The accidental jumps trainer gets serious
John Ferguson has pedigree with Flat racers – but next week he can shine at Cheltenham
Out in the desert, after lunch, Sheikh Mohammed will sometimes take him hunting gazelle with the saluki hounds. They wander on foot, over sand and scrub, between trembling horizons. It is a world away from the green hills of Cheltenham – another destination that John Ferguson has found "com-pletely by accident". In both environments, however, you know the man whose bearings are true.
Ferguson has spent three decades exploring the lore that governs the breeding and purchase of elite Flat racers. As manager of the biggest bloodstock empire in history, Darley Stud, signing for unbroken yearlings at millions of dollars, he can scarcely take the view that quality in thoroughbreds is unaccountable. So while he knows that horses will never stop teaching you new lessons, he also understands that the most precious ones will be about yourself.
"If you'd told me last year that I'd be having six runners at the Festival, I'd have said you were on drugs," Ferguson says cheerfully, driving round the impressive training facility he has set up outside Newmarket. The horses going to the Festival next week all have a legitimate chance, notably New Year's Eve in the bumper, yet emerge from a barn housing just 10 others. Ferguson has saddled 22 winners from 61 runners in his first season with a permit, a superior strike-rate to every other British stable with a pertinent sample. Here is a trainer who plainly knows what he is doing – even if he barely knew he was going to do it.
He bought Bloomfields with the idea of a little breeding in retirement, patiently turning arable acreage over to grass. But his two sons, respectively still at university and school, became so infected by the racing bug that Ferguson decided a few point-to-pointers might redress some of the family time lost to a job, however stimulating, that could require him to fly from Japan to America via Britain – merely to hand over one suitcase and pick up another.
On his 50th birthday, Ferguson walked his dogs up the woodchip gallop he had laid down for the point-to-pointers, and made the sort of self-assessment merited by the milestone. "I asked myself: 'Have you enjoyed your life?' And John replied: 'Fantastic, wonderful.' And then I asked: 'Do you want to do this for the next 20 years?' And the answer was 'No'."
He went to see "the Boss", whose reaction was typical. "Good leadership is about delegation," said the ruler of Dubai. Ferguson stresses that their working relationship is unchanged. Nowadays Ferguson simply has trusted lieutenants reporting to him at Darley Stud, before he in turn reports to the Boss. "Darley's like a child to me," he says. "And I'm proud of the way it has developed into a worldwide organisation. But if they still needed me 15 times a year in America, or five times a year in Japan or Australia, then I'd be doing something wrong."
The Boss has taken affectionate interest in Ferguson's new venture, contributing several horses that would otherwise have been culled at the sales. Though modest on the Flat, their pedigrees seem to lend them ample distinction over jumps. "I may come unstuck," Ferguson says. "But my feeling is that whether jumping or on the Flat, a fast horse will always beat a slow horse. So the first thing you need is speed. The next thing is to be able to settle them. Then they have to be able to jump; and then they have to stay. If a Flat-bred horse can do those things, I'd have thought he'd beat one with a jumping pedigree. Because what is a jumping pedigree?"
Well, the reply is offered, jumps stallions all ran on the Flat – they just ran more slowly. "You said it," smiles Ferguson. "Not me."
His only previous involvement in jumping was as a teenager, when leaving Ampleforth College for a year with Nick Gaselee, mucking out and pretending he could ride. He then joined Michael Stoute for two stints, divided by three years following his father into the Scots Guards. He became a bloodstock agent, found several smart ones for Geoff Wragg, and started doing appraisals for the Sheikh – who soon observed that his professional expertise was matched by equally valuable personal qualities. Ferguson had emerged from army tours in Ulster and Hong Kong as a man of discretion, dynamism and dignity, one who would neither be intimidated by the Sheikh, nor swollen by their association.
"One thing led to another," Ferguson shrugs. "It was a whirlwind really. The thing about Sheikh Mohammed is that he absolutely loves horses. It's not about winning. And of course racing is such a small part of his life. Dubai is what gets him up every day. Yet with everything he has achieved there, he knows what his roots are."
With that breadth of perspective the Sheikh encouraged his racing and breeding teams to persevere through mockery, whenever his prodigious investment failed to yield champions. "He always says that failure isn't falling down," Ferguson says. "Failure is not getting up again. If ever there was a man who was not afraid of failure, it's him."
Now the Darley stallions, bolstered by fresh bloodlines, are flourishing – and Ferguson is reaping unexpected dividends from his career with the Sheikh. "I'd have to say that starting training at 51 is unquestionably a good way of doing it," he says. "If you've been working for 30 years with some of the best trainers in the world – well, you'd be in trouble if you haven't picked something up. They all do it differently, but the end result is normally fairly similar: a fit, healthy, happy horse."
Recently Ferguson sent out six winners over one weekend – including four from a team of just 10 between the flags. "With jumping, I'm slightly making it up as I go along," he said. "I haven't set foot in a jumps yard since 1978. So I don't know how everybody else does it." Judging from the results, you have to suspect that the accidental trainer must be leaving rather less to chance.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Hobb's Dream (3.10 Wincanton) Back to form over hurdles and well treated off a lower chase mark.
Et Maintenant (5.05 Ayr) Has responded to patient tactics and is better at this trip now.
One to watch
Alderluck (David Pipe) Travelled well before failing to get home at Exeter.
Where the money's going
Shop DJ is 16-1 from 25-1 with Ladbrokes for the Mares' Hurdle at Cheltenham
Cheltenham countdown: 4 days to go
My top fancy for the Festival Alan King, trainer of 12 Cheltenham winners.
Vendor is definitely value in the Fred Winter. He has only run once for me, when he won at Newbury, and on what he has done at home since I'd consider him well handicapped. I may have got him under the radar
When teaching the meaning of Christmas backfires
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