By any litmus, 2022 was an extraordinary year for Owen Burrows. The Lambourn trainer saddled 25 individual horses in 67 races for a yield of 21 winners, which equates to an eye-popping strike rate of 31 per cent. A further 24 runners finished in the first four, which meant that 67 per cent of all his runners returned home with prize-money.
For all that, Burrows’ exceptional strike-rate did not make headlines when set against his Pattern-race haul. He plundered eight in all, among them a brace of Group 1s with Hukum and Minzaal. The harvest might have been greater still had both horses not succumbed to season-ending injuries – in Hukum’s case after winning the Coronation Cup in early June.
It made the perfect riposte to those who wondered whether Burrows would fade away after the death of his sole patron, Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum, in 2021. The size of his string halved in consequence, he was forced to make redundancies, and he relocated from the palatial Kingwood House to Farncombe Down Stables, which had been a rehabilitation station for the sheikh’s horses.
Burrows’ red-hot streak could not have been more apposite since he has just assumed sole financial responsibility for his new base. He has morphed from salaried trainer to one paying all the bills.
The commercial imperative is for him to fill his 40-box yard to balance the books.
His whirlwind beginning has not gone unnoticed, but it now gives rise to a different question. Can Burrows contrive an encore in 2023?
“Realistically, we can’t keep up that 31 per cent strike-rate,” he says. “It was a unique year in that sense. Anything in the high teens or low twenties would be good, although I’m not a big percentages man anyway.”
Instead, Burrows is preoccupied by the bigger picture. “I think a bigger challenge is to prove that last season was no one-hit wonder,” he offers. “I’d love to be fighting in that ring again this
year. People said we punched above our weight, but I do feel I have to prove myself all over again.”
It’s a defiant synopsis from the 48-year-old, an old-school horseman of a decidedly conservative hue. Having lived a charmed professional life to this point, he goes out of his way to keep stressing how fortunate he has been. And he has. Yet he strains at the leash for the season to start in earnest. The time is nigh for him to carve out his own identity.
In this respect Burrows is trapped in a hall of mirrors. A gilded apprenticeship as Sir Michael Stoute’s assistant for 12 years, followed by his role as Sheikh Hamdan’s private trainer, prompted some to assess him with a beady eye. He was the chosen one, after all. And when success duly followed… well, it was all down to the calibre of his horses.
He is aware of this, hence his repeated references to his good fortune. Yet there is something reassuring in the way he has handled good horses. His demeanour exudes a confidence bereft of swagger, fortified by a quiet, steely resolve.
A cursory look at his modus operandi reveals that he never over- faces his horses. Their careers tend to evolve over long periods of time – and Hukum is a case in point. Burrows was content to keep Baaeed’s full-brother away from Group 1 company until the horse had won five lesser Pattern races. Hukum then contested the Sheema Classic before he streaked away with the Coronation Cup in June. He had properly announced himself halfway through his five-year-old season.
Similarly, Minzaal broke through at the highest level towards the end of his four-year-old campaign. Having won the Gimcrack Stakes, he didn’t win again for nearly two years after a prolonged absence through injury. Then, having won the Hackwood Stakes in July, he glided away with the Sprint Cup at Haydock two months later.
The kicker was that Minzaal injured himself in the process and was promptly retired. “It definitely took the gloss off of it,” says Burrows, a wince breaking out across his face. “With Minzaal, it was vitally important he got his Group 1 bracket as he was going off to stud. Thankfully it was mission accomplished.”
There was also a sense of personal fulfilment, since Burrows picked out Minzaal from Book 2 of the 2019 Tattersalls October Yearling Sale.
“Sheikh Hamdan would let his trainers buy two horses for themselves at that sale,” the trainer reflects. “The year after we bought Minzaal we just lost out on a colt by Nathaniel. He turned out to be Desert Crown, who went and won the Derby.”
Although Minzaal is now living the stallion life of Riley, the good news for Burrows is that Hukum is back in training, having had three screws pinned into a fracture on his off-hind fetlock.
“He looks great,” the trainer says. “We will look to get a prep run into him before the Hardwicke Stakes.”
Hukum’s campaign will be crucial if Burrows is to replicate last year’s deeds even if two other equine stalwarts are also back for more. Alflaila’s projected tilt at the Bahrain International Trophy in November was shelved, again by injury. The much-improved four-year- old closed his sophomore season with a pair of Group 3 triumphs and remains on the rise.
So too does Anmaat, whose three- for-three campaign included a battling victory in the Group 2 Prix Dollar on Arc weekend. Now a five-year-old, Anmaat has never finished out of the frame in ten career starts.
Further Pattern-race victories seem assured in the short term, although Burrows knows such horses will be hard to replace. Against that, Shadwell still has a presence in the stable. Having been sent four two-year-olds at the start of last year, Burrows’ exploits in 2022 meant that he received double that quota this time round. They will not lack for quality.
But that’s not all. On hearing of Shadwell’s streamlining, Sheikh Hamdan’s brother, Sheikh Ahmed Al Maktoum, stepped into the breach. He now has 15 horses at Farncombe Down, the same number as Shadwell, and Burrows sees talent in a pair of his three-year-olds. “Tarjeeh and Lajooje both won at Newbury last season,” he says. “They have potential from what I have seen of them, although it’s hard to say how far up the ladder they might go.”
All of which means that Burrows starts the new campaign with more than 50 horses on his books. His accountant says that a full yard of 40 horses for 365 days each year will generate income in excess of £1 million. It’s more than enough to keep Burrows in business, yet, beyond that, further expansion will prove challenging.
There may be scope within his lease of Farncombe Down for Burrows to build more boxes, but that’s not where the problem lies. “The big issue is finding good staff,” he says.
“Until the staff shortage is resolved, I wouldn’t like to expand too much. I think between 60 and 70 horses would be manageable. But to have 200 horses, as Sir Michael [Stoute] had for a time when I was there, you need a top team. Even then, it was still a big number. I know one Newmarket trainer who could have more horses but cannot find the right staff.”
Burrows became familiar with the broader question of stable staff in his time at Kingwood House, where he started training in 2016. The property was built by Sheikh Hamdan in the early 1990s for Major Dick Hern after the latter’s controversial eviction from the West Ilsley stables owned by Queen Elizabeth II. Hern was succeeded by his assistant, Marcus Tregoning, who trained at Kingwood House for 15 years until he moved to Whitsbury in 2013.
“It used to take half an hour to get horses to the gallops from Kingwood House,” Burrows reflects. “It was very labour-intensive. Marcus [Tregoning] was very successful when he trained there; he had a Derby winner with Sir Percy, and Nayef was top-class. Even so, he couldn’t make it work financially, which goes to show it was nigh on impossible to do that.”
Hence the move down into the Lambourn valley, where the string now accesses those same private gallops simply by crossing the road at the stable gates. It means Burrows can have one extra lot each morning, which requires less staff. “That’s an important consideration now that I am paying the bills,” he points out.
Burrows has been using those gallops for more than six years and has learnt how to get the best from them. “It took me a while,” he says. “Sheikh Hamdan once told me that it took the major [Hern] two years to work them out. It gave me hope when I heard that, because if it took him two years it was always going to take anybody else a bit longer. We now have a system which we know works, and I’m a believer in keeping things simple.”
A turning point was the installation of an eight-and-a-half furlong woodchip gallop, a surface which went out of favour with trainers before making a comeback. “Both Aidan [O’Brien] and Joseph [O’Brien] are back on it,” Burrows says.
“Putting in the woodchip was the last project Sheikh Hamdan completed for us here, and it has been a godsend. The surface needs more maintenance because it has to be kept wet. It also means I need a few more horses to make ends meet, but the extra headaches are worth it.”
Not that Burrows is personally charged with irrigating the gallops before the break of day. That chore is tasked to the automatic sprinkler system, which is fed by a reservoir up on the hill. The sprinkler heads pop up at 3am to ensure a cushioned, forgiving surface ahead of first lot arriving four hours later. It’s unlikely that a similarly equipped, small training complex exists in
Britain. Burrows is blessed, but then, he now has to pay for it. Don’t expect a quantum leap forward in numbers, with horses emerging from rows of temporary boxes to merge with the string at morning exercise. That is not the trainer’s way.
Instead, growth is likely to emanate from results, which is how Embrace came to Farncombe Down. As a two-year-old with Andrew Balding last season Embrace proved a proper handful, prompting Balding to recommend she leave his bustling yard for a quieter environment. Embrace duly came round on joining Burrows and made a promising debut in November before winning by three and a half lengths at Wolverhampton three weeks later. Her owner, Ahmad Alkhallafi, was delighted.
“It was his first winner in about ten years and he is now dreaming,” Burrows says with a smile. “He asked me how good Embrace is and I had to say I don’t really know; she is such an unknown quality. But she is in the 1,000 Guineas and the French equivalent, so we will probably look at one of the trials if she shows the right signs.”
Burrows has never been a man in a hurry, and never will be. Only his circumstances have changed.
Travel costs and new recruits in sharp focus
Last season was a transitional one for Owen Burrows as he prepared to take the financial reins at Farncombe Down Stables in Lambourn. It prompted him to start cutting his cloth accordingly.
“The way prize-money is in this country, I have stopped travelling horses for hours unless they have a proper chance of winning,” he says. “I probably didn’t have to worry about that sort of thing in the past, but it makes no sense unless you can split the costs [with another trainer]. I’d rather wait a week and send them down the road to Kempton.”
Having trained privately for Sheikh Hamdan until his death in 2021, Burrows now sees British racing’s predicament through a different lens. The former National Hunt jockey believes only wholesale changes can turn the ship around.
“The funding model in Britain is broken beyond repair,” he says. “We need a completely new process; Australia and even France have made it work. And it’s frightening when you see what some people who own and run bookmaking chains are earning.”
Another new development is the need for Burrows to be more active at the sales. He resisted the urge to buy yearlings on spec last autumn; it is just not his way. Even though he had four orders to fill, he came away with just two.
“It was a bloody tough market,” he reflects, “so I will try again at the breeze-ups. People at the yearling sales told me I should go ahead and spend the money anyway, because owners change their minds. But I think finding value is important.”
Burrows knows life will never be the same post-Sheikh Hamdan, who was renowned for his patience. It won’t be long before he has to confront the prospect of an impatient owner wanting to press ahead with a horse who is not yet ready to run. How will he deal with that?
“It is my job to get across to the owner that it isn’t going to do the horse any good,” he replies. “We will all end up disappointed [in that scenario].
“Owners pay a lot of money to keep a horse in training, so, quite rightly, they may want a say. It is down to trainers to explain what is best for the horse, but I don’t think owners like that would send me a horse in the first place. I think people know my approach, and how I like to train.