This year’s Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase is shaping up to being the race of the Festival – but behind the apparent big guns is a little horse owned by a syndicate who just might shake up the established order.
Funambule Sivola is not the biggest in stature, but what he lacks in size he certainly makes up for in ability.
His career highlight came last time out when beating solid two-milers such as Sceau Royal and Hitman in the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury, and should any of Shishkin, Energumene or Chacun Pour Soi fail to live up to expectations, then Venetia Williams’ pint-sized rocket is there to pick up the pieces.
The seven-year-old is owned by a group called My Racing Manager Friends, the brainchild of Elli Morgan and among the members is Neil Phillips, better known as ‘The Wine Tipster’.
Morgan, who takes all the hassle out of racehorse ownership, found herself carrying out the administrative tasks for her father, David Morgan, who owned 2000 Irish St Leger winner Arctic Owl.
“It sort of happened organically, I started out just as a racing manager. My father had racehorses and hated doing all the admin so I used to do it for him and then his friends asked, and friends of friends, and it started like that,” she said.
“The My Racing Manager Friends syndicates started when I went to the sales with a brief for some horses. I didn’t think I was going to get my first choice, so I kept going back to the back-up (horse) thinking I would end up with it. It turned out I got my first choice and then I couldn’t leave the sale without the other, but I didn’t have a buyer.
“I quickly set up a syndicate selling off legs, it went really well so I do several a year now and it is a nice way to get people in who haven’t done it before. I call it a syndicate but it’s not really, it’s more joint-ownership with only ever four or five people.
“I think you get a more personal feel that way. I stick to 20 per cent shares, I keep one and sell off four. For one thing it means you always get owners badges if you want to.”
This will not be a first Festival experience for one of Morgan’s groups, who can number two Cheltenham wins already through Flying Tiger and Coo Star Sivola, both trained by Nick Williams.
“All the horses I’ve bought I’ve chosen myself, but I will either work with a bloodstock adviser or trainer. Sometimes a trainer will have a shortlist, different trainers like different types so I like them to be involved,” she said.
“Flying Tiger was my first ever purchase for a syndicate I was already working for, one my dad was involved in.
“I’ve been incredibly lucky, I’ve been involved in two Festival winners and now I’m involved in this fantastic little horse with Venetia, which is the first one I’ve had with her. I met her through a friend and I’ve always been a fan of hers.”
It has not always been straightforward for the owners, however.
“Unfortunately after we bought him he did a leg (tendon) straight away, but Venetia is unique in a lot of ways and she kept him in training while he recovered. She offered the owners the chance to step out of the syndicate into another horse, but none of them did,” said Morgan.
“His hurdling season wasn’t great but one day, almost by chance, we found out he needed wind surgery and after he’d had it, Venetia rang me to tell me he’d been schooling and she said he was a pocket rocket. He went to Wetherby and won and hasn’t looked back.
“It was actually one of the partners who came up with idea of the Game Spirit, so it’s a great example of the collaboration between the partnership and trainer.
“I was saying to Venetia before the Game Spirit that even before we had him, my favourite Cheltenham race was the Champion Chase because they are so exciting, they go so quick, it’s thrilling. To have one in it is a dream come true.
“My Racing Manager has had a great year this year, all of the horses I currently manage and are racing, have won, with the exception of Hermes Du Gouet, who has been second in both bumper starts and we’ve high hopes he’ll be winning soon.”
Phillips, Gloucestershire-based and a regular at the Festival in his role working for Jockey Club catering and as a pundit on television, admits this time his favourite week of the year could be extra special.
“I met Elli while working in hospitality, talking about food, drink and racing and we originally met at the Derby,” said Phillips.
“I’d been involved in syndicates before with Axom, actually with Deano’s Beeno who was such a great character, and Elite Racing. They are a great way to start off.
“I’m involved in helping to sell some of the shares now and it’s a great thing to be involved with. There are people who have had several shares before, but also those getting involved for the first time. The one thing they all need to have in common is patience.”
Phillips credits Williams and jockey Charlie Deutsch for the progression of Funambule Sivola, who has thrived over fences.
“You have to remember he didn’t win over hurdles, but Elli sent out a clip of him schooling and you could immediately see the speed with which he jumped and straight away he looked exciting.
“His speed away from a fence sets him apart and Charlie gets a great tune out of him. The way he has been handled by Venetia, how he has improved with racing, just shows how good she is. It’s just a great team and they have enjoyed a stellar year.
“I’m from the Cheltenham area and the Festival has always been special to me, I used to be a member at the course. It’s just a special place, I did an interview there once when the restaurant was empty with Cleeve Hill in the background and I still got goosebumps.
“The chance to go there with a runner in the Champion Chase, which was always my favourite race – Waterloo Boy was one of my favourite horses – still hasn’t sunk in.
“I’m working at the Festival as usual this year, but I might have to pop out at 3.30pm on Wednesday – I’ll tell them it’s for a good reason and the drinks will certainly be on me if he wins!”