You can imagine him portrayed on one of those cigarette cards of the 1920s or 1930s – this scrupulously neat figure, his trilby sharp as the bow of a clipper, binoculars slung over the shoulder. A faithful caricature, however, would unmistakably place Marcus Tregoning in the present day. His eye would be too bright, his aspect altogether too benign, to accommodate him among the ruthless sticklers of a bygone age.
At the height of the racing summer, mind you, he will gladly acknowledge himself a bridge to the past. In its sunny parade rings, at Epsom or Ascot or Goodwood, he will always cherish his debt to one of the greats of that old school. For a conversation with Tregoning is reliably strewn with the lore he learned under Dick Hern. But it also discloses the engaging and engaged character who has himself, in his understated way, become
a familiar, comforting presence on the British Turf.
He spent 14 years with Hern; and now, in his 14th season since, he is trying to harness a bleak economic wind to launch a new phase of his career, having just switched from employee to tenant at Sheikh Hamdan’s Kingwood estate, high above Lambourn. Last year, moreover, he had the excruciating experience of watching Makfi, culled from his string, win the 2,000 Guineas for another trainer. Either of these trials might nourish self-doubt, or self-pity. Only a man so immune to arrogance – and its besetting habits of protest and resentment – could instead approach them with such calm. “I’ve never doubted,” he shrugs. “I always thought that if I could get 30% of what Dick Hern could do, and what he knew, then I’d have no problems.”
Sir Percy’s success in the 2006 Derby proved curiously infertile, measured by new patrons for the stable; and that injustice has since been compounded by one or two crops blighted by virus or mediocrity. But it stands immutably on his record: the yearling reject who became a champion juvenile, and Derby winner. Even if his achievements for Sheikh Hamdan – from the sumptuous Nayef, to the indefatigable Mubtaker – were admired only grudgingly, then how would you explain Sir Percy, an animal within reach of even the smallest pockets among big talkers?
“It was the most magical story,” Tregoning says. “That he was an orphan foal, and then the foster mother died; that he only cost 16,000gns, and all offers boldly refused by the owners. Victoria Pakenham said: ‘Marcus, if we sell, you won’t have a chance to train a Classic winner.’ I’ll never forget that.”
And, whatever happens now, they can’t take that away from him – the cooling drive home through a hot, heady evening; the arrival at the party of the Pakenhams, freed of their hats and finery; and, finally, the paling of the sky, the first dawn of the rest of his life as a Derby-winning trainer.
At the time, like your wedding day, it had been too much of a blur. The press conference made them late for the monarch. From where he was standing, moreover, Tregoning had initially feared the colt beaten. “People were saying Martin [Dwyer] had given him a wonderful ride,” he says. “But if it had gone wrong I don’t think I’d ever have got over it, to tell you the truth. It was bad enough, almost, winning a short head. I knew I had the best horse in the race, quite honestly. If he’d got beat, it would have been just awful.”
Conviction, in such a man, is never mere orthodoxy. For instance, he now holds that Sir Percy did not really stay beyond a mile. “It’s an extraordinary thing to say, now, I know,” he says. “But I think probably I read the book wrong. Don’t forget he had enough speed to be second in the Guineas, enough speed to win twice over six furlongs as a two-year-old. I’ve had lots of quizzing sessions with Willie Carson about what you need to win the Derby. And I don’t think it’s stamina. It’s speed. He’d tell you Nashwan probably didn’t get a mile and a half. Hawk Wing, without High Chaparral, would have been a very easy Derby winner. I think you can get hoodwinked – by pedigrees, by all sorts of things. I think Sir Percy did it by sheer class.”
“Sir Percy won the Derby through sheer class; it’s speed, not stamina, you need”
Tregoning also parts with convention in his view of perhaps the most maligned ride in Derby history – by Greville Starkey, in 1986. “We all know Dancing Brave should have won,” he accepts. “But watch him making the descent. Like a lot of horses, he wasn’t handling the track. And Greville, knowing the horse, felt that if he let him get on an even keel, he’d have the brilliance to win anyway. And he only just got touched off. That was enough to sacrifice a man’s whole career – which, to me, was absolutely appalling. I remember Dick Hern saying a man who never made a mistake, never made anything.”
The axiom, inevitably, takes him back to the Major. Asked about adversity – how he deals with a virus, or with the Makfi business – Tregoning remembers the military stoicism of Hern, when confined to a wheelchair by a hunting accident. “If things were going wrong, and everything was against him, the yard was full of virus and the owners getting difficult, he was absolutely brilliant – almost better, backed into a corner, than when things were going well. Once someone rang him because his father was depressed, and could he give him a ring? ‘Depression, Marcus, what is this depression thing?’ And I said: ‘Thank God you don’t know.’”
Tregoning reckoned his mentor a still better trainer after his accident. The intensity, then, was almost frightening. Of course, he also saw a less formidable side. He heard the old army choruses with friends at West Wittering, where Hern stayed for Goodwood. He marvelled at the memory and relish for rhyme, and ribald stories. Whenever the yard had success, at whatever level, the Major would shout: “Winner!” And champagne would be opened. Likewise, though his assistant seldom had a day off, every Sunday at noon Hern would dependably say: “Shall we go and find a bottle, Marcus?”
But he never wanted to reminisce, to reprise tales of Brigadier Gerard and the rest. “That was his army way,” Tregoning says. “Never look back, got to look forward. Like those old soldiers, who never talk about war. And it’s true, the things they saw, the smell of burning flesh, we can’t begin to imagine. He always said don’t ever rush past people begging in the street. A lot of them would have been shell-shocked, war-battered.
Hern’s greatest legacy, however, was in the yard. If a horse was unsound, he would say: “Go and get Marcus.” Tregoning would arrive, terrified by the certainty that he would have to trot up and down the yard, before a rider who had trained the British Olympic team to win a gold medal at Helsinki in 1952. “Where’s he lame, Marcus?” It was all drilled into Tregoning, who remains amazed by how many experienced people can stand watching a horse and not answer that question.
Hence his own, rigorously hands-on approach, touring the yard daily; and hence, too, the absolute faith and gratitude he reserves for his core staff, many of them here since Hern’s day. Without these, Sir Percy would never have made it to Epsom, having returned sore from the Guineas. Tregoning swears by his vet, Nicole Nelson; and physiotherapists, Sarah Daireaux and Jose Gomez-Garcia. Then there is the head lad, Vic Chitty, and his deputy, John Lake, who broke in Nashwan and Dayjur, as well as Sir Percy; and the whole chain of command extending to Katia Scallan, the stable apprentice.
At 51, it is with this intimate, professional family in mind – not to mention Arabella and their four children – that Tregoning is determined to make a success of the new regime. The change is akin to that undertaken by Ed Dunlop, again after beginning his career working for the Maktoums. “But Ed bought his own yard,” Tregoning notes. “I can’t to do that at the moment. Obviously you’d rather not be paying large rents. Having said that, I’ve been instrumental in a lot of the work that’s been done here. It’s a very special place to train horses, albeit expensive to run. But anyone who ever comes in will tell you there are no corners cut.
“And I can’t emphasise enough what a good team we have. Some I’ve worked with for 30 years. So I do want it to work for them, as well. We’ve had a time of deep recession but I’m not a doom-and-gloom person – never have been. The sport has been through a lot, over the years, and we’re still here.”
If the environment is changing – both in his own career and for the industry overall – Tregoning is staying fast to the bedrock. He sees how Sheikh Hamdan, with horses worldwide, adores racing here; and how the same heritage now intrigues Nurlan Bizakov, ambitious new owner of Hesmonds Stud.
“People still want to race here, no question,” Tregoning says. “Everyone asks how we can possibly attract people, with prize-money the way it is? But look at people like Mr Bizakov, and the new Qatari investors. Racing here has so much prestige and variety. I think there’s an analogy with the royal wedding. Whatever you think of the monarchy, that was a great show, brilliantly done. You can’t knock the fact that this country has something nowhere else has. And we’ve something very similar in racing. Obviously we have to refine the product a bit – those lower tier races haven’t always been here, and we need to get rid of a lot of them. And it’s not just prize-money. When owners go racing they want to have a really good day.”
When he took Bizakov to see Askar Tau win the Sagaro Stakes, they could barely communicate over lunch because Derek Thompson was booming over the PA, an adjacent speaker blasting their table. The food was slow, too. Hern would have been aghast.
“This country has something nowhere else has; people still want to race here”
Even so, Tregoning is relaxed about the idea that the sport needs to be, well, more relaxed. He remembers watching people quake before the Major, and vowing not to be the same. “I didn’t want people to be terrified of me,” he says. “His generation could be quite Dickensian, quite aloof. Things were never anybody else’s business. But I don’t want to be a bullshitter either. I’m not, I don’t think. Owners must get encouragement. I like them to come down as much as they can, to enjoy the development of their horses. They can ring me every day if they want to.”
Receptive and loquacious, Tregoning is no throwback. He is a civilised creature, too, one of few trainers with whom you might discuss Giant or On The Waterfront as readily as pedigrees or conformation. Yes, he finds himself at something of a crossroads. He could do with another champion, to give impetus to his new regime. But such imperatives will never exhaust a pristine sense of privilege in his vocation.
“I’ve been very lucky to start training here,” he says. “I had a great grounding, and Sheikh Hamdan has been incredibly loyal. The world has changed, and you don’t know what’s going to happen. But so long as people still want me, I’ll train, because I have a huge passion for what I do, and love the people I work with.
“Yes, I’ve had a couple of quiet years, and our numbers are down a bit. But it was only five years ago that we won the Derby, for goodness sake. We’ve had some very good horses, and hopefully we’ll get them again. I think it’s a matter of making it entertaining, and fighting your corner.”
Trainer felt “devastated” after Makfi remarks
In terms of the one that got away, it really was a 64lb salmon. Mortifying as it was, however, Marcus Tregoning reflects on the sale of Makfi with commendable perspective.
He has been encouraged, in this, by the fidelity of Sheikh Hamdan, who included the colt in his annual cull – discarding him for just 26,000gns at the Horses-in-Training Sale – only to see him develop into one of the top milers of his generation for Mikel Delzangles, in France. And Tregoning is generous enough to accept that “it was a fantastic thing to happen for a new trainer”.
He was vexed, however, by those who implied that he had made a culpable misjudgement. “I was more devastated than one should have been, by some of the remarks made after he’d proved himself a good horse,” he says. “It had been a very dry summer here, and the horse had very round joints, and splints. Hence he wasn’t taken to Dubai with the other yearlings.
“He had too many problems to train through the summer, immaturity problems as they turned out to be. It wasn’t until the autumn, when the entries for the sales having been made, that he started to go. Don’t forget he ran within a month of leaving here, and won.”
The colt was by a flourishing young stallion, in Dubawi, out of a half-sister to Alhaarth. Given the limited evidence, it was quite a risk to sell.
When the dust settled, however, Sheikh Hamdan told Tregoning: “I’m going to sell 80 horses, whether you like it or not – and the chances are we’re going to sell a good one every now and then.”
“The chances are we’re going to sell a good one every now and then”
Could he have told his patrons that Makfi was going to be special? “How could I?” he asks. “He hadn’t seen a racecourse, and all his work was done in the few weeks before the sale.”
The drama might well have become a crisis, but for the affinity between Tregoning and the Sheikh. “When we’re on our own, we have great fun – we can talk very directly about anything,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be racing, it might be politics or football. He has a very good sense of humour.”
After the Guineas, Tregoning remembered chatting with someone at the races the previous summer about the sales. “And he told me he would never buy anything from me, because in the past they’d never been able to improve anything,” Tregoning says wryly. “Perhaps he jumped off a bridge. But I’m still going.”