Chris Dixon – 'I Am Absolutely Certain Raasel Is A Group Horse'

The Horse Watchers (including from left, Martin Dixon, Chris Dixon and Mick Appleby) and Raasel | Racingfotos.com


   He may be best known for his role as presenter and pundit with Racing TV, but Chris Dixon has also carved out a reputation for being able to find bargain horses to run under the banner of The Horse Watchers, of which his brother Martin also plays an integral role.

   The Horse Watchers have had a lot to shout about down through the years, with the owners approaching 100 winners all told, but the best may yet be to come on Saturday when the Mick Appleby-trained Raasel (GB) (Showcasing {GB}) lines out in the G3 Coral Charge at Sandown.

   Dixon is convinced that Raasel is the best horse The Horse Watchers have ever owned. From revealing an ambitious plan with the sprinter that could lead to Group 1 races in the autumn to explaining about what the syndicate will be trying to buy at the Tattersalls July Sale at Newmarket next week, Dixon shares all with Brian Sheerin in this week's Q&A.


Brian Sheerin: This is a big week for The Horse Watchers with Raasel running in the G3 Coral Charge at Sandown. He is rated 108 after winning the Betfred Nifty Fifty Achilles S. at Haydock and that would suggest you are now dealing with a genuine group horse. Is that how you see it?


Chris Dixon: I am absolutely certain that he is a group horse, regardless of what happens on Saturday. I have never believed it as strongly about one of our horses before. In fairness, we have not had many who were genuine group class before–we've had a couple who were listed class–but Raasel is the best we've had. Rhoscolyn (GB) (Territories {Ire}) was listed-placed while Big Country (Ire) (High Chaparral {Ire}) won at listed level and they were operating in a much hotter division. The sprint division is obviously easier and, within it, I think Raasel is a genuine group horse. He's an out-and-out five-furlong horse. Saturday will tell us more but, the way that he won at Haydock, which didn't surprise us at all, suggests that he is up to this level.


BS: Have you got a plan for him beyond Saturday?


CD: He goes to Sandown on Saturday and, whatever the result, he then goes to Goodwood for the G2 King George Sprint. He's two-from-two at Goodwood so we know that the track suits him well. After that, he'll either go for the G1 Flying Five S. at the Curragh or he'll go for the G1 Nunthorpe S. at York. He has entries in both races.


BS: It's no secret that The Horse Watchers operates on a budget. This horse cost 10,000gns. How much of a thrill is it to have unearthed one like Raasel for that sort of money?


CD: You've got to be realistic. Principally, what we try to find are well-handicapped horses who may climb the ranks and become smart handicappers. If they are better than that, then great. With the budgets that we have been working with, and we've never spent more than 50,000 on a horse, you are not really expecting to come across a group horse. But with Raasel, from the moment we bought him, we all felt that he had the potential to become a group horse. A lot of that was based on the fact that he hadn't really been tried. He'd run just twice and looked potentially group-class on his debut effort. He then ran on unsuitable ground at Newmarket and obviously had a problem as he wasn't seen for some time after that.

BS: What sort of a problem did he have? It was obviously something that you and the team were willing to forgive.


CD: We got lucky with him. Jason Kelly does a lot of the bidding for us and I sent him in to buy Raasel. I told him to ask me if I wanted to keep bidding once he got into the thirties. We went there with a budget of 40,000gns to buy him and couldn't quite believe it when he was knocked down to us for just 10,000gns. Shadwell are very open with their notes and the reason why he was so cheap is because he had a high suspensory issue. For a lot of people, they are not willing to deal with that problem. When you are dealing with budgets, you have to forgive things, and we got Raasel vetted as we do with every one of the horses we go to buy, no matter what the budget. Having done some more digging, the vet [Eoghan Nagle] realised that it was a high suspensory issue behind, which seemingly is a bit of a game-changer, although I wasn't aware of this at the time I must admit. His prognosis was that, if we just gave him the time, he thought he'd be okay. He was actually very sweet on the horse and that gave us the confidence to go and buy him. Even if we are buying something for 10,000-15,000gns, we will always get them vetted, as then you can provide full disclosure to people and that is important when you are running a syndicate.


BS: And what role do your trainers Mick Appleby and David O'Meara play at the sales?


CD: We come up with our list and we give it to Mick and David. We go around the sales with Mick but David usually looks at all of the horses by himself or with Jason Kelly. Mick is just excellent. He has a knack and I can't explain what it is. He struggles to put into words what he does and doesn't like in a horse, and he will admit that himself, but he knows what works and what doesn't. He has a fabulous record in getting these horses sound and well. He wouldn't like horses with bad knees. That would be a big turn-off. If their knees are no good, then basically scratch them off the list. But if they have back problems and things like that, he's more than happy to get things like that sorted, and his record speaks for itself.


BS: And are there certain stallions that you won't look at or can you afford to be sniffy when operating on a budget?


CD: We'll look at anything. There are horses that you just know that you won't afford. We've had discussions about trying to buy horses to race internationally but, ultimately, those horses are hard to buy right now. We look for something that the foreign market doesn't want just yet, because in ratings terms, they are not good enough. We try to buy something that we believe will be able to get to that level and will be of interest to that market one day. We will buy lowly-rated horses as well. For example, we bought Intervention (GB) (Swiss Spirit {GB}) when he was rated in the 50s. He won the prize for being the winningmost horse on the all-weather last season. There are some sires you wouldn't be overly keen on but a lot of the ones that we definitely wouldn't buy are not around anymore. I don't think there's any sire that we absolutely wouldn't buy. Once you're looking at a handicapper, the sire is something that comes into the mix but it would never be the starting point.


BS: You have had horses in training for over 10 years now. Have you found it tougher to buy this type of horse of late given the strength of the market?


CD: It definitely has been tougher. The market has inflated and you've got to be aware of that when you go into the ring. You have to be willing to push on a little bit for the horses that you like because, at the end of the day, while you don't want to overpay for something, if you buy something just because you quite liked it and it was cheap, as soon as they are a bit disappointing, you will be saying, 'I wish I hadn't bought that.' Even a cheap horse, it's still quite a lot of money to keep that horse in training. I would much rather push on a bit and buy the ones that we do like and that's something we have changed about our approach to the sales in recent years.


BS: How so?


CD: If we do like one, we'll go a bit stronger than we usually would have. Equally, if there is one thing we aren't keen on about a horse, well then we're out. We've become more selective. When we got to the sales, we have a meeting between the four of us, which is myself, Martin [Dixon, brother], Richard O'Brien and Matt Taylor. We would discuss all of the horses on the list and grade them from one to three. The ones are the horses we'd push on to buy but we've actually stopped buying the threes because we realised a few years ago that none of them have ever been any good.


BS: What will you be looking for at the July Sale at Newmarket next week?


CD: Well-handicapped horses that we think can progress; horses that we believe have an upside, to whatever level we think that will be. We're not interested in horses rated 85 who we think need to get dropped before they can be competitive. We are more interested in horses who might be rated 70 but we feel could end up being rated 85. Then, once they're on the up and if the money is right, we'd let them go.


BS: Raasel must be worth quite a lot of money now. Would there be any commercial temptation there?


CD: We have always been of a selling mentality. That's how we have kept the whole thing going. We sell horses all the time and that's something we will continue to do. But Raasel is a slightly different case in that he's a 5-year-old and he did have a slight problem earlier in his career. He's completely perfect for us as a racehorse but, if he was vetted to go abroad, something might show up. As well as that, he doesn't stand us a lot of money given he cost only 10,000gns. He is running for quite a lot of prize money so it makes sense to keep him. Now, if he had cost us 50,000gns for example, we might be of a different mindset. But, because we don't have a lot of money tied up in him, he probably won't be sold. Contrary to what a lot of people might think, once a horse reaches a certain level, we are happy to let them go rather than trying to get them back down the handicap. The interesting bit for us is when you first get a horse and you get them on a nice trajectory because you don't know where the ceiling is. Once that horse hits the ceiling, we like to move them on. I suspect that a lot of horses that we sell would be very good buys because their level is there for everyone to see.

Take Warrior Brave (GB) (Twilight Son {GB}) for example, we sold him to Ross O'Sullivan for 100,000gns. We told Ross that we'd be very surprised if he could improve him but that he was a rock-solid 100 horse. They've kept him at that and he's given his owner a lot of fun. If he happens to get dropped five or six pounds, then he'd probably have a big chance in a premier handicap.


BS: What is the breakdown of The Horse Watchers and how does it work?


CD: There are the four us–myself, Martin, Richard and Matt–who have been involved from the start. It used to be the case that we owned all the horses ourselves and the first horse we syndicated ended up being put down, which put us off the idea of syndicating horses. When Covid hit, it took a drain on the finances of the syndicate and we decided that we either cut the number of horses we had in training or else gave syndicating another go. What we do now is keep between 30% to 40% of every horse we buy and sell between six and seven shares. If they don't sell out, we're more than happy to keep the shares ourselves, but that's the general approach to things.


BS: Along with running The Horse Watchers Syndicate and working for Racing TV, you recently added another string to your bow and became a jockeys' agent. Tell us a bit more about that.


CD: I took on Jason Watson in November. It happened by accident really and I did it as a trial during the winter. Jason had a very good winter and I really enjoyed it. Cieren Fallon asked me if I would take him on at the same time but I told him I was only doing Jason as a trial to see if I enjoy it and whether I had time to do it all. He came back to me in the spring and I was very happy to take him on at that point. The plan was to do two Flat jockeys for the full season and I would maybe add a third and possibly fourth Flat jockey next year as I have always been a believer that, with that job, you can't do too many. However, when Dave Roberts [renowned agent] packed up, a group of 10 jump jockeys came to me and asked me if I was interested in doing it for them. Martin agreed to help but ultimately it's one person who makes all the calls and I found very quickly that doing 10 jump jockeys on top of my Flat lads was just too much. If I packed up the television work I could have done it but I just didn't feel I could do them justice with the time that I had. I felt I could get away with it but I wasn't doing a good job. Now I just have Jason, Cieren and Alistair Rawlinson on the Flat and Tom Scudamore and Sean Bowen over jumps.

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