Coming from a family steeped in racing – your grandmother Helen Johnson Houghton trained Gilles de Retz to win the 1956 2,000 Guineas and your father Fulke produced numerous top class horses – were you always going to follow the family profession?
I don’t think so, certainly not originally because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, though I loved racing. I wanted to travel and I also went to London for a while. I wanted to see the world and was desperate to visit Australia and the Far East, which I did while I was away for two of three years. Having said that, I love being at home and I love Woodway (the family training centre at Blewbury in Oxfordshire). That brought me back here, though I didn’t have a clue what I was going to do. I wasn’t helped by my all-girls school, which was hopeless at pointing us in the right direction if we didn’t know what career we wanted to pursue. And at that stage I certainly didn’t.
What was your first job in London before you started running syndicates for Henry Ponsonby and later becoming assistant trainer to John Hills?
I worked for a market research company. I started off temping and I must have been very bossy because I ended up as office manager when I was only 20 something. It was a very small company and basically I saw it as paying a wage. I enjoyed being there but it was nothing more than an office job. I loved living in London, where I had a great group of friends and I used to come home at weekends to go hunting.
You must have the most experienced assistant in racing. What have you learnt from your father, and, at 73, does he still play an important role in the yard?
Patience, though a lot of people would say I am not learning very well! But I am trying. He teaches you to have an eye for a horse, what to look for in a horse and very importantly he invariably spots a problem before it occurs. He is brilliant out in the yard; if I am worried about a leg he will come and look at it and make the right suggestions. He is another pair of hands and eyes, and I realise I am very lucky. Dad is always pretty hands-on and goes through the entry book and calendar trying to spot opportunities for the horses. We are not always in agreement, but I think that is pretty normal.
Which of his many achievements stand out in your mind, and why?
I suppose it would have to be Ile De Bourbon’s King George in 1978. I was at Ascot and just about old enough to remember it. That was an amazing day and I was so impressed that Dad met the Queen! Another pretty phenomenal achievement was when Dad and Granny went over to the Keeneland Sales in the States and bought the brothers, Ribocco and Ribero, in consecutive years and then Dad trained them both to win the Irish Derby and St Leger in 1967 and 1968.
Your grandmother was a pioneer for female trainers, yet women still struggle to break into the upper echelons of the sport. Why is that?
I think because the sport is all consuming; you’re either in or you’re out. You can’t do it part time. But I do think we are breaking into racing, albeit slowly. You have people like Susannah Gill of Betfair, trainers like Jessica Harrington and Amanda Perrett, and Rachel Hood, President of the Racehorse Owners Association. What I think is really difficult is attracting younger women into racing; perhaps they don’t see it as a career option. I know there are lots of women in the stables but not in the upper echelons of the sport.
Racing is the last of the great male bastions. I realise how lucky I am to have the Johnson Houghton name to help me. Racing can be wonderfully old fashioned but it isn’t so wonderful when you are battering your head against the system. However, we are getting there and women jockeys are certainly making their mark. It’s happening but much slower than in other walks of life.
You have saddled Alutiq to win this season for Qatar Racing. Do you train other horses for this ambitious Middle East enterprise?
Not at the moment, but hopefully we will have some more in the future. They are very forward thinking and outward looking so I hope we can train more for them.
What is your biggest ambition and how many horses would you like to train in an ideal world?
In an ideal world I would like to train 60 or 70. That would be perfect for me. I wouldn’t want to train 200 because I like to know every horse personally. I have 35 at the moment. My ambition is to train quality horses for lovely people. I want to do the best for each horse however good that horse is. I class myself as a boutique trainer, trying to hit that niche market, if I can.
Since taking over from your father in 2007, how tough has it been to compete in the recession?
It’s tough going for everyone in any leisure industry. The leisure pound is the first pound to be hit so you have to make every pound worth spending for your owners. You have to make it the most enjoyable experience and make it competitive with other sports. You just have to keep your head down and keep going. It’s no good moaning about it.
The debate about the importance of prize-money, especially to owners, never seems to go away. What are you hearing from your owners?
Like all owners, they’d like more prize-money. If they own a decent horse they do expect a bit of a return, nothing huge, but enough. Not that long ago if you won two or three races your training fees for a year would be covered, but now you can barely pay your training fees for a month if you win two or three races, which is ridiculous.
The ultimate for me was Beaver Patrol, who won a race in Dubai, but gradually declined with age and the last race he won at Brighton was a small affair, and do you know what his owner Gary Stevens received as a prize? A pot of jam! Of course he got a bit of prize-money as well and we were happy to win because Beaver Patrol wasn’t the horse he was. But a pot of jam really was embarrassing. If we’re not careful it’ll be rosettes next.
I accept that owners are in the game for leisure and pleasure, but we mustn’t forget that racing is an industry and should be treated as such. They need to look after the owners much better. After all, they are the people that put the money into the business in the first place.
You buy most of your horses yourself, including stable star The Cheka and exciting juveniles Alutiq and Cool Bahamian. Who helps you?
My dad is brilliant at going through all the catalogues for me and knows all the back pedigrees. So we know which ones we would buy if we can afford them. We work the sales together, but his depth of knowledge on the pedigrees is fantastic. He will look at yearlings and have a very good idea whether a certain individual will stand training on our gallops.
I did buy Alutiq on my own but only after dad had explored the pedigree. He will spot things in pedigrees several generations back. It does have a downside because I don’t use an agent and an agent can bring you new owners. But dad and I work very well as a team and I think we are good at buying.
Where will we see The Cheka next and is he the force of old?
I don’t know if he is the force of old; the jury is out on that. He clearly wasn’t himself at the beginning of the year. He has since had a little wind operation and we turned him out for a month. He is now back in training, looking much better and a different shape to what he was in the spring. He doesn’t owe us anything and has been an absolute star for his owners, Anthony Pye-Jeary and Mel Smith.
He is a great character and likes the whole world to revolve around him. If you’re not paying him attention he gets very cross. His favourite trick is to stop dead in the middle of the string at the most inconvenient moment so that no one can get past him or round him. He likes to see how many people he can upset.
Up-and-coming jockey John Fahy has ridden the majority of your winners this season. What are his main assets?
He comes and rides work once a week so he knows the horses, particularly the two-year-olds. But he is not my stable jockey per se; I like to use the best available. He can lack concentration at times but he can ride all right and keeps horses well balanced. At 22, he lacks a bit of experience but he’s getting there.
As an accomplished amateur rider you won over 20 races, including two ‘Diamond’ races at Ascot. How much riding do you do nowadays?
I ride out two lots a day, except work mornings because I can’t ride and watch the work. I hunt with the Old Berks and also travel a bit to other hunts, which I enjoy.
The BHA has recently appointed a new Chairman in Steve Harman. What would you put as the first item on his ‘to do’ list?
To look after the owners much better. After all, the owners supply the product and are the most important people in the sport. I know they deserve more prize-money, but I feel they could be better looked after on some of the racecourses. I think too much racing is concentrated on weekends, obviously to attract the public who are available at the weekend. But there is so much leisure competition at that time and people cannot do everything on a Saturday.
People enjoy taking a day off midweek to go to one of the festivals, but some of those have been moved towards the weekend, like the Ebor. The spread of fixtures means that there is very little prize-money midweek.
Can you give us a horse to look forward to at Goodwood?
I have a nice two-year-old filly, Persian Bolt, by US Ranger, bought at Deauville last year. There’s a chance she could run at Goodwood and she is one to look out for. Spillway, who has won at Kempton (twice) and Sandown, could run in the Gordon Stakes. We might have some two-year-olds in the maidens also.
Training racehorses is a 24/7 kind of existence. How do you switch off and forget about the pressures of work?
Hunting in the winter and skiing. And I love walking the dogs on the Downs. Even walking the gallops up here and realising how lucky I am to have such wonderful facilities, and not to be sat in an office all day.