A successful training operation is a lot like an iceberg, as the peaks that break the surface are only a fraction of what goes unseen beneath.
So, while things may appear to have gone rather swimmingly since George Boughey took out his licence midway through 2019, there is more to his backstory than meets the eye.
There is no doubt that Boughey has come an awfully long way in a very short space of time, having saddled 85 British winners, a pair of Group-winning two-year-olds and a Classic-placed three-year-old in just his third season, but he admits there was a point in the not too distant past when he wondered whether going it alone had been a titanic mistake.
“There were times when I thought I’d bitten off more than I can chew,” he says from his desk inside the Portakabin that serves as the Saffron House Stables office. “Especially when I only had four horses and I was mucking them out myself and Adi [Rogers, head lad] was riding them all. The first horse we took out bolted down the farm canter and when Adi got off, he just looked at me and I was sure he was about to say he was going back to his old job.”
To Boughey’s relief, Rogers kept the faith and the yard duly sent out its first winner when Three C’s recorded a game success in a Lingfield handicap on August 13, 2019. A fortnight later Cotton Club bolted up at Bath and Boughey was on his way, or so he thought. But those successes proved to be the stable’s only two winners from 37 runners that year, and a strike-rate of just five per cent certainly had not been part of the plan.
“We had a couple of winners early doors but we also had eight seconds and it was just a bit tricky,” he recalls. “There were times during that winter when I had to pay the staff but didn’t have any training fees coming in. There was probably a six-month period where I just had to get on with it because it would either work or it wouldn’t.”
Despite those teething troubles, Boughey’s rise from four-horse rookie to one of the hottest young trainers around has been little short of meteoric. He set out with a clear strategy to build a business and a reputation and by his second season it was starting to bear fruit.
He registered 26 successes at a strike rate of 20 per cent during the 2020 season as a succession of cheaply bought acquisitions were transformed into eye-catching winners. Three C’s won four more races, Songkran rattled off a four-timer, improving 25lb in the process, and the likes of Involved, Lua De Mel and Mirage Mac each registered multiple victories.
“My view on it before I started training was to go out and buy some horses to win claimers and sellers and 0-50s,” says the 30-year-old. “I didn’t have any other way of doing it as I didn’t get sent horses in those early days. A syndicate of mates owned Three C’s, who was bought for a round of drinks, and Cotton Club, who my dad owned, was bought for five grand out of a selling hurdle at Newton Abbot.
“My belief was that if people see you can train, they will start to start to send you horses”
“I thought if I could buy horses who could win races, I didn’t care what they were, because my belief was that if people see you can train, they will start to start to send you horses. And that’s how owners like Nick Bradley came in.
The association with Bradley has been an important one, with the leading syndicator supplying the ammunition for some of Boughey’s most notable successes, including the likes of Corazon, winner of the Group 3 Prix d’Arenberg, Oscula, who struck in the Group 3 Prix Six Perfections, and Mystery Angel, who gave Boughey a first black type victory in the Listed Pretty Polly Stakes.
The latter-named pair were also responsible for Boughey’s personal highlight of a stellar 2021 season, as Oscula recorded a facile success in the Woodcote Stakes and Mystery Angel, who had been supplemented at considerable expense, outran odds of 50-1 to be second in Snowfall’s Oaks just a couple of hours later.
“It was a miserable day, but I was pretty sure Oscula would like soft ground and Mystery Angel had been training well so it was a punt worth taking,” he says. “Oscula bolted up and if it wasn’t for Snowfall we might’ve nicked an Oaks from the front, so that felt like a huge day.”
Mystery Angel provided connections with another day to remember when she was sold on to Haruya Yoshida for 500,000gns at the Tattersalls December Mares Sale. She had been signed for by Bradley at just 22,000gns some 16 months earlier.
Other talented performers have left Boughey’s yard when good money has been put on the table too. And while the sale of promising prospects may seem antithetical to the aims of an ambitious young trainer, Boughey is pragmatic about the harsh economic realities of training in 2022. He says this commercially minded approach is necessitated by Britain’s chronic lack of prize-money.
“We’ve sold horses over the last couple of years and it’s been a huge part of our business,” he says. “We’ll continue to trade this year because we’ve got to make hay while the sun shines.
“I don’t really want to do it but because prize-money is like it is, selling is one way of lining an owner’s pocket. We sold fillies like Belacqua and Party On Girl and they made the kind of money they just can’t race for over here. They’d have to win the Guineas to earn £150,000 and although they were nice horses, they weren’t going to win the Guineas.”
Boughey’s impressive statistics coupled with a growing track record of buying low and selling high have seen him offset the talent drain by welcoming a growing client base of prominent owners to the yard. In 2021 he saddled runners for the likes of Al Asayl Bloodstock, Amo Racing, Highclere, Kirsten Rausing and Sheikh Abdullah Almalek Alsabah, to name but a few. With such strong support, the boxes at Saffron House tend not to remain empty for long.
Despite having attracted some significant owners into the yard, Boughey says he was never going to sit on his hands during the latest sales season as, aided by close friend and bloodstock agent Sam Haggas, the challenge of finding runners whose talent outweighs their price tag remains an ongoing motivation.
“We’ve been sent horses this year, although it probably isn’t as many as the general public think,” he says. “I’m getting more orders than I had to start with, but I certainly didn’t walk up to Book 1 with ten hundred-grand horses to buy. I still have to purchase them on spec and then an owner will either buy them off me or not, and I’ve never been one to drive people into horses as I’d rather let the horses do the talking themselves. We do have a full stable though and that’s what you want.”
With the hard yards at the sales done, at least until the breeze-ups begin, and with a squad of around 100 horses almost ready to roll from his base on Newmarket’s Hamilton Road, Boughey can look ahead to what promises to be another fruitful campaign.
“I’d have never dreamt we’d have 50 winners last year, never mind 85 and two in France, so it’s quite a tall order to go and do it again,” he says. “Our target this year is to try and have better horses again. Obviously we’d love to have more winners than we had last year but I know that’s going to mean having nearly 100. We have got a nicer team of horses coming through though.”
Having made his name by rejuvenating others’ castoffs and then enhanced his reputation with his two-year-old results, with 39 juvenile winners in 2021 Boughey hopes the likes of Cachet will advertise his ability to nurture the Classic generation. The daughter of Aclaim ran some mighty races at two, most notably when third to Inspiral in the Fillies’ Mile and when fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, won by Pizza Bianca. She started the new season in the best possible way with a decisive success in the Group 3 Nell Gwyn Stakes at Newmarket’s Craven meeting.
Bought explains: “I kept saying at the backend of last year that Cachet was slightly weak. She had a midsummer break and did well for that.
“This is our third full year and I had four horses a couple of years ago – to have a horse owned by Highclere winning a Classic trial is everything”
“She was fit but didn’t look like the fence behind me and she will step forward again. She is a very high-class filly and she will come back here for the Guineas and we will give it a good go.
“It’s massive. This is our third full year and I had four horses a couple of years ago and to have a horse owned by Highclere winning a Classic trial is everything.”
He continues: “I’m also looking forward to training some of these three-year-olds as we’ve tried to keep only those who are either slightly well treated or unexposed. I don’t want people thinking we can only train whizz bang two-year-olds as I enjoy training any horse, whether it’s a five- furlong sprinter or a two-miler.
“We’d have just over 50 two-year-olds in at present, which is more than last year but we ended up getting quite a few at the breeze-ups and horses who came to us over the summer and that may well happen again. They’re a nice bunch and there’s probably a few better pedigrees than we had last year too.”
There are many moving parts behind a successful training operation, from sourcing the right horses to keeping them fit and placing them effectively, as well as running a marketable business capable of attracting the kind of staff and owners able to make a difference. So far Boughey appears to be equally adept at all of the above.
He also possesses two qualities that, given the challenges involved in training racehorses, are all but essential yet often overlooked, namely a sense of perspective and a sense of humour. These are revealed when Boughey is asked about where he sees himself in five years’ time.
“We want to be competing at the biggest meetings rather than just making up the numbers, so in five years I’d like to have an increasing quality of horse and be winning good races,” he says before pausing for a moment and surveying his surroundings. “And hopefully we’ll have made it out of the Portakabin.”
Experience across the board from the sales to Sydney
Boughey is not only a product of his environment but his grounding too. He grew up in close proximity to racing, with Nick and Richard Mitchell training on his father’s farm in Dorset, which is also where Champion Hurdle hero Rooster Booster was bred.
But with no direct family ties, it wasn’t until Boughey was into his teens that he began to get hands on. He rode out for local trainers during his time at university in Newcastle, where he studied business management and agriculture, but says that being “too heavy and a terrible rider” soon erased any ambitions of a career in the saddle.
With no family favours to call in, Boughey recognised that to start training he would need connections, but rather than stepping into a role with a trainer and hoping for the best, he turned to the bloodstock sector and took on jobs with agents Luke Lillingston and Tom Goff.
“I was trying to find a way in and my view on it was I needed to meet the right people,” he says. “The bloodstock side of it offered that, as you can meet most breeders, owners and trainers at the sales. It was a great way of being introduced to people who you’re probably going to deal with for the rest of your life.”
It was Lillingston’s suggestion that Boughey spend time with Gai Waterhouse. The trip to Australia proved to be a formative experience, as exposure to her winning methods and mentality brought Boughey’s vision for the future into sharp relief.
“Luke said that experience would tell me what I wanted to do, and I just loved it,” he says. “I saw everything Gai did while looking over her shoulder, basically. She’s one of the most extraordinary people on planet earth and seeing how much energy and drive she has really instilled a bit of direction in me.”
While Boughey credits Waterhouse for setting him on the right path, he nominates Hugo Palmer, to whom he spent six years as assistant trainer, as having the biggest impact on his development.
Boughey says he was “probably surplus to requirements” when he joined the Kremlin Cottage team, which was only just beginning its own rapid ascendancy, but before long the stable was firing in Classic winners like Covert Love and Galileo Gold, and he was running the satellite yard at Yellowstone Park Stables on the Hamilton Road.
“I was in the process of getting my visa to go to Todd Pletcher’s in America when Hugo took the other yard on,” says Boughey. “It was an amazing preparation for training myself and I’m forever indebted to Hugo. He was very open and included me in everything and without a doubt he was the biggest influence on my career. We’re still close friends now.”