridiculous, I haven’t believed any takeover approach as being genuine, all more likely engineered situations to flush out a real bidder, but he’s asking for too much either way, and the club’s value is going down due to continual under investment.