For trainers driven by ambition, these are difficult times in which to make an impact. The big Newmarket batteries are augmented on Britain’s racetracks by the best from Ballydoyle, which enjoyed a record-breaking 2017.
This promotes a trickle-down effect across the scale. Stakes races represent something of a glass ceiling for most young licence holders, yet Archie Watson has made such a splash since he started 18 months ago that he has long since broken through.
By any yardstick, Watson’s progress has been striking. It first gained momentum on the back of horses deemed surplus to the requirements of others. Horses like six-year-old Brandon Castle, who ran 19 times without success before he joined Watson, and who has since improved his official rating by 34lb in winning six races.
The last trainer to revive jaded older horses with similar aplomb was David O’Meara. It is a particular skill, yet many who possess it do not fare as well with horses they buy as yearlings. Yet Watson has already answered that question, too.
Corinthia Knight gilded a remarkably successful all-weather campaign when he landed the 32Red 3 Year Old All-Weather Championship Stakes in March. Watson bought the son of Society Rock for €15,000 as a yearling and the colt has now banked small change short of £200,000. More importantly, however, his triumph made an attractive statement about his trainer.
My main fault is that I’m a bit too racing-obsessed. I’m thinking about race planning in the evenings when I should be relaxing. I get told off by Claire the whole time
Prize-money at the All-Weather Championships invariably draws the bigger stables out of hibernation. They duly aligned against Corinthia Knight, yet Watson’s horse had achieved so much that he was sent off a hot favourite at 5/4. It is one thing to start favourite for a £150,000 race; it is quite another to win it. Watson was more than a match for the challenge.
“I’d been saying all along that the race on finals day would be perfect for him,” Watson recalls. “I did feel a bit of pressure on the day because Corinthia was favourite, but in terms of getting him ready, he is just a really tough horse who thrives on his racing. We do very little with him at home.”
Corinthia Knight’s triumph couldn’t quite secure his trainer the accolade of leading all-weather trainer. Watson gave best narrowly to Mick Appleby, although it was never the intention to try and top the pile.
“We only started to take notice in February,” he says. “We gave it a good crack from there; we trained at 24% [winners-to-runners] over the whole winter and there wasn’t anything more we could have done with our small team. Mick had a great final month and just pipped us.”
At that point, most fledgling trainers would have been happy to pause and draw breath. Not Watson. His rapid rise means that he has bigger fish to fry. Most of his all-weather horses will be roughed off while he calibrates plans for a different set. The man who started with only three horses in October 2016 now has a separate string for the turf season.
“The winter was good but it’s important we kick on again on the turf,” he says. “We had a good turf season last year: we trained 19 winners at 20%. We started this turf season ahead of schedule, but then, we do have more horses.”
It is clear that Watson, 29, keeps a close eye on his numbers. They tumble from his mouth as he outlines his achievements to date. He is a meticulous planner. Beneath an outwardly calm exterior is a restless mind.
He admits to living and breathing his business more than he should. “My main fault is that I’m a bit too racing-obsessed,” he says. “I’m thinking about race planning in the evenings when I should be relaxing. I get told off by Claire the whole time.”
Watson met Claire Short when the pair worked in Newmarket: she for Robert Cowell and he for William Haggas, to whom he was assistant for five years before he set up shop in Lambourn. The two operate closely in tandem, although their union has no official status. “I constantly get told off for that, too,” Watson says with a smile.
Haggas is one of a number of prominent industry figures Watson has served under, both at home and abroad. He also aligned himself with Blandford Bloodstock when enrolled at Edinburgh University, and has invaluable experience of having worked on stud farms – notably Shadwell and Windsor Park, in New Zealand.
But his most formative experience was the two-year stint he spent in South Africa, where he ran the satellite yard of local training legend Alec Laird. With Laird operating largely out of Johannesburg, Watson was largely responsible for training and saddling the stable’s runners in Durban.
“That’s where I learnt the most,” he reflects. “Alec is a fantastic trainer; the best horseman I have ever worked for. When you are an assistant running your own yard, it is like training but without the financial pressures and pressure from owners. I was insulated from all of that.
“I’m sure I made plenty of mistakes,” he continues. “There were times at the races when jockeys would jump off and say the horse wasn’t quite fit enough, or whatever. That’s why I was able to learn so much.”
Laird’s influence over the young Watson was profound. The man who tutored a South African icon in London News trains with a finely calibrated eye that misses very little, if anything at all.
I’m probably slightly Luddite in that I don’t like using heart monitors, GPS trackers, that sort of thing. I prefer to train by eye and my feel for a horse, and also what my riders tell me
“I developed my instinct to train from Alec,” Watson says. “I’d set up a work morning when he came down to visit, and he’d ask the rider to lift up his horse’s sheet before deciding the horse didn’t need to work that morning, even though he’d wanted to work it. He is very natural and intuitive that way.”
Those self-same tenets govern Watson’s approach to training. There is no set routine; each horses is trained individually, with Lambourn’s array of gallops ensuring that the whim of just about any horse can be catered for.
“I’m probably slightly Luddite in that I don’t like using heart monitors, GPS trackers, that sort of thing,” Watson says. “I prefer to train by eye and my feel for a horse, and also what my riders tell me.
“I’ve got a great team of riders. They can tell me a lot more about a horse than a device telling you your horse has just gone 39.6mph in its gallop, and that its heart rate went above 140.”
A distinct feature of Watson’s horses is that they hold their form for uncommonly long periods. “People ask me how we do it,” he says. “I don’t have the answer to that; it’s not really something I can quantify. [Newmarket trainer] David Simcock always said to me that fit and happy horses win races. That is what we are trying to achieve here.”
Corinthia Knight is a case in point. The three-year-old debuted in April last year, since when he has run another 12 times, including a fine fourth place on the Breeders’ Cup undercard at Del Mar in November. He also picked off a Listed race at Chantilly in March.
Corinthia Knight has become the yard’s flagbearer. High-profile horses like him attract attention, and the racing community will equate how he fares with the prowess of his trainer when he is up against the big boys. It will be a demanding examination, yet Watson exudes a quiet confidences. It speaks well of him that he has unearthed a horse of such calibre so early in his career.
Most of what Watson does is geared towards the future. He has a two-month plan for every horse at Saxon Gate, a small yard next to Rhonehurst where Fulke Walwyn and Mick Channon were previous occupants. He now has around 70 in training, and is adding 60 new boxes at Iveagh Barns, across the road from his main yard, which has scope for another 30 within an existing framework that can be erected at short notice.
Meanwhile, the human infrastructure has an accent on youth. Few fledgling yards have their own stable jockey, yet Watson has installed 19-year-old Eddie Greatrex alongside a couple of apprentices. Hollie Doyle, who has started riding out once a week, is also expected to take mounts for the stable this year.
“Around 95% of the staff are under 35,” Watson says. “I also like using young jockeys because we do things our way, not how other people do them. The idea is that we can all develop together as a team.”
I’m not knocking Newmarket, but I find it is getting a bit overcrowded in terms of human, horse and car traffic. There are public gallops here but it is almost like having your own gallops
Despite having worked solely in Newmarket, Watson was sold on a move to Saxon Gate as soon as he saw the place. He’d looked without success for a suitable yard in Newmarket and was pleasantly surprised by his first visit to Upper Lambourn.
“I’m not knocking Newmarket, but I find it is getting a bit overcrowded in terms of human, horse and car traffic,” he says. “There are public gallops here but it is almost like having your own. You don’t really run into other people and the atmosphere is nice and quiet. It seems to suit horses coming out of big yards [which Watson has generally excelled with].”
It is testament to what Watson has achieved to date that some prominent owner-breeders are patronising him – among them Philippa Cooper’s Normandie Stud, Nurlan Bizakov’s Hesmonds Stud and Al Asayl Bloodstock, which has been with him from the start.
They will provide Watson with the sort of quality he will require in the quest to raise his sights. He relishes the prospect, although there is no discernible sense of impetuousness about him. He is also confident in the young horses he purchased at public auction, from where so much of his success has emanated.
“Having bought our first lot of yearlings last autumn, the quality is definitely up across the board,” he says. “We didn’t even spend more money [than the previous year]; the vast majority cost between ten and thirty grand.”
Needless to say, as with everything else, Watson was instrumental in deciding which yearlings to buy. He is backing himself to the hilt. The early returns suggest he is in the right business.
Great partnership with Eddie Greatrex
Eddie Greatrex arrived at Saxon Gate Stables in March last year and immediately impressed with his work ethic. The young apprentice was at a pivotal stage: he was 25 winners away from shedding his claim and needed a suitable platform to take his career forward.
“He comes in here four days a week to ride out and he has taken the opportunity,” Watson says. “As stable jockey, he rides the majority – although I still use Oisin Murphy and Luke Morris when they are available. I like having a core of jockeys who know my horses, and know how I like them to be ridden.”
For Greatrex, the association could not have come at a more opportune time. “After I left Andrew Balding’s I didn’t ride a winner for five months,” he reflects. “Every young jockey knows that the transition from apprentice is very hard. I saw that for myself, but Archie gave me chances as soon as I came here. It took a while before I rode my first winner for him, but he stuck by me.”
The consequence is that Greatrex’s confidence has soared. “Archie lets me ride in some stakes races so I am busier than ever,” he says. “I’m a different jockey now. The best part is that we are a young team full of new ideas. Morale in the yard is good.”
The son of Lambourn trainer Warren, Greatrex has posted seasonal totals in the mid-30s for the last three years. He seems sure to leave that well behind in 2018, having passed the 20-mark before March was out.
“Archie has routines with each horse down to a tee,” the jockey says. “His horses are always very fit and they look well. If there is half a length to be found in any horse, he will find it. It has been a great help to me that he is so loyal.”
So much so that Watson entrusted Greatrex with two rides aboard Corinthia Knight this winter. The combination obliged both times. “It’s difficult to explain what that does for your morale,” Greatrex says. “I wouldn’t swap my job with anyone.”