Seen by much of the racing world as that curious island nation far away from everything, New Zealand defies all odds as one of the world’s great racing nations. With a thriving thoroughbred industry that’s been producing champions for more than a century.
New Zealand has been one of the world’s great breeding grounds for more than a century.
Its list of championracehorses for more than a century surpasses all but a very few racing jurisdictions and its jockeys are amongst the world’s best.
New Zealand has been punching above its weight in most sports since it became an independent nation in the mid 1850s but it defies even those odds as one of the world’s great racing nations. From Ruakaka at the balmy top of the North Island to the chill winds of Invercargill at the bottom of the South Island, 52 racecourses are spread along the country’s 1600 kilometres.
NZ racing, however, is a lot more than just impressive statistics. Witness championship racing at Hastings nestled between Hawkes Bay and the Ruahine Ranges, watch the riders bobbing along above the back straight vineyards at the Poverty Bay course of Makaraka or take in the time-honoured NZ Cup at Riccarton’s sweeping 2400m course in Christchurch and you can taste the racing.
Whether it’s the Group 1 Auckland Cup or NZ Derby at magnificent Ellerslie, where during winter the jumpers take on the steep hill three times for the Great Northern Steeplechase, or a picnic meeting at Hokitika on the South Island’s jagged west coast, people turn up to races in NZ.
In each of these precincts, there’s a stud farm nearby and a stable around every corner. Aotearoa or the Land of the Long White Cloud has the distinction of breeding more than a quarter of all Melbourne Cup winners.
This is the land that bred the immortal Phar Lap, who dominated Australian racing in the Depression era and then won the world’s richest race, the Agua Caliente in Mexico, in 1932.
It’s the country that puts its name to a Derby that can hold its own with any in the world. The NZ Derby has an honour roll featuring Desert Gold, Gloaming, Kindergarten, Beau Vite, Mainbrace, Fury’s Order, Piko, Balmerino, Uncle Remus and Bonecrusher – every one of them a great champion who would have made any top 10 list in the world in any given year.
Birthplace of champions
New Zealand has been one of the world’s great breeding grounds for more than a century. The nation’s stocks got a huge boost very early when legendary racehorse Carbine turned out to be every bit as good, if not better, as a sire.
Descendants of the 1890 Melbourne Cup winner include such champions as Phar Lap, Deep Impact, Rachel Alexandra, Sunline, Symboli Kris S, TM Opera O, Makybe Diva and Rising Fast as well as great sires Northern Dancer, Nijinsky II, Mr Prospector, Danzig and Nasrullah.
Building on the foundation set by Carbine, the NZ breeding barns have provided 42 winners of the Melbourne Cup. From 1950 to 1980, two in every three Cup winners were either trained or bred in NZ. These days, the North and South Islands are home to 70 commercial stud farms and hundreds of private breeders.
The North Island is home to the majority of NZ’s major studs. Cambridge Stud, home of world-class sires Sir Tristram and Zabeel, Windsor Park and Waikato Stud are located in the Waikato district of the North Island, while Rich Hill Stud is nearby and Haunaui Farm has become a major operation just outside of Auckland. In the South Island, Willow Glen operates on the lush grasslands of the Canterbury district south of Christchurch and White Robe Lodge is set within the rolling hills of the Otago region even further south. The Dominion produces around 3500 foals and exports more than 1500 horses every year. Sires such as Darci Brahma, O’Reilly and Cox Plate winners Savabeel and Ocean Park are the more recent sires continuing the tradition.
Thoroughbreds from NZ have made a massive impact when they’ve travelled overseas. Starcraft’s deeds at Longchamp and Newmarket, combined with what he had done in NZ and Australia, led him to be named the World Champion Older Turf Mile in 2005. Hong Kong has gained several of NZ’s best exports in recent years, including 2016 HK Horse of the Year Werther, 2011 and 2012 HK Horse of the Year Ambitious Dragon and champion HK sprinter Aerovelocity. Recently, another NZ export Debt Collector was named Singapore Horse of the Year.
Closer to home, NZ trained or bred horses to make an impact in Australia have included Cox Plate winners Ocean Park and So You Think, who went on to become an international superstar, Caulfield Cup winner Mongolian Khan and Australian Derby champion Dundeel. The past five Australian Derby winners, and the past four Australian Oaks winners, were either bred or trained in New Zealand.
NZ racing has thrived for more than a century since a 1911 Act of Parliament gave its racecourses a completely different look to the Australian and English models it most resembled in other ways. On-course bookmakers were banned, giving rise to a strong totalisator system and illegal bookmakers around just outside the tracks and the local hotels.
Ascot, So You Think with Joseph O’Brien up after winning the Prince Of Wales’s Stakes. Photo:Frank Sorge
Last year, a total of 4864 individual horses started in NZ races. From the 800m of the early two-year-old races to the gruelling 6400m of the Great Northern Steeplechase, the NZ galloper is bred and trained for all distances and types of racing.
10 of the Best
New Zealand’s greatest racehorses would be champions anywhere in the world. This list is not definitive, it’s open to debate and it doesn’t include the immortal NZ-bred Phar Lap, who never raced in his homeland.
One of the most remarkable horses in world racing history, he won 57 of 67 in Australia and NZ between 1918 and 1924, including 19 straight. He won the Australian Derby at just his second start and won at distances from 800m to 2400m. The legendary galloper made the crossing between NZ and Australia 15 times and only missed a place once – when he fell early in his career.
Won 25 of 35 in the early 1940s, including the Auckland Cup with 64kg in record time. He was allocated a higher handicap than Phar Lap in several Melbourne Cups but never ran.
Unbeaten in NZ, he won 33 of 43 starts including the 1890 Melbourne Cup before becoming one of the greatest colonial sires of all time. Balmerino: 1975 NZ Derby winner and an unlucky 2nd to Alleged in the 1977 Arc De Triomphe. He had a highest Timeform rating of 138. Desert Gold: Won 36 races from 1914 to 1919, including 19 in a row.
Freakish galloper who won 23 of 25 including 17 straight in the early 1950s.
Champion mare who won two Cox Plates and a HK Mile. She was named NZ Horse of the Year an unprecedented four times from 1999-2002.
1950s champion stayer and the only horse to win Caulfield Cup, Cox Plate, Melbourne Cup treble in the same year (1954). He won the Caulfield Cup the following year and was a desperately unlucky 2nd in the Melbourne Cup.
10-time G1 winner in NZ & Australia in the 1980s. Beat fellow NZer Waverley Star in what is regarded as the greatest Cox Plate ever run.
Won 11 G1 races in Australia & NZ from 1990 to 1995, at distances ranging from 1400m to 2400m, and was a dual NZ Horse of the Year.
Formerly one of Australia’s top administrators, Racing NZ chief executive Bernard Saundry has the ability to look at the New Zealand racing scene with fresh eyes – and he’s excited by the possibilities.
Saundry says that while the country has some catching up to do in prizemoney and funds need to be set aside for some track upgrades, he has been surprised at the scope of NZ racing.
”I think NZ is a great destination for racing enthusiasts, with the landscape providing a stunning backdrop at so many racetracks across the country,” he says. ”The experience you can have at the races in NZ is just fantastic.
”We have 15,000 owners of racehorses in this country and what I discovered when we sent out our regular updates on what’s happening in New Zealand racing was that those emails were being opened in 37 countries. That’s how widespread interest has become in our racing.
”The quality of the NZ thoroughbred is recognised around the world. NZ horses perform very well not just in Australia but in Hong Kong and Singapore. Over a third of our horses bred here every year end up exported into those markets. Our trainers don’t just train horses for our racing, they pre-train for international destinations.”
Saundry says the distance from the rest of the racing world and within the country itself are challenges NZ racing people have embraced and overcome for years.
”It’s a long narrow country and the tyranny of distance is obvious between the top of the North Island and the bottom of the South,” he says. ”That presents a challenge during carnival times for those who live on the other island but NZ trainers and jockeys and stable workers are a resilient lot and they travel long distances during the peak periods.
”We’re renowned for our great horses and great climate to rear fantastic thoroughbreds. Our riding ranks are very strong, notwithstanding that some have found their way to Australia for more lucrative offers. Four of the top six jockeys in NZ are women and 45 per cent of the riding ranks are female. In time, I see more females riding in NZ than males.”
Samantha Collett is the runaway leader for the NZ Jockeys Premiership.
NZ is recognised for its outstanding and competitive jockeys so having so many women high on the list is a great reflection of the country’s forward thinking. Samantha Collett is the runaway leader for the NZ Jockeys Premiership, 20 wins clear of legendary rider Chris Johnson and cousin Alysha Collett. Danielle Johnson and Rosie Myers are close behind.
”There’s great value in the courses that are generally owned right across the country by the clubs themselves,” Saunders adds. ”One of the main items on the agenda is to improve prizemoney but NZ has a great many positives.”
Until June 9 it had only happened 12 times in history. Last time was with American Pharaoh in 2015 and before that there was a 37 year gap from when Affirmed won in 1978. That’s when Justify decided to break all rules and just do what couldn’t be done. In a way that it couldn’t be done.
The road to win the Triple Crown is said to start with winning the first of the three races – The Kentucky Derby. But the truth is that the first, and biggest obstacle, is to get to run in The Derby in the first place. As the Triple Crown races are only open to 3-year olds, horses normally have to start to show quality as 2-year olds in order to get to participate in the races that earn them points that can earn them a place in The Derby.
Justify didn’t win as a 2-year old. He didn’t even race last year. His first race was on February 18, just three months before he won the Derby. He won that race. And has won every one of his races since then. But his biggest achievement is not only that he won all the three races. It’s the facts behind him that makes him stand out even among Triple Crown winners.
Here are some facts that make Justify unique among the unique.
Justify is the first horse since 1882 to win The Triple Crown without having raced as a 2-year old.
Justify is the second horse in history to win The Triple Crown without having lost a single race in its career (The first was Seattle Slew)
Justify was ridden by Mike Smith, 52. The oldest jockey ever to win The Triple Crown.
Justify is trained by Bob Baffert who also trained American Pharoa who won in 2015. Buffert is the second trainer ever to have trained two Triple Crown winners. The first was Jim Fitzsimmons in 1930 (Gallant Fox) and 1935 (Omaha).
Justify was bred by John Gunther at the family run Glenwood Farm. John also bred his dam – Stage Magic
Justify sire – Scat Daddy – had a breeding fee of only $35.000.
The sun has disappeared for the sake of the darkness. An audience of eighty thousand people is whispering his name. His face appears on a multi-coloured wide-screen. Ten million dollars. That’s what’s in it for tonight’s final cup win. In a cave underground, there’s a sign saying Jockey’s room. Open the door to that room and twelve of the world’s best riders are getting dressed. “Good luck” someone calls to him and he nods as if they meant it. William Buick takes one last deep breath before entering the arena of the World Cup in Dubai. He is only 27 years old.
When he was four years old he already knew that he wanted to become a jockey. All of us others answered “policemen” or “football player” and those other jobs that normal kids would want. But to William it was clear. He wanted to move to England and he wanted to become a jockey. It’s an impressive fact, watching him today, knowing that he set his goals as a four-year old kid and that by the age of 27 he has achieved them all.
It’s a beautiful morning as we meet with William Buick at his rooftop in Dubai.
The view here is magnificent. Sky-scrapers and highways, sand beaches and smoke. Buick himself has arrived with a smile. He woke up early this morning, he says, and the first thought that hit him was that he wanted to get out and race. He’s got the eyes of a boy but the posture of a man. Clean cut hair and an admirable handshake. His clear and steady British accented voice consciously responds to each question with articulation.
He’s a crossover concept: masculine and sporty, yet intelligent.
“I’m very happy about where I am in life, William Buick says.”
“Living in Dubai is just a daily dose of inspiration. I still have the same friends as I did when I was a kid. And I keep in close contact with my family in Norway, so that when I go back home, things are just the same as they’ve always been.”
“To me there has never been a ‘what if I don’t succeed’-moment”
Today, much in this Norwegian- native rider’s life has changed from what it once was. William Buick is one of the world’s most famous jockeys. And as a rider for Team Godolphin, William is not only a sportsmen that people stop to talk to in the street but also an employee of his highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai. William’s life and career are therefore built upon an essential routine; to always progress, always on a constant journey towards new races, new cities, new goals, and new achievements.
“To me there has never been a ‘what if I don’t succeed’-moment, William Buick answers about the questions of what he would do if he wouldn’t have become a jockey.”
I haven’t even considered that. I’ve just focused on my ambitions and on ways to get there.
Martin and Andrew Buick, The Buick brothers.
“Our brother has always been very, very aware of what he wants and how to get it,” Andrew and Martin Buick, confirm. And that rare sense of focus William has is something that can be traced back to his childhood.
William Buick and Frost
“The first time I met with William he was only ten years old, Hans Petter Eriksen at Øvrevoll Galopp remembers. He was extremely tiny for his age but I immediately noticed his extraordinary devotion. The trainers here thought that he was too small and that it would prevent him from a career later on. I think that’s why William went to England. And also that it’s a part of why he is where he is today, Hans Petter says.”
But despite William’s devotion as a jockey, it doesn’t mean that life for him has always been easy. As a teenager, he moved alone to England for his training. Here, he spent two years of teenage life staying in a hostel-room.
– And by this time William didn’t have a driver’s license, friend and jockey James Doyle remembers from the period where the two of them first met. – He couldn’t really go anywhere so I drove him to the track each morning.
“I was like any other young person, wanting to succeed and do everything in a hurry. I needed to learn patience,” William Buick tells today.
Born 22 July 1988, is a Norwegian-born flat jockey who holds both British and Danish citizenship. He shared the champion apprentice jockey title in 2008 with David Probert and won the Lester Award for Apprentice Jockey of the Year in 2007 and 2008. His first group race victory was in the St. Simon Stakes. His first group one race victory was in the E. P. Taylor Stakes aboard Lahaleeb. In 2010 he was hired by John Gosden as his stable jockey and won his second group one in the Dubai Sheema Classic. He is currently hired by Godolphin Racing for whom he won the 2018 Epsom Derby on Masar.
“William is a natural horseman that has a real passion for horse racing.
He is a very important part of Team Godolphin and a huge asset to the stable. Not only is he a talented rider on race day, he is a huge help at training in the mornings, where he rides a large number of our horses in exercise”
“Charlie Appleby, trainer of Team Godolphin.”
At the age of 18, William’s success was officially announced. In both 2007 and 2008 he was named “apprentice jockey of the year” at the Lester Award in England, followed by an impressive and above all intensive period of international progress, still going strong.
All his titles and achievements seem to come together as the result of two important qualities as a jockey; hard work and huge devotion, which everyone around him—from childhood friends to trainers, and from colleagues to his family—are willing to confirm.
Shergar lit up the racing world in 1981, winning the Epsom Derby by 10 lengths. He was set to become a superstar stallion, but events took a dark turn with kidnap, ransom, and an uncertain end making Shergar’s story one of racing’s greatest dramas.
Shergar’s name, like that of Red Rum, Phar Lap, or Secretariat, remains one of the few to have escaped the confines of racing’s bubble and penetrated the public consciousness, resulting in a string of ‘true crime’ books, films, and television programmes.
Derek Thompson, a British racing journalist who was at the heart of the matter, recently spoke to Gallop, reflecting on this extraordinary series of events and offering his thoughts on where Shergar may have ended his days.
3rd June 1981: Karim Aga Khan IV, the racehorse owner, leading in the Derby winner ‘Shergar’, ridden by Walter Swinburn
SETTING THE SCENE
Driving through the countryside of Kildare, Ireland, stud farms line the road. Kildare is the beating heart of Irish racing and as such hosts some of the world’s most successful stallions. Sheikh Mohammed of Godolphin has an extensive Kildare property, as do Prince Khalid Abdullah of Juddmonte and the Aga Khan.
Today, high fences, strong gates, and vigilant guards signal the great value of the equine stock held within and access to the properties is strictly controlled. This has not always been the case however and in 1983 a lax approach to security allowed one of Ireland’s best ever racehorses to become a pawn in an unprecedented and audacious crime.
Shergar was foaled on 3rd March 1978 at the Aga Khan’s Ballymany Stud in Kildare. A bay son of British stallion Great Nephew out of Sharmeen, he entered training in England with Newmarket-based handler Sir Michael Stoute, who at this time received some of the Aga Khan’s highest racing hopes.
Having shown huge promise at 2, the 3yo Shergar came into the 1981 season with Classic claims and soon put these beyond doubt with a 12-length victory in the Chester Vase, a prominent Derby trial. Shergar started odds-on at Epsom, but made even this price look generous as he hit the front turning in and stretched on to win by a record 10 lengths under Walter Swinburn. 37 years later, this winning margin has yet to be equalled.
As if to underline the scarcely believable nature of Shergar’s Epsom efforts, John Matthias, jockey of runner-up Glint of Gold, after the race said, “I thought I’d achieved my life’s ambition. Only then did I discover there was another horse on the horizon.”
Photo: Steve Powell/Getty Images
A Derby winner is a money-spinner and, having added an Irish Derby and King George to his record, Shergar retired to Ballymany Stud as one of the hottest stallion prospects of all time. Syndicated to the tune of £10 million via 40 £250,000 shares, a stellar first book of mares and the highest standards of care assured Shergar the best possible chance to make a strong impact on the future of the breed. But after just one season at stud, fate intervened in spectacular fashion.
THE SHERGAR AFFAIR – Timeline
3rd March 1978 – Foaled at Ballymany Stud, Kildare, Ireland
1980 – Enters training with Sir Michael Stoute, Newmarket, England, winning on debut at Newbury
May 1981 – Signals Classic claims with 12-length win in Chester Vase
June 1981 – Wins Epsom Derby by record 10 lengths under Walter Swinburn
July 1981 – Wins Irish Derby at the Curragh by 4 lengths under Lester Piggott
September 1981 – Beaten in St Leger at Doncaster and retired October 1981 – Takes up stallion duties at Ballymany Stud, producing 35 foals from first and only crop, including 1986 St Leger winner Authaal
8th February 1983 – Kidnapped from Ballymany Stud 9th February 1983 – Derek Thompson contacted by kidnappers, threatening to kill Shergar and demanding an initial payment of £40,000
11th February 1983 – Shergar’s owners refuse to pay, wishing to deter future kidnappings
12th February 1983 – Kidnappers inform Thompson the horse is dead. They never call again and Shergar is lost
On the night of 8th February 1983, as Shergar prepared for a second season of stallion duties, a knock was heard at the cottage of James Fitzgerald, head groom at Ballymany Stud. The door was duly opened, only for several men to crash in wearing balaclavas and carrying pistols. While his family were held at gunpoint, Fitzgerald was forced to load the champion Shergar onto a waiting horsebox. Both horse and groom were then driven off into the night, in separate vehicles to different locations, with Fitzgerald being told not to contact the police under threat of violence to himself and his family. He was then dumped in a remote area of the countryside, many miles from Ballymany.
Uncertain and afraid, the Aga Khan’s head groom consulted various racing contacts and political figures before the police were called in. It was over 8 hours after the abduction that a countrywide search began, meaning that the world’s most famous racehorse was likely to have already been hidden away in some inaccessible regiont. Connections of the horse, the authorities, and an increasingly excited public now awaited the kidnappers’ next move.
“While his family were held at gunpoint, Fitzgerald was forced to load the champion Shergar onto a waiting horsebox”
This is where racing journalist Derek Thompson entered the picture. Having a prominent public profile as a presenter for ITV, the UK’s terrestrial racing broadcaster, he was contacted by the kidnappers to act as a go-between with Shergar’s owners. Derek sat down with Gallop to take us through the inner workings of this incredible drama, revealing the pressure and danger he faced in his role as Shergar’s negotiator:
When did you first hear of the Shergar kidnapping?
At about 1.30am on the day after the kidnapping. I was staying in London to host a racing programme. I was fast asleep when the phone rang and a man from the Press Association said the kidnappers wanted me to go across to Ireland to negotiate for the release of Shergar. It was weird, but I took the 11am flight to Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Why did the kidnappers contact you?
I honestly don’t know. Presumably because I presented the horse racing on ITV. In fact, a year earlier I had just done my first Derby for ITV and Shergar had won it by 10 lengths. I had never seen a Derby winner like him.
What role did you play?
When we arrived in Belfast, we went to a city centre hotel. This was at the height of the Troubles, so a scary time to be in a scary city. At the hotel I received a phone call from a man saying, “I’m the kidnapper of Shergar. This is what I want you to do.” So he told us to escape the media and police and go to a farmhouse 30 miles outside Belfast. Here I acted as intermediary between the kidnappers and the police, who were trying to trace the calls.
Who were the kidnappers? What did they want?
We still don’t know who they were, although we have our ideas. They kept making phone calls to me. I must have received about 8 calls and the police were trying to trace them. Each time we used code names for security. It was a very cold voice and I can still hear it to this day. They wanted money for the horse, initially £40,000, and they wanted us to get in touch with the Aga Khan, even though he held just 6 of Shergar’s 40 shares.
What was the media attention like?
When we got to Belfast it was like something out of a Hollywood film. There were about 50 cameras taking photos and reporters asking us questions. We knew almost nothing about it, but it was clearly a big deal.
“So he told us to escape the media and police and go to a farmhouse 30 miles outside Belfast”
Did you think you would get the horse back alive?
Yes, we did, because we had no idea who exactly we were dealing with. Now, with hindsight, we can imagine what might have already happened to the horse, but at the time there were rumours that he had gone to the north, to the south. Some people even said he had been taken abroad to become a sire. So all we could do was negotiate and do the best possible in the circumstances.
How did the saga end?
A couple of days into the negotiations, during the early hours of the morning, I received a call saying, “The horse has had an accident. He’s dead.” After that, we didn’t hear any more, though there was still a lot of media speculation. When I returned to my home in north Yorkshire, my neighbour who had worked in the security forces told me I shouldn’t rush back to Belfast. And I didn’t.
What do you think happened to Shergar?
Sadly the horse has never been found. I feel sorry for the horse, as it had nothing to do with him. All he did was be good. I have heard different stories. There was a guy who came out and said it was the Irish Republican Army and he was involved. He didn’t have any proof however and didn’t tell us what had happened to the horse. So we just don’t know.
So Shergar was lost, with only one crop of foals to his name. And one of the saddest and most frustrating aspects of Shergar’s disappearance was that this first crop of just 35 foals contained a Classic winner. Authaal, out of Nijinsky mare Galletto, won the 1986 St Leger in the famous maroon and white silks of Sheikh Mohammed. He also added 2 Australian G1s to his record when transferred there in 1988. Unfortunately for connections and those hoping that the Shergar sire line would yet make an impact on the breed, Authaal stood in Japan for 10 seasons without success.
At France’s top racing centre, Chantilly, the horses run through dreamy, serene beechwood forests. Just outside Paris, the town otherwise known for its château and Chantilly cream, is a utopian haven for horses, trainers and racing fans alike.
The first thing any visitor to Chantilly notices is the tranquil air. Situated only forty kilometres northeast of Paris, it is surrounded by beautiful, lush, calm-inducing forests.
The town’s 11,000 inhabitants take pride in the grand castle, Château de Chantilly, and in the famed Chantilly cream, but there’s no denying that this is the Capital of the Horse.
With 110 trainers and nearly 3,000 Thoroughbreds on site every day, the district is France’s largest training centre. In a unique area covering 1,900 hectares, there are 120 km of sand tracks and 120 hectares of grassland, as well as a hundred or so jumps.
Chantilly’s history is a rich mix of aristocracy, art, and, most importantly, great racing. Originally opened in 1834, Chantilly Racecourse hosts prestigious races each year including the Prix du Jockey Club, referred to as the French Derby, and the Prix de Diane Longines, which is open only for fillies and known as the French Oaks.
The course is right-handed and built with interlocking tracks, giving three courses covering distances from 1,400 meters to 2,400 meters.
Importantly, not all trainers in the area are French. For instance, Englishman John Hammond has been based in Chantilly since the late 1980s. His first Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe victory came in 1991 with Suave Dancer, who also won the Prix du Jockey Club and the Irish Champion Stakes. His second Arc victory came in 1999 with his Irish Derby winner Montjeu, who won the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot a year later.
The Great Stables and the Horse Museum The Grand Écuries, or Great Stables, was built in 1719 by the grandson of Louis XIV—Louis-Henri de Bourbon, Duke de Bourbon, Prince de Condé. Legend has it that the Prince believed he would be reincarnated as a horse, and so commissioned architect Jean Aubert to build this equine palace, which once housed 240 horses and about 500 hounds, used for the daily hunts. Parts of the stable buildings are now the Living Museum of the Horse, filling 31 rooms with paintings, sculptures, and ceramics focusing on everything equine-related. Well worth a visit! www.grandesecuries.com
“I came to France originally to work for André Fabre, which I did for two seasons,” says John. “I liked the style of racing here, so I decided at the end of my time with André to have a go on my own. Like much in life, it was down to circumstance and a decision made at a certain moment in time. But it was a decision I have never regretted. I’ve been lucky here.”
Hammond’s yard is based at the heart of Chantilly, opposite the main gallops known as les Aigles, and next to the racecourse. With individual turnout paddocks, an equine spa, and a high-speed treadmill, the idea is to tailor the training process to each horse’s individual demands.
“We have wonderful training facilities and great racetracks here in France,” says John. “It is obvious to all that we have a well-funded racing structure. We also have higher prize money than in the U.K., which counts.”
One of the most remarkable things about Chantilly is the possibility of training in the forest. There are endless corridors of gallops bordered by stately beech wood trees. On windless mornings, trainers can exercise their horses in absolute, wondrous stillness. Unlike some other training centres, there are no roads busy with traffic. The only vehicle seen is the tractor, which maintains the tracks in 10-minute intervals.
“Training in the forest provides shade in the summer and some respite from winter wind,” says John. “Maybe mentally it helps horses too, but who can really tell?”
No matter what, the location is ideal, within an hour of Parisian racecourses Longchamp, Saint Cloud and Maisons-Lafitte. The training areas are situated within a triangle formed by the town itself and the villages of Lamorlaye and Gouvieux.
The Aga Khan, who lives in Aiglemont in Gouvieux, donated €70 million (about $93 million) to the entire Domaine de Chantilly in 2005, and has since managed the racecourse by a mixed public/private foundation.
The château in Chantilly is one of the finest in Europe, with a magnificent setting overlooking the racecourse and the Great Stables. The estate has two buildings—the Petit Château, built in 1560 for Anne de Montmorency, and the Grand Château, which was destroyed during the French Revolution but rebuilt in 1870. The Condé Museum in the castle has one of the oldest collections of historic art in France as well as a selection of 1,300 manuscripts. www.domainedechantilly.com
Furthermore, track’s setting is magnificent, overlooking the Château de Chantilly and the 18th-century Grand Ecuries (the Great Stables), which houses the Living Museum of the Horse.
Legend has it that the stables were built by the eighth Prince of Condé because he believed he would be reincarnated as a horse, and so, he commissioned architect Jean Aubert to build this equine palace.
Also not to be missed while on the premises, the Château de Chantilly houses a museum with one of the oldest collections of historic art in France.
And while in town, why not try the Chantilly cream? Although there is no evidence to prove it, the credit for naming the fluffy, white delicacy is attributed to François Vatel, the maître d’hôtel at Château de Chantilly in the mid-17th century. It is said that whipped cream is called Chantilly cream because the castle and the region was the foremost exponent of the subtle French cuisine.
Training in Chantilly
Trainers: 110 (including Criquette Head-Maarek, Freddy Head, Nicolas Clément, Pascal Bary, John Hammond, Alain de Royer-Dupré).
Horses in training: About 3,000.
Area: 1,900 hectares (5,000 acres) of which 120 hectares turf gallops.
Training tracks: 120 hectares of grass gallops. 120 km (75 miles) of sand/dirt tracks. About 100 jumps.
Racing in Chantillly: Hippodrome de Chantilly.
Turf track 1: 2,400 meter turf (600 m stretch).
Turf track 2: 2,150 meter (550 m stretch). All weather track: 1,900 meter (550 m stretch).
Prix du Jockey Club (G1) May 31 (€1,500,000). Referred to as ”The French Derby” this is the first of the major European Derbies in the season and 2015 marks the 175th running. Since a few years back, the distance is 2,100 meters, making it shorter than its equivalents on the continent where the standard Derby distance is 2,400 meters.
Prix de Diane Longines (G1) June 14 (€1,000,000). The French version of ”The Oaks” is run two weeks after The Prix du Jockey Club and is one of the really important social summer events in Paris. Fashion, picnics and party! This race is also run over 2,100 meters, making it 300 meters shorter than most comparable races in Europe.
There’s no arguing that Chantilly is the perfect place for training in France. Some of the most famous names in horse racing are based here, including Criquette Head-Maarek, Freddy Head, Nicolas Clément, Pascal Bary, Alain de Royer-Dupré, and those attached to the stables of His Highness the Aga Khan.
It’s easy to think this peaceful, almost utopian environment would have a certain effect on the horses. Plus, who knows, perhaps this is the reason some of the best racehorses in the world are found in the region of Chantilly.
Tiger Roll’s win at the Grand National extended the run at the event without the pre-race favourite taking home the crown.
Gordon Elliott’s charge put forward a brilliant performance at Aintree, although he was almost beat at the line by Pleasant Company, edging out his late surge by a head. The bay gelding was a strong contender for the crown given his display at Cheltenham Festival. Tiger Roll was on form in the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase, dominating the rest of the field to deliver a comfortable victory. He maintained his standards at the National and was flawless over 4 miles 510 yards, although the horse almost gave it away in the last four yards of the race.
Tiger Roll’s triumph made it eight-straight years that the race favourite has not claimed victory. The last favourite to win the crown was Don’t Push It in 2010 for Jonjo O’Neill as Tony McCoy rode the horse to victory by five lengths. Comply Or Die had success two years before as the favourite but the trend has moved away from the consensus selection in recent years, with the tag seen as some people as a poisoned chalice. A study by Betway has highlighted the issue that only nine joint and outright favourites have won the event since 1946.
Total Recall became the latest victim of the curse, although he appeared to be feeling the effects of his run at the Cheltenham Gold Cup. He finished off the pace in the Festival but was expected to rise to the challenge of the longer race. The major events are the biggest test of competitors and trainers, and there’s no atmosphere like the National. However, he could not compete with the pace of Tiger Roll and failed to finish the event, pulling up at the 29th fence. The unpredictability of the National makes it a must-watch, although the struggle of the favourite is becoming a staple.
Welcome to a horse race like no other, a 1000km endurance event – the longest in the world – across Mongolia’s limitless horizons.
For a rider, it is the supreme test, a series of 35 kilometers stages, each on a strange semi-wild horse. The 28 staging posts are urtuu (horse stations), introduced by Mongolia’s 13th century national hero, Chinggis Khaan as part of a sophisticated relay system that controlled the Mongol empire stretching from the Sea of Japan to the Danube.
In his day, it’s a fair bet the horses didn’t come first. Not so now. A team of six international vets are strategically transferred around the course to monitor each horse’s heart rate on arrival at each urtuu. To avoid penalties, riders must complete the final kilometres of every leg at a pace that brings heart rates below the prescribed 56bpm within 30 minutes.
The Derby is the brainchild of the Bristol-based Adventurists, a company on a mission to set up tough global challenges. I stepped into this cauldron in 2009 when they asked me to start their first Derby outside the former Mongol capital of Karakoram. The typically international field from North America, Europe, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand prepared with an impromptu game of polo against the town team and a final night of riotous celebration before queuing for the scales – 85 kg riding weight, plus a 5 kg pack. For the first stage, the horses are allocated by lottery: dodging lashing hooves and tossing heads, the field eventually formed a ragged line.
When I waved the flag, they were off, finding their way with GPS that some had learned to use in the classroom only a couple of days before. Among the riders was Britain’s Katy Willings who completed and went on to become director of the Adventurists’ challenge programme. As soon as the current race finishes, she recces the next route, then searches for suitable horses with Unenburen, the Mongolian event director, and the head vet the following June. She needs around 1,400 horses to cover for no shows and lameness down the line. The chosen ones go to their designated urtuus in early August, with some heading to the start for the two-day pre race rider training camp.
During the race, it’s first come first served at each urtuu. Picking a good ’un is an essential skill – 35 kilometers on a dud is slow torture. The fastest complete up to four stages during the daylight hours, starting at 07.00 and finishing by the mandatory 20.30. They overnight in the most convenient urtuu,or, more enterprisingly, in a herder’s ger mid stage. Alternatively, they sleep out, sometimes tethered to their mounts: the organisers receive regular SOS calls from those whose equine Houdinis have escaped into the night.
The race lasts for 10 days, with stragglers rounded up at cut off points: the finish rate can be as low as 50%. The current record is six days, 20 hours, but the course varies annually. In 2016, it was the longest yet, 1,008 kilometers of dunes, mountains, forests, rocky scrub and steppe ending at Lake Khovsgol, perfect for recuperative partying in a ger camp. The result was a three-way dead heat, with William Comiskey from Australia, Heidi Telstad from Canada and Marcia Hefker-Miles from the USA crossing the line hand in hand.
In 2017, the ninth Derby moves to the east of Ulaanbataar for the first time, with Willings setting up a new network of urtuus in unexplored wilderness to create different challenges for repeaters and newbies alike. All wannabes are interviewed by the organisers before their entries are accepted to make sure they have the necessary riding skills and an understanding of what’s involved. Some are professional jockeys, some compete successfully in endurance, dressage, showjumping or eventing, while others learn to ride specifically for the event. Contestants should be aware that the race is dangerous. Some riders take so many falls that they pretty much know what it’s like to be a steeplechase jockey long before they reach the line. And an experienced team of medics who patrol the route are invariably kept busy.
Who would enjoy the race?
Not me. After completing a leg on one of those duds in 2009 my Mongol Derby riding boots were firmly hung on the nearest hook. But from a snapper’s perspective, I’ve had magical times recording the incredible scenery and the friendliness and support of the herders as they help the riders on their way.
The X factor for success is hard to pin down. Looking cocky, confident or scared is not a reliable clue: some perform unexpectedly well, others give up in despair. Good preparation is key. In the first Derby, a Spanish entry competed in the Mongol Car..
Racing’s drama and colour have been celebrated for centuries, with artists and photographers having long endeavoured to capture the majesty of the galloping thoroughbred and the vibrancy of race meetings in their frames.
Thankfully, no single artist or image can encapsulate all that is great about racing and the sport still offers deep veins of inspiration for the creatively inclined.
Now, with camera phones in most pockets and quality photographic equipment having become more accessible, increasing numbers of enthusiasts are turning their hands to horse racing photography.
Racing and its settings are often almost objectively beautiful, but there is much more to taking successful and original racing images than simply engaging auto mode and pressing the shutter button.
Having been shooting the sport for many years now, I have pinpointed some important principles that can be applied no matter one’s technical proficiency, access, or hardware.
Here are 7 of them:
1 Do your homework
As I regularly work at meetings big and small across the world, there are times when it takes effort to get to grips with the day’s participants. We might be inclined to think that racing is the same everywhere and we can just turn up and shoot, but this approach will often lead us to miss many of the day’s most interesting headlines and subplots. Read up on recent racing news, study the card, find out who the big names are, check for interesting pedigrees and connections. This knowledge will be indispensable in creating impactful images, even at lesser meetings.
2 Warm up
Most European cards will have 6-9 races, with international meetings sometimes offering up to 15. Feature races usually take place towards the end of the day, so it might seem tempting to have a chat, enjoy a drink, or just watch the racing during the undercard. This is a mistake. Any athlete knows that warming up enhances performance and any serious photographer should know the same. Arrive early if you can, take some colour shots, find interesting vantage points, and get your creative energy kick-started.
3 Predict the future
I landed the above image, my most popular shot ever on Instagram, at my home track of Down Royal in Northern Ireland. It was a grey winter’s day of low-key action and the next race was a hunter chase. Not exactly the Cheltenham Gold Cup. The going was heavy and a rail had been put in place to send runners onto a strip of fresh ground on the bend past the stands. Spying that this had created a sharp dogleg and knowing that most of the riders were amateurs, my instincts told me that this was an opportunity. So I took out my wide-angle lens, perched precariously on a plant pot for a bit of height, and waited. A short time later the runners got very tight right in front of me, resulting in some emergency manoeuvres and this striking shot. If you can predict the future, then you will always be in the right spot.’
4 Be mobile
Some photographers, both professional and enthusiast, will spend entire meetings camped in one position. Reviewing their images at the end of the day must result in a sense of déjà vu, with shot after shot of horses galloping past a single area. Yes, it will take more effort to get from paddock, to chute, to race position, to chute, to paddock, to stables, and back again, but great racing photography doesn’t happen by itself and this mobility will add invaluable richness and variety to your portfolio.
5 Don’t shoot the winning post
It has been said that photography is about capturing ‘the decisive moment’, but don’t be fooled into thinking the decisive moment of a race is at the winning line. Yes, a shot of a celebrating jockey or close finish can be dramatic, but 100 other people probably have the same image at a big meeting and the story of a race is often expressed most powerfully at some distance from the line. I often position myself a furlong or more from the finish, which generally results in more original images with greater narrative content. Even if I occasionally miss some last-ditch drama, chances are I will have bagged something that no one else will have thought to record. Exclusivity = value.
Big screens generally don’t make good backdrops. Nor do advertising hoardings. A great deal of photography is being aware of one’s surroundings and envisioning a striking image where subject, background, and narrative combine. Even if you’re shooting the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe or Hong Kong Cup, an unfortunately positioned steward, marquee, or fellow photographer can dash an exceptional image. As part of your warm-up you should be scouting out interesting backgrounds to help your subject shine.
7 Develop your own style
I’ve shared some of the basic principles that inform my racing photography. Some of them you might take on board, others you might leave behind. As I have developed my skills, I have studied and taken inspiration from other photographers as part of an on-going process of learning and reflection allowing me to become a little better with every shot I take. Though I admire other photographers’ output, I have never sought to mimic or replicate other creative work. Having your own style and sharing your own vision of the sport will help you stand out. It will also make any success you might have all the sweeter, knowing that it was all your own work.
Follow me on Instagram (@the_winning_post) for regular racing photos.
The charismatic Belgian rider Christophe Soumillon set a new European record of wins in a calendar year, when riding 306 winners in 2017. The 36-year old French-based jockey rode in 1,635 races across the country, over a total distance of more than 3,000 km, to beat the previous record of 300 wins, set the year before by Pierre-Charles Boudot.