Recruiting owners and their horses is the key to any trainer’s operation but it is unlikely there is one in the land able to match the story of how Harry Derham ensured 2010 US Open champion Graeme McDowell joined his string.
Derham already knew the Major winner and his caddie having met them when accompanying Sir Anthony McCoy to a Pro-Am at Wentworth. The friendship that followed resulted in McDowell and his LIV Tour teammates Richard Brand and dual Major winner Martin Kaymer sending Fourofakind to Derham when he started training in December 2022.
The gelding won at Haydock in March, but that success was not the reason for McDowell agreeing to buy ex-Johnny Murtagh-trained Give Me Five this autumn.
Derham explains: “Graeme invited me to another Pro-Am this summer. I am a very bad golfer and I played terribly all day, but on the sixth hole Graeme said, ‘We’ll do a nearest the pin competition here’.
“I said there had got to be something in it for me as he was a Major winner. He asked what I was thinking, so I said if we both hit the green and I got it nearer the hole than him, then he’d have to buy me a new horse.
“What happened was one of those dream moments in an amateur golfer’s life; the moment I hit the shot I knew it was really good. In fairness to Graeme, he stuck to his word – ‘a deal is a deal’, he said – and got another horse. It’s called Give Me Five and he is a lovely juvenile. What luck!”
Sharing ownership in the new addition, who won on his hurdling debut at Market Rasen at the beginning of December, is McDowell’s new LIV golf teammate Brooks Koepka, the former world No. 1 and five-time Major winner.
The impressive array of sportsmen on the Derham ownership roster also includes close friend Jamie Overton and his fellow England international cricketing brother Craig, who have shares in Gerry Feilden Hurdle third Brentford Hope along with England all-rounder Liam Livingstone and Nottinghamshire batsman Joe Clarke, who has made a name for himself playing in T20 franchises around the globe.
Keeping in touch with international athletes – Jamie Overton is spending his winter in Australia while McDowell and Koepka are based in Florida – presents certain challenges, but Derham has put communication with his clients at the centre of his nascent operation, a state-of-the-art facility in Boxford near Newbury.
What works well for the star names is also a big plus for both the syndicates that support Derham on his first steps into training, which include Heart of the South Racing, Highclere Thoroughbreds and Noel Fehily Racing, and the longer established owners.
If you are not looking after your owners, then you are not going to have any horses.
Derham says: “We keep our owners very well updated. Every Tuesday they all get a video and a message from me.
“It was [former Ascot CEO] Guy Henderson who talked to me about this aspect. He always said if a horse only races four or five times a year and the owner works in an office, they only have four or five days out and that’s not that much value for money.
“With us you get an update every week with your horse going up the gallops, the latest running plans and how things like schooling is going.
“It is a big commitment. My sister Amy does all the videos. It will take me all the morning, but it feels like a worthwhile investment of my time. If you are not looking after your owners, then you are not going to have any horses.
“If they get something every week, whether it is good or bad news, it is easier for people to take because they are on the journey. You can’t ring people on a landline once a month any more to tell them their horse is fine and you run it at Ascot next week.
“It seems to be working for my owners who have been in racing for a very long time and the syndicate members. The reality is you are not going to win all the time – you can’t – but this is trying to provide owners with a really good experience, whether you are winning or losing.”
The wins are already beginning to stack up for 28-year-old Derham, but it is easy to forget he only had his first runner on Boxing Day last year when Seelotmorebusiness, running in the colours of his mother Julie, won at Huntingdon.
He was one of a dozen horses that Derham started out with from a temporary base in Lambourn while his new stable at Boxford was being completed.
Derham felt the four months he trained last season, when he still managed 14 winners, were a “free hit”.
The 2023-24 season is his first full campaign yet Derham has become a familiar face on the jump racing circuit thanks to his 11-year stint working at the Somerset stable in Ditcheat run by his uncle, Paul Nicholls.
Derham rode a winner at the Cheltenham Festival – Salubrious in the 2013 Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle – as one of the stable’s jockeys before spending six years as assistant trainer to the 14-time champion, being at his shoulder as they challenged for the biggest prizes the sport offers.
It all seemed to get more serious when Derham moved into his new purpose-built base in August and his string shot up to just over 50 horses, but the winning momentum has been maintained.
That Derham is at the stable at all can be traced back to two wins he rode at Wincanton in 2013 on a horse called Benvolio when he was a five-pound claimer.
The gelding’s part-owner was Caroline Sutton and they became friends. What started off as a bit of a joke – “I said you’ve got land and I ought to train on it” – gradually turned into reality as a derelict farm began to be transformed into a superb training centre.
There is still work to do, but Derham fully recognises he has been handed an opportunity he had no right to expect, a reality that makes him doubly determined not to spurn it.
“The financial pressure of setting up training is absolutely enormous
“I first saw the site in June 2019,” Derham relates. “The moment I saw it I thought what an environment for the horses – they are so relaxed here. They don’t have to go on the roads and are not bothered by anything.
“It’s been a long project and Caroline’s support has been massive. I rent the place off her and people have invested in my business including my dad Geoff and my sister Amy, who is my business partner.
“The financial pressure of setting up training is absolutely enormous – I would not have been able to do it without the help I have had.
“I basically said to all of them that I have a mad idea – I want to be a trainer and I think I can do it. I need a lot of money to help me. Because I rode for a little bit and made a few quid, I owned two houses in Ditcheat, which I sold.
“The good thing about people investing in me was I was able to say to them everything I have earned in my life up till now I was investing too. I am putting everything into it, so it is going to bloody well work!
“Without this opportunity I would probably still be at Paul’s. I loved working there. It is good fun winning 150 races a year and being able to watch all those good horses every morning.
“I would have liked to train at some stage for sure, but the reality is it is really expensive, and you need a place to do it. I didn’t want to go into a 20-box yard knowing I could never get any bigger.
“I came to the conclusion that I wouldn’t get a chance like this again in my life, so I went for it.”
Inevitably, Derham has been influenced by his time at Nicholls’ shoulder. Following in the footsteps of Harry Fry and Dan Skelton, two former Ditcheat assistants who have now established themselves in the training ranks, also raised the expectation level.
Derham says: “Expectation is massive because you have learned from one of the best men to ever train. You don’t want to be the guy who went to his school for 11 years and can’t do it.
“Ditcheat is my template for nearly everything. I said to Paul on my last day with him that you can’t stand next to him for six years and not get ambitious. It is going to rub off. I don’t like to come across as punchy, but I believe in what we have got here, and I believe in myself being able to train horses.
“There is no point saying I want to do what Paul has done, because what he has done in his career is mind-blowing when you think about the races he has won.
“But do I want to be champion trainer one day? Yes, I would love to be. Do I have ambitions to train 150 horses? Absolutely. But I understand you can’t just say that and it suddenly happens. It takes an enormous amount of work – and you need amazing owners. I want to be one of the top yards in the country.
“If I work at it and get a bit of luck, I don’t think it is a mental pipedream.”
Like his colleagues across the country, Derham, who has worked closely with bloodstock agent Ed Bailey to unearth new recruits, is already weighing up which of his horses might go to the Cheltenham Festival in March.
Queens Gamble, whom he inherited when Oliver Sherwood handed in his licence to become Derham’s assistant, is the current top hope. She won a novices’ event at Kempton in November and is due to run at Newbury on November 30 when her credentials for the Grade 1 Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle will be further tested.
Young Butler has already won a Pertemps Hurdle qualifier while Spirou, a son of Cracksman recently recruited from France, and Give Me Five could end up in one of the Festival’s juvenile hurdle contests.
Derham has already has his first Festival runner. The Colm Donlon-owned Shared finished 18th in the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle in March, an excusable defeat considering the gelding was lame the day after with puss in a hoof.
Derham says: “To have a runner there in my first season felt so weird. All day I thought someone was going to tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘You shouldn’t be here’.
“I said to Amy as we were leaving the track, ‘We need some faster ones to come here’. I don’t want to just take part. It is nice to have a runner, but I have absolutely no interest in finishing 18th. I want to compete.”
The foundations are being put in place for Derham to do that for many seasons to come.
“You can see Oliver’s passion for the horses”
Harry Derham says desire to add some experience to his team has made Grand National-winning trainer Oliver Sherwood the perfect recruit as his assistant trainer.
Sherwood joined a staff roster which already included the experienced Graham Baines, who previously worked for Harry Whittington and Warren Greatrex, as his head lad.
Derham explains: “What I wanted people to say was that I was a young guy with a young ambitious team but that I had two people at my shoulder who have seen all of it before. I might see something for the second or third time; they are seeing it for the millionth time.
“At Ditcheat very good jockeys have come and gone as well as assistants and staff. But the one constant has been the head lad Clifford Baker. The one thing I wanted from the start was a really good head man and I was very fortunate that Graham emailed me with his CV. I rang him three seconds later!
“Oliver asked me if I had half an hour for a beer in April. I went to his yard and he explained his numbers were going down and financially it was making less sense for him to train. He said he still had 18 to 20 really nice horses, which need somewhere to go, and a really good bunch of staff.
“I spoke to Graham and Amy about it and we thought it would be a really good thing. Oliver is a little bit of a mentor for me, and you can clearly see his passion for the horses. He offers that steady hand.
“His staff are fabulous and he has some really nice horses that are owned by some amazing owners. They are significant positives for my business.”
Derham also went for experience when he chose 32-year-old Paul O’Brien as his stable jockey. The rider, who had never partnered more than 14 winners in a season, ended his first campaign associated with Derham with 37 successes.
Derham says: “Watching jockeys in that last year before I started training, it was glaringly obvious to me that the only reason he was not riding many winners was because he was riding horses which weren’t fast enough.
“He is a phenomenal jockey over fences. He has a load of experience under his belt, and I am convinced he will have a mega ten years now.”