Roger Varian has been talking eloquently for almost two hours in his office at Carlburg Stables, just off the renowned Bury Road in Newmarket, covering everything from his ambitions in the sport, views on Premierisation and family life, when he neatly encapsulates his approach to training 200 thoroughbreds at one of the largest racing establishments in the country.

Having discussed his wife Hanako’s role in the operation and recent venture into fashion with her luxury brand Newmarket 875, Varian says: “Hanako will laugh at me when I say this, but I think I’m an artist, in that I train through feel.

“I have to be here, I have to be close to the horses, I have to know the horses. I’m not someone who can just dissect data. I like to see, listen, touch. You need time to do that.”

Varian’s philosophy may sound somewhat old fashioned, yet this is a thoroughly modern outfit, a fully-functioning business employing around 90 people, with aspirations to grow and develop even further within the most competitive racing town in the world.

The demands of his profession have led the trainer to create a structure that allows him to focus on his core responsibilities, while other duties that would have come across his desk a few years ago are handled by other staff members.

It also means he can enjoy a family life with Hanako and three children Momoka, Eiji and Reika.

“This is a big operation – it means more than ever we are reliant on the team around us,” explains Varian, who also leases the neighbouring Beech Hurst Stables. “We have to make sure as we get bigger that the detail isn’t lost in the growth. No-one can be perfect, but we must set very high standards.

“We created the position of General Manager and Kate Grimwade is three years into her role; she oversees everything. Kate’s job is to take some of my workload off me so I can prioritise the Category A things. I have three assistants in Olly Rix, James Keen and Joanne Fowles, who take care of a third of the yard each.

“The key is not to overcomplicate things and I’m not reinventing the wheel, but the priority for me is to spend as much time as I can with the horses, because I’m a racehorse trainer, and have enough time for my owners. They are the two most fundamental aspects of the job.

“Most trainers, big or small, would say there are not enough hours in the day, so something gives. That’s why we recruited Kate into the role of General Manager.

“Delegating is important, but you need the right people to be able to delegate to having built trust. That takes time; I feel we’re there now and the structure and the team supporting me is as good as I’ve assembled. Kate can take a lot of credit in enabling me to feel that way.”

As he embarks on his 14th season with a licence, having succeeded former boss Michael Jarvis in 2011, Varian is bidding to crack the top three in the trainers’ championship for the first time following a 2023 campaign that yielded 121 winners and £4.18 million in prize-money, earning him a best-ever fourth-place finish.

To date he has captured 24 Group/Grade 1 races with 18 individual horses for 11 different owners. The current roster of owners in impressive, featuring the likes of Sheikh Ahmed Al Maktoum, whose support continues from the Jarvis era, Sheikh Obaid, for whom Varian has trained the likes of Postponed and Defoe, and Kia Joorabchian of Amo Racing, whose imposing grey colt King of Steel is the undoubted current stable star.

I’m not everyone’s cup of tea.

Varian’s reputation for honesty and diplomacy is a huge asset when it comes to managing his present band of owners, some of whom have regularly moved their strings between stables, though apparently there is no secret to keeping his patrons happy.

He says: “I actually think it’s hard to keep the same owners for long spells. In terms of cementing relationships with your owners, we all need to manage the bumps and come out at the end of a season and want to do it together again.

“I know I will suit some people and won’t suit others; I’m not everyone’s cup of tea. But I want the opportunity to see if we can connect.”

Varian continues: “Success breeds success and I took over a successful yard from a wonderful man and I got the chance to hit the ground running, which I did with a good team of horses and staff. But my name was new, and I needed to find support from different owners.

“Some owners have come and gone, some have come, gone and come back again. I’m realistic with what I can achieve and as I see it, you will fail for most people.

“The challenge of training racehorses is managing the bumps. Horses go wrong or don’t reach the level you would like them to. Horses will have setbacks and horses will get beaten. And that will happen much more regularly than you’ll have a winner. So, I think I will fail for most people, even if you think from the outside looking in that I’m succeeding, because I’m seeing an awful lot more go wrong than you are.”

The aforementioned King Of Steel, moved to Varian for his three-year-old season following two runs for David Loughnane at two, has endured a few bumps but also enjoyed major success in his career to date.

Withdrawn from last year’s Dante after an incident in the stalls, the strapping son of Wootton Bassett belied odds of 66-1 to finish a close second in the Derby, looking at one stage like he had the colts’ Classic at his mercy before being run down late by Auguste Rodin.

“The first feeling is relief but that quickly becomes jubilation”

After claiming Royal Ascot success in the King Edward VII Stakes, King Of Steel finished third behind Hukum and Westover in an epic King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes before filling fourth to Auguste Rodin in the Irish Champion Stakes. The Group 1 payday, when it arrived, was an emotional affair in the QIPCO Champion Stakes at Ascot under Frankie Dettori, on what was reported as the Italian’s final ride as a British-based jockey.

“The first feeling is relief but that quickly becomes jubilation,” Varian says, recalling that wonderful afternoon in Berkshire. “It was important because King Of Steel had gone close in a Derby and run creditably in a King George, and wasn’t disgraced in an Irish Champion Stakes. He was putting in Group 1 performances but hadn’t yet won a Group 1.

“They are very special moments. I might never be involved in such an occasion and atmosphere again, the way the race panned out and being Frankie’s last ride at Ascot. I recall walking in and Hanako saying we just have to remember this day.

“I put a lot of pressure on myself that he would win that day and bring home a Group 1 as a three-year-old. It didn’t look likely for much of that race. Frankie didn’t mean to be last early, that wasn’t the plan. When he came there and got on top late it was absolute relief but then pure joy.”

Pressure is a given for someone in Varian’s position. He trains impeccably-bred thoroughbreds, many of which were bought for significant amounts and some, like Akhu Najla, a son of Kingman who cost 2.7 million guineas for KHK Racing Ltd, falling a long way short of the level hoped for upon purchase.

So how does Varian deal with the level of expectation that comes with managing such expensive animals?

“I heard this saying over the winter – pressure is a privilege,” he relates “Being sent a horse that cost 2.7 million guineas is a privilege. If I ever trained the favourite for the Derby there would be pressure, but it would be a privilege.

“If the day was to come when I felt I didn’t want the sale-topper, that is the day I should give up. We’re in a results business so there’s always pressure. But wanting to be where I want to be within the profession, I need that pressure.”

Naturally, one might assume that having finished fourth last year, the place Varian wants to be is in the top three trainers and ultimately in the number one spot. However, that’s easier said than done according to Varian, whose yard is situated between those of Sir Michael Stoute and John Gosden, between them the winners of 15 trainers’ titles.

“I have a fear of failure but that drives me on”

“I’m realistic,” Varian says. “The top ten in the Flat racing world is enormously competitive, which is healthy – it doesn’t seem to be the case in jump racing, in England or Ireland.

“Charlie Appleby is a good mate. He was champion one year and eighth the following year – that’s an example of how competitive that top ten is.

“I have a fear of failure but that drives me on. I’ve always been hugely ambitious. I know the moment you sit down, take a deep breath and say I’m quite content where I am, it’s downhill from there.

“This is a unique industry; we need the animals to be good enough to bring home the big prizes. I’ve never set numerical targets as they make you judge your season at halfway. Loosely, I’ve just always tried to better the previous season.”

If Varian is to improve on his 2023 campaign, King Of Steel will have a vital role to play, supported by the likes of KHK Racing’s dual St Leger hero Eldar Eldarov, now five and due to contest the Dubai Gold Cup, along with a host of promising younger horses.

He says: “King Of Steel looks fantastic, and I’d say he’s improved physically everywhere. He’s a big horse but very agile, as he showed when he came round Tattenham Corner. He uses every muscle in his body, there’s no clumsiness about him. He hasn’t got too many miles on the clock, and he should keep getting better as he gets older.

“Eldar Eldarov is back with the Yorkshire Cup and Irish St Leger on the agenda. He’s so good at that 1m6f distance. I don’t think we’ll go to Ascot for the Gold Cup – he didn’t seem to get home last year, though never say never. But what a nice horse to have in the stable. He could be around for a few years and he’s just a lovely horse to have anything to do with.”

Whatever 2024 brings, Varian will retain a sense of perspective on the year’s highs and lows, borne partly out of personal tragedy. His brother, Christopher, was murdered at the golf club where he worked in August 2010, just months before the then assistant trainer took over the licence at Kremlin House Stables.

Varian says: “You have a choice when something like that happens – you either move or you crumble. The human body, the human mind is remarkably resolute. I have great admiration for my mother and father. They have been able to continue living a full life and they’re remarkably strong people, as is my sister.

“I was lucky in that I had horses in my life. Horses keep you looking forward. I was lucky to have the day job I had at the time, with the goals that were right in front of me and things that needed doing. Michael was not so well at the time, and I had so much to do, seven days a week.”

He adds: “It doesn’t mean I Iose any easier, but perhaps I get back to perspective quicker. The most important thing to me is that my mother and father are healthy, Hanako’s parents are healthy, and the children are healthy. That’s where my values lie.”


Derby dream alive at Carlburg 

There is a sense that Roger Varian has unfinished business in the Derby.

Varian was assistant trainer when Michael Jarvis sent the once-raced colt Hala Bek to Epsom for the 2006 Blue Riband.

In a tremendously tight finish, the son of Halling finished a close fourth behind Sir Percy, Dragon Dancer and Dylan Thomas – but the result could have been different had Hala Bek not become unbalanced near the line.

Varian says: “I remember it very well – I was saddling a horse at Folkestone! They delayed the start and I rushed into the owners and trainers to watch, saddle under my arm.

I remember shouting him home, thinking he was winning, then he did a bit of a Devon Loch, but he still nearly got back and won.

“Michael wanted to win the Derby more than anything. He was really dejected. I remember saying, ‘Don’t worry governor, we’ll win it next year’, having no idea that he was probably thinking that was his opportunity gone, because you don’t get them every year. It would have been hard for him.”

Varian was in his fourth season training when Paul Smith’s Kingston Hill contested the 2014 Derby. He finished a gallant second to Australia, owned by Smith’s father Derrick and the Coolmore partners, and later gave Varian a first Classic strike in the St Leger.

Last season, King Of Steel made his seasonal return at Epsom. After a smooth run around Tattenham Corner, he made his bid for glory with two furlongs to run and looked like causing an upset, only to be collared near the line by Auguste Rodin.

“I said at the time it was harder to take than Kingston Hill’s second because we knew – or thought – that King Of Steel was a very special horse. We didn’t think anything was impossible that day. To have gone so close and not brought home a prize… it was hard to accept but you get over it quickly and we’ll keep trying.

“What both Hala Bek and King Of Steel taught me is that it’s ideal to have a perfect preparation, but what’s more important is that you have the ability. So many horses have the perfect preparation for the Derby and they’re just not good enough. Above all you need a horse that’s good enough, which is the most obvious thing to say, but a lot of the time we try in these races with horses that just aren’t good enough.

“Hala Bek was good enough. He didn’t win, but had he kept a straight line he would have won.”

Varian currently has six horses engaged in this year’s Derby on Saturday, June 1 – Al Musmak, Defiance, Las Ramblas, Matsuri, Mr Hampstead and No Retreat. Al Musmak finished his juvenile campaign with a fine second in the Royal Lodge Stakes while the other five have raced just seven times between them.

“With the exception of Al Musmak, they’re all inexperienced,” Varian says. “They are all horses capable of running in a Derby trial. I don’t know that any of them are Derby horses, but they are nice horses.

“Twelve months ago, we could have sat here and not known quite how nice King Of Steel was. I wouldn’t single one out at this stage.”


Roger Varian on….

Linking up with James Doyle

I’ve known James for a long time. He has ridden winners for us, and it could work well. It isn’t the perfect scenario, because there will be times when we want to use him but can’t because his first priority is Wathnan Racing. He’s one of the top six, he’s an elite rider and brings with him experience and one of the best CVs. He’s a first-choice spare for many big trainers. We’ll use him regularly and he’ll come in and ride work, get to know the team and the horses. We have owners in the stable with their own jockeys, so he won’t ride everything.

Attracting owners

A lot of the best-bred horses will never come on the market, because they are raced by owner-breeders, so of course I want to train for owner-breeders. We can train for anyone – syndicates, partnerships, sole owners, owner-breeders, those based aboard. We need a broad roster of owners to make the business healthy – you need big bricks and small bricks to build a house. We want to put ourselves in those conversations when owners are deciding where to send their Classic horses.

Premier racing

I like the concept. But we could have been more radical. Our fundamental problem is that we are funded by a model that says we need a lot of racing, seven days a week, morning, noon, and night. We have to supply the horses for that model and that’s putting a strain on the workforce. No-one’s cracked the finding puzzle and that’s the problem.