It isn’t easy to win a mainstream Classic. In an age when select stables are backed by unquantifiable wealth, only eight individual British trainers have prevailed in the 77 British, Irish and French Classics run in the decade to date.
The most recent was Hugo Palmer, and he gained his with a difference. It came courtesy of a filly who cost more to supplement to the Irish Oaks than it would have cost to buy her outright. That €40,000 late entry would have secured Covert Love as a yearling with five figures to spare.
Yet Palmer posted other sterling achievements during a golden three-week spell in July. It started when New Providence landed the Group 3 Summer Stakes at York. Covert Love’s triumph at the Curragh was complemented 24 hours later by Home Of The Brave’s win in the Group 3 Minstrel Stakes. Nine days later Galileo Gold came up trumps in the Group 2 Vintage Stakes, and, somewhere along the way, Palmer found time to get married.
“It was a mad idea to do that in the middle of the season,” Palmer, 35, reflects at his Kremlin Cottage Stables, on Newmarket’s Snailwell Road. “It was a huge relief that the horses kept running well, otherwise people would have said my mind wasn’t on the job. I was fearful of that, because a funny thing about British people in general is that a lot of the time they are looking to knock you.”
It’s a curious observation to hear from a man who is about as British as they come. The Honourable Hugo Palmer is the eldest son of the 4th Baron Palmer, whose ancestral seat, Manderston, is in Berwickshire.
At the turn of the 20th century the family owned one of Britain’s most successful businesses, the biscuit manufacturers Huntley & Palmers. An Eton education was as pre-ordained for Palmer as it was for his father before him, although the institution’s revised selection process means the same may not hold true for Palmer’s sons.
However, it is only when Palmer retraces his formative years that his espousing of the “tall-poppy syndrome” gains context. By far the most rewarding time professionally came when he spent 15 months in Australia with that country’s totemic trainer, Gai Waterhouse.
Unlike so many of similar origins, Palmer does not see Australia as a distant outpost bereft of material significance. When he returned to Britain five years ago he was “buoyed by the success and vibrancy of the Australian [racing and breeding] industry, where I’d been working for an icon.” It was exactly the sort of opportunity he craved but found hard to find in Britain.
“When I was younger I was considerably heavier than I am today – and I’m not light now,” he says. “I applied for a job as pupil assistant with Sir Mark Prescott and he told me I was too heavy to ride his hack.”
Undeterred, Palmer mucked out and drove horseboxes for Patrick Chamings before he spent three years under Hughie Morrison. “I was probably treading water for much of it,” he reflects. “I decided to go abroad and was able to get a job with Gai Waterhouse.”
The experience left a profound impression. “She was away when I arrived and I spent the first week working out that I’d been brought over from Britain to be a stable lad, starting my day at 2.15am,” he says. “I realised I was going to have to work my arse off for it not to be the worst decision I ever made.
I applied for a job as pupil assistant with Sir Mark Prescott and he told me I was too heavy to ride his hack
“But when Gai came back the senior men must have reported well of me,” Palmer continues. “I’d been there for two weeks when she sent a horse to Dubai with her senior foreman and I was suddenly put in charge of running the main yard with 90 horses in it.
“That put some people’s backs up big-time, of course, but I didn’t make a mess of it. In Australia they are much more receptive to giving young people a go. You find a lot more men and women in their 20s in charge of things, which doesn’t really happen here. And unlike a lot of trainers here, Gai is a real teacher. She loves exploring; she loves challenging what she does every day.”
This insightful chapter illustrates that Palmer essentially qualifies as self-made. Yes, he offers no pretence over his gilded youth: he loved hunting and was never short of a horse – although he says horses were simply a means to an end. “If people hunted on pogo sticks I would have learnt to ride pogo sticks,” he maintains.
And there’s no doubt his father’s status was instrumental in him securing the sort of mortgage required to buy Kremlin Cottage Stables. Yet while he was able to call on some distant family contacts (Chamings’s wife’s brother is married to his mother’s sister, if you didn’t know), all they could do for a wannabe trainer far too heavy to ride was to throw him a pitchfork.
This spate of hard-graft assignments will have tested his stated resolve to train – particularly when Ed Sackville, his great school friend, joined the Darley Flying Start programme while he trooped off to Highclere Stud for the arduous yearling prep season. The work ethic instilled in him, which he willingly embraced, served him well when he went to Australia.
When his visa expired after 15 months with Waterhouse, he was at something of a personal crossroads. “My parents had a long and messy divorce during the years I was at university,” he reflects, “and my relationship with my father became quite strained as a result.
“It brought a clarity to my mind to be so far away from England,” he continues. “But as the eldest son, I was keen to repair that relationship so I came back home. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but I decided to spend the summer here.”
No sooner did he return in April 2010 than he was back among old friends in Newmarket during the Tattersalls Craven Breeze-Up sales. “I ended up buying a horse,” he says of that fateful day.
“I’d worked with Amanda Skiffington in my time with Gai and she told me to look at a filly she liked,” Palmer recalls. “So I looked at it, liked it, and asked Amanda what I was supposed to do about it. She said, ‘Well, I thought you wanted to train, and if you do, you’d better start with a nice horse or two.’ So I got ten friends together and we bought her for 25,000 guineas.”
Palmer, who thought hard about setting up shop, was swayed by the lack of suitable job opportunities available to him. “We’d also had a week of wall-to-wall sunshine in the build-up to the Guineas,” he says. “In good weather, England is at its absolute best at that time of the year.” And that was that. Decision made.
Now into his fifth season, Palmer often alludes to the “great good fortune” to have blessed his path. He cites the filly he bought at Tatts as a case in point: Making Eyes spent a formative two-year-old season with Chris Wall until Palmer opened his stable doors in March 2011. “It was outrageous, really,” he reflects. “She won five races for me, two of them Listed. Without her, who knows what would have happened?”
What happened was that Palmer had finally fulfilled a long-held ambition that gained currency during his time at Eton. Lammtarra’s victory in the 1995 Derby was properly celebrated: the colt hailed from the Godolphin stable of Sheikh Mohammed, whose Dalham Hall Stud was being run by Palmer’s uncle, Justin Wadham.
However, Benny The Dip’s victory in the same race two years later marked the tipping point. Sackville’s father, Lord De La Warr, had a fancied candidate in Grapeshot but the colt went wrong in the preamble, allowing Palmer to back Benny The Dip without emotional caveats.
“That got me hooked,” he recalls. “It was definitely the betting side back then. I was given £30 a month, which was an indulgence because beer and betting were the only things that were not paid for. A group of us used to go to the bookies most days and we were relatively successful. I remember I always seemed to have more than £30 in my wallet.”
A few of Palmer’s friends continued to explore betting paths on leaving school, but Palmer and Sackville inclined towards the horse. “Ed always wanted to become a bloodstock agent but I was not so sure,” Palmer says. “I felt I wanted to train but would settle for being a bloodstock agent if that’s how it turned out.”
There is next to no prospect now of Palmer joining Sackville in the agents’ ranks. Yet while his career graph continues to head north, it is only this year he has been able to turn profit akin to a half-decent salary.
Nevertheless, Palmer is not the sort of man to sit back and contemplate things in mid-season. He is driven by a yearning to succeed in the only profession he has ever dreamt of embracing. Yet as he plots equine sorties to foreign fields and ponders expansion plans for Kremlin Cottage, which has room for 80 horses, he takes reassurance from the fact his main reason for returning to Britain from Australia came to fruition.
“I’m enormously lucky to have had the support of my father,” he says. “I wouldn’t have come anywhere near to getting the mortgage I needed without his help, and I’m so glad training has gone well enough for us to be on track financially for the foreseeable future. Without him, I wouldn’t be sitting here.”
When Palmer was in his late teens his aunt, Lucy Wadham, trained six jumps horses for a syndicate that included Palmer’s father. The venture was a great success; four of the horses won, yet the 4th baron, who’d invested £2,000, eventually received a cheque for £700.
“Dad said to me, ‘You see, I told you racing was a waste of money’,” Palmer relates. As of now, however, Palmer is well on his way to proving otherwise.