Thoughts in train: John Gosden on horse racing, on and off the course

In an exclusive interview at his picturesque Clarehaven stables, John Gosden, England’s leading racehorse trainer, tells SportsPro about the business challenges facing the country’s racing industry, the importance of breeding and the ever contentious issues surrounding prize money in the sport.

Thoughts in train: John Gosden on horse racing, on and off the course

In an exclusive interview at his picturesque Clarehaven stables, John Gosden, England’s leading racehorse trainer, tells SportsPro about the business challenges facing the country’s racing industry, the importance of breeding and the ever contentious issues surrounding prize money in the sport.

 

By George Dudley

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For the somewhat esoteric British horse racing fraternity, Newmarket is known simply as ‘HQ’. The small market town in West Suffolk is, according the Jockey Club, currently home to 83 racehorse trainers – 73 licensed by the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) and ten pre-trainers – and sitting on the top of the pile is the winner of over 3,000 international races, John Gosden.

At a time when many worry that racing is facing a crisis, in which it is perceived to be losing out to other major sports, Gosden’s analysis carries authority because unlike many of his contemporaries he has trained horses all over the world, is a natural orator, and has an economics degree from Cambridge University to boot.

After graduating with a ‘blue’ in athletics, competing for the university in the discus and javelin, he learned his equine tutelage as an assistant to two of racing’s preeminent figures, firstly with the nine-time champion trainer Sir Noel Murless and then the incomparable Vincent O’Brien.

While he had won most major elite Group One races globally during his career, 2015 was certainly his annus mirabilis. The seasoned campaigner won his second trainers’ championship, saddled the first and second in the Epsom Derby, and capped it off by winning the illustrious Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp. 

Gosden is perfectly placed to opine on global racing, compare the methods of old to the contemporary approaches, drugs in the sport, the thorny issue of the racing Levy from which the sport has historically earned money from betting, and share what it takes to run a successful modern stable.

"Fundamentally, you can't get away from having the three main simple things – good horses, good owners, and good staff," he says, sitting under a painting of his father, the esteemed trainer Towser Gosden.

“You are working with animals, so you can’t shut the office at six o’clock on Friday and wander back in at 8.30 on Monday,” he adds. “It is seven days a week and horses have to be attended to constantly. The other thing about it is that the season is pretty much all the year round now, whereas it used to be very seasonal. We have racing in the winter, obviously of a much lower grade, but it is better now on the all-weather surfaces.

“We are racing our whole season from March to November, not just here but also in France, Ireland, Germany, and Italy. Nowadays we race in Hong Kong, Australia, America, Japan, Canada, and Dubai through the winter. To that extent it has become a highly international business and probably the biggest growth has been in the Middle East and Far East over the last 30 years. There is no doubt that racing through Australasia, Hong Kong, Japan and the Pacific Rim is very powerful. They are playing at a high level, in terms of prize money, competition, and quality of horses.

“To run a stable, like any business, you have to keep your finger on the pulse. Mainly because of modern communication, life is a lot faster and it has affected us just the same. There is racing every day and there are always some key events.

“You have to keep your wits about you and you need a very good team of both staff on the clerical side, office side, and right through to the work riders, grooms, yard men, travelling people, and assistants.

“It is the same with any business and the fundamental rules are no different in ours.”      

However, behind the glamour of race day, the UK racing industry has been marred by political issues. There has been a protracted battle between the BHA and the Association of British Bookmakers (ABB) over the funding of horse racing in Britain for over a year. The dispute was centred on the loophole, exploited by offshore bookmakers, of not paying a government-enforced levied tax despite taking bets on races in the UK.

“To run a stable, like any business, you have to keep your finger on the pulse."

In March 2016, the UK government announced that it will aim to introduce a new funding mechanism by April 2017, which will ensure that all bets placed on UK racing by UK-based customers will now fall under its scope, with the expectation that a fairer return to the sport can be secured.

“Well, I think that the government has a strong view on it,” Gosden says of the prolonged matter. “A betting operator who markets and utilises a domestic product but conducts the transaction offshore to avoid tax should obviously be brought back into the UK domain.

“If the event they are betting on is taking place within the UK but they are running the transaction through Gibraltar, to avoid paying what everyone else is paying domestically in tax to the government or having to return to the sport itself, it’s not only a legitimate tax avoidance but it is a loophole that has to be closed.

“It costs a lot to put the show on but if you are able to enact the transaction offshore then pay nothing back to it, that is not right,” he adds. “Legislation has come in and will continue to come in to tighten up that grey area which is haemorrhaging money from the Treasury and racing.”

The largest share of the Levy is spent on race prize money, but it also provides funding for race day services, integrity services, industry training and education, loans to racecourses for capital projects, and veterinary science. It is, therefore, integral to the continued success of the industry to have a fair Levy in place.

That said, prize money, at a Group One level, is at an all-time high. The 2016 Epsom Derby was the most valuable race ever staged in the UK, once four horses – Gosden's Wings of Desire, Cloth of Stars, Humphrey Bogart and Red Verdon – were supplemented at a cost of UK£75,000 (US$110,000) each. As a consequence the prize pot stood at UK£1.45million (US$ 2.1million), of which the Aga Khan – the owner of the winning colt, Harzand – won UK£876,169 (US$1.3million).

It is estimated that the owner is left with about 75 per cent of the prize money and 25 per cent split between the jockey, trainer, and staff. In Gosden’s opinion, this is an area of the sport that needs ameliorating.

“Internationally we [the UK] are lagging way behind,” says the two-time Derby winner. “It has been a struggle here for years because once you can’t rely on on-course betting and a tote monopoly, you lose control of the finances, and that happened here years ago.

“We have been saved by the fact that we have fantastic racing year round in both codes – flat and jumping – and we have the finest of racecourses and festivals. We have enormous variation in our racecourses and it is not like we are going to the same track every day.

John Gosden has won over 3,000 international races as a trainer

“We have a good following as an entertainment business and industry. We have massive international ownership – which has saved us – and allowed us to buy the best bloodlines worldwide over the last 35 years. Hence, we now have the best broodmares and stallions for middle distance and turf racing. And, since turf racing is 80 per cent of the racing in the world, we have the finest stallions in England and Ireland.

"We must be aware of the huge costs of production and the exorbitant expense and risk in breeding and owning racehorses. Unless decent prize money compensates and lessens the burden you are going to find yourself short of competitors, namely horses in training. The owners and breeders overhead has to be mitigated or very few will be able to participate."

Racehorse training is an industry that doesn’t have an enforced retirement age and, often, a little greying hair around the temples can attract the rich and powerful owners. Gosden’s major UK-based rivals are still discernibly his contemporaries – William Haggis, the five-time Derby winning Sir Michael Stoute, Italian Luca Cumani, and the evergreen Richard Fahey.

At Group One races Irish raider Aiden O’Brien, 45, is a constant; his Ballydoyle stable had five out of the 16 runners at the 2016 Derby. Nevertheless there are a host of ‘bright young things’ emanating from Newmarket – all under the age of 41 – Hugo Palmer, Roger Varian, Richard Hannon Jr to name a few. What is common is that what they may lack in experience, they are unquestionably making up for in technological, medical, and scientific advances.

Palmer, who won the first classic of 2016, the 2,000 Guineas, refused to run his horse Galileo Gold in the Derby purely because of a negative result in a genetic test. Palmer, the son of the 4th Baron Palmer, is ostensibly leading the supposed revolution. However, rather than act as a racing Luddite, Gosden has chosen to ally his immeasurable experience and golden eye with new-fangled modern aids.

“I think that you should always have your mind open to any advancements and research,” explains Gosden. “In this case you are testing blood to check what a horse’s optimum racing distance would be. That said, if you took blood from Usain Bolt you would find that it would be different to Mo Farah – one runs 10,000 metres and the other is the fastest sprinter ever.

“Any aids like that which are non-invasive are yet another guide which is useful, but I do not know if enough research has been done on this particular test.

“You must always remember that you are training an athlete so you don’t want to overcomplicate it. Technological advancements have their place but I have found down the years that instinct, feel, eye, working with your staff, talking to riders and seeing what they feel is probably worth more than most monitors.”

Furthermore, Gosden tells a story from the past to emphasise the point that, often, too much information can lead to forgetting the main objective of being a trainer. “I remember going to a conference in Reno with the great trainer called Charlie Whittingham,” he recalls, “and a lot of these academics got up and started to go into amazing detail about what to do, how to do it, and which new gadgets to use…

"Charlie got up and he had a speech prepared but he discarded it. He strolled onto the stage and calmly said, ‘I’ve listened to all of this and it is very interesting but don’t forget to train the horse!’ And with that he just walked off the podium and then came back to do a very amusing session of questions and answers. I suppose Charlie was of that school where you did everything by instinct, feel and experience.”

One scientific development that the nomadic trainer is outspoken on is invasive procedures: medical practices in which the horse’s body is ‘invaded’, or entered, using a needle, tube, or device. It is commonplace in US racing. The most widespread medication used is the potent loop diuretic Lasix. The pre-emptive treatment has been administered to horses before races for the past 40 years as a way to reduce or prevent bleeds.

In 1978, Gosden left the comforts of Newmarket to become the assistant trainer to Irishman Tommy Doyle in California. A year later he attained his American training licence and began training for himself. The 2008 Breeders' Cup-winning trainer has admitted to using Lasix in the past but is now opposed to its use. With 600 winners stateside, he is arguably uniquely informed on training successfully with and without the drug.

In 2015, his Derby and Arc winning colt Golden Horn, running clean, was beaten by a neck in the Breeders’ Cup Turf to the Aiden O’Brien-trained Found, who was using the legal drug. Musing on the close loss, Gosden is not bitter but he believes that the doping of horses is going to have an adverse effect on their breeding down the line.

The base reality is that Lasix makes horses lighter and, of course, a lighter horse will run faster.

“You can argue what you like, but the medication from the vet has become all too powerful in American racing,” says Gosden. ”The point I made [in 2015] was: how many athletic activities are conducted where the athlete itself is injected intravenously with medication three hours before competition? Well, I can tell you that there aren’t any except the one we are discussing.

“Horses come in different shapes and sizes; there is not a uniform type."

“It may be being done illegally in the Tour de France, as we now know, but we are talking here about legalised drug use and that is the problem.  It is something that we have to be honest about and face up to.

“Fundamentally, from a breeding point of view, do you want to produce a breed of horse that has required aids of that type during their racing career or do you want to breed from horses that didn’t require it. By racing on medication you are inevitably contaminating and weakening the breed.

“I’m not sitting here as a whited sepulchre," adds the Englishman who, despite beginning with only three horses, enjoyed a successful decade on the oval tracks of the US. “What I am saying is that are you weakening the breed by legitimising medication. It’s not allowed in Hong Kong, Japan, Australia, here [in the UK], France or Ireland, and they are the major racing jurisdictions.”

Purebred horses are purported to have originated in the 17th and 18th century in England when native mares were crossbred with imported Oriental stallions.  All modern thoroughbreds can trace their pedigrees back to three founding stallions from that epoch: Darley Arabian, Byerly Turk, and Godolphin Arabian.

"Breeding is very important. Everybody knows the sires that they want to see,” Gosden says, referring to the fact that modern sires Galleleo and Dubawi hold prolific progeny. “I am always very interested in the broodmare side, remember that all the pedigrees are printed on the matriarchal line, and you get to know families and the pedigree is incredibly important.

“Nevertheless there is an old saying that you can’t put a saddle on a pedigree, so the horse has to be an athlete,” Gosden continues. “Horses come in different shapes and sizes; there is not a uniform type. I think that the more you are around sales and see horses on stud farms, the more you get to understand how families look.”

The highest-rated racehorse in history is Frankel, who was trained by the late Sir Henry Cecil and is now the most coveted horse in stud. The undefeated stallion retired in 2012 to Banstead Manor Stud near Newmarket, the European headquarters of Prince Khalid bin Abdullah's Juddmonte Farms, where he commands a fee of UK£125,000 (US$177,000) per cover.

The imperishable winner of 12 Group One races has since sired 19 yearlings which have sold at an average price of UK£464,000 (US$658,000), with the most expensive being sold for UK£1.3 million (US$1.8 million). His first two-year-olds began racing in 2016, with his first-born foal, Cunco, becoming his first runner and his first winner.

Frankel is widely considered to be the highest-rated racehorse in history.

The victorious colt, whose mother was sold with the foal in utero for 800,000 guineas (US$1.1million) in 2013, is trained by Gosden at Clarehaven – whose previous incumbent was local entrepreneur, philanthropist, and race horse owner Sir David Robinson – on behalf of Chilean owner/breeders Don Alberto Stables. Cunco’s exceptional bloodline is, of course, going to be of great benefit to the horses’s racing career, but merely selecting a patrician colt does not, according to Gosden, guarantee success.

“A lot of them can run like the wind and not be conventional-looking but as important as the pedigree is, you must have an athletic individual,” he notes. “You have got to have the movement, the heart, the lungs, the larynx, the mind. There are a lot of ingredients to a classic horse.”

It is when talking about his horses that Gosden’s face lights up. He cites the 1983 Santa Anita Stakes winner Bates Motel, his first truly decent horse, as the fondest memory of his career. Equally, if Cunco is a future star, it is last year’s Anthony Oppenheimer-owned uber-horse Golden Horn that has given Gosden his most magical days on the course in recent years.

Like a high proportion of Derby winners, Golden Horn was retired to stud after his three-year-old season. Typically, a successful colt will not continue its racing career because if it were to suffer a series of losses or an injury, its value as a sire would depreciate.

“He only ran once as a two-year-old, so consequently it would have been lovely if he had continued racing as a four-year-old because he would have drawn the crowds in; that would have been fantastic and important for racing," says Gosden, who trained at the Sheikh Mohammed-owned Stanley House Stables, Newmarket on his return to England in 1989.

“However I fully understood that Mr Oppenheimer is first and foremost an owner/breeder. Secondly, he said to me, ‘I am not a young man and I want to see his young stock race.’ I fully accepted that as a breeder and he wants to see the foals, yearlings and the two-year-olds.

“Golden Horn danced every dance and was raced boldly and openly. If you think how much racing he did from the Craven meeting, in mid-April, right through to the Breeders Cup meeting in November – he never missed a beat and had an amazing constitution.” 

The champion trainer is still at his zenith as a trainer and he continues to win Group One races the world over. He has, nevertheless, been described by many observers as racing’s foremost ambassador, as a perceptive judge of racing politics, and repeatedly as the sport’s great communicator.

It is not an unfounded notion that a man of his standing would be a logical fit for an administrative role once he retires, and SportsPro asks Gosden, hypothetically, what he would do if he was in charge of the racing industry.

“I would probably look at the Tote,” he suggests, “which was sold off by the government and not very cleverly. Its licence comes back up again and I would probably look at how that can be used for pool betting on a big scale and whether we had a particular type of race every Saturday and Wednesday?

“I would be looking at revitalising the Tote in every sense and that would involve everyone in the industry – the BHA, the authorities – getting behind it. The other thing would be to work very closely with the government to produce something that is fair and equitable to all sides in the industry.

“It is not just attacking the betting industry, they have their problems. Their major problem is that the midweek racing is pretty weak on the whole. Festival racing is strong but the favourite has the regular habit of winning. Cheltenham, to them, was a massive financial blow and they don’t make it back in the week because people aren’t betting due to the mediocre racing. So I think that we will need to have one really good meeting in the week with some decent class horses.

“It is alright when you have a festival meeting through the week, like Ascot, but most weeks it is just pretty dull stuff – that has to be dealt with. Working with the betting industry, with the fixture list, and effective race planning is another thing I’d look at, in order to use the horse population far more effectively than we do.

“There’s far too much ‘it’s always been this way and that is the way it is’. That is not good enough."

“I would also be aware that the racecourses have become too powerful and they are obviously driven by their bottom line. Jockey Club racecourses are run non-profit and a lot of the major independents have the health of racing at their heart, but the compressing of fixtures to the weekend is proving problematic now. I have a lot of sympathy for the racecourses, in the costs and overheads of their businesses but, again, I feel that for the chief of the Racecourse Association [RCA] it is rather like herding cats, it is very hard to get them going in one direction. They have such varied agendas and business models.

“I think a lot of improvement can be made and the BHA is doing that; we have a good chief executive and chairman. It’s not easy, it’s never going to be easy, because everyone will always want to do what’s best for themselves.”

The trainer has a care and vision for the sport that he holds so dear, and he appears miffed that the industry is perceived by some to be burying its head in the sand.

“We have been a very fragmented industry over the years and I think we better wake up to the fact that there is intense competition for the leisure pound," Gosden continues. "We need to get our act together in a lot of ways and I think it can be done more by conversation and coercion not by bloody mindedness. I think we should be able to find a middle way and I would say that the race courses and the betting operators are the two main places to start. Equally I think we can do a better job with fixture lists and race planning for the horse population.”

He adds that racing, as a whole, shouldn’t be complacent. “I think, we want to take some of the myth out of it,” he says. “Of course going racing is a social event. It must continue to be pleasant occasion and racecourses have made a massive effort to make it a nice experience. However they want to watch their costs of admission, costs of drinks and race cards. I think that sometimes they overcharge but it is essential to make it interesting and fun.

"As I pointed out, racing can be complicated but you can simplify it. There used to be this great mystique because that way people thought that they were absolutely brilliant because they understood and others didn’t. However, in this era there is a requirement for sporting events to be immediately engaging.

"I find that we need to explain it more to people to make it more inclusive. Mark Twain said, ‘A horse race is merely a difference of opinion.’”