Cowell's got talent

He’d be more than happy to train a Derby horse but Newmarket-based Robert Cowell admits that it’s with horses at the other end of the distance spectrum that he really excels

You have a reputation as being brilliant with sprinters, sending out Group 1 winners Prohibit, Jwala and Goldream as well as last year’s Royal Ascot victors, Prince Of Lir and Outback Traveller. Do you set your stall out to train sprinters as opposed to milers or middle-distance horses?
When we first began training the sprinter type was more affordable. Trying to buy a horse with useful sprinting form that may have lost its way was what we were looking at. The longer-distance horses, with good pedigrees, were just out of our price range.

Then once you have a reputation for being a sprint-type trainer you get sent more of the same. Obviously our horses are running with the choke out, but for only about a minute at a time, so hopefully they should have a little bit more life in their legs than those that are running a mile and a quarter or further. There are plenty of races for the sprinters and some decent prize-money on offer.

Tactically, we feel the first furlong can be the most important part in a sprint; a lot can happen quickly at that early stage. Having a lot of sprinters, they all tend to work with each other at various times, but they never pass each other on the gallops. Invariably, you can tell which one is going best.

Goldream progressed from handicapper to Group 1 hero

For the sake of keeping them mentally happy we don’t have one whizzing past another, so they all get plenty out of their work without being demoralised. We have about 50-60 acres of grass paddocks for plenty of turn-out playtime after racing and gallops.

Without giving away secrets, how do you select horses in training to join your sprinting academy – is it performance, pedigree or both?
Going back to the start, a good friend, Tom Morley, who is very astute on form, used to go round with me at the sales. I’d look at the performances with Tom and then inspect the horse itself to see if we felt we could improve it with the facilities we have at home.

Ideally we’d be trying to find a three-year-old that had been a useful two-year-old but had disappointed for one reason or another. The dam’s side would always be important, as would the general physique and conformation, also soundness, and we’d check the veterinary records. We’d be looking for one with the ability to improve with age, which a lot of sprinters can do.

I want a trainer for my Derby horse – should I send it to R Cowell? If not, who would do the best job?
I don’t see why you shouldn’t send me a Derby horse! There are some excellent trainers out there that can train sprinters and I’m sure Derby winners as well, given the chance. But there are many very capable trainers who just haven’t had a break with a decent horse.

Who would I send it to? Any of those with a Derby-winning track record, but I don’t want to single out any one in particular.
I think it’s unlikely I’d ever be sent a Derby horse simply because we seem to concentrate on the faster models. Zain Eagle is about the only horse we have run over a mile and a quarter for a very long time and he finished second in the 2014 John Smith’s Cup at York. We can do it, but we just don’t get many of the middle-distance type.

It took until your 14th full season for you to break your Group 1 duck in the 2011 King’s Stand Stakes with Prohibit, who provided the highlights in an otherwise disappointing season. How much do you owe that horse?
Plenty, as I do the owners, Tom Morley, Khalifa Dasmal, Allen Rix and Mrs Penny, who put their hands in their pockets and showed faith in me. We were breaking into getting a few black-type horses the year before and Tom and I sourced Prohibit from the sales; he ticked all our boxes.

I owe Prohibit a lot because he put me on the map, gave my family and the owners our biggest day at that stage at Royal Ascot. Once you have won at that level you crave it again.

After an impressive apprenticeship, serving time with Gavin Pritchard-Gordon, David Nicholson, Jack Berry, John Hammond in France and Neil Drysdale in America, you enjoyed success as a trainer in California but decided to return to England. Why?

I was training for a few people with only a handful of horses, the majority of which were claiming class and of average ability. The actual process of claiming one, running it in a couple of races, then getting it claimed off you didn’t do a lot for me, even though it can at times be lucrative.

It wasn’t what I wanted out of training. Horses were changing hands left, right and centre; one minute we had eight or nine and then suddenly three. The obvious choice and chance was to get home and start training here.

What was drummed into you more than anything else during your learning experience under such worldwide and respected tutelage?

Respect for those that have done it before you, those that employ you and are working with and around you. You listen to all those people who have been there and achieved so much, and you don’t do as much talking because you are learning all the time. I was among some great people out in America, as I was in France, up north and here in Newmarket.

Listening, learning and timekeeping would be the three pieces of advice to anyone trying to follow a similar path. You can go places if you have good manners; if you haven’t you don’t get invited anywhere.

You now handle 70 horses on your family’s Bottisham Heath Stud at Six Mile Bottom, near Newmarket. Are you self-contained with your own gallops and facilities?
We are self-contained and have gradually increased our numbers from about 35 horses six years ago to double that figure. Seventy, I can oversee easily, but I do rely on the three or four main men who are my eyes and ears when I am not around. They are rock solid in the yard; they know as much as I do and they think like I do and know how I like to train.

Communication and transparency are vitally important aspects of making a successful trainer

Therefore, the system we have in place runs itself pretty smoothly, but you always need those crucial members of staff to back you up. We might be slightly different to most trainers whereby we can turn horses out and I think you can actually assess their well-being more easily than if they are being held by hand all the time.

You can watch them in the paddocks to see how they mess around and enjoy their playtime, whether they put their heads down or not. Then again the staff are absolutely crucial; they all have their own horses to look after and they can tell us what is okay and what isn’t.

We are in our own little bubble here whereby there is no pressure to get to the gallops. The two-year-olds do need taking off three miles down the road to Newmarket, where life is busier and they enjoy a whole new experience. The older horses will also occasionally be boxed up and taken on to the Heath to stretch their legs. The change of routine and environment can liven them up.

Which horses are you likely to run at Royal Ascot this year?
Goldream is set for the King’s Stand following his very encouraging reappearance at the Guineas meeting. We have been very happy with him and he looks back on track. Ornate didn’t handle the track at Newmarket last time and a flat, stiff track like Ascot might suit him. He’s going in the right direction.

Visionary could go for the Jersey Stakes or the Commonwealth Cup, while Outback Traveller is hopefully going to try and win a second Wokingham.

Goldream won the King’s Stand and Prix de l’Abbaye in 2015, but what went wrong last season and what can we expect from him this year?
He had an extremely hard but fruitful year in 2015. After the Abbaye we decided to send him to Dubai for the prize-money on offer and the fast ground he loves. But by the time he finished running in the Abbaye he had about only three to four weeks’ break before we had to start training him seriously for Dubai.

On reflection, we didn’t have long enough and he only recharged about 20% of his batteries. Unfortunately, with the Abbaye being so late in the year and, having had a hard race there, he’d have benefited from a complete break, which he’s had this year.

What do you consider the most important part of training and the most important attributes for a successful trainer?

I believe it’s knowing the horse and how to achieve the best from it without rushing it. Having a good intuition with each individual horse. You have got to have an eye for a horse at the sales so you acquire the best animal for the job you want.

It’s not always a question of how big is the engine, it’s about nurturing the engine, keeping the oil filled up and the air filters cleaned, all part of getting a horse to the race in one piece and ensuring you have a fully fit racehorse afterwards as well. Most training centres have a set pattern where they gallop on a Tuesday and Friday, or Wednesday and Saturday. We don’t follow a fixed routine like that, we gallop when we feel it’s right and sometimes they might not gallop for a week or even longer.

How big a part does being a good communicator play in training racehorses?
Communication and transparency are vitally important aspects of making a successful trainer. Personally, I try to speak to my owners at least once a week, though on occasions when I haven’t they will receive emails, gallop reports and veterinary reports. The girls in the office, Katie and Holly, are absolutely brilliant at passing the necessary information to owners.

Three or four years ago we built a little owners’ reception area where we can entertain owners, their friends and syndicates. We are very much an open house and welcome anyone wanting to pop in and look at their horse. It is important to offer owners the freedom to do that.

You used to have your celebrated Hawaiian-style beach bar for entertaining owners. Why has it disappeared?

I built the beach bar myself in our garden and it became pretty rickety, though to be honest it wasn’t particularly solid from the start. I tried to put lighting in it and the whole project kept me busy when we were having a quiet patch.

We have had some wonderful times there and great memories, though I have to say some of the parties I can’t remember! Anyway, it no longer exists and we now have a much more up to date facility for the owners.

With a wife, Ghislaine, and son Alex and daughter Kara, how do you juggle family life with running a successful stable?

It is wonderful because Ghislaine doesn’t work in racing. She has a part-time job as a development manager in a company developing herbs and spices about 20 minutes away.

We live only 100 metres from the yard so when I come home I don’t have to talk horses all the time, which means a nice break from racing and enjoying family interests after what might have been a good or bad day. Kara is into ponies at the moment, but not massively, while Alex is either on a lawnmower or driving tractors and buggies around the place.

Given the economic situation and the low level of prize-money, how concerned are you that you can run your business at a profit?

This is a huge topic at the moment and the general economics of racing makes for a worrying time. Some tracks have pulled their finger out offering more prize-money, while others have done nothing at all. In fact, I think some races are worth less than they were when I started training about 20 years ago, which is a very sad state of affairs.

We are lucky in that we are in a reasonably stable situation working out of a family-owned property so we don’t have to pay a hefty rent. Therefore, we can be more competitive with our pricing and just about keep our heads above water. But overall the finances of racing are pretty diabolical as they stand and things need to change. I don’t know what it will take. Perhaps some sort of catastrophe, I fear.

Having had runners as far afield as Dubai, Hong Kong, America, France and Ireland, is there one foreign racecourse that stands out for you?
Dubai has been absolutely fantastic to us and is quite dear to my heart. We have been sending horses there for many years with considerable success in their heritage handicaps and also been placed on World Cup night.

The prize-money and hospitality are second to none. It is a lovely place to go in winter. Dubai ticks so many boxes and we love sending horses to compete there as well as enjoying the place ourselves. Equally, France and Ireland have been good to us and been happy hunting grounds. But I must stress we wouldn’t send a horse abroad unless we were pretty confident of it at least covering its costs.

When Harry met Robert

You recently ran in the London Marathon, your second in three years. What persuaded you after saying ‘never again’ after your first effort?
It was after two bottles of champagne and a very good dinner with a persistent sister-in-law, Susannah, who was desperate to do the marathon with somebody. That’s what got me going. And after saying ‘yes’, I woke up the next morning in the haze of the night before and actually thought to myself, ‘That wouldn’t be a bad idea, Cowell. Get on and do it’.

Much as it was for charity, I thought it would do me good as well. It was hard work, pounding the streets and putting in the hours that a 26-mile endurance test demands, particularly when you are leading a busy life as well. But the horses were running great while I was out training, which was an added help.

When I did my first marathon with Sheikh Fahad and his team of trainers, we all started too fast and fell in a heap after 13 miles. That scarred me and I wanted to burn my trainers because it had really hurt. But this time I wanted to enjoy the marathon so I paced myself, set even fractions and my last mile was my third fastest of the 26.

I did finish with a smile on my face in a time of 4hrs 27min and I am still keen to run. I only trained for three months and took off three stone. If I continue running and maintain a core level of fitness I might be able to take a few minutes off that time at my next attempt…

You ran for the Injured Rugby Players Charity. What is your association?
My brother-in-law works for the Rugby Football Union and his wife Susannah (my wife’s sister) was keen to run the marathon for the first time. The RFU had two spare places in the line up and they gave one to Susannah and one to me. That’s how it materialised.

Also I love rugby and am a keen Leicester Tigers supporter, but unfortunately I can’t go to Welford Road that often because of racing commitments. But I do watch a huge amount of rugby on TV, much to Ghislaine’s disgust. It was a privilege to run for all those rugby players who have suffered life-changing injuries.

Latest Features