The McKeowns

While much was made of the almost unheard of blank drawn by French trained runners in Sunday’s Group 1s at Chantilly on Arc weekend, they did much better on the Saturday, with all five Group-race prizes staying at home.

However, the card wasn’t bereft of British joy – and no-one took more pleasure out of the success of London Protocol in the mile handicap than part-owner Rob McKeown and his wife Angela.

The four-year-old is one of three horses the McKeowns have in partnership with the successful Ontoawinner syndicate and the Burkes – trainer Karl and his wife Elaine.

The McKeowns have been involved in ownership for a dozen years, though Rob’s interest in the sport dates from childhood.

“My first memory of going racing wasin the late 1950s when my grandfather took some of our family to a raceday at Bath,” he recalls. “I don’tremember anything about the racecourse or the horses, only that we had to stop on the road in our Austin 7 because the windscreen wipers couldn’t cope with the torrential rain in a thunderstorm!”

He continues: “Our family has always been keen on racing and my grandparents and aunt used to call in their bets on my uncle’s account with a local bookie.

“My father and uncle attended the 1954 Derby won by Never Say Die and Lester Piggott. Uncle Jim had £2 to win on Lester and bought the family’s – and village’s! – first ever TV with the proceeds.

“In my school days we always went racing on Boxing Day at Wincanton and then again at Taunton before the New Year. They were memorable ‘boot-up’ occasions when we took cars loaded with family members, turkey sandwiches, Christmas cake and bottles of scotch.”

Wind the clock forward to 1994 and the McKeowns found themselves on the move to Newmarket and a journey that would include ownership.

“We first tasted the thrill of ownership in 2005, when we were invited to take a small share in a horse owned by our friends John Rhodes and Peter Timmins,” says McKeown.

“John and Peter were experienced, successful owners, who still own horses together today; two of the finest and most astute racing enthusiasts one could wish to meet. They introduced us to all aspects of ownership and even allowed us the pleasure of naming our first horse, a filly named Ellesappelle.

“We continued to share horses with them until 2011 and we had some memorable days, the best being with Baldemar. As a four yearold he won the last race at Epsom on Derby day in 2009, at 33-1.

“It’s a day none of us will forget, having seen the magnificent Sea The Stars win the showpiece beforehand. Baldemar also won the first ever Ayr Bronze Cup the same year.”

McKeown continues:“We had an interest in other horses within the same partnership until we decided to try to make a go of it ourselves.

“As joint owners with two other friends we owned three moderate horses over four years, the best of which was Baltic Fire, who tried and tried to win a race but managed to get only as close as a head second at Thirsk.

“We dissolved the partnership in 2014, when we sold Baltic Fire, and then looked at how we might continue in ownership with a new partner.

“That’s when we were offered the opportunity to take a share in a horse partowned by the immensely successful syndicate Ontoawinner.”

The McKeowns themselves were on to a winner, as it turned out, the arrangement capped by events on Arc weekend, with the promise of more magical moments to come.

“We’ve three horses now in part-ownership with Ontoawinner and our trainer’s wife Elaine,” says McKeown.

“I think it’s an arrangement that probably suits everyone but we feel very fortunate to be involved in the way we are. Niall O’Brien and Simon Bridge, who run Ontoawinner, are great guys who know the time of day.

“They have made racehorse ownership accessible to anyone wishing to be involved and many racing enthusiasts have enjoyed some magical moments at racetracks all over the UK, Ireland and France.”

The McKeowns have certainly experienced memorable days on both sides of the English Channel, and Rob says: “We love watching our horses run and Baldemar’s success at Epsom was probably our best day’s racing until this year.

“Winning a Class 6 maiden at Redcar with the first horse that ran in our colours was also very special. In the last three years we’ve tried to add a share in a different horse by reinvesting the prize-money in the following season. Luckily we’ve won enough to do this and we’re pleased the strategy has paid off this year.

“We’ve had five wins from three horses in 2017; three in France and two in the UK. The two wins from Seduce Me at Newbury and Epsom were eight days apart, and if you asked my wife Angela which was her magical moment, it would be receiving the winning trophy at Newbury from Tim Henman.”

He adds: “Two of our horses are French bred and they qualify for prize-money premiums when they run in France; that’s why we like to run them there. Seeing our two-year old filly Crown Vallary winning her maiden at Clairefontaine was very special, and she looks as if she might make up into a useful horse next year.

“The best moment, though, has to be the win by London Protocol at Chantilly on Arc Saturday. Karl had said all season he might win a nice handicap prize this year, and this was it.

“We love racing in France and the hospitality extended to us by France Galop was excellent. It was great to be there and be part of such a special highlight in the French racing calendar.”

Prize-money back home, compared to France, is a frustration for McKeown, who says: “In France prize-money is much better for the equivalent grade of racing, especially for more moderate horses.

“Prize-money also runs to five places in all races in France, and to seven places in the big handicaps. French-registered horses also benefit from a travel allowance to help pay for the cost of racing.

“We’re a long way behind in the UK. For example, our three-year-old filly has won two handicaps this year at Grade 1 tracks; she has also been placed in another five races. Our French bred two-year-old filly has won once in France and been placed twice in her four races – once in France – but she’s won a good bit more in prize-money.”

Conversely, asked which aspects of ownership he particularly enjoys, McKeown replies: “Watching our horses on the gallops and at the track. Seeing how a yearling develops into a racehorse through the winter and spring, and being there when it makes its racing debut. Also experiencing the thrill of winning, whatever the grade of race, and sharing the occasion with the trainer, stable staff and fellow owners.”

Of that trainer, Burke, he says: “Our friends ask why, when you live in Newmarket do you have shares in horses trained in North Yorkshire? The answer: we want them trained by Karl Burke. “From our very first visit to Spigot Lodge, Karl’s yard near Leyburn, we saw how Karl, his wife Elaine, family and staff give full attention to all the horses in their care. It’s a yard with great facilities but one that’s always looking for ways to make changes to improve things.

“Karl has a great eye for a yearling and, for me, he’s the best trainer of younger horses bar none. He’s had tremendous success with some relatively inexpensive purchases and has the knack of bringing out the best in all of the string, whatever the ability.

“His yard staff manage the horses brilliantly and when we go racing his travelling staff look after and prepare our runners extremely well; the horses always look immaculate and often win best-turned-out.

“It’s a yard that continues to go from strength to strength and we love being involved with it.

(November 2017)