There are very few racehorse trainers who would, or could, bring Bob Dylan, FC Barcelona, Roberto Duran and an economics lesson into a 45-minute discussion about the sport of kings. Indeed there might only be one: the ferociously intelligent, fiercely eloquent and altogether rather formidable John Gosden.
He would be formidable even if he didn't stand six foot and quite a bit in his stockinged feet, but his stature somehow compounds the sense that this is a fellow whose views are worth listening to, especially when they concern the future of his beloved Flat racing. Moreover, 60-year-old Gosden is the turf's man of the moment. Masked Marvel won him his second consecutive (and fourth overall) St Leger just over a fortnight ago, and his high-class colt Nathaniel might just bag him his first Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp next weekend, unless the Indian summer that the rest of us are craving goes and spoils the plan.
"The horse is in good form," Gosden reports. "He worked nicely on Thursday morning at Newbury, but the key factor for a lot of us is the weather. If the ground is on the fast side there he won't run." The decision will be made on Thursday, but if Paris stays dry, Gosden will miss out for at least one more year on the opportunity to add the Arc to a CV that includes the Epsom Derby, the Breeders' Cup Classic and the 1,000 Guineas, as well as those multiple St Legers. "But we do still have the Qipco Champions Stakes on 15 October at Ascot, which is a pretty nice fallback position," he adds. "It's just one of those odd years when the ground looks like being fast for the Arc."
Whatever happens, Gosden has already realised his overriding ambition as a trainer, which wasn't to win the Derby, affectionately as he describes the way that his horse Benny The Dip did so by a short head in 1997. "He went round Epsom like a hoop around a barrel, beautifully balanced. But no, personally, winning the Breeders' Cup Classic [in 2008] at the place I started training with three horses in the late 1970s, Santa Anita, meant a touch more. That was the closing of the circle."
Gosden, whose father 'Towser' Gosden was a leading trainer of the 1950s and 1960s, got a job as an assistant with Noel Murless after graduating from Cambridge, then joined Vincent O'Brien in Ireland. But it was in California that he really cut his teeth, at a time when racing in the United States was still basking in the fading glow of a golden era.
"I was so lucky to be there at that time. The place was humming, there was great closeness between trainers and jockeys, and fabulous, very remunerative racing. It was the second biggest spectator sport after baseball, and when I started a lot of the old Hollywood set still owned horses. But that has changed. Nascar racing is very big now, the car is more in the public psyche, there are other betting mediums, and people find travelling to the racetrack a bit of a bore."
In 1989 Gosden set up shop in Newmarket, and for the last six years has operated out of Clarehaven Stables, just a few furlongs from Sir Michael Stoute's empire. It is there that we talk, and I ask him whether his time in America continues to inform his training techniques. "Oh, I think you absorb things when you are young and they become part of your make-up. Bob Dylan has been accused of plagiarising songs, but it's not that, it's being influenced by people you respect, whether you're writing music or training racehorses."
He continues to observe America carefully, and sees in the decline of racing there all kinds of grim portents for what might happen here, in fact he feels that the downward spiral is well under way.
"It has happened very quickly. The economy has entered a period of stagflation, which is going to hurt any entertainment industry and we're no different, except that we have a very high cost base and we're very labour-intensive, requiring extraordinary capital investment. I hope nobody ever does a study of what it costs for these people to breed and produce horses, because we're talking thousands of millions. Consider the land, farms, stallions, mares, foals, staff. It's a very expensive game to produce enough horses for the very large fixture list we have in this country. The foal crop is in decline, the horses that can actually race will be more and more cherished, and there will not be sufficient horses to fulfil the fixture list."
A fleeting sigh, possibly as much to draw breath as anything else. "There is a lot of pressure on the game," he continues, "and a lot of pressure on tracks. In time I wouldn't be surprised to see a few tracks go, and I don't think that will be a bad thing, because I'm of the opinion, as Lester Piggott is, that we pander far too much to endless betting-shop fodder, filling every slot with mediocre racing, and all we've done is land ourselves with the law of diminishing returns. With the decline in prize money, it's very difficult to come in and play, because racehorses are so expensive to breed. People seem to think they drop out of the sky, but they don't. Young people are being born all the time who can become great footballers. The scouts go everywhere and find them, or the academy at Barcelona nurtures them. But imagine if football clubs had to go out there and breed them, select the right parents, pay for their housing." He leans back in his chair, analogy complete. "People take it for granted that the great equine athlete just tips up, but that's really not how it works."
Flat racing in Britain, then, as Gosden sees it, is in distinct peril. Yet that is not so elsewhere in the world. "The future of Flat racing is all to the east of us; Japan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Australasia, China. Geopolitically we're up against it, although we still have time to put things right if there's a will. Sticking heads in the sand is not the answer."
So what is? And does he think the horseracing authorities can find it? "Well, in fairness to them they don't have a lot of power. It's all about the government, and what they're prepared to do with a gambling bill. It is in the government's interest to have a healthy entertainment industry, and this branch of it employs huge numbers of people and generates quite a lot of money for the Treasury. So, they need to bring offshore betting back on, rein in the betting exchanges, and introduce strict legislation whereby a return is made to the people who put the show on. Until and unless that happens we'll see nothing but a gradual deterioration in the quality of racing. We do still have the finest horses competing in the most prestigious races in this country. But be clear, that will not last."
I'm clear, yet it occurs to me that Newmarket is both the best and the worst place to issue such stentorian warnings. It is a town made affluent by racing, and there seems no manifest sign of the affluence diminishing, not so long as Gosden, Stoute and Sir Henry Cecil continue to train winners, not with Sheikh Mohammed continuing to pour in his millions.
"Yes, there are people passionate about racing and always will be, but for the new people thinking about coming into the game, there are other things they can do with their money. This is a time for businesses to sustain themselves, not think about growth. I'm a bit cynical about economic growth generally. There's a finite limit to what this planet can take. What's wrong with healthy sustainability? I don't want to see the game grow. I want to see it rationalised."
It's time to bring Gosden down from what I suppose might be called his high horse, if he wasn't talking such sense. And so I switch topics, to the great Vincent O'Brien, whom he had the privilege to study from closer quarters than most.
"Yes, and apart from anything else he had an extraordinary business brain. A brilliant horse sense, but also fine commercial sense. Like Alec Head he could have gone into many professions and reached the top. He was very selective in what he did and didn't train. When I was there he had 70 horses, and that to him was too many. He wanted speed, lightness and agility from his horses, even the Grand National horses, and he set Ballydoyle up in that way. He was so good at getting inside the horse's head, and of course that's our job, every day. They can't talk to us so we have to sense what they want and don't want. He was also a very shy man, very good one to one, but he didn't like crowds. That word 'genius' is bandied around so much these days, but it was true of him. He had all the attributes."
Gosden was at the Irishman's side in 1977, when Piggott won the Derby, for the eighth time, on the O'Brien-trained The Minstrel. "Lester had been trying to get on Blushing Groom; as usual he had spotted the best horse. But the Aga [Khan] wouldn't have it. He left [Henri] Samani on. So on the Sunday morning before, the phone went. It was Lester. He said: 'Tell the old man I'll ride whatever he's got left in'. We had three left in: The Minstrel, Valinsky and Be My Guest. The Minstrel had been beaten in the 2,000 Guineas, and everyone said he wouldn't stay, but Lester saw something and gave him one of the all-time great rides."
Unsurprisingly, Gosden considers Piggott the greatest, the jockey for all the ages. "But [Willie] Carson was superb. And there is phenomenal talent now. Ryan Moore is hugely talented. William [Buick, his own stable jockey] reminds me of the young [Steve] Cauthen. Frankie [Dettori] is a wonderful chameleon; he can ride anywhere in the world. Some of the young boys coming through in France are phenomenal. Not so much in America. Gary Stevens told me that the weighing-rooms there are not the same as they were. He said, and these were his words, 'there's not the respect for horses'. The horse has become just a means to an end."
I tell Gosden what Piggott asserted to me in a recent interview, that riding styles have become too uniform. He agrees. "Yes, although I have the utmost respect for jockeys. As athletes they're like Roberto Duran, and on so little food. They have amazing strength, and yet you can never overpower a horse; it has to be done with feel, with great hands, with a gentle touch. I can see what Lester means, though. Do they use their legs as much as they did? If you watch great polo players, it's all with the legs. It's amazing what they can do with their legs. For someone like Lester, who operated very much on his own terms, it must be pretty dull to watch. Certainly [Kieren] Fallon has a style all of his own. But there's more conformity now. And that's true generally. Every high street in every town looks the same."
I leave before Gosden starts on the economics of high-street retailing, although he doubtless could, and would. There are some horsemen who, like some of their charges, go through life wearing blinkers. Not so the impressive squire of Clarehaven.Reuse content