Jack Watkins talks to the champion racehorse trainer on quality over quantity and preserving Newmarket.
As an avid follower of the Turf since early teenage, it’s a poignant moment when, shortly after arriving at Clarehaven racing stables, I watch John Gosden and Frankie Dettori standing for a few moments on the lawn beside a bronze statue of Golden Horn. What a trio: Mr Gosden, the towering master trainer with the rock-hewn profile that could have graced a John Ford Western; his jockey, the dapper, tanned Italian, looking as if he’d flown in from Monte Carlo; and Golden Horn, the brilliant colt whose Derby victory in 2015 cemented the pair’s successful racetrack reunion after a break of many years.
For most trainers, that year with the Anthony Oppenheimer-owned and bred Golden Horn, a colt that went on to win the Eclipse Stakes and the Arc De Triomphe, would have been a crowning career achievement. However, for this Newmarket yard, the glories have kept on coming.
Remarkably, four of the past five Cartier Horse of the Year awards have gone to Gosden-trained horses: Kingman, Golden Horn, Enable and Roaring Lion. ‘The truth is, we’ve been fortunate to have had a succession of good years,’ agrees Mr Gosden, settling down to talk in his office, the walls lined with prints of his former Flat stars.
‘We had three champions on one day at Ascot (the October Champions Day meeting), wound up with a record amount of prize money and Enable, having won the Arc, went to America and took the Breeders’ Cup Turf. Look, it was an extraordinary season. One never does expect to repeat something like that, but you’d be very happy to win some of those races again.’
As we spoke, in Too Darn Hot, Timeform’s top-rated two year old of 2018, Mr Gosden had the ante-post favourite for last week’s 2,000 Guineas, the one English classic to have thus far eluded him. Sadly, a splint problem subsequently caused the colt’s withdrawal, but the trainer admitted it hasn’t been a race he’s often targeted.
‘When you concentrate on breeding for speed and precocity, you will end up racing in only one dimension, which will be incredibly monotonous, like Twenty20 cricket’
‘It’s a touch early in the season for me and I haven’t had a lot of runners in it. I tend to be quite patient in the spring. I always feel the great racing is in the summer and autumn, although I love Newmarket in the first week of May and Epsom in the first week of June.’
Mr Gosden is a notably patient handler of his charges, explaining that ‘the thing you learn down the years in training is that the pause button is a lot more important than the fast-forward button’. Listening to his long, measured sentences is like sitting at the feet of an oracle of the sport.
This is his 31st season of training in Britain, during which time he’s won the trainers’ championship three times. Before that, he spent 10 years training in America, having earlier served spells as assistant to those champion trainers of the 1960s and 1970s, Sir Noel Murless and, in Ireland, Vincent O’Brien.
The finest apprenticeship of all was, arguably, in that he grew up on the Sussex Downs, where his father, the memorably named ‘Towser’ Gosden, had a racing stables at Lewes either side of the Second World War. ‘He didn’t get on well with his father, who nicknamed him after their dog,’ smiles his son in recollection, ‘but he was a very diligent trainer. Everything had to be right for the horse.
‘There was quite an old racing fraternity up on the Downs in those days. Richard Hannon Senior’s father was up there and Auriol Sinclair, who my father helped. She was one of the first women to get a licence to train. She was very talented, but the licence had to be held by her head lad.’
Sadly, Lewes racecourse closed in 1964 and only one trainer now remains at this former racing centre, which once yielded winners of the Grand National and the Derby. It’s unthinkable such a fate could await the heaths of Newmarket, immortalised in the paintings of George Stubbs and Benjamin Marshall, yet Mr Gosden is concerned about plans to build houses in the area, which he fears will render the place a ‘bolt-on’ to Cambridge.
‘Newmarket is unique in the world,’ he explains. ‘There’s no other town that 3,000 horses walk through during the day and exercise on the heath, as they have here for nearly 400 years.
‘Our next-door neighbour Cambridge has become an import-ant and powerful place because of the way the academic world, via the Science Park, has become linked with business and it has a massive housing requirement, but we don’t want our town ringed by commuter houses that are unaffordable for Newmarket people.
‘There are empty RAF airfield sites round here and other brownfield sites they could build on. Horse racing and breeding are one of the things this country is still number one in the world at and we don’t want to see its heritage destroyed.’
Mr Gosden has also been outspoken about the need to do more to encourage bloodlines for stamina in Thoroughbred racehorses. He welcomes Weatherbys Hamilton’s recent bonus initiative for the positive effect it’s had on the Flat staying division.
‘In America, it’s become all about speed racing. Absurdly, they now regard a mile and a half as a marathon race. When you concentrate on breeding for speed and precocity, you will end up racing in only one dimension, which will be incredibly monotonous, like Twenty20 cricket.
‘The staying horses and the traditional owner-breeders, whose life’s work is developing these stamina bloodlines and broodmare bands that can take 50 years to put together, are incredibly important.’
This is more important for Mr Gosden, one senses, than winners on the track. ‘People look up the statistics and tell me I’ve trained 3,500 winners. I don’t care. It’s the quality of the horses you remember, the ones that capture the imagination of the public. And don’t forget the golden rule with horses: they’ll always make a fool of you.’
In praise of brilliant horses.
Every year, Royal Ascot serves up racing at its finest – but that's just the starting point for the experience.