‘My wife had to tell me to pull myself together’
William Haggas could win the Arc today, but this top trainer has had struggles, writes Marcus Armytage
William Haggas, the Newmarket trainer who has already won the Derby and the Oaks, attempts to add Europe’s great autumn all-age championship contest, the Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp today, with his exceptional filly Sea of Class.
It might not top winning the 1996 Derby with Shaamit but the man who first realised racing was his calling after spending three months working in his father’s textile factory would love to have both races on his curriculum vitae.
“I was a student of form,” said Haggas, 58, recalling his youth. “I spent 10 years at boarding school reading The Sporting Life and initially I’d been keen to be a punter. But my father had a horse with Jeremy Hindley and, after three months in his factory, I asked Jeremy if I could work for him. I said, ‘I’ll mow the lawn, I’ll pour your drinks, I’ll work all day, but I don’t want textiles’.
“A long time afterwards, my father, Brian, said he had me pencilled in as the son most likely to go into his business, but he allowed me to follow my dream. The business has closed now. It was built by my grandfather and my father took it to the next level, but he was clever. A lot of people running family businesses hang on, hang on, but he saw the way it was going and gave it up before it gave him up.”
Haggas’s grandfather, John, had been National Hunt trainer Tony Dickinson’s first owner, his grandmother had a bookmakers’ “blower” system – a radio link to racecourse commentaries – installed at home and their grandson’s early years were spent going point-to-pointing in England’s North-West and to the yard of the Dickinsons, who were in the process of transforming jump racing.
When his parents separated, his father stuck to Flat horses while his mother went with jumpers. “She went to Tony’s one Sunday morning and he showed her two horses that had come over from Barney Curley in Ireland,” recollected Haggas.
“One was for sale at £12,000 and one was £15,000. After a couple of large gin and tonics, she asked Tony for his opinion. He replied that he thought they were both lovely, so she said, if they were equally lovely, she’d have the cheaper of the two.
“Soon afterwards, Tony’s biggest owner came to the yard and also preferred the cheaper one. Tony told her what had happened and asked if she minded swapping to the other horse. She was fine about that and the horse turned out to be Silver Buck [the 1982 Gold Cup winner and dual King George VI Chase winner].
“After the separation, she had lost all her confidence but she got it back through that one horse. He took her everywhere. But I think it is also a lesson not to be too dogmatic about horses – fate was kind to her because she was kind – and it sums up this business, force anything and it doesn’t work for you.”
At one stage, cricket seemed it might be a distraction to Haggas’s racing ambitions. As captain of Harrow in the annual match against Eton at Lord’s, he declared while he was on 87 not out. After a team huddle in the Long Room, he led his side out to the middle only for the rest of his team to stop and applaud him as he walked on alone. His coach and mother were both in tears.
He also played a game for Yorkshire Second XI, opening the batting and scoring 25. “Both coaches were racing men and wanted a tip,” he recalled.
“So, I rang Michael Stoute and asked him for a winner. It got beaten and I never played another game! Had it won, I’d probably have been in the first XI, so I always remind Stoute that he ruined my cricketing career.”
Haggas’s first task for Hindley was to book rides for an apprentice. That young rider was Michael Hills, who went on to win the Derby on Shaamit and still rides out for him to this day.
After a year, Hindley felt Haggas needed a bit of reality so he sent him to fellow trainer Sir Mark Prescott for two years. After four years with Fred Winter’s brother John, a winter in Australia and having met his soon-tobe-wife, Lester Piggott’s daughter Maureen, he bought a derelict Somerville Lodge, full of squatters, on Newmarket’s Fordham Road.
“When I started, I had 23 horses, of which about 15 were owned by the family – it was tough,” he said. “We spent as much on the place as we paid for it. I remember waking up Maureen in the middle of one night saying, ‘We can’t do this any longer’. She just said, ‘Pull yourself together, go to sleep and we’ll deal with it in the morning’.”
Bog Trotter was his first good horse and won Doncaster’s Champagne Stakes in 1990 as a maiden. “Of course, I thought I’d mastered it after that,” said Haggas.
Things continued to go the right way and if anyone doubted Haggas’s capacity to train, winning the Derby with Shaamit first time out that season proved him to be a master of his trade. But, just when it should have been “Houston, we have lift-off ”, the 1997 season produced just 12 winners when his yard was struck down by a virus.
Haggas points to three things which have been critical to his subsequent rise to a 150-plus-winners-a-year trainer, with a capacity for 156 horses: letting Maureen get more involved with the yard from “about Shaamit” onwards; persuading forward-thinking South African vet John McVeigh to set up practice in Newmarket, and the arrival of Sheikh Hamdan as an owner in 2005, the next best thing to a guarantee of 20 well-bred horses a year.
Of course, racing has changed a lot in the three decades Haggas has held a licence. It is now seven days a week, 12 months a year. “It’s a big issue. Now I have nearly everything I want … except time,” he explained. “I’ve been a member of the MCC since 1983 and haven’t been to Lord’s for three years.”
Today, Sea of Class will not be lacking in preparation for the Arc. Haggas has done his bit and the filly, already an Irish and Yorkshire Oaks winner, must now do hers.
Making waves: William Haggas (top) at his Newmarket stables, and Sea of Class (right) winning the Yorkshire Oaks in August