As the son of a Grimsby fisherman, did you ever consider following in your father’s footsteps and going to sea?
Dad was a skipper, but sadly he was murdered when I was 12. Everything had been in place for us to move to Cape Town, where Dad had been offered a job as a senior fisherman, but of course we never made it. Otherwise, I’d have probably been the next Mike de Kock!
Instead I looked after ponies and donkeys on the beach at Cleethorpes. We used to take donkeys on the ferry across to Hull and race them.
No one knows this, but I went through the card before Frankie Dettori, riding six winners in one night at Hull… all on donkeys!
How did you end up working in racing?
Times were very hard after we lost Dad and one of my cousins wrote round trying to get me a job. I eventually started work with Harry Wharton, who was private trainer for Clifford Nicholson at Willoughton, where James Given is now.
I wasn’t getting any rides so I went to Geoff Toft at Beverley, where I ended up as head lad at the time he trained the high class Gunner B, who I broke in.
It was a sad day when Gunner B left the yard to join Henry Cecil and that was when I decided to join John Bingham, near Doncaster, where I rode four winners from about 100 rides.
You were travelling head lad to Mick Ryan during the days of the brilliant filly Katies. What did you learn during your time with Mick?
I joined Mick in 1980 and soon realised I would learn a lot from him. Mick wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but you wouldn’t get a better horseman or a more astute placer of horses.
He was also very good with injuries and there wasn’t a lot he didn’t know; when he got it all right with horses like Katies in the Irish Guineas and when she beat Pebbles in the Coronation Stakes at Royal Ascot in 1984, you realised he was a very clever man.
He was somebody I looked up to professionally. I ended up as travelling head lad, assistant trainer and general dog’s body.
In the role of travelling head lad you learnt so much about each individual; some horses needed an extra hour on the box, others needed to go overnight, some didn’t drink once they got to the races, others who were happy at home would fret when they were away. I picked up on so many little things that really matter.
If an owner of mine owes more than two months’ training fees then the horse leaves the yard
Katies was owned by the notorious gambler Terry Ramsden. Was he a difficult man to deal with?
I got on well with Terry, a self-made man. He was very exuberant, a bit of a dreamer who wore his heart on his sleeve.
If he thought a horse would win he’d back it accordingly, you couldn’t tell him any differently; he’d win a lot of money and lose a lot of money. It was a bad day for him when his Katies was beaten by Teleprompter in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes.
To have him as an owner would be a bit like trying to control a teenager, but I’d love to train for him, though his horses are now with Tony Carroll.
I follow Terry on twitter, which is quite entertaining.
Your website keeps telling us that you “add the fun factor to racing”. How do you go about that?
Racing can be a hard business, but for most owners it is a hobby. The problem is when their horse is not performing for whatever reason it can be quite tough to ride through that bad patch.
If the horse turns out to be no good it can be very difficult for them, so we try and take them off to the races even if they haven’t got a runner.
We entertain them here in our corporate hospitality room, built by John Guest, whose family owns the yard, and they can walk round the stables at their leisure.
We like them to be part of the show however good or bad their horse might be. My daughter Katie deals with the owners a lot.
Your stable in Newmarket is very much a family operation? How are they all involved? Because it’s family, can it be more difficult at times, or do you all get on well?
Gaye, my wife, rides out first lot and then takes charge of the office, sorting out the bills and all the paperwork. She is very hands on and walks round the yard and, to my annoyance, points out things I am already aware of. She doesn’t let me miss much.
My daughters Katie and Rosie are involved. Katie rides as an amateur as well as riding out a lot and is a very keen runner, raising a lot of money for cancer with her marathon running.
She often represents the stable at the races and is very good with the owners. Rosie, who is 19, is my PA – ‘personal annoyance!’
She is a good rider and brings owners up to the gallops. She has made a film and is trying to get into the media; she is also a spotter for Tattersalls at the sales.
I am very vocal if I’m not happy. But we all agree that what happens in the yard stays in the yard. Sometimes things explode a little but by lunchtime we’re all happy.
Of course we will always have disagreements but the final say-so comes from me.
How tough do you find running a small yard in Newmarket, when you are rubbing shoulders every day with the big battalions of Stoute, Gosden and Godolphin? How are your stable numbers holding up?
I don’t find it tough and have never looked at it like that. I don’t run my business like a corner shop, I run it like a Tesco.
I do everything the big trainers do and surround myself with the best possible staff.
I feel more privileged because they have the difficulty of taking on staff I wouldn’t necessarily employ because they have to find the numbers to look after 150-plus horses.
I know I can knock on the door of Sir Michael Stoute or Sir Mark Prescott any time to ask them for advice.
We have 54 boxes, 32 are filled, and for the first time we have five new Arab-owned horses.
In your view is there anything the authorities can do to help the small trainer in these straitened times? Is more prize-money the only answer?
Perhaps a training fee set for each region would help. Say for example, a £40 a day training fee for Newmarket would have to be deposited with Weatherbys each month.
If the stipulated fee wasn’t in the account by the end of the month, the person concerned would be banned from owning horses. Any bills over and above the official fee would be invoiced by the trainer.
I don’t think there is much more that can be done, but I am a firm believer in having a business plan. If an owner of mine owes more than two months’ training fees then the horse leaves the yard.
A smaller trainer just starting out would probably ignore the debt for a while longer because he or she thinks they need that horse to keep them going.
Unfortunately, that’s how they get skint. I understand why they try to survive as long as possible in such a situation, but inevitably it will spell the end of their business.
You feed the horses yourself. How early are you in the yard each morning and how much time does this involve?
I wake up naturally at 4.30 every morning and I go down, feed the horses and come back and have a coffee before going out first lot.
The horses are fed four times a day, at five o’clock, 11 o’clock, 5.30pm and then I go round at 8.30pm to see if certain horses need feeding.
I usually do the first and last feeds, but if I can’t then the head lad takes over.
You enjoyed your best season last year with 24 winners, earning over £260,000. What do you put that down to?
We had a poor season the year before and we found we had several well-handicapped horses. I knew I had a nice bunch and I raced a lot of them on the all-weather, which worked out well. And of course we had Lucky Kristale.
Lucky Kristale won two of the top races for two-year-old fillies, the Cherry Hinton and Lowther Stakes, before she was forced to miss the Cheveley Park. Is she heading straight for the 1,000 Guineas?
She’ll probably go straight for the Guineas, though I have been dithering over the possibility of running in the Free Handicap at the Craven meeting simply because of the rating given to her at the end of the season.
I was surprised at her mark of 108, as I have had horses rated 104 and 105 that wouldn’t eat breakfast with her.
Barathea Guest was 117 and finished third behind King’s Best and Giant’s Causeway in the 2,000 Guineas and, believe me, Lucky Kristale would be different gear.
Realistically, the chances of her running in the Free Handicap are pretty slim and I’ll probably give her a racecourse gallop at the Craven meeting.
How has she come through the winter and what does she show you at home that other horses don’t?
I started on her quite early, trotting for six weeks through November and cantering away since December.
When she started cantering I fed her more and she has filled out well and grown about a couple of inches.
I remember sitting on Barathea Guest and it was like being on a Rolls-Royce. Lucky Kristale is similar and I just wish I was younger so I could ride her.
Watching her pick up the pace you see a different action, all so effortless. Quite simply, she’s got the gears.
Have there been some big offers for her during the close season? Have the Graham Lodge Partnership been tempted to sell?
Lucky Kristale runs in the name of the Graham Lodge Partnership 1, which consists of Elaine and Mick Hook and myself, and I only own a hair of the filly.
There have been offers for her to stay in the yard. Elaine and Mick Hook are not mega-wealthy but, fair play to them, they have turned down big money.
These horses come along once in a lifetime and they want to enjoy Lucky Kristale. The Hooks have had horses for years but never one like this.
What do you consider to be the most successful and satisfying moment of your training career?
Producing Young Mick to win in Dubai in 2009 after he had missed nearly a whole season through injury.
He had a fantastic year in 2006 [winning ten races] and then his injury kept him out for most of 2007.
He could be a difficult horse to handle mentally and it was a question of knowing the horse wasn’t finished.
We persevered with him and it was a great moment when he peaked that February in Dubai.
And what has been the most disappointing moment so far?
Barathea Guest being disqualified after finishing first in the Group 1 Grand Criterium at Longchamp in 1999.
The following year he was stopped three times after Tattenham Corner in Sinndar’s Derby and never got back into the race.
Lucky Kristale was bought for 22,000gns but Elusive Guest, owned by John Guest Racing, cost €190,000. Do you feel the pressure when spending so much money?
No, I love it. I feel very privileged that the Guest family entrust me with a budget. I often go over the budget in a bid to find a nice horse.
The late John Guest’s attitude was that he’d rather I’d pay more for a horse I liked than, say, £15,000 for one I wasn’t happy with.
I rang his son Robert Guest, who handles the finances, when I saw Elusive Guest because I fell in love with the horse.
I’d have gone to a quarter of a million for him. It certainly wouldn’t bother me if I was training a million-pound horse.
Can you give us a dark horse to look out for this season?
I’ll give you two: Speedfit Rules, a two-year-old, and Tamayuz Star, a four-year-old I got from Richard Hannon who could win a race like the Wokingham.