In recent years the racing silks of John Dance have become increasingly familiar on UK racecourses and further afield.
Course Specialist first met John back in 2015, when he was enjoying the early throes of racehorse ownership and with his wife Jessica, owned a small breeding operation.
A stream of exciting investments and of course the success of superstar filly Laurens, have catapulted John into the racing conscience over the past two years.
Ahead of the 2019 Turf Season, we caught up with him to discuss his passion, racehorse ownership, bloodstock and of course his hopes for Laurens this year.
When did you first get interested in racing?
I’ve been interested to some extent for as long as I can remember, as a very young boy I’d watch the Grand National with my Dad and see his office sweepstake selection come second virtually every year. I was 8 for the earliest I remember, Greasepaint being the unlucky runner up that year.
What prompted you to become involved in racehorse ownership and when was this?
Seeing the buzz of everyday winning owners whilst we were sponsoring races and being seduced by their emotions.
Did you start out with one horse or buy into several?
Although it was never the plan I got carried away and had 6 within the first few weeks, I’m glad we did though as it accelerated the learning curve.
Did you have a particular plan in terms of the type of horse you wanted to buy or particular sires you wanted to use?
It has always been and still remains my dream to win a Guineas (1,000 or 2,000) so I’m always attracted, and was from day one, to a type that’s likely to run as both a two year old and as an older horse.
How many runners did you have before your first victory and when and where did that take place?
We’d had two runners with one run each before Kayo Koko won at Catterick in July 2014. She’d worked with another unraced horse of ours’ a week before (Marsh Pride) and had been destroyed by her. So I wasn’t very confident but she won by two lengths on her debut and it was an amazing thrill, it wasn’t long before I realised that Marsh Pride probably had a decent chance on debut too!
Explain the emotions of watching a race with one of your horses in it. Has that changed over time and do you have different expectations / feelings now?
I often get quite nervous, unless my hopes or expectations are particularly low. I’m not one for messing around with handicap marks so I’m always most nervous in the hope they do their best and themselves justice, whatever level that may be. The thrill of winning at any level is just fantastic, the rush you get and pride you feel is as good as anything in sport even though you haven’t done it yourself. I’m so happy that despite winning so many top level races with Laurens last year, that the nerves and excitement haven’t changed at any level since.
What were the important things you learned along the way?
Jess and myself and learnt so much in fairness, thankfully I consider myself a quick learner and I guess my job helps me in that. Working with trainers you trust and have a similar mindset to yourself is probably the most important though. If you are thinking of having horses yourself I’d recommend as small shares in as many syndicate horses as you can to suss as many trainers as you can out first.
Was Marsh Pride your first big success and how much pride did that give you?
She was our first above average horse, in fairness she never won a ‘big’ race as such, a few issues in her prime perhaps meant she missed her opportunity. But she was a very talented horse, that won at 2, 3, 4 and 5. She won on debut very comfortably, probably still my favourite debut of any horse we’ve had and we had the whole family racing for the first time. Her last race was at Chester, again my family were there as we knew it was her last and I think she did too, the guts she showed having being caught out when the leaders kicked to chase through and pass 5 or 6 horses and win again literally had me on the brink of tears. In fact Jess was very definitely in tears, we had many highs and lows with Marsh Pride but I think we love each other very much, she galvanised my passion for the sport and I can’t wait for her offspring to run in her colours.
Is there a particular type of horse and race that gives you most pleasure, such as the juveniles or a sprinter or a stayer?
These days although the focus remains a dream of nice milers, I enjoy both sprinters and stayers (Rare Groove and New Society being two very nice ones) as it provides great variety.
Tell me about the margins in racing, how much you have to invest and the returns
We won 4 Group 1’s in 2018, including French and Irish prize money we won nearly £1.5m in prize money. 2018 was an exception for owners like us in all reality and yet we still spent more on training than we made in prize money. Sadly selling nice horses like Beatbox Rhythm when the big bucks comes in is the only way to dilute the damage and without numbers (which lets face it is not possible for most owners) you’re unlikely to find the type of horse that can redress the balance. I recently calculated that the average horse (rated 68) would cost an owner approximately £15,000 a year even after prize money.
What are your thoughts about prize money and the treatment that owners receive?
Racecourses can’t pay what isn’t there and naturally you’d expect top class races to have better prize money than low level races. However, we know that due to media rights and levy that Class 4-7 races generate much more in income for courses than the prize money they pay out. As mentioned these subsidise better quality race prize funds, however 87% of all horses are rated at Class 4 level or lower. The industry and vast majority of yards are dependent on that level of horse and racing and if it becomes too much of a money pit we will lose owners, lose staff and lose yards and that would be very sad.
What has been your own strategy financially and how challenging is it to break even?
We have had to apply a trading strategy to get close to breaking even, this means a few things. 1) If they aren’t up to covering their cost sin prize money we need to identify and move on quickly. 2) Sadly means selling some good and reasonable horses to bank a profit and offset losses and costs. 3) Playing the long game and hoping we can eventually finance the string via the sale of some of the horses we’ve bred, the offspring of a Laurens for example could pay for 2 years training and investment in the whole string. A few years away yet of course.
Tell me how you came to acquire Laurens, what (or who!) motivated you to buy her and what your early expectations were for her
There were a few things really. We’d named a horse from the previous yearling crop loosely after my eldest daughter Ashleigh, Ladofash. Now he wasn’t particularly great but when I noticed a horse in Goffs Premier Yearling catalogue already named Laurens, my youngest daughter being Lauren, I felt in the interests of fairness we ought to take a look. As it happened, Laurens is the name of a small village near where she was bred in France, all her siblings being named after similarly close villages.
Before we made it to the sales for viewings ourselves, our main bloodstock adviser Daniel Creighton had messaged to say he’d seen the nicest filly ever at the sale, low and behold the very same lot. I’d say he’s never been more bullish before or after about a horse.
Jess and myself took a look and I think we both fell in love with her, she was as stunning as a yearling as she is today, not only did she look superb she also had the most gorgeous walk and even back then had the attitude of a Queen. The name, Daniels confidence and our own desire meant we just had to go home with her.
At what stage did Karl (Burke) indicate she might be something special?
In terms of confirming her talent it was probably only about 8 weeks before her first run, perhaps less. She did a piece of work with Quiet Reflection’s lead horse Karl said she breezed passed just as well as the yard’s original Queen, despite almost certainly wanting further and being 2 years younger. It was hard not to get excited at that point.
What can you remember of her May Hill Stakes victory?
My main memories are firstly PJ ringing as we drove down to Doncaster and saying “How does it feel to have the favourite in a Group 2?”, when we set off she was short but not favourite, to have a favourite in a Group 2 fillies race was really quite mind-blowing.
I remember during the race panicking that the pace was slow and that a late sprint wouldn’t suit, but I think that was the day the penny finally dropped and when she eventually got rolling she didn’t half motor home.
It was also the day my infamous robot dance first made an appearance. It was totally unplanned and a panic reflex, ITVs camera was close on me but everyone had disappeared to different ends of the parade ring to check the photo finish and I was all alone. The classic Only Fools And Horses line played in my head “Play it cool John, play it cool” but from absolutely nowhere my body automatically started executing the first ever Robot of its life!
Laurens went on to land the Fillies’ Mile at Newmarket – how did that feel, to beat Coolmore and Godolphin horses in such manner?
It was crazy just being there, potentially in with a chance with a shot at a Group 1 versus racing’s superpowers. I was more nervous than at any other race, I felt that there was obviously chance we’d never been in this position again, this could be our one shot at achieving the most unrealistic of dreams. The feelings after winning were incredible, I think most of all I was totally shellshocked at what we had just achieved. But also, and this really meant a lot, so much pride in PJ winning his first Group and being part of that for him was really special.
Karl said immediately after the Fillies’ Mile that he saw Laurens as a Prix de Diane filly. What made him think that specifically and did you agree?
Despite winning a Group 1 she was still a little raw and weak as a 2yo, it was sheer talent that was winning these races and we thought that as she strengthened she’d stay further. As a French-bred we’d targeted the French Guineas or Oaks (Prix De Diane) from the moment we bought her and to fulfil that drunken prediction nearly two years later was amazing.
Did you plan backwards from the Prix de Diane for the first half of her three year old career?
Not as such, if she hadn’t shown speed in the Spring of that year we might have, but we all knew way may only get one serious crack at a Guineas in our lifetime and we ended up building towards that but with the preservation of the rest of the year in mind.
How unlucky was she in the Guineas?
Potentially very unlucky, she beat everything we thought we’d need to beat and was only beaten by an unconsidered filly she’d thumped both before and after. However, I do think Billesdon Brook deserves more credit for her performance that day, it may have been a one off, but her actual performance that day was arguably worthy of any Guineas in my opinion and deserves more praise.
Of course Laurens wasn’t the only big race winner in 2018 for you; Cosmic Law won the Woodcote Stakes at Epsom and went on to run at Royal Ascot. What were those experiences like?
I love the history and heritage of the Woodcote, particularly of it’s record of delivering subsequent Ascot winners. To be in was a proud moment but to storm the field and win by so far was one of my favourite races. A replay that is on frequently in our house.
Tell me what happened in Chantilly when she won. What are your abiding memories?
We had a big group of people with us, my parents and their friends came from a French holiday, Jess’s dad, PJs family and Dan, Josh and many many other Creightons, plus of course Karl etc. We were together in the parade ring but got split up leaving it as it was very hectic. In the end Michael (Jess’s father) PJs wife Abby and myself had no idea where to watch, so we went back to the lawn in the posh Longimes enclosure. As she surged through to win we got very excited much to the bemusement of the French film stars, models and well to do around us and whilst tempted to remain restrained we just went crackers and didn’t care less. I still don’t think they knew we were the winnings owners.
Laurens went on to defeat Alpha Centauri in the Matron Stakes and then repelled the Ballydoyle fillies in the Sun Chariot Stakes. Tell me how she has changed your life. Has your racing philosophy changed and have your racing ambitions changed?
She’s taken us to places and given us experiences you dream of but never expect in reality. She’s given me more TV exposure than I ever thought I’d have in my life, but that’s actually been useful in my day job as I suddenly feel more comfortable doing presentations and speeches as there’s considerable fewer people at them than on ITV! Ambition wise all remains as is, we’re looking to find nice horses and the aim is to find a listed winner, we’ve tried not to be spoiled by Laurens unique success.
What made you decide to keep Laurens in training in 2019, has she wintered well and are you going to focus on the fillies and mares races?
Yes she’s wintered very well and could easily be stronger yet as a 4yo. At the end of the day we felt we might never get the chance again to be involved in the races she could contest this year, or type of race and that we should enjoy her whilst we can.
What will be her big targets and will you try her over 12 furlongs again at some point?
The Lockinge and Queen Anne are the immediate targets and further down the road defending the Matron and Sun Chariot would be aims of mine perhaps. She barely stayed a yard beyond 10f at York last year so I doubt we’ll try that Oaks trip again, I’m pretty convinced she became a better miler last year but wouldn’t be surprised if we tried a 10f race or two during the year.
What other horses are you most looking forward to in 2019 and how many do you have in training?
We currently have around 35 in training, not only do we have 2yos but still a few 3yos unraced and some could be OK. I’m looking forward to a Dark Angel colt out of a sister to Equiano named Critical Voltage, he had a pelvic issue last year but I’m really like the look if him.
What are your main ambitions in racing now?
The next on the ambition checklist would be to breed a winner, after that to breed a black type horse. I’d love day to breed horses that came from a famous Dance dynasty.
Tell me about Titanium Racing and how it began. How much pleasure do you derive from your involvement in a syndicate?
It started as a means to introduce more people to the experience of race horse ownership. We’ve tried to do it in a way that gives members a greater chance of a share in a nice horse (by being involved in a smaller level but in more horses) and the thrills that come with that. It’s so good seeing members pride and the joy the get when their horses run well and the love they have for them all, even the untalented one’s. It’s great to be part of making that happen and being able to share these types of moments.
For more information, please visit: www.titanium-racing.co.uk
What advice would you give to anyone looking to get into racehorse ownership?
You will get highs and lows, the lows hurt and feel like they last forever but the highs are greater than you could ever imagine.