When you won the 1996 Derby with Shaamit you were training 40 horses. Now your stable is approaching 200. How do you cope with such a huge string?
We have 150 stables, three different yards, three assistant trainers, a head lad and two assistant head lads covering the three yards. Our main assistant is Archie Watson, plus two pupil assistants, who report to Archie. It is a system that has taken a long time to develop and is still developing. Senior staff work one weekend in three, which we consider to be a big advance. It is very different to what it was in 1996.
With your wife Maureen as assistant, it says a great deal for your relationship working so closely under all the pressures that go with training a big string and managing so many owners…
We still get on, anyway! It is not a job for us: it’s a way of life. We have an extremely busy day on Sundays, working and planning for the week ahead. It just goes on and on. Occasionally we like to go away for a couple of days to Portugal, where we have a family house. We give it 110% the whole time so occasionally you need to step away and give yourself time to think. Personally, one of my problems is that we are so busy with the horses that I don’t get enough time to think about whether the business is working and how we can make the business more cost-efficient.
Maureen’s knowledge and experience must be of enormous benefit to you and the yard. Does Maureen, Lester Piggott’s daughter, ride out and how do you split your duties?
Maureen rides out three lots most days and co-ordinates the running of the yards. All the information from the head lads and vets come through Archie and Maureen. Archie is an integral part of that side of the operation and, of course, I am with Maureen all the time. If a horse coughs five times, Maureen or Archie will organise for it to be scoped and pass the result to me. I do more of the work lists and running plans. On a Sunday morning Maureen and I do a rough work list for every horse for the week. It is important from her point of view she knows the plans and the horse can be worked accordingly. It is important we’re both in the loop and she knows what I’m thinking. Our children live abroad. Our daughter Mary Anne is 25, lives in Dubai and works for a marketing company. Our son, Sam, is 23, lives in Dublin and works for Paddy Power.
Five winners and three places from 15 runners at York’s Ebor meeting takes some doing. Your enthusiastic, race-going father Brian was there and must have been very proud. Can you describe what that meant to you?
As a Yorkshireman, winning at York for me is like winning at Ascot for most other people. Things just happened to fall our way; we were lucky to have the right horses for the right races and a few nice two-year-olds, which was fantastic. Everyone in the yard knows I love to win at York. We always fire a few bullets there and we all got very excited when it came off. Our first four runners all won; it’s never happened before for me and I’m sure it won’t happen again. My father has been immense to all his children, and very much to Maureen and I. He’s had a great passion for racing over the last 50 years. One of the most satisfying things about our success is the amount of joy it brings to my father and Maureen’s parents, Lester and Susan. We didn’t celebrate much – straight off to Doncaster sales the next day, and so it goes on.
One of your York winners was Recorder, a well-bred son of Galileo owned by The Queen. Will he make up into a top three-year-old – his dam Memory did not train on – and could he be a Classic contender?
I didn’t train the dam but I have no doubt that Recorder will train on. Though he had a setback after York and is off games with an injury for the rest of the season. However, I hope very much to have him back next year for the 2,000 Guineas and hopefully the Derby as well.
You earned a reputation as an excellent placer of horses, adept at running up a sequence with a progressive handicapper. Is it fair to say that you are training a different type of horse these days?
Without wanting to sound arrogant, I have moved away from getting one rated 50 and trying to win five races before it is raised to 75. We are trying to upgrade and train better quality horses. But I still enjoy preparing one for a particular race and like to have one for races like the Lincoln or the Hunt Cup.
Has the purchase of Flint Cottage stables from Mark Tompkins two years ago changed the Haggas training scenario?
It has made life much better for us because Flint Cottage is now our two-year-old yard. Also, any horse that comes in after the start of the season goes in there and undergoes tests, so hopefully we can keep the main yard at Somerville Lodge free from virus and disease. We had a very bad spell of ringworm in the yard in the spring and it slowed us right down. Maureen is tireless in trying to prevent disease.
How difficult is it to find staff in Newmarket, particularly for a stable with so many horses?
It is very hard to find good staff, and also good foreign staff since the government tightened up on immigration. One of the problems regarding staff in Newmarket is Godolphin and Darley have expanded even more. Saeed bin Suroor and Charlie Appleby have many more horses and require more staff, and those jobs are lucrative. It is difficult for us all to compete with that. We find in general that people come to us for a week and they either like the job or they don’t. We are not very keen on taking short cuts and some people don’t like that, whereas others like to get stuck in and are very dedicated. And we do have a very dedicated staff.
Does it fall to you to maintain staff morale with in-house competitions or teams for cricket, football or darts? What sport do you play these days?
We won the inaugural running of the Newmarket stable staff sports day. Our team had great fun and I was very proud of them. I am sure the sports day will develop. I gave up cricket three years ago because of a bicep injury. These days I play an occasional nine holes of golf at our local club, Royal Worlington on Sunday evenings with Michael Bell and Ed Dunlop, a fun three-ball.
From a trainer’s point of view, what’s the secret of making racing more enjoyable for owners?
Winners! There’s nothing like winning. I’m pretty certain most owners would prefer to win a maiden at Thirsk than finish third or fourth in a maiden at Ascot. Owners go to all sorts of different trainers for various reasons – some very social, others not so social, but very professional. The owner-trainer relationship is a very personal thing, not far removed from a marriage; the key is trust. If the trust wavers, as in a marriage, it’s never quite the same. There is more movement of horses these days but I don’t think that’s the big deal it used to be. I’ll advise owners to send their horses somewhere else if I think the move would benefit them. Rex Imperator is a case in point; after winning the Stewards’ Cup he was going nowhere with us and I recommended the owners sent him to another trainer, and he went to David O’Meara.
The racecourses are dragging their heels over signing up to the Members’ Agreement, a new tripartite structure for British racing. How would you get them to jump on board?
To be honest, I don’t know. But I understand the Horsemen’s Group are right on the case and are very nearly there. I’m not sure if the ARC-owned courses are the key ones they are waiting for, but I believe they are getting closer to an agreement. I did 25 years on the Council of the National Trainers Federation, with two stints as President. I still support them financially and help in whatever way I can, but they’ve been listening to me for long enough. Younger trainers have got involved and the NTF is going well.
You once organised a boycott of Yarmouth over inadequate prize-money levels. Would you do it again?
Yes, I would. At that time the deal with Yarmouth was a fixed level of prize-money, which the course had agreed it would not go below. But they allowed their prize-money to dip below the required figure and that’s why we called a boycott asking everyone not to run, and nearly everyone complied. I have to say, what is happening at another ARC-owned course, Newcastle, is a disgrace and should never have been allowed to happen. To tear up a fantastic turf course is sacrilegious, just to replace it with more all-weather. ARC’s commitment to racing is pathetic and you have only to look at Newcastle’s final turf meeting to see where they are going – eight races and a total prize-money fund of £33,000. Having had plenty of winners there over the years, I have no plans or desire to go there ever again. More cheap racing for them, and for us; we should be ashamed of ourselves.
Is it possible to say in which departments racing is improving and competing successfully with the other big sports? And where does racing need to step up its game?
We are certainly getting the crowds, and the racecourses have really got their act together, encouraging and promoting the sport. Racing is the second best attended support after football. But we lag behind in the national press. For example, there are times when the Daily Mail has 12 pages on football and only half a page on racing, which is so disappointing. One of my major bugbears is the fact that we have two dedicated racing channels when there should be only one. If you go into a betting shop you can find yourself watching racing from South Africa as well as virtual racing because they are trying to fill air time, but if we had one dedicated channel surely punters would be better catered for, being able to watch all the English racing at staggered times. The whole industry would benefit from more revenue from betting. So why can’t we tune into one Sky channel that covers all our racing?
If there was any chance of you speaking at the Gimcrack dinner at your beloved York, what would you like to say?
I have spoken at the Gimcrack dinner twice before. Last year I was honoured to make the keynote speech and I have talked about the benefits of having one dedicated racing channel. Saleh Al Homaizi and Imad Al Sagar, the owners of our Gimcrack winner Ajaya, are relatively unknown to the racing world. They are two very smart, clever Kuwaiti businessmen and have a deep love and passion for racing, especially in England. And it would be fantastic if one of them could speak this year. They have a burgeoning operation, which is starting to breed. The fact that Ajaya is a first foal from a young mare is really exciting for them. They are both very well spoken and very well read and so I hope one of them might agree to speak.
Do you ever have any desire to train a jumper or two?
I’ve had a jumps winner, Fen Terrier at Fakenham. My first winner on the Flat was owned and bred by Willie Jenks and it gave me great satisfaction that Fen Terrier was ridden by Willie’s son, Tom. I have no desire to train over jumps, but I enjoy going to Cheltenham when I can. I think it’s a wonderful meeting and they have got it absolutely right. My mother had some wonderful jumpers, including the 1982 Gold Cup winner, Silver Buck, who gave us all so much pleasure.
In 2010 you told this magazine that “you cannot sit still in this business”. So where would you like to be in another five years’ time?
We want to keep doing a good job and where it takes us will be where it takes us. We are lucky to have a very strong team of people working for us and supporting us. Quite simply, we want to be training better quality horses in better quality races.