After founding Chrysalis Records, whose galaxy of stars included Jethro Tull and Blondie, music executive Chris Wright devoted himself to breeding equine talents. Colin Cameron examines these transferable skills
By Colin Cameron
May 17 2020
“One way or another, I’m gonna find ya / I’m gonna get ya, get ya, get ya, get ya…” This could be the chant of a determined racehorse owner at the autumn’s yearling sales, certain that the next champion is circling the ring.
Chris Wright has been that man. Successful purchases include Culture Vulture, the first English-trained filly to win France’s 1,000 Guineas, the Poule d’Essai des Pouliches; Dark Angel, a champion two-year-old in 2007 at the Middle Park Stakes and now at stud; and Crime of Passion, a filly who, after success at the races, became the foundation broodmare to Wright’s equine dynasty at his Stratford Place Stud in the Cotswolds.
It was Wright who signed Blondie, the band that made these lyrics so familiar. (Years before, millennials please note, One Direction’s own stab at the song.) Wright’s label, Chrysalis, had Debbie Harry, Procol Harum, Jethro Tull, Ultravox, Billy Idol, and Pat Benatar, as well as The Specials – under the Two-Tone Chrysalis offshoot – on its roster during a halcyon age of pop.
Over lunch at Boisdale of Belgravia, Wright groans at the coincidental pun of Blondie’s hit album of 1979, Eat to the Beat. His career has been more than just horses and music, he says, and has extended to rugby, as the owner of Wasps, for whom he is Honorary Life President; and football, with his investment in Queen’s Park Rangers and in the US, Philadelphia Fury, as part of America’s first efforts at a national league in the Seventies. In addition, Chrysalis bought a stake in the Sheffield Sharks basketball team. Then there is Wright’s passion for wine.
Racing is in the lead, however. He has 20 mares at stud and the same number in training. “I had an uncle who caught moles at Market Rasen,” Wright laughs, reflecting on his lack of racing pedigree. “I also remember going racing for the first time – a point-to-point near Ludlow, where the traffic had to stop so they could race.” He smiles wryly at the ups and downs (and outgoings) of the sport. “Getting involved certainly seemed a good idea at the time.”
The prequel to his racing career was a joint property investment in a stable with Tony Stratton-Smith, founder of Charisma Records (Genesis’ label); Dave Robinson, who created Stiff Records; Island Records’ Chris Blackwell (see our Summer 2019 issue); and the pop svengalis Chris O’Donnell and Billy Gaff, who looked after Thin Lizzy and Rod Stewart respectively. When this didn’t work out, Robinson and StrattonSmith encouraged Wright to visit the yearling sales at Newmarket, where he bought a filly for 12,000 guineas. Crime of Passion – inspired by the title of Pat Benatar’s album – then ran for Wright and his Chrysalis partner, Terry Ellis. She came second at Royal Ascot but, inexplicably, Ellis’ name was left off the race cards, which, after some agitation over where she might run next, prompted Ellis to invite Wright to buy him out. Wright wisely did and Crime of Passion went on to even greater heights than finishing runner-up in front of the Queen.
The purchase of Stratford Place in the Eighties came next. For this, Wright, who grew up on a farm, blames his old neighbour, Sir Richard Branson. Separating them was some land. Wright heard that Branson was after the added acreage, which would mean an altogether cosier presence. Wright moved swiftly to maintain the buffer by buying the land himself. Since then, he credits John Mall, Stud Manager, with making it one of the best equine nurseries around. (Aided by Crispin de Moubray, who has advised Wright on his bloodstock holdings for several years.)
Perhaps key to Wright’s love of racing is his passion for history. A graduate in Politics and Modern History from Manchester University, Wright reads extensively about racing, which in Britain dates back to Charles II, and recommends Frederico Tesio’s Breeding the Racehorse as a seminal text.
He is comparatively ambivalent about betting. Despite the success of Culture Vulture, who followed and was even better than Crime of Passion, for Wright, betting is rarely the exciting experience it is for the rest of us. “I don’t send the bookmakers any cheques and they don’t send any to me, so on that basis I am not losing,” Wright suggests. The entrepreneur in him laments that the racing industry in the UK has become so dependent on betting.
He is not alone at the races, as far as the music business is concerned, however. Wright says “Rod” (that’s Mr Stewart to the rest of us) likes racing, as does Eric Clapton. “And Andy McDonald, who founded the Independiente label,” he adds.
Racing is also a retreat from the modern world. The Sixties and Seventies were, for Wright, the golden age of pop. “It’s different today,” he explains. “In the past, we were trying to make albums. Today, the game is more about making a single track. We would agonise over the running order of an album; two sides, with the end of one compelling you to turn over and listen to the other side.
“When CDs came you could have 74 minutes of continuous music, which is different,” he says. “With vinyl, anything more than 25 minutes or so on one side would mean the grooves would be too close to maintain the quality of sound.”
Wright sighs, recalling how, by the Eighties, the best artists would spend years between albums, striving for the right sound. “We were not in the business of just making three-minute pop songs,” he says. Perhaps he is revealing how fulfilling racing has become as the music business has evolved almost beyond recognition.
Back at Yeomanstown Stud in Ireland, the stallion Dark Angel goes about his business creating the next generation of racehorses. Wright says that at the start of what has been a steady climb up the stallion billboard, he wasn’t especially sure that his colt would prevail in the breeding shed. He smiles with no little pride. As for horses he has bred that trace their lineage back to Crime of Passion, Wright couldn’t be prouder. “They’re like family.”
Colin Cameron is a BBC broadcaster and Financial Times contributor