Group-race winners hail overwhelmingly from a relatively small pool of what are perceived to be ‘elite’ stables – and they tend to be either homebreds belonging to one of the major breeding operations or else sixfigure sales purchases.
Mick Appleby might not have been the first to buck that trend this year when he won the Group 3 Coral Charge at Sandown on Eclipse day with Raasel, but this was a remarkable eighth success in little more than nine months for the five-year-old, who had been bought from Shadwell for only 10,000 guineas after a year on the sidelines. If proof were needed that cheaply-bought, second-hand horses can win decent prizes, then here it was.
By the time you read this, Raasel’s winning spree might have come to an end in the King George Stakes at Goodwood. On the other hand, he might have triumphed yet again and put himself firmly in the running for a tilt at the Nunthorpe.
However the five-year-old gelding fares, it should not detract from yet another extraordinary bit of training by a man whose slow-burning career was first properly ignited in 2010, when Cotswold Village and Seneschal, his first two runners from new premises in Cirencester, won on consecutive days at 66-1 and 50-1.
Over the next three years, Appleby further advertised his skills by winning nine races, including a November Handicap, with £600 purchase Art Scholar, eight with £500 buy Lockantanks and no fewer than 17 with The Lock Master, who cost a princely £1,600.
He has moved premises again three times since, finally to a former polo yard at Oakham, which he has bought himself and developed just the way he wants it, but one constant has been his ability to rekindle the flame in a steady stream of horses who others have finished with, or to find untapped potential where former connections could not see it.
The majority of his runners began their careers elsewhere – the very useful sprinting siblings Danzeno and Demora, with 18 wins between them, are a rare exception – and improvement of 30lb or so on official ratings, sometimes even more, is not that uncommon.
So, what’s the secret, and more importantly, will he share it?
Fortunately, Appleby, who last year set a new personal best of 109 winners and is fast approaching a landmark 1,000th success, is refreshingly open about how he makes it all work.
“I bought Lockantanks and Art Scholar very cheaply at Ascot,” he explains. “With Lockantanks I knew the family, which was that of Lochsong, having been head lad to Andrew Balding for three or four years. He was a bit of a cripple, which is why he was so cheap, but we took our time getting him right and won a lot of races with him.
“Art Scholar had been sprinting, but when I looked at his pedigree, I thought there was a fair bit of stamina there and so I thought he was worth buying and stepping up in trip.”
Success breeds success
Those early examples were soon followed by the likes of Bancnuanaheireann, who cost only 2,500 guineas but won valuable handicaps at Goodwood, Newmarket and Chelmsford; Pearl Nation, whose seven wins saw his rating rise from an initial 74 to a peak of 104; Poyle Vinnie, who was second in the Ayr Gold Cup and whose mark rose by a similar amount; Supersta, who won seven times and rose from 63 to 102: and of course Big Country, who arrived with a mark of 75 and peaked at 109, winning seven races, including the Zetland Gold Cup and a Listed event at Pontefract.
Since then, Hakam, who was Appleby’s first Group 3 winner when scoring at Ovrevoll, Edraak, King Of Stars, Saaheq, Whittle Le Woods, Zapper Cass and now recent Newcastle Group 3 second Annaf are among many others who have maintained an impressive flow.
Success breeds success, as we know, and it was the clamour from those wanting a slice of the action, including Raasel’s owners The Horse Watchers and the syndicate’s predecessor the Rod In Pickle Partnership, which forced the subsequent moves into bigger premises. However, he has no plans to move again.
The Horse Watchers secure their own horses and then place them when they are ready to go, but Appleby sources and trains for plenty of others who leave it all to him. He doesn’t mind explaining what he does.
“I look at where the horse is coming from, how it’s bred and where and over what trip it’s been racing over, and then at what sort of problems they’ve got,” he says. “A lot of them do have issues, but I think I’ve got a good eye for identifying what they are and then it’s just a matter of giving them time and sorting them out if we can.
We’ve got a pretty good strike-rate with problem horses from other yards.
“It doesn’t work with every horse. We haven’t got the type of owners who are spending hundreds of thousands, but I think we’ve got a pretty good strike-rate with problem horses from other yards.
“I don’t think there have been many who have gone backwards after joining us, but if I don’t think a horse is going to win, I’ll tell the owners, and then if they still want to keep them in training it’s up to them. Usually, they move them on and go in again.”
He adds: “The Horse Watchers have grown, as I have, and they are now in a position to spend a bit more, so we are starting to get some Class 1 and 2 horses, rather than the Class 5 and 6 ones we’ve usually been dealing with.”
Appleby believes he gives his owners a good overall experience – there’s an open-door policy seven days a week and they are welcome to wander freely around the barns and to join him on the gallops – and many have commented upon how refreshingly welcome they are made to feel compared to other trainers.
There’s too much racing at the moment.
However, the more horses cost, the more owners expect of them, and Appleby has major concerns about the overall state of the sport. He doesn’t need much prompting to reel off a list of his frustrations.
He says: “Racing in this country is on a big decline and unless things are sorted out very soon a lot more owners will leave the sport. I think the BHA and stakeholders all need a kick up the arse to be honest, as they seem to be burying their heads in the sand. Racing’s problems just aren’t getting sorted.
“There’s too much racing at the moment. I definitely think they need to do away with summer jumping, which even most of the jumps trainers seem to agree about. It’s not working, and there are too many fixtures full stop. Field sizes are too small, and although it’s great if you are in with a chance of winning, it’s no good for punters or racegoers.
“I’ve always been against Sunday racing. I can see why they want it but racing seven days a week all year round is too much, so I’d suggest no racing on Mondays. With fewer fixtures they could increase prize-money, which is a big concern and something my owners often talk about.
“The bonuses that ARC is putting on next winter are a good thing, but if prize- money isn’t improved more widely, I think a lot more owners will be walking away from the sport.”
He regrets the switch from Fibresand at Southwell, where The Lock Master was so prolific. “To be fair I think it needed changing,” he concedes. “It had served its purpose and was getting pretty worn out. I don’t have so many now who would have liked the old Southwell surface, but what we didn’t need was another Tapeta track.
“They should have gone for dirt, as they largely have in America and on the all- weather in most other countries. One dirt track would have given us more variation.”
One might think Appleby ought to get more involved in racing politics, but he insists it’s not for him. “I used to go to the trainers’ meetings, but they weren’t catering for the likes of me and I could never get a word in, so I don’t go any more,” he explains. “When ARC was first trying to get new races added in the all-weather season, which would have brought in more prize-money, the NTF wouldn’t back it.
“Richard Hughes and I went to a meeting and only found out about it when it had already been turned down. The people making the decisions don’t bother much with the all-weather, and we had never been consulted and so didn’t know anything about it.”
Appleby is happier talking about his horses than what’s wrong with the sport, and he returns to Raasel.
He says: “After the King George at Goodwood, the plan is likely York for the Nunthorpe. Then there’s been talk about the Breeders’ Cup, too.
“We knew he had problems, so we gave him a bit of time and he’s repaid us. He’s a very nice horse to have in the yard and he’d probably be the best I’ve trained. We are quite excited about him, and if he keeps on progressing he could go right to the top.”
If you’ve been paying attention to the rise of both Raasel and his trainer, you wouldn’t bet against it.
‘His results speak for themselves’
Racing TV pundit Martin Dixon of The Horse Watchers on his support of the Mick Appleby stable
Mick was starting to do well with horses like Art Scholar, Lockantanks and The Lock Master when myself, my brother Chris and Richard Hoiles were first looking to set up a syndicate in 2012 – not The Horse Watchers at that stage.
Art Scholar won the November Handicap about a week after I first met Mick, but what sealed the deal was a bumper horse called Squire Trelawney, as he’d been tailed off three times for another trainer and looked no good at all, but won first time out for Mick at Uttoxeter at 40-1.
On the basis of the results he was getting and the type of horse he was getting them with, we went to the sales with Mick with a budget of £8,000 and we bought a two-year-old out of Marco Botti’s stable called Miako for £6,500, which was expensive for Mick at the time.
His remit was that we wanted to win at Southwell and, sure enough, when he took him there for the first time after three runs, he won by five lengths! Miako wasn’t very good and didn’t win again, but that Southwell win confirmed for us that we’d picked the right trainer. We’ve never looked back.
The initial selecting of horses is all down to us – we’ll look at anything. It’s much more about the horse himself rather than who we are buying it off and whether we see potential and a good programme of races for him.
We then go to the sales with Mick to see them in the flesh. If Mick likes them from a physical perspective and doesn’t dismiss them because of something that he’s unduly worried about, then we’ll go ahead and have them vetted.
Mick has a really good eye for identifying what might be troubling a horse, then it’s a question of weighing up how long it might take to sort it out and how costly it might be. When we’ve got all of the information, we then decide if the risk is worth taking.
What he does with them will always depend on the individual and any issues that they might have arrived. There’s no blanket policy for every arrival; recognising what each individual would benefit from is one of his great strengths.
We do the placing when Mick has the horse in top condition and ready to go, and I don’t think there’s anybody better at preparing a horse and getting him fit and ready for a chosen day. His results speak for themselves.
It doesn’t always work of course, but Mick has done exceptionally well for us. Big Country, Hakam, Intervention, Lion Hearted, Supersta are just a few of the horses he’s improved dramatically and won multiple races with, and now of course we have Raasel.
Raasel cost only 10,000 guineas, but he was winning for the eighth time from only 13 starts since when taking the Group 3 at Sandown. He looks the best of the lot and we hope there’s more to come from him.