1 February 2004

Sir Alex Ferguson and John Magnier four summers ago seemed to be a match made in sporting heaven

It was enough to put a song in the heart, even the horse beneath me was called Glyndebourne. It was Ballydoyle, the golden heart of the Coolmore racing empire one late May morning just four summers back. In the car, his flushed face intoxicated by the sights and sounds of that heady Tipperary landscape laid on by Coolmore’s mastermind John Magnier and their ubiquitous mutual friend, Mike Dillon, was Sir Alex Ferguson. How ironic that the song should now be Everyone loses when friends fall out.

It had seemed a friendship made in some sporting heaven. Ferguson, the driven football man relishing the different world but the shared search for excellence which sets Coolmore and Ballydoyle apart. John Magnier, the shy but all-powerful breeding and business genius happy to welcome such a winner to his circle. They shared Oscar Wilde’s definition of “very simple tastes” in that they were “always satisfied with the very best.”

They were destined to link up once it became known that Ferguson was seeking relaxation in the racing game. “I need a hobby away from football,” he had said, “something I can get involved in, something my wife Cathy can share.” We were eating club sandwiches on the hotel terrace looking down towards where Rome lay resplendent in the autumn light. He was on a busman’s holiday to see England’s World Cup qualifier that October weekend in 1997. He was friendly, kind and clearly very keen on racing. “What do you know about the two o’clock at Huntingdon?” he said.

Total ignorance in this quarter did not dissuade him from pursuing the punt. That evening, before the happiest of meals in one of those glorious piazzas of the Eternal City, he had come across, eyes blazing with triumph, squeezed the arm, and said: “It won, and at 7-2.” The born winner was getting his kicks on the racetrack too.

The dinner, my own trip, and probably the Huntingdon bet, were organised by the tall, bespectacled, black moustachioed father confessor that is Mike Dillon. Up until then, he had only been known publicly as ambassador on earth to the mighty Ladbrokes betting operation. Privately he had long done infinitely more than lay the odds. Without ever divulging the secrets of his confessional, and what a best seller that would be, he put people who needed each other together, arranged travel, helped the unfortunate, and oiled the wheels of many divergent elements in the racing game.

We joked about Ferguson’s enthusiasm. Dillon dismissed suggestions it should be stretched into owning racehorses. “Oh no,” said Mike with an unwitting prescience he and the rest of us have come to rue, “I have told him he is much better just following it and having his bets. Having horses will be a lot of hassle and will only lead to trouble.”

Such warnings were long forgotten when Alex turned up at Newmarket next spring to see his newly registered scarlet colours carried for the first time on a racetrack. The horse was a Jack Berry-trained two-year-old called Queensland Star, named with true Ferguson clanship after one of the biggest vessels his father had built in the Clyde shipyard. The new owner was so welcome he even had a sponsor who held a press conference beforehand. Queensland Star started favourite and stuck on as gallantly as any United player in extra-time. He duly won again at Chester and ran on both Derby Day and at Royal Ascot. Ferguson and racing – could there be a happier match?

For a long while it did not seem so. There was Candleriggs, who won twice with Ed Dunlop, a successful steeplechaser called Yankie Lord, a talented colt named Chinatown in partnership with Hong Kong maestro Ivan Allen, who ended with Sir Michael Stoute. Alex became a popular visitor, always happy to talk racing as an escape from the pressure cooker of Old Trafford. Enjoying the strange quasi-democracy of the Turf, where he like monarchs, magnates and music maestros, would be reduced to epithets like “the guy with the red colours who has a runner in the fifth”.

Dillon would keep me posted on our friend’s latest racing adventure. One day he told me how he had taken Alex to see Aidan O’Brien at Ballydoyle, how thrilled the young trainer and all his staff had been to have the great man around the place, how absorbed Alex was by Aidan’s minute attention to detail as he brought his four-legged players to big-match pitch. I said that Ferguson would be joining the Coolmore team in no time. “Not yet,” said Dillon, “John says he wants to wait until he is sure he has a horse to suit.”

Just “John”, just the Christian name, the ultimate mark of respect, affection and fear, all three of which John Magnier commands in inordinate amounts, although not always from the same people. The Ferguson-Rock of Gibraltar dispute has brought to the wider world what the racing and bloodstock globe has known for some time. That this is the biggest, hardest, and coolest hitter of them all. If the `Coolmore Mafia’ is the derogatory term with which envious rivals brand his coterie, there is no doubt who the `Godfather’ is. Magnier is the ultimate example of generous, if demanding employer, loyal friend, ruthless competitor and, as Alex Ferguson is discovering, formidable foe.

In his own circle he is every bit as much of an Alpha male as Ferguson is in his. Watching Magnier over the years deciding on seven-figure bids at the yearling sales has been to see a broodingly intense, if slightly quieter, reflection of the gum-chewing manager in the dug-out about to make a substitution; the acolytes looking back for guidance, the `big man’ making the final decision. The core of the current ever-escalating row is that Alpha Male Ferguson has thought that he can outstare Alpha Male Magnier over the stallion fee arrangements that Magnier had offered him over Rock of Gibraltar.

It is understood that while Rock of Gibraltar was officially registered as owned in partnership between Ferguson and Magnier’s wife, Sue, so that he could carry the Ferguson silks, he was in fact what might be described as a `celebrity loan’ and in 2001 Ferguson was offered the choice of either five per cent of any prize money or two covering rights at stud – one in the northern hemisphere and one in the southern. Ferguson reportedly opted for the breeding rights. For a man who was already a millionaire, it seemed a reasonable bet, and when the horse took off towards greatness in 2002 it seemed even better. That is if you accept that two breeding rights were all that was on offer.

Exactly who said what to whom is officially destined for m’learned friends, although it would seem very much in both parties’ interests to avoid going on the stand, the arcane nature of bloodstock deals being every bit as complicated and open to discussion as football transfers.

Sometime in 2002, there was a blurring of the details of the deal. Dillon was even quoted as saying that Ferguson had paid £120,000 for half ownership of the horse at the start. But everyone was having an increasingly good time.

Just for once the Coolmore operation did not make things clear and when Rock of Gibraltar finally retired with superstar status Ferguson believed he was entitled to far more than just two breeding rights, which with north and southern hemisphere coverings already amounted to more than £100,000 a year. In an increasingly heated row, it is understood that Magnier doubled the offer. Ferguson, used to forcing his way, rejected it and came back with a demand for all his future breeding rights up front, in effect a multi-million pound lump sum. Events suggest he has chosen the wrong man. Magnier and Coolmore are very bad people to cross.

The Coolmore empire now stretches way beyond Ballydoyle and the adjoining Irish stud from which they take their name. There is Coolmore USA and Coolmore Australia, where last year Rock of Gibraltar served 130 mares at a cool $A132,000 a time after doing the same thing to another hundred ladies in Ireland for stud earnings of over £13.8 million. In scope and commercial acumen there is nothing to match Coolmore on the planet. All over the world they have mares, foals, yearlings, and horses in training who they buy, sell, breed and race, always with an eye for excellence and for profit. They have several multi-millionaire investors but everything reverts back to the unique instinct that Magnier has for how the bloodstock market will develop and his brilliant and often uncompromising methods of getting his way.

He has had it from the start. Back in the early Seventies he was a quiet, rather intense young Irishman staying at jockey Tommy Stack’s draughty farmhouse near York. “You should come in with John and me with a couple of broodmares,” said Tommy generously, “John has a real touch for it you know.” It has been a matter of profound financial regret to watch the young Magnier go upwards towards the stratosphere, teaming with Robert Sangster and his own father-in-law, Vincent O’Brien, to make bloodstock a major international commodity and himself into the most powerful player in the game.

Today, although the tastes and the locations are rather more expensive than was on offer in Stack’s house. John is still publicly reticent. You can count the interviews given on one hand and it is strictly through lawyers and judiciously-placed `sources’ that he has conducted the Ferguson campaign. There are fine paintings on the walls of his homes, which include a beach house in Barbados where he and the legendary Irish gambler J P McManus are partners in the rejuvenated Sandy Lane Hotel along with that other shamrock heavyweight Dermot Desmond.

McManus is also quiet, but he is happy to come on TV for interviews about his legions of jump horses – triple champion hurdler Istabraq was his star – which he conducts in a simple friendly country-boy persona somewhat at odds with the money world he now inhabits and in which he has joined Magnier in the business vehicle Cubic Expressions. McManus has a box at the Cheltenham Festival where he is a hospitable, if teetotal, host. Ferguson seemed to be getting very lucky with his friends.

They began to buy shares in Manchester United. There was even talk of them launching a takeover and Ferguson retiring from management to join the board. Come the summer of 1999 and Magnier had a horse for Alex Ferguson. It was a two-year-old called Zentsov Street, ran second at Leopardstown, won at Newmarket in September and finished third there a month later in the prestigious Dewhurst Stakes before being sold on to America. The exact details of any financial arrangements were never disclosed, but it seemed easy to assume this was much more a goodwill than business venture for all concerned, and when Rock of Gibraltar came on the scene in July 2001, the goodwill cup was soon overflowing.

In August the colt carried the Ferguson silks to win the historic Gimcrack Stakes at York, and after running second at Doncaster, embarked on an unprecedented seven consecutive Group One wins which only ended with an unlucky second in the Breeders’ Cup at Arlington in November 2002. He was the best horse in Europe. A resplendent Fergie was pictured leading Rock of Gibraltar in at Longchamp, Ascot and all points west. He accepted trophies, gave interviews and, crucially, spoke eagerly of “next year’s stud fees.”

Somehow, somewhere this was either overlooked or not acted upon, and the exact expectations not clarified. Somehow Ferguson’s team had forgotten racing’s oldest adage that it is not enough to look a gift horse in the mouth, it is necessary to listen very carefully to what its owner has to say. Everything that has followed, the “you must be joking” claims and counter claims, stems from this misunderstanding. What had begun as friendship was now a bitterly-disputed business deal.

Poor Mike Dillon has been torn in two but has reverted back to the Coolmore camp. Racing, which had thought he had brokered that promotional marriage made in heaven, is staring at a divorce ever rising in acrimony.

So as the rest of the world looks on by turns appalled and gleefully fascinated by the meltdown of the Ferguson-Magnier quarrel, those of us who were there that Tipperary morning can only shake our heads wistfully and wonder at the morality tale of the gift horse that showed just what friends should not be for.

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