The wondrous goal that Michael Owen scored against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup was not, in at least one major respect, the most significant thing that happened to him as a callow 18-year-old.
For it was in the same momentous year that his England teammate David Platt suggested to him that he should buy a racehorse. Owen, now 33, was beguiled by the idea. “I had loved racing ever since I was a small kid taking an interest in my dad’s 50p bet on a Saturday, but I didn’t think that actually owning horses was something ordinary people could do,” he recalls.
Of course, there was nothing ordinary about the teenager who in the course of those few seconds in the French city of Saint-Etienne became one of football’s most covetable properties. But he didn’t think of himself as the racehorse-owning type, until, at Platt’s urging, he arrived at the stables in Newmarket run by trainer John Gosden. He was there to pick a horse. “But John, like all good salesmen, brought out two and asked me to choose one. I took them both.”
Together, those two horses – named Etienne Lady, after the footballing stage on which he had so memorably glittered, and Talk to Mojo, which combined his initials with those of his parents and his four siblings – cost him just under £100,000.
It seemed a lot at the time, but in the 15 years since, racing has cost him many millions more. However, he doesn’t begrudge a penny, judging by the way his brown eyes dance and shine as he shows me around Manor House Stables in Cheshire, which he and his wife Louise developed but he now co-owns with Andrew Black, founder of the online betting exchange Betfair.
And that extends to his gambling, first revealed ten years ago when a newspaper claimed that Owen had spent more than £2 million on betting in two years – a sum he said had been inflated. But whatever the real figure, stories of big wagers undoubtedly besmirched his clean-cut image. Nevertheless, he was always in control, he insists.
“It’s difficult talking about gambling,” he says, equably. “It’s a private thing you do, but someone leaked my accounts to the papers, which is how some people in this world like to make a few quid for themselves. I could have sued the bookmakers involved, but I couldn’t be bothered with all the hassle. So I let it go. You don’t ideally want it in the public domain. Why would I want to rub anyone’s nose in it [that is, his wealth, currently estimated at £40 million]? But the fact is that £10 on a horse is not going to interest me, so instead of £10 you bet £100, or whatever is relative to you.”
He bets much less these days, he adds, not least because he is far busier after his retirement from football – as a pundit for BT Sport and also as an agent, guiding young players’ careers – than he ever was as a player.
“Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy the buzz of backing a winner. But on average it will be two or three horses a day now. It used to be a lot more in the days when I had no family commitments [he and Louise now have four children], and after finishing training I’d either play golf or watch racing. But it never spiralled out of control, and the fuss was ridiculous. It’s not as if it’s ille- gal, any more than it’s illegal to have a pint. I suppose there were times when I thought that if a bad run continued I might have to curb it, but everyone has good runs as well as bad.”
Owen’s flat Cheshire accent might sometimes be satirised, but he is a fluent, engaging talker, and a manifestly sharp cookie, which makes him an ideal spokesman for racing. He is an ambassador for the Qipco British Champions series, the elite collection of flat races that culminates in British Champions Day this Saturday at Ascot.
“When you look at the card for Champions Day,” he says, “virtually every horse of any note is entered. It’s still new to the calendar, but it’s already a huge day, with huge prize money, and some of the best horses in Europe will be there.”
The cream of his own crop, however, will not. Brown Panther, Owen’s pride and joy and the winner of this summer’s prestigious Goodwood Cup, is being readied for the Melbourne Cup in Australia on 5 November. If all goes to plan, Owen will be there too, with his parents, who are diehard racing fans – unlike his wife, childhood sweetheart Louise, who prefers dressage. “She’s not interested in how fast a horse is, just how pretty it is,” he says.
Should Brown Panther prevail in Melbourne, Owen will experience pleasure different from but no less intense than the thrill he got from scoring two goals in the last seven minutes to win an FA Cup final for Liverpool against Arsenal in 2001, or scoring a hat-trick for England against Germany in Munich just a few months later.
“I never got nervous as a footballer,” he says, “because you can always do something about your performance. But when I go racing I do get nervous, because I have no control whatsoever.” He’ll soon learn what it’s like to exert direct control as he has resolved to start training as a jockey, to ride in a charity race, and is in talks with ITV about a documentary series to follow his progress. In the meantime, he remains “basically a bystander, just hoping. And the elation when you have no control over a situation is totally different from scoring a goal. That gives you a rush of pure adrenaline for 10 or 15 seconds, but this is like a drug. Once you’ve been in a situation where you can’t do anything, but it’s about to happen anyway, you want it more and more.” And were there ever occasions when his growing passion for racing distracted him from his goal-scoring duties? He smiles, and says no, but then concedes that actually there was, once.
“It was a Liverpool pre-season friendly, away at Crewe, and Treble Heights, Brown Panther’s mum, was running just before kick-off. I’d asked my mum and dad, who were sitting in the stand, to let me know how she got on, and just as we got a corner I gave them a sly thumbs-up or down. They gave the thumbs-up. That was the one time my mind was elsewhere for a few seconds.”
At Manor House, football and racing rub shoulders. His management company is based there, and as he proudly shows me around the stables, he points out the horses Wayne Rooney owns, the horse Rooney’s teammate Tom Cleverley part-owns, the horse which Stoke City’s Charlie Adam owns a quarter.
It’s an impressive operation, employing 40 people on what used to be a 170-acre arable farm. Owen reasoned it would make more sense to have other owners paying him stabling and training fees than paying “10 or 20 grand a month” himself. Of the 90-odd horses stabled there, all under the eye of trainer Tom Dascombe, Owen owns or part-owns six. Black has about eight. Owen sold a half-share in the business to Black for several reasons, he says.
“I’d already put about half my money in, but to turn it into one of the elite yards in the country, I’d have had to put all my money in. And this game isn’t cheap. It’s a million quid for the equine swimming pool, a couple of million on stock every year, and that was too much of a strain. It makes a big difference if someone else is paying half. But neither of us needs to make a profit out of it, which is why we have the best of everything: dust-free Canadian straw, full-time vets, you name it. If it pays for itself, keeps the staff going and all the maintenance, I’m happy to have this as fun for the rest of my life.”