Talking To… Charlie Fellowes
You grew up on your father’s farm, 30 minutes from Newmarket and were occasionally “dragged”, in your words, to the races. What made you fall in love with the game?
Mum used to be in a syndicate with Geoff Wragg and I would go along and watch the horses train. When I went racing with them at Newmarket, Mum would give me a pound to bet on each race. The combination of those experiences and watching Channel 4 racing avidly, enjoying the likes of Francome, Tommo and Brough, completely hooked me.
I have always been competitive, loved sport and I guess the horses just clicked even though I don’t come from a horsey background. As a kid I wanted to be a jockey but at 6ft 3in that was never going to happen. I always idolised Frankie [Dettori], something I’ve never told him even though I see him regularly.
Following work experience aged 14 with Nicky Henderson you spent time with Richard Gibson in Chantilly, Lee Freedman in Australia and Godolphin before five years as assistant to James Fanshawe in Newmarket. How did all that experience equip you for life as a trainer?
My time as a stable lad with Nicky, and in Chantilly when I was 16, cemented my belief that I wanted to go into racing. I did eight months with Godolphin during my gap year before university; Simon Crisford taught me a lot. I helped run a barn under the supervision of my now assistant Mike Marshall and learnt about the basics of bandaging, dressing wounds and medication.
Lee Freedman in Australia was a great experience with a lot of travelling. Then the five fantastic years with James Fanshawe were the most informative of my racing career and moulded the way I train now.
You’d see a lot of James Fanshawe in what I do now. He is an extremely good horseman – the best I’ve ever worked with – and quite meticulous. He understands his horses so well. I just hope I can follow him. I love the horse side and trying to understand them. Every horse is a puzzle. Some are easy and some are incredibly difficult and the best trainers are the ones who complete the most puzzles.
Earlier this year you purchased the 120-box Bedford House Stables in Newmarket from Luca Cumani. When do you expect to fill the yard and what are the benefits compared with your previous establishment?
I’d love to fill the yard tomorrow; it would help to pay a few of the bills. But that’s not going to happen and I’m not in a rush. Filling the boxes is a gradual process. It is difficult to adapt when your numbers increase rapidly. We have a covered ride and extensive paddocks, which we didn’t have at St Gatien. It is a very relaxed atmosphere. Eventually I would like to try to create a boutique yard. We have about 55-60 in training at the moment.
Training in Britain is more competitive than anywhere else in the world and the rewards are far less. How do we improve the situation?
I don’t think we can. The rewards in Britain are never going to equal the quality of racing because of mistakes made years and years ago. Those earlier decisions have meant that, financially, bookmakers have taken far more for their own ends than they do in other countries. Bookmaking companies have shareholders they have to keep happy and horseracing is not at the top of their list of priorities.
A reason to be positive: I like what the Alizeti consortium is doing in trying to revitalise the Tote and put more back into racing, which would be a major factor in uniting all stakeholders. It is run by some great guys and could be the light at the end of the tunnel.
The big issue with staffing is the hours because people nowadays want their weekends off. But, because we are responsible for horses, you cannot close the stables down on Friday night and reopen on Monday morning. We are doing all we can to make the hours more flexible, but it is not easy.
How do you attract owners to Bedford House Stables and, perhaps more importantly, retain them?
I am not a good salesman. Ringing owners and asking them to send me a horse is not something that comes easily. I prefer to focus on doing a good job with the horses and if I can do that, then the owners will come.
As long as I can maintain the results then hopefully owners will stay with me and continue to come through the gates. Communication is important and you have to ensure owners enjoy visiting the yard. We are an entertainment industry at the end of the day.
You have taken a strong stance in the controversial whip debate, stating that when a jockey breaks the rules – as Hayley Turner did on your first Royal Ascot winner Thanks Be – the horse should be disqualified. Why?
A lot of people have said that I am anti-whip, which I am not. After the national press reports following Hayley’s Royal Ascot win on Thanks Be, people read it wrong. One of the most damaging things to horseracing are negative headlines in the national press.
Racing transcends the news media only very occasionally, with positive stories featuring our superstars like Frankel and Enable and that’s to be encouraged. But when jockeys are banned and fined there is much wider coverage.
While I was driving home from Royal Ascot, every hour on the hour the Radio 5 Live headlines kept repeating that Hayley Turner, the first woman jockey to win at Royal Ascot for 32 years, had incurred a nine-day ban and £1,600 fine for misuse of the whip. Suddenly the whip gets into the working man’s consciousness and people think it’s cruel, which it is not.
I think we have to get rid of those headlines by stopping jockeys breaking the rules. How do we do that? Some say with bigger bans and bigger fines. But that won’t work. Disqualification of the horse will.
If jockeys know that breaking the whip rules means the horse will be kicked out – the owner, trainer and jockey with them – because they’ve overstepped the mark, they will not risk it.
Particularly when the horse involved is a prospective multi-million-pound stallion. If that’s the punishment then for sure jockeys won’t break the rules, meaning no more tainted media headlines. And the whip will survive a lot longer.
Society is changing; people are becoming more sensitive to global warming and animal rights, especially the younger generation. If we want the whip to stay – and there isn’t a single person in racing that wants it to go – we need to be far more proactive.
What was your immediate reaction after Thanks Be had provided Turner with the first Royal Ascot victory for a female jockey since Gay Kelleway broke the ice in 1987?
Training my first Royal Ascot winner at what I believe to be the pinnacle of horseracing was a momentous day and something I had dreamt of for years. I was also over the moon for Hayley, a good friend who has done so much for female jockeys and it was great she was the one to do it. But I have to admit my immediate reaction was: Well done, me!
I was sad to see Thanks Be leave for America but the owners, Emma and Simon Capon, have been great supporters of mine and always tradesmen. If a good offer comes for a horse they sell and I don’t blame them. If they’re making money, then fantastic. Thanks Be is a filly I’ll never forget and it was hard watching her stepping into the horsebox for the last time.
You helped Khadijah Mellah prior to her widely publicised win in the Magnolia Cup at Goodwood. How do you reflect on her achievement and that success?
It was utterly remarkable. I have had an incredible 365 days taking in winning in Australia, finishing third in the Melbourne Cup, winning at Royal Ascot and Glorious Goodwood and then along came Khadijah Mellah into my life – she trumped the whole lot. She arrived at the yard six weeks before the Magnolia Cup and on her first morning fell off twice.
I rang Oli Bell, her mentor, and told him Khadijah wasn’t good enough or fit enough to ride at Goodwood. From that moment Khadijah proceeded to prove me wrong every step of the way, working incredibly hard on her fitness and riding. Racing won big time and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer person.
Is your position as Chairman of Newmarket’s annual Henry Cecil Open Weekend a part of your philosophy of encouraging racing to open its doors to a wider public?
Yes. I think to a lot of people, racing is very much in its own bubble and there is a serious lack of trust in the sport from outside. There are those outsiders who believe it is rigged and horses are drugged. I didn’t come from a racing background and I am constantly telling my friends that racing in Britain is the cleanest in the world.
The Henry Cecil Open Weekend is a really good way to open our doors and show people what we do. It was a big factor in my becoming Chairman of the event. It is a small way I can give something back, having come from a privileged background.
We raise a lot of money for charities – Racing Welfare, the British Racing School and the Racing Centre – and hopefully it will continue to grow.
You take part in an entertaining fortnightly podcast with fellow trainer George Scott. What’s the idea behind it?
Last year George and I had a bet on who would train the most winners and prize-money. We used to take the mickey out of each other and have a bit of banter. Then local journalist Tony Rushmer heard of this and said it would be amusing on a podcast. We enjoy the recordings, which are light-hearted and fun.
We are in the process of setting up a syndicate which will have one horse with George called Charlie Fellowes and one with me called George Scott. Hopefully we’ll have people coming into the syndicate as a result of listening to the podcast. Their involvement will be very cheap and hopefully very cheerful!
As an up and coming 33-year-old trainer, what changes do you believe would benefit racing?
I wish everyone would sing from the same hymn sheet, though I don’t think it will ever happen. As long as we keep fighting our own corners the money will be divided between more and more interests.
If only the racecourses, bookmakers, trainers, owners, breeders and BHA could all realise that if we work together instead of pulling against each other it would be so much more beneficial. I think Australia do that so well, working together for the greater good.
Is there a type of horse you like to train and what do you look for first in a thoroughbred – pedigree or conformation?
I don’t want to be typecast as a trainer who is good with one type of horse at the exclusion of another. I love middle-distance stayers; being patient and allowing them to come along in their own time. It suits the way my brain works. I like horses that blossom as they get older like Prince Of Arran and Endless Acres, who have got better with time. But one of my bugbears is that I haven’t had a good sprinter and that’s something I want.
Conformation is very important but if you’ve got the money pedigree is very important as well. I go on the physical aspect, a strong, well bodied horse that is correct. Trouble is, those with top pedigrees invariably end up with John Gosden or Aidan O’Brien.
I use agents Will Douglass, a friend of mine who found Thanks Be, together with his boss, Charlie Gordon Watson. They have found me some lovely horses.
Prince Of Arran, who has won in Dubai and Australia, finished third in last year’s Melbourne Cup. Is he heading back there for another crack?
The plan for Prince Of Arran is to have a couple of runs at the Carnival in October in Australia before the Melbourne Cup. He enjoys travelling because he is laid-back – so intelligent that a change of scenery interests him and acts as a new lease of life. He likes flat round tracks and there aren’t many in England so he does well abroad. A clever horse invigorated by all the travelling.
Where would you like to be in five years’ time?
Filling Bedford House Stables with improving quality.