Rod Collet offers a perfect appraisal of his profession. “When you have no good horses it makes you nervous and you start thinking too much,” he says. “Then, when you have a good horse, it makes you even more nervous and you think even more.”
A broad smile softens his features. “That’s a trainer’s life, I suppose. You feel like everybody is watching you.”
Not that Collet seems remotely ruffled on the morning of Sahpresa’s bid for the Falmouth Stakes. Perhaps he is emboldened by the lack of overnight rain, a definite plus for a horse who thrives on fast ground.
Or perhaps he’s just pleased to be back in Newmarket. It was here, in October 2009, that Sahpresa downed Ghanaati over the same Rowley Mile where Ghanaati had landed the 1,000 Guineas five months earlier.
That was Collet’s first Group 1 triumph and he followed it 12 months later when Sahpresa returned to win the Sun Chariot for the second time. On this occasion, however, fortune deserts the six-year-old mare.
Despite her trademark flourish, Sahpresa fails to catch the enterprisingly ridden Timepiece in the Falmouth. Some mutter that Christophe Lemaire is tactically at fault aboard the 13-8 favourite, but Collet, 37, is not among them.
He’d cautioned earlier that the uphill climb to the finish on Newmarket’s July Course might count against Sahpresa. “I think a mile is a bit too far for her,” he says with more than a touch of prophecy. “Both times she has run over seven furlongs at Longchamp she has won brilliantly.”
Opportunities to win Group 1 races are rare for one who trains a string of 30 horses across la Manche at Chantilly, but Collet is not one for histrionics. There will be other days for Sahpresa – as there will for Nova Hawk, whom Collet saddled to finish runner-up in the Coronation Stakes three weeks earlier.
As the world knows, Nova Hawk was beaten at Royal Ascot by Immortal Verse, who is trained by Collet’s 63-year-old father, Robert. It was a bitter-sweet moment for Rod, who quipped after the race that trainers who reached 60 should be obliged to retire.
“Perhaps I should have said trainers who were 63,” he muses in reference to the recent protests in France at the extension to retirement age. Then, quick as a flash, he adds: “Maybe that’s why my father brought Immortal Verse to England. You don’t retire here until you are 67, non?”
That Collet is au fait with developments in Britain is hardly surprising. As part of his education he worked for John Gosden when the latter moved from California to Newmarket to train for Sheikh Mohammed in 1990.
There followed a stint in the California barn of Jack Van Berg, who trained equine totems in Gate Dancer and Alysheba but who revelled in the accolade that he was leading trainer at Ak-Sar-Ben Racetrack in Omaha, Nebraska, for 19 straight years from 1959.
Van Berg’s string was largely made up of claiming horses, but that didn’t stop him from posting some impressive numbers. In 1976 he set a new record for winners in a season with 496.
“I learnt a lot from both of them,” Collet reflects. “Mr Gosden’s horses had great pedigrees but Mr Van Berg had all kinds of horses. Nobody starts training with top-priced horses, so I had a very good experience in America.”
Between 14 and 17 I travelled with a lot of his horses to Italy and Germany – it was good experience but for sure he kicked my arse a lot
Van Berg’s set-up was very much in the mould of Collet’s father, from whose not-inconsiderable shadow Rod is now emerging. In addition to one of the biggest Flat strings in France, which is based in Chantilly itself, Collet père trains a formidable team of jumpers at his palatial property on the fringe of town.
Although still in his teens when he joined Gosden, Collet had already accrued a wealth of knowledge from working for his irrepressible father. “Between 14 and 17 I travelled with a lot of his horses to Italy and Germany,” he recalls. “It was good experience but for sure he kicked my arse a lot.”
Anyone with a passing acquaintance of Collet senior will know that Rod won’t have had it easy. A noted bon viveur, the old man plays as hard as he works – and as hard as he runs his horses.
His is a remarkable success story; the son of a stud manager, he took out a training licence at 25 and landed his first British Classic when Son Of Love won the 1979 St Leger. The defining moment in his career came when Last Tycoon posted a stunning victory in the 1986 Breeders’ Cup Mile.
Collet senior is never short of an opinion. His sometimes abrasive disposition surfaced when he was interviewed after Immortal Verse won the Coronation Stakes. A personal recollection of him was the way he verbally confronted hundreds of disgruntled PMU employees who disrupted French Guineas day at Longchamp in 2005.
To have such a father is something of a mixed blessing. Collet returned from his foreign postings to work for him in 1993, when he assumed a position of responsibility. “I was like a head lad but it was hard sometimes,” he reflects.
“Everyone who works for my father learns a lot because he trains all kinds of horses. In some ways it was good for me to have the name of Collet in France. In others, it was quite complicated. People think of you as your father’s son.”
Four years on and Collet decided to take the plunge. His father was a close friend of Francois Boutin, whose death, through cancer in 1995, shook the racing community in France to its core.
When Boutin’s equine properties eventually came up for sale, father advised son to act. “Both he and I felt the same way,” Collet recalls. “I realised it was important for me to start on my own.”
Boutin had used that particular yard to house Allen Paulsen’s horses, among them the iconic Arazi. “My father helped me to buy it,” Collet recalls, but after that, the paternal hand was withdrawn.
In his first season Collet trained one horse for Richard Strauss, who owned Last Tycoon and has been a staunch ally of his father for 30 years. Beyond that, he was on his own.
“Actually,” Collet says, “I did train one horse belonging to my father, who has many horses in training. I managed to win a race but it’s not easy to train for a trainer. My father kept telling me which races to run in, saying I was stupid… ufffff! But I guess it was part of the experience.”
Last season brought another experience Collet would happily forget. Having expected to capitalise on Sahpresa’s inaugural Sun Chariot triumph, he was instead halted in his tracks by a debilitating virus.
“Sahpresa ran badly at Royal Ascot in June,” he recalls. “It was happening to a lot of my string at that time and by the end of the season we were down to 22 horses,” he says. “Eventually we found the problem and cleaned out the stables, but it was tough.”
While the exploits of Sahpresa and Nova Hawk have elevated Collet from anonymity with the British public, he had already crafted great success with his runners outside France. Collet’s international outlook is exemplified by Labirinto who, in 2003, completed
an arduous schedule of four races in as many months.
Having finished second in the Group 3 Grand Prix de Vichy in July, Labirinto won the Copa de Oro de San Sebastian and the Stockholm Cup before failing by a neck to land the Grade 3 Carleton F. Burke Handicap at Santa Anita.
Sahpresa’s achievements are all the better when you consider she was foaled in the same year as Zarkava and Goldikova. “Those two fillies made me wait patiently for the right opportunities,” Collet says.
“I knew Sahpresa would be better with time, but few people believed me when I said she was very good.” So good, in fact, that Teruya Yoshida bought her from her owner/breeder, Douglas McIntyre, in October last year – after which Sahpresa ran two fine races to finish on the heels of the winner in both Japan and Hong Kong.
While Yoshida hasn’t further patronised the Collet stable as yet, there is irony in the fact that Japan’s biggest owner/breeder has a two-year-old with Collet senior for the first time this season.
Owners of well-bred horses understandably prefer to send them to big trainers, but I hope my results will send the message that I can train good horses
It seems that wherever Rod Collet turns, he runs into his father’s shadow. When Sahpresa finished third in the £1.25 million Group 1 Hong Kong Mile in December, his father saddled the runner-up in Royal Bench. But he does not complain.
“It’s true that we used to fight a lot when I worked for him,” Collet reflects, “but we have never been as close as we are now. We have lunch and dinner a lot; we spend some holidays together. One thing I remember especially: all the things he told me would happen have proved to be right.”
It would be inaccurate to describe Collet as a chip off the old block, but the feeling is that he is going places. Immaculately turned out in shades of blue and designer spectacles, he looks more like an affluent banker than a trainer. And he has plainly inherited a helping of his father’s gregariousness.
Whether he can reach the same career summits remains to be seen, but the portents are promising. Trainers of his status can only get the maximum from the horses they have. Sahpresa has outrun a humble pedigree for earnings of £850,000, while Nova Hawk is worth a hundred times the 18,000gns she cost as a yearling.
“To be successful you have to make a name for yourself,” he says of the future. “I am a lucky trainer: every year I have had at least a Listed or Group 3 horse. Owners of well-bred horses understandably prefer to send them to big trainers, but I hope my results will send the message that I can train good horses.”
It is greatly to his advantage that Collet has time on his side.