To say John Dance got a little carried away when starting out as a racehorse owner is the understatement of understatements. Intending to buy a 5% share in one horse, he instead bought six outright! That was in 2014, and considerably more have followed.
At the time of speaking he’d had 57 runners in his own name, with ten yet to make the track, including six juveniles. He has 31 in training plus 22 broodmares, 27 yearlings and 11 foals.
The star of his team is Group 1-winning juvenile Laurens, who, excitingly, should make an even better three-year-old, as a “big, rangy, longstriding filly”, and no Classic in any of Britain, Ireland and France is off the table for now.
It was as a teenager, and after he began working, that Dance, “an analyst by profession and nature”, got into racing.
“I was interested in the form analysis side of racing,” says Dance. “I have been for 20-odd years, and over that period I fell in love with the sport.”
Sponsoring races saw Dance on one side of the presentation ceremony, but the joy and pride of those he was handing over prizes to had him hankering to change sides. So he did.
Dance is now in his fourth season as an owner, and believes it very important to stick to his principles when it comes to buying and selling – he prefers to discover a horse’s ability quickly, and will move him or her on if he deems it necessary.
In his young stock he sells the colts in order to run the operation along commercial lines. He admits, though, that can really be only a subsidising measure, with making a profit unrealistic.
Dance has seven or eight trainers at any one time, and admits that coordinating things can be tricky.
“If you take your foot off the gas you can find you’ve got four horses entered in the same race!” says Dance, who is based near Whitley Bay and therefore has most of his horses trained in the main North Yorkshire centres of Middleham and Malton, although he also uses Tom Dascombe in Cheshire, Hugo Palmer in Newmarket and Keith Dalgleish in Lanarkshire, where he has yet to visit.
The development of unbroken horses into two-year-olds and their subsequent progress is an aspect of the ownership experience that Dance takes particular pleasure from, while he also prefers the continuity and consistency that comes from using a regular jockey.
“We retain PJ McDonald, which has worked out very well,” says Dance.
“When you’ve a number of horses in different yards, it is helpful that PJ can get to know them at home from when they are youngsters. He’s probably the most vital cog in the whole operation, and his feedback is brilliant.
“He’s forged a good relationship with Karl Burke, Laurens’ trainer, and Karl is a brilliant analyst himself. We also sponsor two apprentices, Clifford Lee and Rowan Scott, and they have both had a good year too.”
The highlight of 2017 was Laurens’ victory in the Fillies’ Mile at Newmarket – although even better could follow in 2018.
Her owner says: “At the start of the season winning a Group 3 would have been the dream, but for her to win a Group 2 and then a Group 1, that was seriously amazing, and a day I’ll never forget.
“It was PJ’s first Group 1 winner too, which was great; there was an almost selfish pride in being behind that. Everyone was a winner.”
Laurens being a winner again in 2018 is hopefully just a question of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’, and Dance has plenty to dream about. “The thought at the moment is that ten furlongs could be her optimum trip, and the French Oaks could be the right Classic to aim at, though we’ll have a better idea when she is back in the spring as to whether she’s a ten-furlong filly who has the speed to go back to a mile, or the stamina to step up to a mile and a half,” he says.
“Although it pains me to say it, I’m not convinced Epsom would suit her, but perhaps the Irish Oaks would. Essentially, any of the Classics in France, Ireland and Britain are on the agenda for now.
“I would actually love to win the Yorkshire Oaks and, who knows, maybe the Arc might not be all about Cracksman and Enable.”
To have a horse potentially in that bracket would keep any owner of a juvenile warm through the winter, and Dance is extremely hopeful that we have not yet seen the best of Laurens.
“The scary thing is that she looks like a three-year-old,” he says. “But she is still quite weak and should be much better next year. She went higher than we ever thought she would this season.
“It’s all pretty surreal, and very exciting to think about next year given she should have plenty of improvement in her.”
Laurens, of course, is a rather obvious magical-moment horse, but there are two others who have provided rather more personal cherished memories for Dance.
He says: “Marsh Pride was one of our first six. She was one of our first runners and winners, and when she made her debut at Ripon, my wife Jess brought her parents, my parents were there, our daughters were there, and it was just a great get-together and a lovely day.
“Marsh Pride bolted home and it was a moment and a gathering hard to forget. She has a special place in our hearts and is a family favourite, a family pet if you like. She won £42,000 from 24 starts, with four wins. Jess and I couldn’t go to Chester for what was going to be her last run but my parents did and she won again. That was another emotional, magical moment.”
Landing Night also provided the owner with a spine-tingling memory when cruising to victory at Newcastle in October, Dance explaining: “There’s nothing I like more than a visually stunning performance, a horse that comes sluicing through a field on the bridle, and then clears away, either still on the bridle or quickening clear.
“That gives me goose bumps, and when Landing Night won like that, for me, that was something magical. I love watching horses win like that.”
The one thing Dance is not in love with is what he considers to be manipulation of the handicapping system.
“It’s my one consistent, annoying frustration as an owner,” he admits. “The system is an art rather than a science and open to manipulation.
“You might have a horse who is a high 60s/low 70s horse who, because you are trying with it, can end up rated in the high 70s, whereas there are horses who are the same level but because they have had three quiet runs then bolt up off 55. Let’s just say it’s amazing the improvement some horses find on their handicap debut.”
Dance is the owner of a thriving investment business in Newcastle, although he jokes that “work can get in the way of racing!”
Midweek racing is largely no-go, although with a philosophy of “I’d rather miss a winner than be there for a loser”, and the knowledge he needs to keep working to help finance his owning and breeding activities, that is a situation Dance is at ease with.
Indeed, he says: “My brain is forever on the go, thinking about investments, processes to improve the business or how we invest, and thus out of hours I find racing a welcome mental distraction that keeps my head fresh. From a work perspective, it can be quite healthy I think.”
If his horses stay healthy – Laurens especially – there’s certainly lots to look forward to out of hours in 2018 and beyond.