13 February 2005

One of racing’s newest and most passionate owners tells Brough Scott why he is more than happy to keep pumping millions into the sport.

Cricketer Andrew Flintoff was the big attraction at Carlisle races on Wednesday, a huge, beaming, tanned presence hobbling around on crutches and enjoying a new flirtation with the Turf.

But also there, small, smiling but unobtrusively confident, was the man whose love affair with racing is already one of the greatest romances the old game has ever seen. Meet Graham Wylie.

He and his wife Andrea got their first horse, Lord Transcend, only three years ago. They now have 85, he has spent a good £4million and having cashed well over £100million when in 2003 he left Sage Software, which he co-founded when still a Newcastle student 20 years before, he is utterly unafraid about spending more.

This is love; jump racing can’t believe it. Back in Crook, Co Durham, trainer Howard Johnson scratches his grey head as he tries to keep canny control of the explosion of new barns and state-of-the-art exercise rings. At Carlisle, all we lovers want to shake Wylie’s hand.

But hold on a minute. Isn’t love always blind? Haven’t we seen all this before? Self-made millionaire falls for the racing buzz, has a meteoric start only to fizzle out in frustration as expensive horses turn out to be slow horses and new friends turn out to be false ones.

The miner’s son from Whitley Bay takes the question sipping tea after watching two of his less talented purchases trail in miles behind in the first. “I am very new,” he says, “but I am learning. We want to do it properly. We are in it for the long term – and for enjoyment.”

He is warm but not soft, and even in the jostle and joshing of the paddock bar there is something quietly organised about him. Every now and then he will step aside to take the mobile phone. First it is his wife Andrea, who runs her own health spa and beauty business but asks about the horses. There is Howard Johnson back home amid the resurfacing of the new yard that morning. And there are the other calls which see the Blackberry e-mail gatherer come out of the pocket.

At 45, Wylie CBE, hailed as `Tyneside’s first billionaire’ at the height of the techno boom, has a lot of business in him yet. This time it is TSG, an IT solutions group he started in the North-East with 12 people in the autumn of 2003 and who now employ some 400 as they rapidly spread across the country. “I am not hands-on like the first time,” he says, “but I learnt to delegate quite early and we are making very good progress.”

There’s no boasting but a very exact recall of detail, a remembering of names which comes with him to the racetrack, the old guy on the gate, the boy leading his horse round in the next.

Diamond Sal is favourite. She is a tall mare who cost a six-figure sum when bought from another stable in the autumn. Two hurdles out she looks the winner but up the long squelchy Carlisle run-in, the dark and light chocolate Wylie silks are always just getting the worst of it. Beaten favourite but no curses. “That’s a good run,” Wylie said as he hurried down and listened attentively as jockey Graham Lee gave his usual eloquent debrief.

Lee, who was to be victim of a last-fence collarbone break at Wincanton next day, was aboard Lord Transcend and hurdler Inglis Drever at Haydock last month for what was the Wylies’ biggest day of their already 22-winner season. He was also the jockey when Lord Transcend won on the same course two years ago. At that stage the grey was still the only horse in the Wylie name. But he beat top stayer Deano’s Beeno in a long pitch battle up the straight. It was his fourth consecutive win. And this time his owner was really hooked.

“When he won that day I realised that I had totally fell in love with it,” Wylie said. “I knew I wanted more of this. Everyone had made me so welcome from the start but at Haydock, the crowd, the atmosphere and the excitement up the straight. Yes, that was the deciding day. I was leaving Sage. I told Howard I wanted to buy some good horses. It has gone well and I am having a ball.”

The enthusiasm is infectious, the goodwill palpable, but these are huge sums and racing can hole big enough to hurt the deepest pocket. Eighty horses will devour some £1.5million annually in training costs alone. Wylie has been used to taking high-kicking questions from fast-bowling financial journalists and doesn’t duck this one.

“I am not afraid of the costs,” he said with disarming directness, “for they only represent a very small part of my wealth. We are in this for the pleasure, not just of seeing the horses run, but of being at the stables, planning their careers, seeing it through. At the moment,” he concluded, “we have a good team of hurdlers, the likes of Inglis Drever, Iron Man and Arcalis [who was third at Newbury yesterday]. Next year we want to build a good team of steeplechasers as well as a team on the Flat. We have 44 for the Flat this season and they will either come on for hurdling or maybe be sold for profit like Abraxas Antelope who was third in the Gimcrack last August.”

It had been damp and windy that morning in Co Durham. Grey Abbey, the Howard Johnson stable’s white hope for either the Gold Cup or Grand National, was out on solo road work up the lane, the trainer was checking new stars such as last year’s Derby fourth Percussionist and showing off the new barn which will greet 27 fresh two-year-olds from Ireland this month.

Over the hill is the new farm which he and Wylie are developing as a stud. What was once a Coal Board farm in the wild days of Johnson’s youth is now a 1200-acre holding aiming for the top. It will not be easy. The road ahead will have its fill of disappointments. The route to Carlisle takes you over the very top of the Pennines. On the way there is an old lead mining museum at a place called Killhope.

For Graham Wylie and Howard Johnson, it is not a name that fits.

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