THE Glazer family’s control of Manchester United can be traced back to Alex Ferguson’s row over a £200million racehorse.
A legal battle with an Irish billionaire and a power struggle that pierced the heart of Old Trafford, the almighty bust-up came close to tearing apart the world’s biggest club.
It was in 2003 that Ferguson began legal proceedings against Irish horse racing tycoon John Magnier.
The cause of the dispute was Rock of Gibraltar, a record-breaking horse.
Rock of Gibraltar, who Fergie co-owned with Magnier’s wife Sue, was a world-beater.
It was named 2002 European Horse of the Year after setting a world record for winning seven straight Group 1 races.
It was the most famous horse in the world and won more than £1.2million during its 18-month career.
But, as with many top class flat horses, the real money-making potential lay in its stud career.
Estimates from late 2002, when Rock of Gibraltar finished runner-up in its final ever race, said the champion horse could be worth as much as £200m.
This is because when a horse ‘goes to stud’, stables can charge huge sums of money for it to mate with a female horse.
A prime example of this is Galileo, who is worth £180m and charged £600,000 a go at the peak of his stud career.
Fergie, Magnier and his Irish racing partner JP McManus, himself another billionaire, knew this all too well.
And that is where the iconic United manager’s legal battle with Magnier started.
In 2001, Fergie and Magnier were good friends with a shared love of racing.
Their friendship was such that a conversation took place in which Fergie was led to believe he owned half of Rock of Gibraltar – who even ran in United’s colours.
But it is there and over the term ‘owned’ that problems started to arise.
Ferguson was under the impression that he owned half of the horse’s breeding rights too, but Magnier’s Coolmore stable felt he was entitled to half the prize money.
On November 17, 2003, a statement issued on behalf of Magnier read: “Coolmore Stud has today been advised that legal proceedings have been initiated against Mr John Magnier by Sir Alex Ferguson alleging certain ownership rights to the stallion Rock of Gibraltar.
“Coolmore Stud and John Magnier consider the action to be without merit and it will be vigorously defended.”
The legal case was one thing, but tied up in all of this was the fact Magnier and McManus were majority shareholders in Man Utd too.
So here it was, the biggest manager at the biggest club in football in a row with the biggest shareholder.
And it was not soon before the dispute would reach Old Trafford.
In 2004, Magnier and McManus submitted their ’99 Questions’, demanding answers from the United board over the club’s affairs, finances and transfer dealings.
Included were questions over the transfers of Cristiano Ronaldo, Jaap Stam and Tim Howard.
And writing in his memoirs, Fergie said there was ‘awkwardness’ for him when a man asked him to ‘resign’ over the affair at the club’s AGM.
The row reached fans. Some United supporters vowed to use ‘guerrilla warfare’ against Magnier and McManus.
And in February 2004, Ferguson told supporters to call off their planned protest against the pair on Cheltenham Gold Cup day.
The Scottish manager said at the time: “The Cheltenham Festival is a classic meeting in the National Hunt racing calendar, which people from all over the world and all walks of life come to enjoy.
“It is effectively the equivalent of the FA Cup final to horse racing fans and I would not wish this special festival to be marred in any way.
“I am therefore asking supporters to refrain from any form of protest and am strongly opposed to any violent, unlawful or disruptive behaviour which may reflect badly on the club and its supporters in general.”
While this was all happening, US billionaire Malcolm Glazer was keeping a very close eye on developments.
Thinking May 2005 was the time to strike, Glazer made Magnier and McManus an offer for their 28.7 per cent stake in the club.
Within a month the American sports tycoon had completed a takeover worth £790m.
Magnier and McManus were said to have made £70m profit from their stake.
But what of Rock of Gibraltar?
Well, just over a year earlier, in March 2004, Fergie settled out of court for a one-off payment of £2.5m.
He had been offered four stud nominations a year for the rest of the horse’s life by Magnier.
But Fergie declined.
When one of Rocky’s daughters was sold in Ireland for more than £600,000, experts pointed out Fergie could potentially have been making close to £2.5m a YEAR.
The fallout of the dispute between Ferguson and Magnier is still being felt at United today.
Had Magnier and McManus not sold their shares, then there may never have been a chance for the Glazers to come in.
There may never have been the chance for the Glazer Out movement to start, no green and yellow scarves and no anger at the owners for taking £20m out of the club while debt soared to nearly £500m in figures published last month.
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