Sophie Field’s teenage ambitions had been to own a 1950s two-door Mercedes 300SL (similar to the one driven by Grace Kelly in High Society), a black mink coat and a winning racehorse. The first had been promised to her as a 10th-wedding-anniversary present by her first husband but the marriage did not survive the decade she got hitched in, let alone a decade. Her second attempt at wedlock, to a criminal barrister, didn’t work either. It was neither a success as nuptials or as leverage for a fur coat. However, with money from the divorce settlement she did buy a bespoke brown mink gilet. After which she foreswore marriage forever and moved to a cottage in the Cotswolds where she spent her days lunching, talking to her dogs and riding.
Sophie had always been “horsey”. She had learnt to ride as a child in Gloucestershire, had been an energetic member of the Pony Club, and even briefly taken up eventing before moving to the fleshpots of Fulham to snag a husband. Now she was back in the saddle.
Every day at the crack of dawn she would ride out with the local farmer to give some much-needed daily exercise to the couple of hunters that he kept for chasing Charlie Fox and entering into the occasional point-to-point. This brought her into contact with his son, Oliver, who had just qualified as a National Hunt trainer. And it was Oliver who suggested that Sophie could realise her ambition and own a racehorse by starting a syndicate.
There are hundreds of wealthy men and women who own flat and National Hunt racehorses outright, but the backbone of the racing industry is the syndicate – small groups of racing enthusiasts who share the costs of buying, training and entering a horse into a race. There are syndicates to suit everyone, from those that try to win the Classic races such as the Derby (as one did in 2005) to those of lesser ambition such as Sophie’s. She found 12 chums – all childhood contacts or members of her lunching circle – who put up £3,000 each to “own a leg”, or one-twelfth, of the horse, and named themselves The Cotswold Fillies. They then charged Oliver with buying a horse from a bloodstock agent and training it. The hope was to win a decent National Hunt race, but the chance of that or the Fillies ever seeing a return on their investment was less likely than the odds of any of them remarrying for love.
Their horse, a very moderate former flat racehorse called Gullwing, was a six-year-old gelding who was introduced to the syndicate at Oliver’s stables over a glass of champagne and fancy nibbles. The girls patted and nuzzled up to the well-bred quadruped before watching it being put through its paces on the gallops.
Gullwing made his début in a hurdling race at Chepstow in November. It was a midweek handicap race in the afternoon and Oliver said the horse was “in with a chance”. A couple of the syndicate made the journey… to watch him come last. “He needed the run,” said Oliver and expected the horse to do better when he ran at Cheltenham in the New Year.
That cold and wet January day at the home of National Hunt Racing, the girls dressed in their bespoke tweeds (Sophie wore her mink) with a full complement of divorcée jewellery to watch Gullwing in a novice hurdle race. They all wore their owners’ badges, entered the paddock and watched the gelding in the parade ring, gave the jockey advice and then trooped to the owner’s stand to cheer on their entry.
Fortunately, there were only five runners in the race, two of which were pulled up early while a third fell. In the home straight the last two hurdlers were struggling in single file when the leading horse tumbled at the final fence, leaving Gullwing to cross the finishing line in a tired canter. The syndicate went ballistic with pride – despite the fact that Gullwing was unlikely ever to go first past a post again. Sophie was particularly ecstatic. After all, six grand was a small price to pay for a photograph of her, in her mink, with the winning horse that was fortuitously named after the classic “Gullwing” Mercedes 300SL.