Gai’s way is start­ing to reap re­wards for Hugo

Nick Townsend talks to Hugo Palmer about how Gai Water­house in­flu­enced his ca­reer

The Racing Paper - - Feature -

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

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