The Breeders Cup’s Downton Abbey Connection: Highclere Racing Heads to Santa Anita

As many of America’s top horses succumb to injury and illness, the storybook connections and talent of England's Telescope could more than fill the void

I thought I heard a sigh run the length and breadth of the USA when the Breeders Cup withdrawal announcement flashed on Twitter last week for America’s favorite racehorse, seven-year-old gelding and two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan. And then it was Beholder who bowed out. Boom.

Will the surviving American stars like California Chrome, Tonalist, Untapable, Tapiture, and the undefeated Shared Belief be enough to keep people in front of televisions–or betting windows–for two days of championship racing on October 31 and November 1?

Thanks for asking, because here’s a horse from a ‘hood we all know well. Should he win the Breeders Cup Turf, it will be the stuff of fairy tales. Don’t be surprised if he steals some bets and some on-camera interviews, in the meantime, just on the strength of his home address.

Sometimes the best memories of Breeders Cups are made by horses whose names fans had never heard before. Will that be the case with Highclere Racing’s Telescope this year? The son of Galileo ships to California from Newmarket this week.

Meet Telescope, the Royal Ascot winner who once grazed in the shadow of Highclere Castle, setting for the PBS drama hit, Downton Abbey. A son of leading sire Galileo, Telescope’s name should elicit a chuckle or two, if people stop and think about it.

But it is more likely his “connections”, as they say in racing, who will impress when it comes to this horse. Among his owners is Sir Alex Ferguson, recently retired manager of Manchester United, the powerhouse British football franchise. How Ferguson and Telescope came together is one of those matchmaking formulas that keep Breeders Cup dreams alive.

“They met on the lawn at Highclere Castle, of course, on an October afternoon…”

It’s not Lady Mary’s latest romance described here, it’s the scintillating match-up of promising Thoroughbred yearlings and potential part-owners in syndicates.

Highclere Thoroughbred Racing is probably still celebrating as this story reaches its final stage. Today was an important event at the iconic estate where most of Downtown Abbey’s “upstairs” and exterior scenes are filmed. Out of sight of the film crews, paddocks and barns house some of Europe’s most valued racing prospects. You might call them a living portfolio of potential in international racing, with equally impressive pedigrees and investors.

How do you measure success? International Grade 1 racing stars such as Petrushka, Motivator and Harbinger began their careers on the Highclere lawn. Harbinger was the top-rated racehorse in the world in 2010. Breeders Cup alum Petrushka was ultimately sold to Darley Stud, owned by Sheikh Mohammed, for the record sum of $5.25 million.

How about this one? One of the Highclere yearlings glistens in the October sun. On the door of each stall, signage identifies the trainer and syndicate name for each yearling available to investors. (Highclere Thoroughbred Racing photo)

Today was the yearling parade. Described by phone, it sounds like an American speed dating game. The partnership is headed by the Honourable Harry Herbert, the second son of the 7th Earl of Carnarvon. Highclere is the Carnarvon family estate and Harry Herbert is just one of the horsemen in the family, but he is the mastermind behind the racing partnership. It was Harry who presided over the debut of the yearlings purchased at this year’s sales. Potential investors are grouped together into syndicates and, by day’s end, horses, investors, and trainers are tied together with a bow.

That’s how Telescope and Ferguson ended up together three years ago. Telescope went on to win at Ascot and York and has been first or second in major Group races consistently under trainer Sir Michael Stoute. 

How will you recognize Highclere’s Telescope among all the bay Thoroughbreds at Santa Anita next week? Just look for the horse with the martini glass between his eyes. He was a good investment; his investors include Sir Alex Ferguson.

Strolling the green lawns of the yearling barns is someone you’d more likely see at the Castle. Actor Hugh Bonneville, who plays the Earl of Grantham on Downton Abbey, is one of the many investors with Highclere Thoroughbred Racing. He has more than one reason to stop by the 5,000 acre estate: he may be reporting to work as an actor, or checking on one of his four-legged investments at the yearling farm. 

Actress Elizabeth Hurley has been another investor, as have British Olympic gold medalist Denise Lewis and celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal, among many others.

Actor Hugh Bonneville, shown here with Harry Herbert, invested in two promising yearlings yesterday at the 2014 Highclere yearling parade.
Downton Abbey star Hugh Bonneville, a.k.a. “The Earl of Grantham” shows up, even in the rain, to watch his horses run. Will his show ever mention racing, the most popular British sport of the 1920s?

Harry Herbert will be right at home at Santa Anita next week. This won’t be his first Breeders Cup; he was involved in American racing in the 1980s when the Breeders Cup was born, and Highclere runners have made trips to the US before. He even has an American passport, thanks to his Wyoming-bred mother, and this internationally-agile and influential leader in the racing world is equally at home on either side of the Atlantic, just as he is at ease with investors from so many backgrounds.

Highclere’s Harry Herbert, brother of the 7th Earl of Carnarvon, has a way of meeting up with his horses’ investors in the winning circles of the world’s best racetracks, including Royal Ascot, where Telescope won the Hardwicke Stakes this year.

Telescope will have an entourage of part-owners on hand to cheer for him, no doubt, but it will be Harry Herbert who leads the cheers and makes sure that the Highclere flag flies right side up, and high, during Telescope’s time at Santa Anita.

While the Downton Abbey connection might not be on Harry’s mind during the Breeders Cup, it could be the “hook” for publicity that gets his horse noticed in the week before the race. Publicity linked to Downton Abbey can set hearts and minds and social media fluttering about the way life at the racetrack should be. Used to be. And could be.

To see how it’s done, just watch Harry, who’ll be watching Telescope, who’ll be winning, if the 2014 Breeders Cup just follows Harry’s script and sticks to the formula that has worked for generations. It’s worked in fact just as it has in fiction.




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