Fergus & Judith Wilson: The £75m outsiders


Last updated at 14:35 04 April 2005

Were it not for Judith Wilson's distinctive green suit, she and husband Fergus could pass quite anonymously as they move through crowds at Aintree.

But don't be fooled. They are living proof that appearances can be deceptive. Looking like Mr and Mrs Average, the Wilsons' story is far from ordinary.

With a personal wealth estimated at £75million, they sit alongside the Beckhams at equal 654th in The Times 2005 Rich List.

The rise of the former maths teachers had its unlikely beginnings in pigeon racing, which produced the initial nest egg.

Rather than conservatively incubating it successfully in a savings account, Judith Wilson, 54, used the money to fuel a business plan which made her the queen of buy-to-let, spending a remarkable £6.9m one day on property in her carefully hatched plan.

At the last count the pair owned 659 houses. Their financial rise has both amazed and impressed.

But the racing industry doesn't take them seriously. In the closeted world of the thoroughbred, many see them as the eccentric Kent couple who like to run no-hopers in the top races.

Going racing just three times a year, they want to be in the midst of the action. The latest came when they ran the Michael Scudamore-trained pair Astonville and Turnium in the Champion Hurdle at last month's Cheltenham Festival. Both started at 500-1 and some questioned their right to take part arguing that they may get in the way of the fancied contenders.

It never happened, although the pair filled the last two places. Three days later Astonville ran again in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Once more he was the final horse to cross the finishing line but five of the starting 15 failed to get that far.

Some asked why bother? But the Wilsons were delighted, feeling it was a perfect clean jumping trial for Astonville to run in Saturday's John Smith's Grand National. They shrug off criticism of their ploy as the musings of those who fail to understand their motives.

Fergus, 56, said: "We are used to people telling us how we should spend our money so it's no great surprise that some of the racing fraternity should offer their advice whether it is requested or not.

"Astonville finished 10th in the Gold Cup. There were 15 in the race so, if my arithmetic is correct, he's beaten something. Many expected him to be 16th, so they may have been pleasantly surprised. My no-hoper was not as much as a no-hoper as the five who finished behind him."

The placings, they argue, are irrelevant. In a philosophy which may seem at odds with someone so used to winning in business, the Wilsons just love taking part.

Fergus scoured the French sales for horses with high enough handicap marks to ensure a place in the National line-up. He bought five geldings this season, Astonville, Turnium, Present Bleu, Wild Tempo and Solarius. His "lottery tickets". All were good horses once.

But that was then. Now they struggle to justify their handicap ratings and, such is the increased quality of the race, only Astonville is guaranteed a place in the line-up.

But all horses in a handicap theoretically start on equal terms and the Wilsons and their supporters will be there to cheer him on to see if he can better Back Bar in 1999, who carried their silks into 14th place.

Mugs bearing their colours have been handed out with rosettes to the local children who venture an interest, while members of Maidstone rugby club, wearing the red, black and white of Astonville's silks will be in the entourage. The team tie is obligatory.

"This is fun with a capital F," added Fergus, who insists almost all his fellow owners have voiced their support of his running policy. It's one that some can't grasp.

Judith said: "They think the only people who take part want to go out and win. It's all money orientated. But the participation is just as enjoyable.

"We are putting in a horse with a hint of a chance. Look at the 100-1 winners like Foinavon (1967 National winner)and Norton's Coin (1990 Gold Cup victor). At those odds, they should presumably win once a century."

Statistics over logic from the maths masters perhaps. Such arguments will fail to convince the purists who argue that a championship should constitute a line-up which lives up to the name.

But Fergus believes that their intolerance to outsiders and their attitudes stems from not seeing beyond their noses, or at least past the boundaries of the sport. He says it is why racing fails to reach out to the masses and is happy to serve its own shrinking world.

It is the same view which sent the racing world into shock when triple Gold Cup winner Best Mate broke a blood vessel.

Fergus said: "I was more concerned with fluctuations of the interest rate which can cost us millions. Racing should get into the real world. Most people weren't concerned about a horse's nosebleed."

He delivers his views with conviction, belief, confidence and painstaking detail. One suspects he secretly loves the spotlight.

If more of his horses than the Tom Scudamore-ridden Astonville make the line-up, he'll offer the rides on his other geldings to girl jockeys Nina Carberry and French-based Nathalie Desoutter.

It will add to the enjoyment for the man who once spent £110,000 on a pigeon.

"If I had to choose between horses and pigeons I'd choose pigeons every time. With them I'm the jockey, the trainer, I'm everything. With horses, I'm just the mug who supplies the money for everyone to enjoy themselves."

But he does not intend to be a mug much longer. With additional horses in training in France and with Martin Pipe, he is building a stud from where he plans to breed French-bred chasers. He also hopes to create a European Equestrian Centre in Kent and set up a sale centre to trade imported jumpers from the continent.

Fergus Wilson has big ideas that he thinks everyone should share in. Whether Astonville, a 200-1 shot with the bookies, can match them is doubtful. Doubtful but possible.

But, whatever the result, the Wilsons will greet the outcome with a smile.

Fergus said: "I understand from Peter Scudamore that Astonville has been swimming for the last week. If the Grand National was in a swimming pool, he'd probably win."

Which will be ironic if he falls at the water jump.