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'I started with nothing, had worked hard and didn't want to blow it all on horses' Edward Prosser talks to owner John Fretwell about buying at Doncaster and making the game pay.

FOR A man whose career went from selling a suitcase of watches to running an international warehouse trading business, it is not surprising that John Fretwell has looked to find ways of making money from racehorse ownership.

While he joins the chorus of disapproval over prize-money, a combination of selling and backing his own horses, along with targeting Racing Post yearling bonuses, has seen him return a profit each year since stepping up his involvement in 2004.

Although he owned 2007 2,000 Guineas runner-up Vital Equine - winner of the Champagne Stakes at York as a juvenile - the emphasis has been on precocious two-year-olds, with the likes of Always Hopeful, Electric Waves, Medicine Path, Silent Times and Temple Meads blazing a trail in the Fretwell lime green silks.

Equally successful have been some of the resale prices he has achieved, both at auction and privately in his bid to balance the books.

"I know a lot of people aren't commercial and fair play to them, but I am," says the Nottinghamshire-based owner. "I started as a hairdresser with nothing and to me money is still hard-earned and you've got to try to make a business of it. I'd worked hard and didn't want to blow it all on horses."

Fretwell, 62, soon realised that there was a more lucrative life beyond cutting hair and he began selling watches in his salon as a sideline.

"I bought some Swiss sidewinder watches for pounds 2 apiece, sold 84 in the first weekend and made 75 pence per watch when I was cutting hair for 30p at the time. That's when I discovered buying and selling," he recalls.

"On my half-days I went out with a little suitcase of watches and made pounds 330 and I was working to a third profit. So I made over pounds 100 in an afternoon - I was cutting hair all week to make that."

The business grew from there to the extent that when JT Frith (his company) was sold in 2004 it had a base in China and nine large distribution warehouses in Britain.

"We sold everything bar food and sourced most of our products in China. In 2004, 13 different people wanted to buy me out and I plumped for a venture capitalist company. I initially sold them the business and kept the properties, but I've gradually sold most of the warehouses."

Trainer Russ Hobson, who Fretwell knew in his hairdressing days, prompted his fledgling step into racehorse ownership with 700gns purchase Frith's Fancy, who gave him a first success in a Haydock claimer in 1978.

Fretwell became more involved in 1996 when buying Averham Park, now expanded from its original 34 acres to 150 acres and 94 boxes. The Nottinghamshire training centre is home to Alan McCabe and David Brown, who along with Ed McMahon and Kevin Ryan oversees Fretwell's team. But the real turning point was seven years ago.

"I'd always loved racing and as the business grew I was buying one or two more horses. Then as it got really successful, in about 2002, we were buying six to ten yearlings. But it was selling [JT Frith] in 2004 that enabled me to do what I'm doing."

HIS SON Paul, 33, proved adept at selecting horses on pedigree and now, helped by McMahon's father, former trainer Bryan, they all inspect the shortlisted lots at the sales.

"The horses Paul was picking out were doing well and we've only bought like this since I started believing in the lad. He's very good on pedigrees, he won't tell me how he does it, but he goes back six generations and is like an encyclopaedia.

"We look only at the ones he's marked out on pedigree, so for Doncaster, with 487 lots catalogued, we'd see about 70 or 80. We look at their conformation and if we like them we try to buy them. You've got to be very disciplined and a lot of breeders come up offering us a horse. We'll be polite but not look at it if it's not on our list.

"We've bought as many as 26 yearlings but I think it was 16 for the past couple of years. We always keep some backward ones at three so normally end up with about 24 in training in total.

"Our percentage of wins to runners and placed horses is very high, so our routine has not let us down so far. We haven't had a bad one out of 16 this year, and last year we had only one or two, which is pretty good from those numbers.

"It's rare we spend more than pounds 40,000 and it's frustrating when you lose out on a nice one. We bid for [subsequent Richmond Stakes winner] Harbour Watch last year but he was out of our bracket [pounds 58,000].

"We do have an Oasis Dream filly [Pussycat Dream] who cost a bit more at 65,000gns, but she's well bred and has won her only start, so should make a profit, and we have to have a limit if we're going to sell them on.

"We like to sell three or four and, hopefully, they'll pay for the others. I wouldn't pay pounds 200,000 for a yearling because it's such a long way to fall and they've got to be exceptional to be making pounds 200,000 back at the sales."

Always Hopeful (bought for 32,000gns and resold for 270,000gns), Silent Times (a 26,000gns yearling sold for 220,000gns) and Electric Waves (cost pounds 8,500, sold for pounds 200,000) are just a handful of those who have returned a big profit in the sales ring.

Doncaster next week, with its catalogue full of precocious juvenile types, has, not surprisingly, proved the happiest hunting ground for Fretwell.

"I love Doncaster. It's less than 40 minutes from home and it's like going to a sweet shop to me, all the goodies are there. They've done the job well and have the type of horse I like to buy. I've done very well there and Paul says there are some nice ones in the catalogue this year.

"We might go to Fairyhouse again and will go on to Newmarket, but we won't bother with [Tattersalls October] Book 1, you sit around for days just to buy two horses there. We'll find the sort of horse we want in Book 2, there's a mixture of staying blood as well as the type of horses we buy in there."

Fretwell has targeted Racing Post Yearling Bonus Scheme races with his juveniles and backing his horses is another important part of his strategy.

"We won seven bonus races last year and three so far this year. It's a great scheme and helps with the prize-money situation.

"We have to try to use every angle to make it pay and I like to back a horse to win what it cost, but struggle to get the bets on now. The bookies don't like you to win but everybody's in the same boat."

HOWEVER, the sight of Fretwell's helicopter arriving at a minor meeting should not be taken as a sign of an oncoming gamble on one of his runners, who carry those distinctive lime green silks that he bought at auction for pounds 60,000.

"They always say on television that I must fancy one if I've gone to see it in the helicopter, but that's not right, I just like to see them run. If it's more than an hour and a quarter away then I'll go by helicopter.

"There was one day we managed to go to York and Wolverhampton to see horses finish second before we watched a winner at Newmarket's July Course. Our jockey Richard Mullen, who is very underrated, loves it because it means he can ride them all.

"I've got loads of time for my racing now and just love it. My other boy isn't interested in horses and has his own IT business, but it's great working with Paul, I hope he carries it on when I'm not here."


John Fretwell: "We use every angle to make it pay" Temple Meads and Richard Mullen spreadeagle the field in last year's Weatherbys Super Sprint at Newbury
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Aug 25, 2011
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