A man of many parts

Bloodstock advisor, company chairman, racehorse trainer… it’s a good job John Ferguson has boundless energy more »

Thursday, October 31, 2013

John Ferguson swings his jeep through the electric gates and pulls up next to a small barn. Just 11 horses are inside, all unraced, and Ferguson gazes wonderingly at each in turn. “I can come up here and dream any time I want,” he says.

Most of us, reading that paragraph, would assume it is expensive yearlings beguiling the man known chiefly as Sheikh Mohammed’s bloodstock advisor. But no, very different thoroughbreds occupy Kings Yard at Ferguson’s Bloomfields property.

A hands-on approach from trainer John Ferguson

A hands-on approach from trainer John Ferguson

These are stoutly-bred National Hunt horses that may not see a racecourse until they are five years old. Ferguson is in no hurry. He is a patient man, as well as a compellingly positive one. “Tomorrow is always more exciting than yesterday,” is a favourite mantra. It is one he has needed to invoke many times of late.

At 53, Ferguson leads a double life. No, make that a treble life. Darley is the day job and he oversees it with unswerving pride. Less well known is his chairmanship of a company named Falcon, created when Dubai briefly hit the financial buffers and existing to promote the country and support its ruler.

His other life is here at Bloomfields, a few miles out of Newmarket but a million miles from its hectic roads and regimented gallops. Here, on a stunningly rural site he expanded beyond 100 acres by buying fields from adjacent farms, Ferguson is indulging his ambition to train jumpers. He started “with no plan at all” but, three years in, this is a serious National Hunt operation.

Ferguson has 48 horses, two-thirds of them off the Flat. They are trained on a six-furlong woodchip gallop, winding up an avenue of trees that might easily be in Chantilly, and a half-mile gallop of deep and testing sand. Between times, they are subjected to as intensive a schooling regime as I have seen anywhere, much of it done loose around a large sand ring.

“I’ve a feeling I school horses more often than most but jumping, surely, is everything,” Ferguson says. “They have to want to do it.

“Training is my fun. I can pretend it’s a business but it’s not, though these things are fun only if they’re done well – we have always been ambitious.”

But while knowing he is blessed to be able to dismiss the financial imperatives of most National Hunt trainers, Ferguson cares deeply about methods and results.

Training is my fun. I can pretend it’s a business but it’s not, though these things are fun only if they’re done well

In his first season with a licence, he trained 24 winners and had a runner-up at the Cheltenham Festival. His second term brought one fewer winner but much more prize-money. His third has already enjoyed a fruitful summer.

In truth, training jumpers may also have been a welcome haven during these troubling months for anyone close to Sheikh Mohammed. Few are closer than Ferguson and he could hardly be untouched by the springtime scandal, which saw Mahmood Al Zarooni summarily banished from Moulton Paddocks for administering anabolic steroids.

“It’s been a nightmare,” he says candidly. “In the fantastically successful racing lifetime of Sheikh Mohammed, it’s unquestionably the greatest disappointment both for him and the team. One man made a massive error and will forever pay the price. He has to live with that. It might have been done from a desire to win but it’s called cheating.”

As part of the rarefied inner circle, Ferguson saw the effect it had on his boss, the ruminative silences to which it reduced him. Al Zarooni was very much the sheikh’s project and he had to come to terms with what happened.

“He knew the guy well, his trust was broken and that’s obviously extremely hard to cope with,” he says. “But I never feared that everything would change.

John Fergsuon's horses run in the name of his home, Bloomfields

John Fergsuon’s horses run in the name of his home, Bloomfields

“This is a man who lives for challenges. When everything is going wonderfully well, he’s almost bored. Of course I’m not suggesting he remotely enjoyed all this but it has reinvigorated him to get it right. It was an Emirati who let him down and that hurt. But many thousands of Emiratis are wonderful people and they don’t deserve to be tarred with the same brush. Sheikh Mohammed will do all he can to promote them – it didn’t work this time but he won’t give up.

“You don’t build Dubai by walking away after one guy disappoints you. Failure is not getting up again. If ever there was a man who is not afraid of failure, it’s the boss.”

Naturally, Ferguson has a lot for which he must be grateful to the sheikh, yet the reverse also applies. At least until this year, the racing and bloodstock empire of Sheikh Mohammed seemed bywords for efficiency and productivity, and much of that was down to the organisational skills and boundless energy of Ferguson.

Such virtues came from each of his parents, who now live barely two miles away and follow his new career avidly. “My father commanded the Scots Guards, in which I also did three years’ service,” he says. “My military background demands structure. As for energy, my mother is a walking dynamo and I think it’s probably genetic. But, frankly, it’s so easy to have energy if you love what you’re doing.”

This is palpably true of Ferguson, whose enthusiasm for life is reflected in output. Somehow he contrives to conduct three jobs, any one of which would be enough for most mortals. Darley employs 1,000 people and Falcon has 40 Dubai-based staff. How Ferguson finds time to train is a wonder, yet he explains it all very simply, saying: “Darley is still my main focus. It’s my responsibility to make sure the ship sails in the right direction but I have a lot of very good people there now. If I was still having to travel as much as I used to, I’d have created the wrong team.

“Darley had to take a step back during the financial crisis, as it wouldn’t have been right for Sheikh Mohammed to be seen to be spending millions on yearlings when the rest of Dubai was struggling. At that time, in 2009, I created a strategic communications company that explains to the world what the boss and Dubai is all about, through events, conferences, magazines and other outlets.

“I’m chairman of Falcon but I have a brilliant MD who runs it on a day-to-day basis. One of the best things Sheikh Mohammed has taught me is delegation. I will regularly fly out on a Saturday night, work through Sunday in Dubai and then catch the 2am flight back. I’m out with second lot and the staff hardly know I’ve been away.”

If it all sounds exhausting, Ferguson seems as immune to fatigue as he is to bad moods. Dawn has barely broken as first lot pulls out at Bloomfields and the trainer, despite bringing a chesty cold back from Dubai the previous day, is in sparkling humour. “I’m not a worrier and I’m not a shouter,” he says reflectively.

“I remember the last time I shouted at one of the kids. It was eight years ago and I spent six months regretting it.”

He has three children – James, a university graduate now working for Sir Mark Prescott, Georgina, employed in the London fashion industry, and teenager Alex, who has recently ridden his first winners on the Flat.

Bloomfields, named after the house he bought from fellow bloodstock agent David Minton almost 20 years ago, is now the registered owner of all the horses he trains. “There were too many Fergusons on the page,” he explains. “It felt like me, me, me. This has a better ring to it, a team feel.”

The idea of training gripped Ferguson on his 50th birthday, when he was out walking with the dog. “I’d always thought I would run a stud farm here if Sheikh Mohammed sacked me,” he says. “Then I realised that training would be much more fun.”

He went to his employer for approval and received it so unreservedly that most of the early horses in his care were sent by him.

Ferguson continues: “It was going to be only a few of our own pointers at first. Then the boss said I should try with a couple of his Flat horses – one of which was Cotton Mill. It went well, so he sent a few more. We have a bias of Flat horses literally through the kindness of Sheikh Mohammed, but I’ve now bought some stores to balance it. If you’re going to do this, you might as well try to win the big chases and we’re not going to do that with most of these Flat horses.”

He has 48 boxes spread across three yards. The two outer yards are called Kings and Mulligans.

“Politically correct,” he says mischievously. “King was my wife Fiona’s maiden name and Mulligan was my mother’s. We have enough boxes now to do things the way I want. I have no intention of getting any bigger or training for other people – to accommodate that I’d have to change my lifestyle.”

Ferguson is aware he was initially regarded with suspicion and apprehension by the jumps community.

“There was a lot of chat, a lot of rumour, a lot of speculation that this was Sheikh Mohammed trying to take over jumps racing,” he says. “The biggest single factor for me was when I went to the Derby Sale in Ireland in my first year. I could feel the eyes on me, the apprehension – but then I was outbid at €3,500 for a Beneficial gelding and everyone realised it was only me. From then on, trainers back here knew there was no hidden agenda.”

Not that jumping was alien to him. “It was in the blood,” he confirms. “My mother is very Irish and it was natural to love jumping. I worked for Nick Gaselee and led up in the Grand National when I was 17. I’ll never forget that. When I arrived back in the game I didn’t know how I would be received, but everyone has been very friendly.”

It is a reaction Ferguson inspires through his openness and enthusiasm. His staff is led by James Owen, a champion point-to-point rider and capable assistant, and Charlotte Morrell, “who came here 15 years ago to look after three ponies and two hunters”.

Work riders include the recently retired Alex Merriam and Denis O’Regan, recruited as stable jockey “because you need the equivalent of a Champions League striker if you are going to compete at the top level.”

That, assuredly, is where he aims to be. This year, it will be with Flat converts such as Cotton Mill, New Year’s Eve, Ruacana, Sea Lord and “my secret weapon” Dubai Prince. In the future, he hopes, it will be with the store horses he is nurturing in Kings yard.

Already, he has competed hard at two Cheltenham festivals. “We hit the crossbar in our first year,” he recalls. “New Year’s Eve finishing second to Champagne Fever was a huge moment – so too, in a different way, was Cotton Mill running out through the wing at the second last in the Neptune. I don’t sit and watch that back, it’s just too painful.

“Last season we took a house near the track for the first time and lived in the atmosphere for four days. We had the Fred Winter favourite in Bordoni but he cracked a knee in the race. That’s the way it goes. Cheltenham is not supposed to be easy.”

Sheikh Mohammed has not appeared alongside Ferguson at Cheltenham, or at any other jumps fixtures, but that does not mean he takes no interest. “He comes here to watch schooling occasionally and he will follow that horse running at Sedgefield or Hexham, especially if he’s seen the jockey fall off the day before,” Ferguson says. “He loves horses and he never regarded me as a trainer, so the idea amuses him.”

Clearly, though, Ferguson’s training career is no joke. He means business.

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