You are Scotland’s leading Flat trainer. Do you have further ambitions? Will you be targeting more and more big races in the south?
Obviously we have ambitions to train nice horses and keep winning. We always plan to go wherever possible and accept that the top races are in the south. If we have a horse capable of competing at the highest level we will travel as far as we need to.
I go to the sales, where most of my horses are sourced, but Jeremy Brummitt, the bloodstock agent, does quite a lot of buying for me.
Otherwise, we rely on keeping the flag flying and people sending us horses based on how well we are doing.
I have a reputation as a ‘retread specialist’, taking over horses from other yards; Hawkeyethenoo is a classic example, as are Nanton and La Vecchia Scuola.
How much of a disadvantage is it being so far north? Or are you in your own little kingdom?
I’ve always trained up here and I’ve never seen it as a disadvantage; we just make plans and carry them out accordingly. I have been leading trainer in Scotland for a while now and I suppose we do enjoy being king of our own little patch.
It is good to have competition and Keith Dalgleish is chasing us up, keeping us on our toes and doing very well. The competition is good for Scottish racing and we are managing to hang on to top spot.
Before Keith it was Ian Semple and Linda Perratt, and don’t forget Lucinda Russell, who is taking on the best with considerable success over jumps.
How did your interest in racing start and was it always the plan to set up a successful stable?
I was born into a horsey family and had the bug big-time from an early age. My dad hunted, point-to-pointed, bred horses and had a permit.
He managed to buy Attractive, a half-brother to Vaguely Noble before Vaguely Noble happened. Dad purchased Attractive as a hunter improvement society stallion; he was by Acropolis and bred by Major Lionel Holliday.
When Vaguely Noble won the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe Mum and Dad were guests at Longchamp. I was about 11 or 12 at the time and nowadays if I see Vaguely Noble in a pedigree I always sit up and take notice.
I bought the 100 acres that is Libo Hill Farm 20 years ago; we built the house and stables ourselves. I told the Department of Agriculture it was going to be a farm, but I always had an eye on being a trainer. Now we have stables for 65 horses.
What were you doing before your involvement in the sport?
I was a farm manager and trained under my dad’s permit. To supplement my expensive hobby I used to put up garden fencing in and around Glasgow in evenings and at weekends.
How far is your Libo Hill Farm base from Glasgow, and what are the advantages of being close to the busiest city in Scotland?
We are 20 minutes drive from the city centre and probably 15 minutes from Glasgow airport. Ayr racecourse is about 40 minutes away.
We have owners from all over the world, Jersey, Hong Kong, London, but I suppose it must be an advantage being close to Glasgow, making us easily accessible to a large population, though Dundee is quite a hotbed of owners for us.
Did Hawkeyethenoo’s victory in last year’s Stewards’ Cup raise your profile enough to attract more owners?
To me it was just another handicap we had targeted and it was only afterwards that I realised the amount of prestige that went with the Stewards’ Cup.
I don’t think it really attracted any new owners, even though it’s the biggest race we had won, but of course it kept us in the public eye, which is very important.
How many horses do you train, and how many would you like to train?
I’m not planning to build any more stables and I’m happy with our current number of about 60. The knack is getting rid of the dross and acquiring a better class of horse.
When Hawkeyethenoo came here he was rated 54 so in most stables he would have been considered dross in those days!
What is the most important part of training?
Know your horses and what they need. My dad packed up when I was 14 and I have never worked for a trainer, so I have picked up ideas and knowledge as I’ve gone along. I reckon I am very good at hoovering folk and picking their brains!
It’s also a case of knowing your gallops and how to use them. There is no great secret about training. Of course it’s important to have your horses 100% fit and at their peak mentally if they are to do their best on a given day.
The two go hand in hand. Horses don’t know they’re athletes and you must keep the training regime as a game to them, make it fun and keep them fresh so they give you 100%.
I was a great admirer of David Chapman, who took this style of training to a new level with so many successful sprinters. All our horses are fed six times a day.
We trickle feed, little and often, starting at six in the morning and their last feed is ten at night. With this routine we try and control ailments like stomach ulcers using management techniques, rather than chemicals.
You bred Jack Dexter, one of the most successful horses you have trained. You also trained his sire Orientor and dam Glenhurich. Has it helped being familiar with the quirks of Jack Dexter’s family? What did you learn from his parents?
He is very like his dad, who always knew he was special. And Jack Dexter certainly has a high opinion of himself and likes to show off. Orientor came pretty close to being a Group 1 winner.
He was an entire, a bit of a jack the lad and very strong. So we had Jack Dexter gelded as we’re more interested in racehorses than stallions and he has done us proud.
Having nurtured him from day one, his achievements must give you enormous satisfaction? Is he your favourite horse?
Jack Dexter has given us tremendous pleasure. He was named after my two grandsons, Jack and Dexter. They have great fun watching him and he is a very special horse.
He is not big physically but is very well balanced, while he is not a lover of fast ground but still managed fourth in the King’s Stand.
I don’t think we’ve seen the best of him yet and he could be a horse for the autumn. Of course he has got to be one of my favourites.
Graham Lee, one of racing’s modern day revelations, is virtually your stable jockey. Have you been surprised by his smooth transition from top jump jockey to one of the leading riders on the Flat?
Not surprised at all because I have always thought Graham was one of the best jump jockeys. I used him when I could and he always gave you 100%, and the horse every chance.
We built up a good relationship over the years and I was always aware that he would be able to do the weight on the Flat. I even used to kid him on, telling him he ought to get a Flat licence.
You see, whenever he got injured the weight would fall off him because when he was riding all the training he did involved building and bulking muscle.
He has always been the right size for the Flat and I think I planted the seed a bit with him when he asked his personal trainer if he could get the necessary weight off.
Graham is one of the most dedicated sportsmen I have come across, very, very focused. He will be fitter than any other jockey. When he did 8st 7lb for me on Jack Dexter he cut half the grass in Yorkshire to do it.
He mowed and mowed lawns and ran and ran to sweat the pounds off. He made a vow when he started on the Flat that he wouldn’t go in a sauna, and I don’t think he has.
Above all, he is a horseman and believes in himself. His first winner on the Flat was Northern Fling for me and then he completed a quick double for us on Staff Sergeant at Musselburgh.
Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party and a big racing fan, has written racing and tipping columns in the Glasgow Herald. Has he visited your stables and has he ever been involved in any horses with you?
He has threatened to come and see us here, but frankly he wouldn’t win many votes by owning horses, would he?
It is well known that he is a racing enthusiast and I have met him a few times at the races.
Funnily enough, he came down with me to saddle Hawkeyethenoo before the Ayr Gold Cup, but I reckon that was just for a photo opportunity.
Has Salmond’s interest in racing helped to stimulate the sport north of the border?
The Scottish Nationalists put a stop to an all-weather track at Musselburgh, so I’d have to say no.
Salmond would probably like to be seen as a friend of Scottish racing but in politics, when there are votes to be had, they swim with the vote-winning tide.
Politicians don’t seem to realise what a big employer racing is. They don’t seem to see racing as a vote winner.
In fact, Nicky Fairbairn, MP for Perth and Kinross, described people who gambled and frequented betting shops as “the dregs of humanity” and we now train for a syndicate of that name!
Do you have an interest in or follow other sports?
I used to play amateur football, but racing has always been my hobby, riding as an amateur jockey and training under permit in my early days, and now it has taken over my life.
But I still have time to follow the golf and I really get into Wimbledon, particularly this year with Andy Murray winning.
What is your big ambition?
Having grown up in the point-to-point world, it would have to be to win the Grand National, which is always full of romance and such a unique event, but unfortunately I don’t have that type of horse.
I have, mind you, won consecutive Grand Sefton Chases over the National course with Lampion Du Bost, at 100-1, and Endless Power.
The Ayr Gold Cup would be a more obvious ambition for our stable, being Scotland’s big Flat race.
How healthy is the state of Scottish racing and how could it be improved?
Scottish racing is in good health at the moment. The courses are very pro-active in encouraging people to come racing and they are putting more back into prize-money than most courses.
Musselburgh is a good case in point; not that long ago it was little more than a gaff track and last year it was voted Racecourse of the Year.
They now stage a competitive sprint which attracts some of the fastest horses from the south. Ayr provides a very good day out, particularly for the owners, especially winning owners, who are given VIP treatment.
Ayr was just about the first course to recognise the importance of owners and now other courses like Chester have followed their example.
What is it you like best about Scottish racing?
The fact that it’s Scottish! No, seriously, it’s like home to me, all very local and handy for me to reach. Ayr racecourse is like a second home because I used to go to Pony Club camp there.
We have a great product, which is well presented, and folk like to go and see it. Our racecourses are doing a great job.
How big a part does your wife Davina play in your operation?
A very big part. Davina helps me feed in the morning. She used to drive the lorry and lead up at the races, but now she runs the office and prepares the tack.
I have a really good team that has been with us for years and one should never forget how big a team effort it is to keep the operation on the road.
Lucy Alexander, who rides for you over jumps, is the biggest riding name to come out of Scotland since Sandy Barclay. What is her greatest talent and do you think she should move south to fulfil all this promise?
She is very talented and, like Graham Lee, very fit. She gives every horse a ride and never gives up. She is one of the strongest jockeys out there, and that includes the men.
Lucy has done amazingly to be champion conditional jockey from her home base, where her two principal stables were her dad Nicky Alexander’s and mine.
I wouldn’t like to say if she should move south or not, it would be difficult for her if she is intending to compete at the top table.
Do you target the Ayr Western meeting with as many runners as possible, and is it a massive occasion for you and your owners?
Our strike-rate at Ayr drops at the Western meeting because it is so competitive. Quite often I am leading trainer at Ayr until Richard Fahey comes up in September and puts me in my place.
We do target the meeting and my owners enjoy the craic, but it is more of a social occasion because the winners are so hard to come by.
What are you planning to run in the Ayr Gold Cup?
Immediately after the Ayr Gold Cup I start to hide because the Scottish press always hype my horses for the race and no Scottish-trained horse has won the Gold Cup since Roman Warrior, trained by Nigel Angus, in 1975.
He carried 10st and Jack Dexter is likely to be topweight. Jack Dexter couldn’t get in the handicap last year, when he won the Bronze Cup instead, and I’ll probably save him for the Gold Cup this time. I’ll enter Hawkeyethenoo as well.