The Swedish Banker who Ruled the World
Colin Cameron meets the financier Erik Penser, whose success as a racehorse owner and breeder has made him a pillar of the British racing establishment
By Colin Cameron
July 25 2019
Like pigs finding an acorn, we occasionally beat the bookies. But how do you make a million? Start with two and invest in thoroughbreds! This old joke raises a smile from Erik Penser – racehorse owner, breeder, and master of the 16th century, 2000-acre Compton Beauchamp estate in Berkshire, where he established Churn Stables.
A generation ago, Penser, 76, accepted the challenge of losing a fortune, but sensibly founded a bank in his native Sweden first. Even with what must have been agreeable overdraft terms, he never expected a financial return from horses.
And the training ground he built over two decades in Berkshire? He describes it now as a “white elephant” but less of a gamble than the equine nursery he also founded. As to providing bed and board for 20 thoroughbreds in training, he shrugs, “My horses are like family.”
Rather than consider expense, Penser reflects on what loyal companions horses are. Success in the Eclipse Stakes at Sandown in 1999 found a triumphant Penser all alone with Compton Admiral, his hero of the hour. At Doncaster for Beauchamp King’s success in the 1995 Racing Post Trophy – like the Group One Eclipse, a race of the highest calibre – the colt’s trainer, the late John Dunlop, had low expectations and was absent.
Today, one of Penser’s three children or nine grandchildren might keep him company at the races. Or a fellow director of Newbury racecourse, where he sits on the board; or a fellow member of the Jockey Club. Certainly no tipsters.
Like his horses, Penser is excellent company, with a great sense of humour. Over lunch at Boisdale of Belgravia, – where he orders the dry-aged steak – he reflects on a lifetime of racing success. At 13, his father took him on a rare family outing to Jägersro for some trotting, which is popular in Sweden.
Racing captured his attention by offering what he thought was a chance to get rich quick, he laughs. Today, he considers racing and betting as a puzzle. “A jigsaw, crossword, Sudoku; I like to solve problems, and racing – picking winners, planning matings – is the most challenging of all.”
Racehorse ownership also began in Sweden, when Penser was 22. Parental approval was scarce. “I was useless at school,” he recalls. “I then studied law at college but never passed an exam and have no degree. But I began working as a stockbroker and did have a feel, or intuition, for the job. My father wasn’t pleased that I decided to buy a racehorse.
My view was that I would at least break even.” And so he did, with two winners. Ownership in Britain was a natural progression, as was a move into breeding. “When they are born, you have no hopes for them; they are like pets,” he sighs. He names all his homebreds “Beauchamp” and stock bought at the sales or privately, “Compton”. As to creating winners, “You just hope that they might one day race.”
Beauchamp King did far more than that. Penser-selected his mother – Afariya, who was barren before coming in foal for Penser – and father – a stallion called Nishapour. He makes all matches himself, so no success, or blame, is shared.
Penser recalls Doncaster in 1995. “I cannot bring myself to sell horses I have bred, so Beauchamp King went into training with John Dunlop. He didn’t want him to run in the Racing Post Trophy, but the field was small and the prize-money was worth taking a chance. I paid a £15,000 supplementary fee to take part – in the end, well worth it.”
Though down to single figures as an owner, Penser’s commitment to racing is firm. Since 1960, he has missed only three days at Royal Ascot, two of them while on compulsory National Service.
He is only marginally down on any betting over his lifetime. As you might expect of a former banker, every wager has been meticulously documented. Keeping a record of your betting is a prerequisite for success, he says. Too easy to remember the winnings and forget any damage. Beyond this, he warns against chasing losses, following tipsters and the importance of any staking plan. “Be careful,” he counsels. “The value of a good night’s sleep exceeds everything.”
He suggests studying past races – he owns every Raceform Form Book going back to 1934 – and seeing the horses at the track to back your own judgment. He is no fan of ante-post betting days, weeks and even months ahead of a race: “I have to have seen the horse.” Always visit the paddock to look at the field ahead of any race; appearance gives very good insight into a horse’s wellbeing, he reasons.
Laughing, Penser tells me how the lowest financial return of all his racing investments has also given him the greatest pleasure. “It was the early Eighties. I had a phone call from the late Lord Carnarvon, the Queen’s racing manager and chairman at Newbury.
Someone owed more than 30% of the course, which was against the corporate governance rules of the day, so they needed an investor to take a 5% stake. The call was less than a minute, followed by a letter with the address for where to send the cheque. Then nothing for five years. Not even a free admission badge!
Finally a lunch invitation came. ”Many more have followed, and the chance to make a difference at a leading British race course is why Penser values his involvement so highly. Likewise, his membership of the Jockey Club – a great honour for a Swede, he stresses – and his Small Breeder Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association Award in 1995. The cost? Penser won’t put a price on even one day at the races. A rarity indeed – a banker who has long ceased counting.