John Gosden’s career as a racehorse trainer has taken him all over the world. But now, after seven years in Newmarket, he says: “I am done with roaming. This house has been very lucky. We have built the business up, done well and last year was my most successful year.”
In 2012 he won the coveted title of champion flat trainer for the first time in a career stretching back to 1979. It meant his horses had won the most prize money: £3.7m in the UK, another £1m overseas.
But we are meeting at a time when drugs have cast a huge shadow over flat racing. Just six months after Frankie Dettori, the three-time champion jockey, tested positive for cocaine, 22 horses owned by the man who once employed him as his number one jockey were found to be drugged. This is no ordinary owner but the most powerful in Britain: Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum. Despite the scandal, the Sheikh’s 2,000 Guineas winner, Dawn Approach, is the hot favourite for today’s Derby.
“I was surprised but it proves that the testing is robust and in this country there is zero tolerance on anything to do with steroids,” says Gosden. “Horses are not on drugs. So anyone who transgresses the rules, the racing authorities come down on them hard and that’s the way it should be.”
Gosden is referring to the eight-year ban imposed on Sheikh Mohammed’s trainer, Mahmood al-Zarooni. But exemplary as the punishment is, the scandal threatens to undo two years of hard work to revive flat racing. This involved getting Qatari money to sponsor the Champion series seen as providing the flat with the sort of narrative that the much more successful jump season enjoys. Now the sport of kings looks as shabby as Lance Armstrong and other drug takers.
However, such shabbiness seems a world removed as the 62-year-old Gosden greets me, nattily dressed in a suit but without a tie – he only wears one at race meetings. Pointing to his home, he says: “It is not my house, it is Rachel’s [his wife, who is a barrister]. I just live above the shop.” The self-deprecating remark is accompanied by a smile which may suggest he does not quite mean it. What is not in doubt is his adoration for his “shop”, the Clarehaven Stables. And it is no surprise that we first saunter to the trotting ring.
His jockeys are just bringing some horses back from their morning gallop and Gosden watches them like a mother appraising her brood. “Horses are very beautiful creatures,” he says. “But they can’t talk and you’ve got to pick up all the vibes from them. Those riders coming in will tell us, ‘It was fine,’ or ‘No, I wasn’t happy with the way it moved’. Or, ‘It gave a cough at the top of the canter’.”
Attention to detail, Gosden says, is at the core of horse training. As we pass the stable he strokes the head of his favourite horse The Fugue, a four-year-old filly owned by Andrew and Madeleine Lloyd Webber, which won the Nassau Stakes at Goodwood last year. “I’m a great believer in trying to get inside their heads and think for them,” Gosden says.
If the horses could talk, they would say that Gosden speaks in BBC English, although he insists with a laugh: “I don’t have plums in my mouth.”
The house and the stables were created as a result of a huge challenge. In 1900, a Dorset family backed their mare Clarehaven to win the Cesarewitch, a two and-a-quarter mile race at Newmarket. “In those days,” says Gosden, “huge sums were gambled and they used the money to buy 17 acres on Bury Road and build the stables and a house.”
The stables remain but nothing of the original house. “A bit of a Victorian monster”, says Gosden. “It had a ballroom and all that sort of nonsense.” In 1965, David Robinson of Radio Rentals, then the country’s biggest horse owner, tore it down. Rachel has carried on with the reconstruction since the family moved into the property in 2006.
As we walk to the “family room”, Gosden points to the back door where Robinson once had a huge safe. “We sold it for scrap and Rachel blasted through to create the backdoor.” Rachel also got rid of the kitchen and breakfast room. “She made it into a laundry room and turned the house round, constructing a kitchen next to the family room.”
The family aspect is emphasised by stone-coloured walls and a painting of their children – sons Thady and Sebastian, daughters Theodora and Serena, who are all away studying or at work. “This is my main room. Most of us now live in the kitchen and, if you’re lucky to have a room on the side of the kitchen, that’s where you spend the majority of your time. You’ve got the television, you’ve got everything.”
That “everything” includes the light flooding into the room, which opens on to the south-facing garden – a well-manicured lawn bordered by 100-year-old California redwoods. The light, Gosden says, is essential because “with all the excitements in racing, we like to face the sun and make sure we’re cheered up”. In case the sun does not emerge, along one wall there is a bottle of champagne and several bottles of red wine. “Always a bottle of champagne ready for celebrations, absolutely an essential part of one’s armoury and, probably, a bottle of red if it didn’t go so well.”
Last year’s success meant Gosden did not need to open any red. But satisfying as this was, the shelf over the champagne bottle has what Gosden calls his “secret dreams” of the alternative life he would have liked. The Bob Dylan DVDs for a self-confessed “fanatic” may not be a surprise but the Verdi operas – Otello and Macbeth – are. “My greatest dream would have been to be an opera singer,” he says. It may explain why, despite this being his favourite room, there is nothing about racing here. That is reserved for the hall and the ornate, little-used drawing room, where he keeps the Champions trainer trophy.
But then Gosden was never meant to be a trainer. Born near Lewes, East Sussex, he can still remember what his trainer father told him, shortly before he died, when Gosden was 16. “‘Whatever you do, don’t become a racehorse trainer. It’s seven days a week and 11-and-a-half months of the year’, recalls Gosden. “I must thank Ted Heath [the then prime minister]. Without the mess he created, I might never have become a trainer.”
That “mess” was the three-day week which confronted Gosden in 1974 when, having come down from Cambridge with an economics degree, he headed for the City. “There were no lights two days a week. It was a nightmare and you couldn’t get a job in London. So I went off to Venezuela and worked in land development. But I wound up going to the racecourse in the morning, fiddling around with the horses at 4am before going to the office. Because of the humidity and the heat they trained very early under lights. I enjoyed it, wrote to Noel Murless, a great postwar British trainer. He took me on as a pupil assistant and I’ve been in the game ever since.”
But the game has changed. “When I first came to it in the 70s, it was still the old aristocracy of England that owned most of the horses and studs. They were land rich but cash poor and with death duties they started to contract. Where we were very fortunate is that Middle Eastern investment came in throughout the 80s. Now 75 per cent to 80 per cent of the horses are owned by overseas people. If you took away the international ownership, we’d be in a sorry state.”
This support has turned racehorses into financial commodities, although they are not easy to price. “Frankel [last year’s wonder horse] is probably worth more than £50m”, says Gosden, “but beyond price because he will not be sold. Horses vary from £10,000 to £10m depending on their quality and availability.” But for Gosden it is not money but magic that counts. “To watch horses race is visually very pleasing and can be financial rewarding if you back the right one. What was it Mark Twain said? That racing is merely a difference of opinion.”
Frankie Dettori is interviewed in the FT Weekend Magazine, see Pursuits
In the hall there is a bronze statue of Lester Piggott on the 1977 Derby winner Minstrel. Gosden, then an assistant to Vincent O’Brien, the famous Irish trainer, says: “Lester was the cleverest, strongest and best of jockeys tactically, but unmanageable.”
Further down the hall, another bronze statue records his own triumph, that of Masked Marvel, winner of the St Leger in 2011. “It’s the oldest classic, a tough race of a mile and three-quarters and this was a rather expensive bronze commissioned by the owner.”
And in the drawing room is a painting honouring another Gosden victory, this time his wife Rachel’s horse, Arctic Cosmos, winning the 2010 St Leger.