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.

Turf account

Chris McGrath's Nap

Hobb's Dream (3.10 Wincanton) Back to form over hurdles and well treated off a lower chase mark.

Next best

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

Suggested Topics
Voices
voices
News
general electionThis quiz matches undecided voters with the best party for them
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen starred in the big screen adaptation of Austen's novel in 2005
tvStar says studios are forcing actors to get buff for period roles
News
Prince William and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge show their newly-born daughter, their second child, to the media outside the Lindo Wing at St Mary's Hospital in central London, on 2 May 2015.
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before