Darren Yates bought the staying steeplechaser, fourth in the 2017 National, for an eye-watering £360,000 this week and tasked North Yorkshire trainer Phil Kirby with pulling off this feat.
While many in racing were surprised by the sheer size of the purchase price for a 10-year-old horse whose best days may be in the past, Yates believes it is a calculated gamble on his part.
He spoke exclusively to The Yorkshire Post after his whirlwind acquisition was completed after watching Blaklion – trained until this week by Nigel Twiston-Davies – run with credit to finish a fine fifth at Haydock last weekend over hurdles.
“We had been looking for a horse to run in the National, but they are very difficult to find,” he said. “Through a mutual friend of mine, I contacted Gino Paletta, who co-owned Blaklion, six weeks ago and gave him an offer for the horse which wasn’t enough. I let it go.
“I saw him (Blaklion) run at Haydock and thought he ran a blinder. I sent Gino a text and offered him £200,000. He texted back and said ‘Can we have a chat?’ He said ‘we are looking for half-a-million’.
“I wouldn’t give that for a 10-year-old so we did a deal for £300,000, plus VAT of £60,000. Who knows if it is a good deal? I’m a gambler by nature. I have landed a lot of big prizes but you never know – he could come down at the first fence.
“But I was offered £400,000 the day after I bought the horse so he must be a cheap one. A £100,000 profit one day later – but I want to win the National.”
Born in Morecambe, Blaklion’s new owner lives in Lytham just a short gallop along the Fylde coast where the legendary Red Rum was trained to win an unprecedented three Nationals in the 1970s when Yates, 52, began a lifelong passion for racing.
Yet his life was to change forever on a momentous autumn afternoon in 1996 when Dettori rode all seven winners at Ascot at cumulative odds of 25,0951-1.
Close to losing his business, and deaf to his wife Annaley’s appeal not to waste money the couple did not have on another fruitless Dettori accumulator, he secretly staked £67.58 at his local branch of William Hill and went off to play football.
It was only when he ventured into a local pub afterwards that he realised that Dettori had won the first four races. By the end of the afternoon, he was £550,000 richer – a timely riposte to the building society that had just refused a request for a loan extension – and the futures of six staff at his fledgling joinery business were secure.
Even then, he had little idea about the size of the jackpot he had just landed. When he went to collect his winnings, he said at the time: “I thought it would be about £50,000. When she told me it was half-a-million, I almost fainted.”
In the subsequent two decades, Yates has become a successful property businessman – he runs The DY Group in his native North West – and began to follow the burgeoning fortunes of the ambitious Kirby, who trains near Catterick, after meeting at the sales.
While the two men have had a number of successes, Yates made a conscious decision to improve the quality of his horses. Before the surprising purchase of Blaklion who is small in stature but big in heart, he also acquired Flat runner South Seas who could run in Doncaster’s season-opening Lincoln Handicap – the traditional first leg of racing’s Spring double – on March 30.
But all eyes will be on Blaklion seven days later at Aintree where the horse previously won the Becher Chase over the iconic fences under Gavin Sheehan.
Fourth in the 2017 National – the horse arguably hit the front too soon when partnered by Noel Fehily – Blaklion was brought down at the very first fence last year.
Yet, while this misfortune further illustrates the size of the risk taken by Yates, the owner believes Blaklion is now more favourably handicapped – and he has every faith in Kirby whose talents have been showcased by the brilliant Cheltenham-bound mare Lady Buttons. “Dual purpose-wise, I don’t think there’s any better,” says Yates, when asked to sum up his trainer who has never previously saddled a National runner.
Their first decision will be whether Blaklion lines up in next month’s Cheltenham Gold Cup – it’s a possibility if the ground is soft – or the Pertemps Final over smaller obstacles. However, by all accounts, the horse is reported to be thriving at Kirby’s Green Oaks stables after making the switch earlier this week from the Twiston-Davies yard where he was regarded as ‘one of the family’.
In many respects, he fits the criteria that Yates uses when placing his regular bets which, he says, can vary from a few hundred pounds to £2,000. “I like to look for an angle – why a jockey has gone to a certain meeting over another. Or I look for a horse with a good back who hasn’t performed for a while?” he explained.
Just like Blaklion, who is a 50-1 bet for the National and whose previous wins include the 2016 Towton Novices Chase at Wetherby and then the Grade One RSA Chase at Cheltenham when he surged between horses under an inspired Ryan Hatch before the jockey’s career was cruelly cut short by injury?
“Yes,” says Darren Yates with emphatic conviction.