The turf

How to handle fickle racehorse owners

23 June 2018

9:00 AM

23 June 2018

9:00 AM

On the famed Whitsbury gallops, as corn buntings and stonechats fluttered from the fence posts, a dozen of Marcus Tregoning’s team were stretching nicely. The sun reflected from the chestnut flanks of the filly Viva Bella. The handsome head of Moghram, a muscular Sir Percy colt owned by Hamdan Al Maktoum, stood out against the blue sky above the lush downland where horses have galloped since the 1880s. It called for poetry, not prose.

But at Whitsbury you are never very far away from history either. In the spacious main yard, with its thatched roof, riders used to get their orders from Sir Gordon Richards. In Major’s Yard, further down the hill, is the box that Desert Orchid occupied when the spectacular grey was collecting King Georges like postage stamps for David Elsworth. We drive through the restful paddocks of the Whitsbury Manor Stud — ‘it could be a little slice of Kentucky’ — and we stop at St Leonard’s parish church to see the grave of bookmaker William Hill, the man who bought and developed the estate when the previous owner, newspaper magnate Sir Charles Hyde, decided that Hitler would win the war and died fleeing to America.

Marcus is the right man to be training horses in this tranquil haven. An assistant for 14 years to the Turf titan Major Dick Hern, mostly after a hunting accident had confined his mentor to a wheelchair, he is a modern man imbued with the racing lore of the old days, when a few owners could fill a yard between them with the horses they had bred themselves and 15-year-olds were queuing up at Hern’s door asking for jobs in two years’ time. Hern’s predicament gave Marcus early experience in handling powerful owners — and examples of how fickle they could be. Lady Beaverbrook, one of the first to rally to Hern by sending him ten yearlings after his accident, also sent him a cutting one day extolling the virtues of a particular potato. When she telephoned to ask if he had read it, he snapped that he didn’t have time for such things: within 24 hours three lorries arrived to take her horses away. The ever-courteous Tregoning, you feel, would have returned the call and averted a crisis.

Before his accident, Dick Hern was very literally a hands-on trainer and when Marcus eventually took over from the Major after Hern’s move from East Ilsley — to the new Kingwood House yard refurbished for him in Lambourn by Hamdan Al Maktoum — he, too, every night felt the legs of each one of the hundred horses then in his care, at the same time taking the opportunity to have a word with every groom. The informal, open Tregoning does not rule imperiously, as the old school did, but he soaked up valuable experience. Sprinters, he cautions, can become uncontrollable tearaways if you let them belt away, at the minimum five furlongs, from the beginning. ‘You have to keep their brains under control,’ and so sometimes he starts them, as the Major did with the great Dayjur, at seven furlongs instead. He doesn’t run horses at Royal Ascot unless they have a serious chance of winning. ‘It’s not just a fun day out. If it’s only a case of “it might run well” then don’t go because you will be having a hard race anyway.’

Marcus Tregoning is one of only nine England-based trainers still in action to have trained a Derby winner, a feat he performed with Sir Percy in 2006. There have been other stars, such as the globe-trotting Mubtaker, who won a Group race every year he was in training. From Kingwood House Nayef won four Group Ones in a year, including the Dubai Sheema Classic, and Ekraar, claimed for a while to race in the Godolphin blue, won the Group One Gran Premio del Jockey Club in Milan on his return to Tregoning’s care. It is now five years, though, since Marcus Tregoning’s move from Hamdan’s yard to run his own show in Whitsbury. He still trains a dozen or so for Sheikh Mohammed’s brother but it doesn’t look as though he is being sent as many potential stars. Although he has some discerning owners, like Kirsten Rausing, the numbers and the firepower are not yet what they were. There have been real achievements from the new base, like winning two Cambridgeshires with Bronze Angel, but this is a man who wants to be winning Group races as well as those rewarding heritage handicaps and, like a few others, Marcus is currently searching for the breakthrough horse to win him a seat back at that table.

After the wet spring it has been a slow start but Alrahaal’s Beverley victory made it three winners from the last five runners, including two at Goodwood with Sir Titan. He has hopes for Dance The Dream, a big strong mare by Sir Percy. Watch out, too, for the stayer Imphal, winner of four races last season in the hands of the capable stable apprentice Tyler Saunders who has responded so well to the coaching of jockey guru John Reid.

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