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Football agent David Manasseh cries tears of joy after Ballyburn’s victory

Willie Mullins and David Manasseh
Willie Mullins congratulates a virtually overwhelmed David Manasseh after Ballyburn's victory in the Gallagher Novices' Hurdle - Steve Davies/racingfotos.com/Shutterstock

If you want to know what it looks like to have a horse win at Cheltenham, it was all there in the reaction of David Manasseh. After his six-year-old gelding Ballyburn had won the Gallagher Novices’ Hurdle, the owner of the CAA Stellar Agency, the man with more than 800 leading footballers on his books, was behaving as if he had just slotted the penalty that had won the World Cup.

In the winner’s enclosure he was hugging everyone who came into his eyeline. He hugged Tony McCoy, these days a pundit on ITV, but back in 2011 the jockey who had steered one of his horses to victory at Punchestown. He hugged Willie Mullins, his horse’s trainer. He hugged Paul Townend, the horse’s rider. And he hugged a photographer who had recently taken some pictures of him watching his horse in training out on the gallops with the kind of intensity that suggested marriage might well be impending.

“Unbelievable, my first time, unbelievable,” Manasseh was saying.

“You can’t buy that,” he added, his grin lighting up a slate grey afternoon. “You’re here at Cheltenham, among the [renowned] owners: Rich Ricci, Michael O’Leary, the Donnellys. I’ve got two horses in training, then that. Unbelievable.”

How did it compare, he was asked, to that time he saw his most renowned former client Gareth Bale score the winner in the Champions League final with a flying bicycle kick?

“That was great,” he grinned. “But I’m the agent, I’m not the parent. Here I feel like I’m the parent. The people in my box are the family. This is another level.”

And he had a point. This was personal, very personal. Manasseh had been coming to Cheltenham to watch for years, taking a box to entertain his most important clients: not the footballers, but their parents. He’d never had a runner here before. And here he was winning.

Though there was something about the race beyond his victory that made it intriguing. While Ballyburn was the favourite, just behind it in the bookies’ reckoning was Ile Atlantique, the property of Tony Bloom, the man behind Brighton and Hove Albion. Here we had a very modern kind of rivalry being played out under the Cheltenham hills. Where once it was land owners and city folk in contention, here was a football club owner against a super agent. And given Manasseh has several clients on Bloom’s books at the Amex – including Lewis Dunk, Adam Lallana and Billy Gilmour – one which could turn interesting.

“Actually he’s a good friend,” Manasseh said of Bloom. “I’ve got six players there. Mind, the next round of [contract] negotiations should be fun.”

Manasseh has made his sizeable fortune from sorting out the finances of modern-day footballers. And, just as in football, in racing the rich can buy access to the best and brightest. But there is one significant difference between the two sports: when they invest their cash, in racing the rich don’t get exclusivity. While the club owners like Bloom have sole use of the talents of the CAA Stellar clients they sign, Manasseh is obliged to share a trainer’s abilities. Indeed, Willie Mullins had prepared not just Manasseh’s entry in this race, but Bloom’s too. Plus a further three of an eight-horse field.

It was, however, Manasseh who seemed to get the most out of Mullins’s shrewd operation. It was some race Ballyburn ran, brilliantly corralled by Mullins’s principal jockey. Townend kept him close to the front for most of the two circuits of the course, before unleashing him after negotiating the second last fence. Paddy Mullins aboard Bloom’s Ile Atlantique took the same approach, hanging back, letting others set the pace, before applying the afterburners down the home straight. But he simply did not have the same engine available as Townend. This was a textbook ride.

Not that Manasseh was taking any credit for the success.

“I haven’t spoken to Willie for five weeks and he hasn’t spoken to me,” he said. “But I said right from the start I’m just on the journey, you’re the racing people.”

He will, however, know that this is a horse of immense potential. Though when he was asked where Ballyburn could go next, if, indeed, as some have suggested, he could be winning the Gold Cup in two years’ time, he was having none of it.

“Stop at today, don’t ask me next week,” he said. “In sport, just enjoy the good times. Just party, party, party. My box will be rocking.”

And he was good to his word. Anyone passing his box long after the last race had ended, could hear the party was still clearly going on. “Burn Ballyburn”, to the tune of Disco Inferno, was still being belted out, a chorus of sheer delight.

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