The “now-you-see-them, now-you-don’t” story concerning horses linked to the former owner John Dance took another turn last week, when the British Horseracing Authority issued a brief statement to confirm that runners under the banner of Coverdale Stud and Titanium Racing Club would be suspended from competing with immediate effect.
From racing’s point of view, this appears to be the final chapter in what has turned out to be an tarnished turf career, as James Horton, who trained all but a handful of the horses concerned at a yard in Middleham, has since quit his role as Dance’s private trainer and announced that he will move his operation to Newmarket next year.
Dance, however, remains the subject of an inquiry by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) into possible fraud and money laundering, after his investment business, WealthTek, was shut down by the regulator in early April. Subsequent examination by special investigators of WealthTek’s accounts suggested a “potential shortfall” of £81.4m in funds held by the firm on its clients’ behalf. Dance has not commented on the allegations.
Horses owned or part-owned by Dance were initially banned from running after the collapse of WealthTek, including Bravemansgame, the King George VI Chase winner and Gold Cup runner-up, who was forced to miss an intended outing at the Grand National meeting.
The suspension was then lifted in May after the BHA reached an agreement with the FCA to release funds to cover the costs of the racing operation, with all prize money and funds received from the sale of horses frozen in a separate account. Coverdale Stud, which is owned by Dance, and the Titanium Racing Club, which he set up, have subsequently had a busy summer, with Horton alone sending out six winners for Coverdale Stud from about 90 runners, while the useful 107-rated Phantom Flight has picked up £25,000 in prize money from five starts without winning.
This, clearly, was good news for Horton and his staff, who could continue to earn a living throughout the summer months. Since field sizes and competitiveness are ever-present issues, it could also be seen as a short-term gain for racing.
The costs of a major racing operation are never likely to be covered by prize money alone, while a racehorse’s value as an asset is always more likely to go down rather than up but we should also spare a thought for the 1,400 or so investors in his businesses who have spent the summer with their money frozen, and sick with worry over when, or even if, they are going to get it back.
One such investor contacted the Guardian a few weeks ago. “Quite frankly, the situation is making me ill,” she said. “My plans for a tranquil retirement have gone up in smoke. I am not wealthy. My state pension covers my rent and I invested my share of the proceeds of the sale of the family home, upon my mother’s death, so that I would have a monthly income sufficient to cover bills and general expenses. I am now in danger of losing my home [and] if I lose this house, I won’t have access to funds to rent another.”
There was a little positive news for WealthTek investors earlier this month when the Financial Services Compensation Scheme said it is likely to meet losses suffered by clients of the company. However, the investor who contacted the Guardian said on Monday that despite being told “several weeks ago that the FSCS is going to be allocating me some money as a hardship case, so far I have heard nothing from them”.
The regulator with the most serious questions to answer here is undoubtedly the FCA, which licensed WealthTek in the first place. The BHA, meanwhile, has taken all decisions about Dance’s horses after close consultation with the FCA and having received its approval.
For the clients of Dance’s now defunct businesses, however, the sight of horses that he bred, bought and kept in training continuing to run on a regular basis has added insult to injury.
In that respect, it is worth recalling that Ralph Beckett, a leading player in the National Trainers’ Federation, said back in April that “rumours were swirling for a while [about Dance] and had been for some years. Training debts and so on, so it’s not a surprise.”
A trail of unpaid debts should sound an immediate alarm that a big-spending owner may not be all that they seem. As things stand, it seems that the BHA, which requires owners to be registered and has a “fit and proper” test for anyone looking to join the list, may well be the last to know.