‘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

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Sport -

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

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