Between the immodesty of his surname, and the meekness of his professional beginnings, there is no mistaking which way John Best is heading. A decade ago, encouraged by his experiments with a few point-to-pointers, Best started work on some derelict buildings, lost amid brambled, shady lanes, high above the Weald of Kent. Even the address seemed unkempt: Scragged Oak Farm, Hucking.
Of the nine horses he had scraped together, to meet the minimum requirements of the Jockey Club, six were useless. That is no figure of speech. They were literally incapable of raising a gallop. But one of the remaining three went on to win seven races, and here is Best now, with a championship sprinter among his string of 70, palpably in the avant-garde of his profession.
The impudent success of Kingsgate Native in the Nunthorpe Stakes at York last month distilled both the attitude and aptitude of his trainer. Few others would have dared to run a two-year-old against veteran Group One sprinters on only his third start, never mind one that had yet to win a race. And fewer still would have done so without even being able to watch him run. But Best's absence dovetailed perfectly with the colt's stunning breakthrough. He was in Florida, buying yearlings – making a point he could never have made so well in person.
That this was not some brief, dreamy trespass; and that Best, with no background in the game, in his untutored, empirical way, had not been guessing about the colt's eligibility. "A lot of people said they couldn't believe I wasn't there to see my first Group One winner," he said yesterday. "But I said I had to find my next one. And I was not going to do that at York."
Typically, while British trainers went to the big sale in Keeneland by the dozen, Best was the only one in Florida that week. He is exploring a new marketplace, not only among horses, but among owners, pairing eight to 10 serious backers with eight to 10 serious horses. By pooling investments of £75,000 per head – to cover a share in the partnership and training fees – Best hopes to raise the horses' value on the racecourse and, with a pragmatism that eludes so many other trainers, to sell at a profit.
He has already tested the model on a smaller scale. "I'd rather have four horses for £160,000 than one for £150,000," he said. "You must have volume, and you must have the right margin. I know my statistics. Out of every 10 I get, I'm going to get one really good one."
As things stand, nobody has met the asking price for Kingsgate Native and he proceeds to Paris on Sunday week for the Prix de l'Abbaye. "I would have been as delighted as anyone had he been sold," Best insisted. "But to me there is so much more to come from him next year. I don't care about losing the weight-for-age, because he's going to be so much stronger. So long as I don't break him, what's going to beat him?"
He is unabashed about that proviso, believing that you are only qualified to train good horses if you have the belief to train them properly. "The better the horse is, the harder it has to be trained," he explained. "Because it's so easy for them. If you wrap them in cotton wool, they won't win races. And if horses aren't fit, that's when they get hurt."
Kingsgate Native cost just 20,000 guineas and is only the latest in a series of horses to have inflated their value here. Rising Cross, for instance, cost just £14,000 and was sold for £325,000 after finishing second in the Oaks last year. "I don't care if a horse has the best pedigree in the world," Best explained. "I have to like it as an individual first. You wouldn't buy Kingsgate Native on pedigree, but he's a monster of a horse to look at. My view is that if they look the part, and can walk, the chances are they are going to make a racehorse. There are exceptions, but not many horses with legs twisted in every direction are going to do that."
Thirteen yearlings arrive from the United States this morning. "The key is that we're not only trying to buy the right horses, but at the right price," Best said. "We're not only getting value for money in America, but with the pedigrees they have, we're also improving our chances of selling the horses back there. It's all about trying different avenues, trying to keep one step ahead of the opposition."
Nap: Lang Shining