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While John Gosden likes to let his horses do the talking, the training fraternity’s most eloquent representative is not afraid to speak his mind more »

Monday, September 30, 2013

It suits John Gosden very well to be stationed at the end of Newmarket’s Bury Road. It took him a while to get there but Clarehaven’s location – it is the last property on the sought-after stretch – makes a perfect vignette of the man himself.

Gosden is inclusive yet removed from any clique. He embraces the community while keeping it at arm’s length. He is part of the furniture without being fixed to the wall.

John Gosden in his training barn at Hollywood Park in 1984

John Gosden in his training barn at Hollywood Park in 1984

He has his own way of going and it has served him well. It culminated last season with a first trainers’ championship after endless years of building, some of it on shifting sands, but there was never much doubt he would get there in the end.

Much has changed since Gosden returned to Britain from California 24 years ago. He is much less inclined to rise to bait. He occasionally feels the need to get things off his chest; witness his recent denouncement of Kingman’s 2,000 Guineas odds. But he seems entirely at ease with life.

It’s tempting to cite that trainers’ championship as the conduit. In a profession where judgements of merit are subjective, the only definitive statement any trainer can make is to top the pile. He is one of only five practising British trainers to have achieved it.

Except that Gosden, 62, doesn’t accept the correlation. During the title chase he maintained it never preoccupied him. It would either come his way, or not. That’s how he still sees it, even after a winter’s contemplation. The merit wasn’t in winning it but in doing so without compromising his horses.

Before any season starts the first thing is to see where your strengths and weaknesses lie

“At the time everyone kept winding me up but I purposely tried not to consider it,” he reflects. “I didn’t want to start diverting horses with winnable targets abroad to run in races here just for place money.”

He says that any reflected glory should shine on his hard-working staff. And his insistence that it made no difference within the overall scheme is endorsed by the way he set about defending it this season. He didn’t even try.

Bereft of Classic horses, Gosden opted for the long road. He kissed goodbye to everything before Royal Ascot, saddled Remote to win there – together with five other placed horses – and hand-picked his spots in the summer.

The strategy has paid dividends. At Christmas Gosden would have bitten your hand off for the five Group 1 winners he has saddled to date. Yet The Fugue and Elusive Kate have every prospect of raising the bar, while the not-inconsiderable silhouette of Kingman hovers over the juvenile scene.

This patient approach marks another sea-change from the younger Gosden. “In America I would sit down at the start of the year and say: ‘Right, I’m going to win this, win that.’ But actually, that’s the surest way to the funny farm.

“I learnt not to be obsessed with early targets,” he continues. “You run the risk of trying to force the situation when the horse might not be ready. It is never good to put yourself in a dilemma.”

His philosophy is abetted by the ever-increasing length of an international season that runs at full tilt until the year’s end. That time is now upon us and Gosden still has bullets to fire. The loaded chamber is a legacy of decisions he took at the start of the year.

In this, Gosden illustrates the virtues of a craft properly learnt, one that preoccupied him as a teenager, and which he has refined over time.

“Before any season starts,” he says, “the first thing is to see where your strengths and weaknesses lie. The horses will tell you that, but you must quickly recognise it if you don’t have anything for the big races.

“You have to admit that to yourself, no matter how disappointing it may be, and make sure you start batting at a lower level. Sometimes from their homework you think you have some nice horses but you get a nasty surprise when you take them to the races. And you have to work with the racing programme.”

That means having to press on with any Classic candidate while keeping the older horses, which are easier to prepare, in check until Royal Ascot. “There’s a lot of early pressure on three-year-olds, which are sorted out by Royal Ascot,” Gosden says.

Treble Group 1 winner The Fugue

Treble Group 1 winner The Fugue

“They basically need a rest at that point because some very important races have now been scheduled towards the end of the season. The season is too long to go through it from start to finish – unless you have a Frankel!”

This need to allow horses to surface for air troubles Gosden. A self-confessed “old-fashioned thinker”, he savours the season as it once was, when the Newmarket Classics ushered in a spate of festivals until the carousel stopped turning in September.

“We have some great summer festivals of racing, each one with a unique ambiance,” he says. “But by the time you get to the back-end of autumn you’ve either had to miss something pretty serious in the summer or have a horse with an iron constitution. That makes me a little sad.”

Gosden shares a trait with that other Newmarket leviathan, Sir Michael Stoute, in his patience when developing young talent. He made his reputation in the US with a barn-load of older horses, most of them lightly-raced ex-Europeans that were spared the more pressing agendas of locally-trained horses.

The experience must have been formative. Few trainers have prospered like Gosden for recent extensions to the older-horse Pattern in Britain. Indeed, four of his five top level victories this season have been gained by The Fugue and Elusive Kate, a pair of older fillies who would probably be grazing the paddocks had they raced a decade earlier.

Conversely, the game is probably more competitive now than ever. The need to nurture young talent has never been more pressing. Even Vincent O’Brien in his prime never enjoyed the omnipotence of the annual yearling delivery to his namesake at Ballydoyle. It is best amplified by the fact that Aidan O’Brien’s horses are perennially the ones to beat.

“As Richard Hannon is finding this year, the sheer quality of horses Aidan has, and the supreme professionalism at Ballydoyle from top to bottom, makes him a pretty daunting opponent,” Gosden says.

“Richard has again won a huge number of races and more than his share of Group 1s, yet Aidan is still within striking distance because Coolmore’s stallions are so dominant.

“If you want to compete in the middle-distance races you’ve got to get your hands on those horses. Last year we had Nathaniel [by Galileo] but they are not easy to come by.

“Finding a Derby horse is a tall order, which is why British trainers only had three runners in the race this year. It is very tough to compete but you’ve got to keep at it. It can be done. There are yearlings by Galileo and Montjeu in Book 1 at Tattersalls – but you need half a million to buy one.”

Given Gosden’s slant on confronting the Ballydoyle juggernaut, you venture that ploughing all his money – and plenty more of the bank’s – into buying Clarehaven seven years ago was a certifiable act. He agrees.

“With all the capital investment we’ve made, it’s a lousy business model,” he explains. “I managed to avoid it for years but we finally had to cough up. My son, Thady, met Richard Hannon at the sales three years ago and when he told Richard he wanted to train, Richard replied: ‘You’ll have great fun, you’ll travel the world and meet the nicest of people, but you won’t make any money’.”

In truth, Gosden must look back on his purchase of Clarehaven as a seminal day in his life. His wife, ROA President Rachel Hood, has renovated much of the family house, while the yard has brought nothing but good tidings.

Gosden is midway through his fourth professional decade. The first was spent in California until he was lured back by Sheikh Mohammed just before the latter contrived Godolphin. Ten years on and Gosden moved on to Manton, where he trained successfully until 2006, yet his Group 1 strikes from Clarehaven are more bountiful than at any time in his career.

Since 2008, they average out at five per season. In all his previous incarnations Gosden matched that tally only once: in 1997, when Ryafan rattled up a Grade 1 hat-trick in the US.

This season has been one of consolidation yet he still approaches the autumnal fest as Newmarket’s leading trainer – and that’s without the handsome prize-money won in France and Ireland with Elusive Kate and The Fugue respectively.

“Even though it is very competitive at the top, it’s a nice place to be,” Gosden says. “It’s not going to happen every year but you always dream you can build back up to it again.”

This year he has maintained his prominent place by targeting specific horses at the big festivals, but the ground turned against his St Leger favourite, Excess Knowledge, in the build up. That hurt.

“To this day the hardest thing is when things go wrong,” he says. “It hits you hard when horses get sick or injured before a big race, and I suppose the day you don’t feel like that is the day you should get out of the game because you don’t care as much any more.”

That day is some way distant for Gosden. Kingman’s obvious potential will shorten the winter months even though his trainer maintains that the 2,000 Guineas favourite still has much to prove.

“As the season unfolds you see two-year-olds winning the Champagne Stakes easily, the National Stakes easily. That’s another level to what Kingman has achieved,” he says.

“We’ll see how he gets on in that class soon enough, but I’ve never really got it when people seize on a maiden race winner with good sectional times. Quite often that proves an inaccurate guide.”

There are many facets to Gosden, not least among them an eloquence that sometimes sees him portrayed as an unofficial spokesman for anything to do with British racing and beyond.

Champions’ Day is a fantastic concept but I’ve long been of the belief it should be run at the end of the first week in September

For that reason his stance on numerous, controversial aspects of the sport are well documented. But when all is said and done, when stalemate continues to blight the way British racing is financed, it’s refreshing to listen to a man talk freely about his passion for training horses.

But perhaps the best thing about Gosden today is that he lets others froth at the mouth over the sport’s perceived injustices. He remains the same at his core but he has learnt to temper a natural inclination to speak in forthright words about everything from lasix to the composition of the Horsemen’s Group.

To see Gosden at work is to recognise an old-fashioned truth. He simplifies what can be a complex, complicated process by letting his horses dictate where and when he runs them. The outcome speaks for itself.

‘The Pattern belongs to a bygone era’
For the last five years John Gosden has strongly advocated the creation of a fitting close to the Flat season. He described the lack of a championship day of racing as akin to playing the semi-finals of football’s World Cup and not bothering to play the final.

After two highly successful years, QIPCO British Champions’ Day will be renewed at Ascot for the third time on October 19. And while Gosden is delighted with the development, he feels its timing may return to haunt the organisers in the years ahead.

“Champions’ Day is a fantastic concept,” he says, “but I’ve long been of the belief it should be run at the end of the first week in September. That’s the end of summer racing; autumn comes pretty quick after that.

“From that point of view, Ireland’s creation of its Champions’ Weekend [in mid-September] is going to be to the detriment of Champions’ Day here. The Irish Champion Stakes has always had that date, and there’s no doubt in my mind it is the prime date.

“Arc weekend follows after that, so our Champions’ Day [in mid-October] now comes very much as an afterthought from a trainer’s perspective. In the first year we had nice ground but last year it was soft/heavy ground. And of course, it also makes it impossible to go to the Breeders’ Cup.

“I live in fear that Champions’ Day, fabulous concept though it is, is going to get sunk by the traditional late-autumn climate of the UK. It is a very dangerous date, but I’m not sure there’s an easy solution to it.

“In the end we are asking a bigger question: would we be prepared to break out of the Pattern? It is nearly 40 years old and I rather think it belongs to a bygone era. It’s probably got a bit overblown now.

“There’s no doubt Britain has lost out. France stole a march on us when they moved all those Group 1 races to Arc day, in the process creating European Breeders’ Cup Day. We then moved the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes back three weeks and it is in a dangerous area there. Everyone knows in their heart it’s the wrong date.

“If we could rely on the climate, I wouldn’t be arguing this point. But I live in trepidation about what is going to happen to that meeting in the end, which would be a great pity because the sponsors are fantastic, they have put a lot of thought and effort into it.”

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