Up until the last two weeks, I've always seen horse racing as a good way of parting with my children's paltry inheritance.
However, now, standing at the edge of a paddock on the border of the English counties of Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, I can see that the so-called "sport of kings" is a global industry attracting huge investments of time, money and expertise. For, in front of me, at Sheik Mohamed's Dalham Hall stud in Newmarket, is Dubawi, a retired thoroughbred stallion that makes £125,000 ($240,000) every time he "covers" (mates with) a mare.
Without wishing to be prurient, this is the business end of racing, a place where fortunes can be made and science leaves little to chance. This handsome yet unassuming devil, son of Dubai Millennium and sire of 16 Group One race winners, is a galloping cash machine, spawning millions of dollars by doing what comes naturally.
Like the Irish National Stud, in Tully, county Kildare, that I visit a fortnight earlier, Dalham Hall, is pretty much equine nirvana. Or rather, heaven for thoroughbred race horses, that will never know the freedom of running wild. After all, with so much at stake, even the covering process itself is carefully monitored by stud grooms – please use your imagination – to ensure success.
Happily, in Ireland, the National Stud, close to the Curragh racecourse, also comes with a healthy dose of whimsy. It was established, in 1900, by Colonel William Hall Walker, friend to the British aristocracy, and ardent believer in astrology. Walker was convinced that a horse's birthdate determined their racing talent, which reminds me of my own "pretty name" strategy for backing winners.
Yet, through this stud, every Irish citizen has a share in the global bloodstock business, and among the retired champions strutting their stuff in the Kildare countryside is Americain, the 2010 Melbourne Cup winner. I discover him, rolling on his back in a paddock, happy as a pig in mud.
This being Ireland, the stud naturally has an adjacent Japanese Garden, for horticulture was another of Colonel Walker's obsessions. Meticulously created, between 1906 and 1910, the garden takes visitors on a symbolic journey, beginning at the Gate of Oblivion, taking in the island of Joy and Wonder, crossing the Bridge of Life and ending at the Gateway to Eternity.
I emerge in Newmarket two weeks later. Arguably, the headquarters of world racing, the town encompasses two racecourses, the largest mown area in the world, at 1821 hectares, and 80-kilometres of grass canter, known as Newmarket Heath, where 3000 horses train daily.
If those statistics don't underline how serious a proposition racing is to Newmarket then the fact that 60 per cent of the town's working population is employed in the industry will.
The "sport of kings" tag also partly originated here, as racing evolved in the early 17th century when James I visited to hunt for rabbits and hares, and courtiers took to galloping horses against each other to amuse themselves. Later, Charles II travelled to Newmarket Heath to watch the races.
It wasn't long before the august Jockey Club, founded in London's Pall Mall, moved to Newmarket. After buying a coffee house in 1752, its exclusive membership of royalty, eminent businessmen and politicians began wagering with each other on the outcome of races.
It was around this time that English owners began importing Arab stallions, to crossbreed with native mares, to produce the perfect racing machine. Modern thoroughbreds can trace their ancestry to just three Arab stallions that arrived in the 18th century.
Visiting the Jockey Club rooms, in a grand High Street mansion built on the site of the coffee shop, is like entering the hushed spiritual home of British racing. It's all grandfather clocks, fireplaces and gilt-framed paintings of horses, famous trainers and racing-mad royalty, including the Queen.
These days horse racing is as much the sport of sheiks, plumbers and even Melbourne Cup winning female jockeys as it is an indulgence of royalty and a multinational industry employing tens of thousands. At Newmarket and the Irish National Stud, I've learnt how crucial good breeding is to success.
Sadly, that knowledge hasn't yet improved my gambling credentials.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to examine the horoscopes of today's runners to find myself some sure-fire winners.
The writer was a guest of Tourism Ireland and Visit Britain.
Newmarket is accessible by train from London Kings Cross via Cambridge, journey time 80 minutes. Trains to Kildare run regularly from Dublin Euston station, journey time 30 minutes.
TOURING AND STAYING THERE:
Jockeyclubrooms.co.uk, 101 High Street, Newmarket offers private group tours of Newmarket, and has onsite accommodation.
Bedford Lodge Hotel and Spa, Bury Road, Newmarket, has luxury rooms and the 2 AA Rosette Squires restaurant. bedfordlodgehotel.co.uk
Irishnationalstud.ie Entry €12.50, including guided tour.
The award-winning Rathsallagh Country House Hotel is in nearby Dunlavin. rathsallagh.com