Sir Alex Ferguson and the horse that led to the Glazers taking over at Man Utd

The Glazer family have been owners of Manchester United since 2005, but they might never have gotten their hands on the club at all had it not been for the help of a £200million racehorse.

The horse itself, Rock Of Gibraltar, was part-owned by legendary United boss Sir Alex Ferguson and a women called Susan Magnier – wife of former Old Trafford shareholder, John Magnier.

During the horse's racing career, things were fine. Rock Of Gibraltar was a star of the turf, winning 10 of his 12 starts and accumulating £1,164,804 in prize money across two seasons.

But upon Rock Of Gibraltar's retirement, a dispute of European Super League proportions would eventually see Magnier and partner J.P McManus sell their stake in United to the Glazers.

The dispute hinged on the breeding rights to Rock Of Gibraltar, with Ferguson believing his half-ownership of the horse entitled him to half of the breeding rights as well.

Magnier and McManus, owners of Coolmore – the largest breeding operation in the world for thoroughbred racehorses – disagreed.

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."

A legal dispute is one thing, but a legal dispute involving the manager and shareholders at the same club, and for that club to be Man United, is another thing entirely.

In 2004, Magnier and McManus submitted their infamous list of 99 questions to the Old Trafford board attempting to gain information on the club's finances and transfer dealings.

They even threatened to "take action" against United if they were not given satisfactory replies.

Former club captain Roy Keane, who later had his own falling out with Ferguson, revealed in his autobiography 'The Second Half' that he advised Ferguson to drop his case entirely, but to no avail.

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  • "Somebody I met in Ireland had told me to tell him [Ferguson]: 'You are not going to win this.' I mentioned it to him," Keane wrote.

    "And I told him that I didn't think it was good for the club, for the manager in a legal dispute with shareholders.

    "I felt I was entitled to say that. He was just a mascot for them. Walking around with this Rock of Gibraltar – 'Look at me, how big I am,' – and he didn't even own the bloody thing!"

    While all of his was going on, Magnier and McManus were increasing their shares in United through their company Cubic Expression.

    Ferguson, meanwhile, was forced to plead with United supporters to back down from planned protests against the pair at the 2004 Cheltenham Festival.

    Fergie 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."

    All the while, Malcolm Glazer, owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers NFL team, was keeping more than just a watchful eye on the situation.

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    The American had been acquiring shares in United since March 2003 – starting off at 2.9% before rising to 3.17%, 8.93%, 15%, 16.31% 19% and close to 30% by October 2004.

    Glazer soon made Magnier and McManus an offer for Cubic Expression's 28.7% stake in the club in May 2005 – an offer they accepted.

    With a month, the Tampa Bay tycoon would acquire 98% of the club's shares before signing off a takeover worth close to £800million or $1billion, sparking protests from United fans.

    But what of Rock Of Gibraltar? Well, Ferguson settled out of court in March 2004 for a one-off payment of £2.5million. He would later touch on the saga in his 2013 autobiography.

    He said: "Rock of Gibraltar was a wonderful horse; he became the first in the northern hemisphere to win seven consecutive Group 1 races, beating Mill Reef’s record.

    "He ran in my colours under an agreement I had with the Coolmore racing operation in Ireland. My understanding was that I had a half-share in the ownership of the horse; theirs was that I would be entitled to half the prize money.

    "But it was resolved. The matter was closed when we reached a settlement agreeing that there had been a misunderstanding on both sides.

    "Obviously, there was a potential clash between my racing interests and the ownership of the club, and when a man stood up at the AGM and insisted that I resign, there was awkwardness for me.

    "I have to say that at no point was I side-tracked from my duties as manager of Manchester United. I have an excellent family lawyer in Les Dalgarno and he managed the process on my behalf.

    "It didn’t affect my love of racing and I am on good terms now with John Magnier, the leading figure at Coolmore."

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