Gai’s way is starting to reap rewards for Hugo
Nick Townsend talks to Hugo Palmer about how Gai Waterhouse influenced his career
For Hugo Palmer, it was one of those ‘sliding doors’ moments. Eight years ago, the aspiring trainer returned to the UK after 15 months in Australia where he had been working for, while watching and listening to, the iconic trainer Gai Waterhouse. He had every intention of renewing his visa and returning to her Tulloch Lodge base in Sydney.
That was until the leading bloodstock agent Amanda Skiffington intervened. She talked him into buying a horse at the Tattersall Craven sales.
Palmer persuaded friends to take 10% shares, outlaid £25,000 and initially sent the filly, named Making Eyes, to trainer Chris Wall.
That acquisition was the impetus he needed. Within a year, Palmer established himself at Kremlin Cottage Stables on Newmarket’s Snailwell Road, and proceeded to train the filly to win five races, two at Listed level.
“She did enormous favours for us, that filly,” says a character who, from that defining moment in his life, has had his eyes focussed on the major prizes here and abroad.
Just seven years after being granted his licence, he has amassed 282 winners, including two Classics –the 2015 Irish Oaks with Covert Love and the 2,000 Guineas won the following year by Galileo Gold – and 39 other Group and Listed events.
Palmer currently trains around 120 horses for owners who include Al Shaqab, Khalid Abdullah and Highclere Thoroughbreds, and is heading for his best year yet, with 76 wins here and a Group 3 in Ireland and a Listed in France.
Today he runs a brace of talented juveniles at Newbury’s Worthington’s Armed Forces Raceday: Almufti in the Group 3 Molson Coors Stakes (better known as the Horris Hill) and the filly Zofelle in the listed Byerley Stud Stakes, both over seven furlongs.
“I’ve always held Almufti in very high regard,” he says. “The form of his Kempton win is beginning to stack up. He needs to improve to win a Horris Hill, but his work the other morning suggests he has massively stepped forward.” Zofelle won her maiden by four lengths at Doncaster.
“She’s still a very inexperienced filly, but if she produces that sort of form (the second was subsequently runner-up in a Grup 2 at Goodwood) it would make her very competitive in a two-year-old Listed race,” says Palmer.
That’s Palmer, as in biscuits, incidentally. The 37-year-old, a member of the family who founded Huntley & Palmers, is the eldest son of the 4th Baron Palmer. While his father’s status may have helped him obtain a mortgage for Kremlin Cottage Stables, in all other respects the trainer began from nothing. Well, that’s not quite true. He started with that one horse, and before that one of the best educations money couldn’t buy.
He could not have identified a better teacher than Waterhouse, a former actress – she once had a role in Dr Who – but is now regarded as the first lady of Australian racing.
“Of all the time I’ve spent learning the job, the time I spent in Australia was my degree course,” says Palmer. “I certainly wouldn’t have been able to start training without having worked for Gai. She was hugely influential to my career, and still is. A day doesn’t go by when I don’t say ‘well, Mrs Waterhouse would have done that’.”
Fitness of his charges is paramount and Palmer, blessed with a surfeit of self-deprecating charm, adds: “I’m not as fit as I should be, and if I have to run for a train, I end up in terrible pain. I don’t want a horse in the same situation. Gai’s horses are always phenomenally fit, and I’ve always tried to make sure that mine were, too.”
Weight meant that becoming a jockey was never an option, though Palmer once envisioned himself as a point-to-point rider. He recalls, with a laugh: “In Australia, I worked incredibly hard and, with the outdoor lifestyle, did lose an awful amount of weight. But I was still 13st 12lbs. To have ridden in a point-to-point at 12t 7lbs? Well, it would have been amusing to watch. I’m pretty agricultural on a horse, and particularly if I was 3st underweight as well – I think I’d have jumped the first and fallen off !”
Training would always be his forte and, four years into his career, Covert Love’s Darley Irish Oaks triumph served notice of serious intent. “A first Group 1 for any trainer is massive,” he says. “That really was the watershed moment. It was an amazing day and a fairytale in many ways.” Not least because the filly cost a mere 26,000 Euros at Goffs yearling sale. “We syndicated her, and it worked out brilliantly for all of them who took 10% shares.” She won in total just over £500,000.
He adds: “Ben Hanbury (the former trainer), a good friend, had told me ‘your first champion won’t be when someone sends you a Dubawi or Galileo. It’ll appear as if from under a stone, when you least expect it’. And so it proved.”
Galileo Gold, who cost 33,000 Euros, was an equally astute purchase. Winner of Goodwood’s Group 2 Vintage Stakes as a two-year-old, the chestnut headed for the Qipco 2016 2,000 Guineas without a preparatory race.
“We had considered sending him to France, but Frankie Dettori rode him in a racecourse gallop at the Craven meeting,” says Palmer. “When I asked him afterwards whether he’d be competitive in the French Guineas, Frankie said ‘why run him in France when you could win the English Guineas?’ Frankie had huge confidence in him, he gave that huge confidence to me, and he gave huge confidence to the horse in the race. The pair won, at 14-1. “I was overblown with emotion and disbelief,” says Palmer.
That was the day, you surmise, when he must have believed he’d cracked this game? “No, I never thought that,” he responds. “The terrifying thing about racing is that you’ve never made it. It’s one thing getting there – it’s another thing staying there. You only have to look at Henry Cecil, for example, in my view the greatest trainer, to ever train in Britain. There was a stage when he only had 40 horses, and had 12 winners in a year. ‘Making it’ is making your business work, keep your head above water and keep training nice horses.”
Palmer, married to Vanessa, an Australian, who works for Morgan Stanley, is currently 18th in the Flat trainers’ championship, which is based on prizemoney.
“That’s the only barometer to judge your season,” he says, but swiftly adds: “Your number of wins is your way of proving to your client base and your potential client base you can get the job done with the horses you have and any horses you’re likely to be sent.”
The job is also about addressing disappointment as much as relishing the acclaim. In August he won the Stewards’ Cup at Glorious Goodwood with Gifted Master. Yet, as he says: “My wife said to me on the way home that day ‘You’d think you’d be in a better mood’. I said ‘Sorry, I’ve just spent the last hour and a half dealing with four owners whose horses all ran disappointingly today’. That’s compared with the 20 minutes of joy with the owner who’s got an enormous trophy to take home. If you go too long without winning races, it can be quite a gloomy game.”
For Palmer, currently striking at a 25% win-to-run rate, that is not something that troubles him at the moment.
“Gai’s horses are always phenomenally fit and I’ve tried to make sure that mine were too”
Training tips: Gai Waterhouse, left, is an inspiration to Hugo Palmer
New regime: Almufti races for Palmer today at Doncaster