Milan Kundera passed away last month. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the Czech- French novelist challenges the concept of eternal recurrence – the idea that the universe and its events have already occurred and will recur ad infinitum.
Competitiveness is a cycle: French- bred, trained or sired horses are having a very strong year, with the likes of Ace Impact, Unquestionable, Bucanero Fuerte, Paddington and Feed The Flame showcasing their ability on the big stage.
History shows that during the successful times for French racing, there was often a young member of the Head dynasty on the rise. Between 1956 and 1959, Alec Head won the equivalent of nine Group 1s in Britain, including three Classics.
Seven decades later, his grandson Christopher was set to target the Nassau Stakes with Blue Rose Cen. The daughter of Churchill is only the fourth filly in history to have secured the triptych of the Prix Marcel Boussac, French Guineas and French Oaks.
Only three of the ten French Group 1s during the first part of the season have been won by foreign raiders. On the French team, Christopher Head is the top scorer, with two Group 1 victories – and there is a lot more to come for the young trainer.
Exciting two-year-old Ramatuelle, a daughter of US Triple Crown victor Justify, will be one of the favourites for the Prix Morny while Rock Of Gibraltar’s three-year-old son Big Rock looks a solid contender for the Prix Jacques le Marois.
A self-made trainer with a big name, Head kicked off his training career at the end of 2018 with eight horses, including three owned by family members, two of them low-class individuals. And that was it.
Thinking the young trainer was heavily supported by the Head family is inaccurate; he had a name, for sure, but he did all the hard work himself.
Back in 2019, Freddy Head was at the end of his training career. His son and former assistant was astute enough to source two cast-offs from the parental yard. Deacon changed hands while he was rated 77. Three victories later, the French handicapper rated him 101 and he was sold to Saudi Arabia. Previously rated 75, Reux also improved greatly under Head’s tutelage. He was later sold to America having progressed to a mark of 107.
Head, who studied informatics and learned different languages – he is currently working on his Japanese – before starting his training career, explains: “Deacon and Reux were on the market and I needed dramatically more horses in my yard. That’s why we made an offer on them.
“It was during Covid and this turned out to be an opportunity. I said to my clients that lockdown is like a winter for the horses, so we gelded them. They both improved significantly.’’
He continues: “I probably could have done something else [apart from training]. But now I understand that horses would have come into my life at some point. It’s a bit of a cliché to say it but I think horseracing really is in the blood of my family.
“It’s hard to define a precise date regarding my decision to start training. But I knew that I wanted to follow my own path and bring something new to the sport. I felt I had to try things differently to find my place in such a competitive industry.
“This is a job that you only really understand when you start doing it. You can spend as much time as you want as an assistant, but practice is the best way to learn and improve as a trainer.”
The Macaire influence
While his family is associated with some of the great names to have graced the turf on the Flat, it was a spell with master jumps trainer Guillaume Macaire that really opened the young man’s eyes.
Head says: “Having worked in different yards with Flat horses, including my father and my aunt Criquette, I wanted to see something different, especially a trainer that started his own business from scratch and without strong support, because that was my own situation.
“Guillaume Macaire changed the game of jump racing. The way to train, to race and to breed National Hunt horses in this country is completely different since he started. I really wanted to understand how he managed to do it.
“I spent a summer with him, and it was fascinating – I realised that constantly improving details could have a decisive effect on the results on the track. You can start with small things, such as weighing horses. Step by step, I have changed more things in my method.
“I’m increasingly using data, collecting various pieces of conditioning information like heartbeats at exercise and recovery rates. Having data is one thing, but you have to enjoy the cerebral work of analysing the results.
“With time, you create your own pattern that helps you to be more precise. But you can’t rely on that to train: the eyes of the trainer, the instincts, the feedback of the staff and horsemanship are the backbone of this job.
“The results of data analysis will never replace your own judgement, but it is useful in the decision process – once you have decided something, figures will confirm whether or not you are going in the right direction.
“The big thing is trying not to pass up opportunities for talented horses. Sometimes you might plan something that’s a bit bold and in this risky process the data will give you the nerve to carry on.”
Leopoldo Fernandez Pujals the key owner
With only 27 individual runners since the beginning of 2023 (up to mid-July), Head has already secured seven Group victories, aided by the support of one man in particular.
“A big part of these achievements is based on the success of Leopoldo Fernandez Pujals as an owner and breeder,” Head explains. “His operation, Yeguada Centurion, is designed to produce high-quality animals.
“As a trainer, I knew I was there to adapt my work to the goals of my clients. Training horses of that calibre is completely different from preparing handicappers, like I did at the beginning. To be competitive in Group races, you have to ask them a lot at home because at that level the competition is so tough.”
Fernandez Pujals, a famous falcon and dressage horse breeder, wanted to take a chance with thoroughbreds. In the last few years, he has bought a farm in Normandy for his 60 broodmares and spent $12 million at the sales, and more in private purchases.
His first homebred generation is only small – bigger crops are coming – yet has still delivered three high-class performers this season in the shape of Blue Rose Cen, Big Rock and Ramatuelle.
Head says: “Meeting Leopoldo Fernandez Pujals was pure luck – you need some of it in this game. At that time he did not have any racehorses but was planning to invest.
“A mutual acquaintance organised a dinner and at the end of the evening he promised to send me a horse in 2020. That first horse was the beautifully-bred Sibila Spain. Her win in last year’s Group 2 Prix du Muguet was our first Pattern- race victory. Based on the success of this filly, he sent me more horses – and the rest is history.
“I can never thank him enough for his support. To be completely honest, this year’s results are beyond my expectations. It won’t be easy to replicate this season, but my goal is to have horses to compete every year in Group races.”
A thriving partnership
Freddy Head’s former rider Aurélien Lemaitre is now working with his son. You could, perhaps, compare the duo to Sir Henry Cecil and Steve Cauthen in the 1980s. Cauthen had great pace judgement from his days riding in America. Cecil would get his horses very fit, and they often successfully made the running.
In 2023, Christopher Head’s winners- to-runners strike-rate is an impressive 30%, with around three-quarters of his horses being front-runners or racing close to the pace.
Head says: “I met Aurélien years ago when we were riding in the morning together at my father’s. You could not expect we would travel that far together!
“He is the perfect jockey for tough horses that enjoy going out in front. We tend to train them this way and I’m sure some of them would be as competitive if we raced them alone.
“Aurélien knows precisely the speed of his horse: he has a clock in his mind, like an American jockey. There is a lot of confidence between us and he believes in our training method.
“Funnily enough, we also worked together at Julio Canani’s in California. During that American experience it was not hard to understand how important the use of the clock is to train racehorses. Just like Macaire, Canani was a real self-made man and that’s a massive inspiration to me.”
Everybody used to say you can’t clock-train in Chantilly, where there is such a diversity of gallops. But Head believes that’s also an advantage, saying: “This variation of weather, surface and gallops profile is a massive opportunity. Our horses can cope with everything at the races.
“This imperfection of Chantilly, with ever-changing training conditions, makes it perfect to train horses!”
Head admits it is a very Macaire state of mind, the master trainer changing constantly the profile and disposition of jumps in the morning.
He continues: “Obviously, in the Chantilly forest you can’t clock the animals with the method used on American racetracks. But the GPS on the horse’s girth makes it possible.
“Using time in the morning is not only useful for horses, but also a massive help for riders. It makes them understand when they go too fast or not fast enough. And it’s a way to involve them in the process as they have a better comprehension of their work.
“They have the desire to improve, and their hard work is a key element in the amazing year we are having on the racecourse.”
The respected French bloodstock agent, Gérard Larrieu, was one of the first to believe in Head’s potential as a trainer, saying: “I have to say we share a keen interest in using technology for training. I do a lot of cycling myself and training for that sport is based on cardio.
“Christopher is one of the very rare trainers I have worked with to have such an expertise in the use of data. On top of that, he knows every single line of the racing programme by heart. That’s quite impressive.
“He has a plan for the next two races with every horse and sets long-term objectives. This trainer learns very quickly – and being able to involve owners in the race planning, like he does, is such a great thing.”
Head relates: “I’m working hard on involving my owners – they are the cornerstone of our world. They need to feel the trainer does not deny their ability to control their horse’s career.
“You need to have a dialogue with your client and that’s a part of the job I really appreciate, because they actually teach me a lot. Leopoldo is an incredible entrepreneur and working with him has made me improve the way I operate my own business.”
Stronger every year
Head kept two aspects of his father’s training method, who was himself influenced by the legendary Francois Boutin. The first is to never break a horse’s action: if they want to go off in front, let them do it and don’t disturb them. That’s also an element of Macaire’s method.
The second thing is that you need to ask the horses a lot in the morning to toughen the good ones. Of course, some of the others will find it difficult, but the animals with class and soundness may reach another level of competitiveness.
Head explains: “One important thing, to my mind, is to receive the horses as early as possible. For cost reasons they tend to stay longer in pre-training these days. But when you have them very early you can increase the intensity of work as gradually as you want.
“Having said that, going slowly on the gallops is not doing them any favours. I really believe that. The lack of preparation for competition is more harmful than a very intense preparation.
“I’m not afraid to start horses early on over a distance too short for them, just like I did with Blue Rose Cen. The most important thing is what they learn: I don’t care about winning first time out.
“We decided not to give tough experiences to Blue Rose Cen before her big targets at a mile as a two-year- old. But the key to our plan was to have the perfect number of races – five – before the Prix Marcel Boussac.”
Head’s strike-rate has improved every year: 10% in 2019, 17.5% in 2020, 24% in 2022 and 30% so far in 2023 (to the middle of last month).
“Studying the form and the entries is something I really like,” he says. “You have to understand the logic of the racing programme. I think the French one is exceptionally well-designed.
“If you search hard enough, there is a race for every horse. The team in charge of the programme at France Galop is doing an amazing job.”
At present the handler’s string stands at 50. One of his boldest decisions was to refuse horses to keep things under control. He is slowly increasing his numbers, mindful that growing too fast would be a risk considering the staffing problems in the racing world.
Head continues: “I would like to concentrate on clients with a long-term perspective. My plan is to not have a massive number of horses. I want to remain with a good team of young and motivated people, just like now.
“My father and grandfather have always set an example. They taught me that you have to show respect to all the members of the industry – never belittle others in the quest for success.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t think of my grandparents. They have always been my strongest support.”
The greatest legacy of the late Alec and Ghislaine Head is this: passion, hard work and determination make the difference.