Presenting arms in hunt for a Classic

ST LEGER COUNTDOWN: Gosden goes to Town Moor with a favourite's shot, as Sheikh Mohammed delays declaring his hand

Before the Kentucky Derby of 1987 Jack Van Berg was asked why he was running the hitherto ordinary Alysheba. "I ain't huntin' bear," he told an assembly of press men, "with no pop gun."

John Gosden likes to retell this incident and will take heart from its message as he looks forward to Saturday's St Leger. One of the great anomalies of the turf is the fact that the Newmarket trainer has yet to capture a British Classic.

When questioned about this omission Gosden parries any professional criticism with a seasoned response that veers between ambivalence about the Classics and the belief that he has never had a suitable partner for the job. It is a speech of mitigation he may never have to make again. For when Gosden goes hunting on Town Moor this weekend he will have the most potent weapon in the field, the 7-4 favourite Presenting.

"Of course, these five races still have this celebrated status because of the old calendar," he said, "but now there is so much more going on in world racing we're beginning to question those races a little bit. I don't mean to demean the Classics, because those five races have great significance, but they are not the be all and end all.

"My only response is that it will come when I've got the horse for the job. We've run well in these races but I've never gone in there with a horse that's remotely been a favourite. When you go for these races you've got to have some pretty serious tackle."

It is difficult to disparage Gosden in this area (or any other once he unfolds his well-spread 6ft 5in frame). As he swiftly points out, Andre Fabre, many people's idea of the best trainer on the globe, did not win a Derby of any description until this summer, while Charlie Whittingham, America's legendary bald eagle, took until he was 73 to record a Classic. "I hope I don't have to wait that long," Gosden says.

John Harry Martin Gosden, at 44, could be Newmarket's bald eagle as he has a pate above a curtain of hair that is in transition from fair to grey. Gosden, otherwise the most sanguine of men, still worries about this feature, even though old photographs of American victories on his office wall confirm he has been follicly challenged for some time.

Outside at his stables there occurs the odd tableau of trainer, reporter and photographer comparing the empty spaces on their respective skulls. Gosden wonders if the picture will show him as bald. He needs rather less a photographer than a court painter.

Back upstairs, Gosden had been a much more confident figure, eloquently expressing his thoughts from the front edge of an armchair, a leather coaster spinning between his fingers. The trainer's American- inspired glasnost has made him a favourite with the press corps, to whom he refers as "matey" on an individual basis and "men" as a whole. Others, such as Dick Hern, have other names for the pack.

Gosden is unusual as a trainer. He is one of the very few who returns phone calls (usually ending conversations with the suggestion you should "take care"), and he is almost disturbingly tactile in the winners' enclosure, in which he slaps backs and puts a soothing hand on the shoulder like a friendly bobby. He is also intelligent.

A son of another trainer, "Towser" Gosden (the Gosdens have not always been a close unit, as the naming of John's father after the family dog might suggest), today's man made his name inside a decade in the United States. After starting out with three horses, Gosden hitched on to the economic locomotive set on its way in the 1980s by Ronald Reagan. California was the place to be and the young trainer had owners such as Cary Grant, Aaron Spelling and Elizabeth Taylor.

Gosden learned from men such as Whittingham and D Wayne Lukas, who makes donkeys a worried species when he starts up a conversation. "He's a great performer, salesman and talker, and if he'd gone into computers he'd be head of IBM by now," Gosden said. Lukas, rather less generously, once said of Gosden: "I taught him all he knows but not all that I know."

The reward for Gosden's success was a call every bit as alluring as the tune from the sirens. Sheikh Mohammed wanted him.

There are as yet no reports of Dubai's crown prince not getting what he wants and, by the end of the 1980s, Gosden was in place at Stanley House, formerly the seat from which George Lambton, the first of the gentlemen trainers, sent out Hyperion to win the Derby.

Gosden, it goes without saying, rather likes working for the Sheikh. "I think people now understand much more that Sheikh Mohammed has a great intuitive feel for the racehorse," he says. "It's great for me. When you have a problem with a horse you can just tell him. He understands it's not a motorbike and you don't take a part out, shove another one in, rev up and off you go."

The trainer may be rather less happy about the recent development of the Godolphin operation, which has taken the richly talented Halling, among others, from his barracks, but it is not a thought he vocalises.

"I've got to be open-minded about it because Godolphin is like a big wheel and it's going to keep turning," he says. "If Sheikh Mohammed takes x number of horses away that's fine by me. He owns them, not me. Of course I'd much prefer to be training the horse myself. That's only human. But the point is that Dubai is now a major racing centre and if you're going to react every time a horse goes then that is being very short-sighted.

"And I want the horses that go from here to do well. I'm not like Dorothy Paget who hoped that a horse would drop dead the moment she sold it and it went out of the gate."

A consequence of Godolphin may be that Gosden will lose a Classic horse, but it is not a point he dwells on. He does not like thinking about the Classics at all. "I don't get up every morning worrying about it, driving myself bonkers," he says. "We've won a lot of nice races and we've done pretty solidly since we've been in England and we're just waiting for the Classic. It comes when it comes, it's as simple as that."

That time may not be far away. Presenting was third in the Derby, just behind another Stanley House inmate, Tamure. This, to many minds, was a great achievement, but it meant little to Gosden, who is imbued with the American notion that the lower places on the podium are not worth having. "Winning in this game is absolutely everything," he says. "Like [Bill] Shoemaker used to say, `second is like playing with yourself. It just isn't the real thing'."

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