November 10 2009
These are exciting times for lovers of international high-stakes racing. Last weekend it was the Breeders’ Cup and the Tuesday before that the Melbourne Cup. The £1.7m Japan Cup is coming up in Tokyo on November 29, and a few weeks after that the big Cathay Pacific Hong Kong International fixture takes place at Sha Tin. Owners, trainers, breeders and punters need to keep their suitcases packed and their passports close to hand. But then, so do the horses.
Authenticity is absolutely vital if the integrity of the racing and breeding industry is to be preserved. And ensuring that a racehorse running in a contest for three-year-old colts or fillies really is the genuine article and not some older or overqualified fraud or “ringer” is fundamental to maintaining the confidence of the punter in racing as a betting product. And that’s where Weatherbys comes in. It would be difficult to exaggerate the role that the family-owned and -run business, which dates back 240 years, has played in the development of both British and overseas racing.
It was back in 1770 that James Weatherby, an enterprising lawyer and Turf enthusiast, was recruited as the first Secretary to the Jockey Club. In an era when chicanery was rife, Weatherby recognised the demand for accurate information on racing and breeding matters and in 1791 he promoted the publication – by his nephew – of the first General Stud Book, which was an attempt to edit and draw together all existing thoroughbred pedigrees and breeding records.
The General Stud Book continues to be produced by Weatherbys to this day and, as the former assistant trainer Di Harvey, who presides over the annual compilation, testifies, it “provides an uninterrupted link with history”. In order to be recognised as thoroughbred, all foals born in Britain and Ireland must be registered in the book. Today the confirmation process includes DNA verification of parentage and the insertion of a microchip. Once all the required information has been supplied and verified, Weatherbys issues the horse with a passport which will remain with it for the rest of its life, identifying it correctly at a racetrack, sales ring or when travelling abroad.
Editing the Stud Book is only one of many vital tasks carried out by Weatherbys at its Northamptonshire HQ. The Racing Operations Department also handles things such as the registration of horses’ names – taking care to weed out the cheekier submissions – and the correct receipt, processing and dissemination of all the entries for the 9,500-odd races that take place in the UK every year. Nowadays, most entries are received online, though a few charmingly old-school trainers such as Newmarket’s gambling baronet Sir Mark Prescott telephone personally.
As racing’s stakeholder, Weatherbys has traditionally acted as the sport’s clearing bank, collecting entry fees, settling bills and dispensing prize money where appropriate. But since 1994 it has also had a full deposit-taking licence, which enables it to act like a smaller but equally discreet version of Coutts. There are neither branches nor call centres but, given the banking excesses and failures of recent years, depositors appreciate the traditional approach and personal service. As banking chief executive Roger Weatherby stresses, “We’ve always been conservative. My brother [Johnny, chairman of the Weatherbys group] and I are seventh-generation, with six prior ones looking over our shoulder ensuring we don’t screw up. Because we don’t have outside shareholder pressure we feel able to run our business at our preferred speed and in our own and our customers’ interests.”
The company sponsors over 100 races each year with total prize money of about £500,000. The most exciting and gambled on is the Weatherbys Champion Bumper, a flat race designed to pinpoint future steeplechasing and hurdling stars at the Cheltenham Festival in March. Few winners have made quite such an impression as Dunguib, an Irish-bred son of the leading jumping sire Presenting, who romped home by 10 lengths in the 2009 renewal. His Cheltenham target next spring will be the Supreme Novices Hurdle on March 16 and, if he jumps half as well as he gallops, he’ll be hard to beat at 7-2 with Cashmans.