Three and easy as Godolphin mainstay sets his sights on another Derby
The trainer tells Steve Dennis it's just like old times and he's happy about it
Originally published May 30
Show me a trainer with three Derby runners, all with a chance, and I'll show you a happy man. Here he is, Saeed Bin Suroor, happy with his lot, his life, the instruction 'be happy' one-third of a mantra that he repeats more than once to illustrate its potency.
The other elements of that mantra are 'be patient' and 'smile', all of which must have been a source of comfort to Bin Suroor during a period of upheaval that evidently made the first and third of those commands difficult to obey. The second command has guided him through difficult times, his patience rewarded on more than one level.
Front and centre are the three Derby contenders – Benbatl, Best Solution and Dubai Thunder – who go to Epsom on Saturday with distinct possibilities of providing Bin Suroor with a second Derby 22 years after Lammtarra so decorated his first season with a training licence. An indication of what this means to Bin Suroor arrives with his semi-rhetorical question 'When was the last time I had a horse in the Derby?'.
Such is the level of success enjoyed by Godolphin and their most faithful, most enduring lieutenant that it is a shock to discover that Bin Suroor has had just two Derby runners this decade, Al Zir in 2010 and True Story three years ago.
Little wonder that this year's contingent has raised his spirits. Another reason for the sunnier outlook lurks behind the scenes, the reversion to an old and much-loved stability after a succession of personnel changes at Godolphin that unsettled his habitual routine. The demands of the new management structure were at odds with Bin Suroor's straightforward approach to his role, but no longer.
"Now Sheikh Mohammed makes the decisions at Stanley House, nobody else. I like things this way," he says with a firmness and a clarity that leaves no room for doubt.
"Last year it didn't suit me at all, it didn't work for my stable. After Frankie Dettori left, the plan was not to have a No. 1 jockey, and instead use the best available. When some jockeys ride a lot of horses for me, people think 'Ah, he is the new number one jockey for Saeed', but it is not.
"Using the best available works very well – it's hard to find a jockey like Frankie. I was with him for 18 years, he is one of the best in the world, I love him. The best jockeys in the world are in Britain and it is much better for the yard to choose.
"I have no problem with James [Doyle], I like him, and he and William [Buick] ride for Godolphin, for any trainers. But since last August there is no number one jockey here and results changed. I was not happy before that, it was very hard to do my job properly.
"This year we had 14 winners in April, I think that's a record for April, and I am free to run the horses wherever I think they have a chance - Sheikh Mohammed is the only one who makes the decisions. He is in Dubai running the country all the time but he's always in touch, always there to give instructions, we always talk about the horses."
This year, Bin Suroor has not used Doyle or Buick on any of his runners, choosing instead to spread the workload liberally with Josephine Gordon, Oisin Murphy, Jim Crowley and Silvestre De Sousa at the top of the pecking order. With a strike-rate of 30 per cent, Bin Suroor's policy is bearing fruit.
The old days
There is, however, something within him that yearns for the simplicity of the old days, the old team, when Sheikh Mohammed would send him the finest thoroughbreds in the land, when he would train them to win Group 1 race after Group 1 race, when Frankie Dettori would routinely launch himself skywards and Simon Crisford would urbanely tell the press gaggle which Group 1 was next on the list.
"Everything was top class in past times, from the work-riders to the people in the office, everyone involved, and now I'm trying to build that up again for the future. I'm very positive about the future. The last three years without Simon Crisford has not been the same, has not been easy.
"This is a high-profile stable – the main Godolphin stable. We have a reputation built up over a long time, but we have only won one Group 1 race outside Dubai in the last three years. Now we have a very good team here, many top quality work-riders, a lot of ex-jockeys and current jockeys, as good as any stable in the world. People expect a lot from this yard and we need to meet those expectations."
There is an unexpected intensity here; Bin Suroor is a driven man, hands on the wheel and his foot hard down, and that passion betrays itself often in a gesture or a glance. His unflinching work ethic is famous, he grins widely as he recounts it, and it does not require too diligent a reading between the lines to perceive that the slow dwindling of his yard's fortunes and the enforced recalibration of his time-honoured role is anathema to a man who literally lives for his work.
"I get up at 4am, 365 days a year. I haven't taken a holiday in 25 years, the only time I take a holiday is when I travel with the horses to the US or Australia. That isn't even a day off, though, just a change of scenery!
"I finish in Newmarket after the Racing Post Trophy, then it's Australia, America, Hong Kong, and in January we start in Dubai for three months. Where is there time for a holiday – the day after the Dubai World Cup I'm in an aeroplane heading back to Newmarket. I love Newmarket, it is my home. In January, when I am in Dubai, my mind is here in Newmarket."
What if Sheikh Mohammed were to say 'Saeed, my loyal and Stakhanovite servant, take the week off, put your feet up, forget about the horses'? This is a question Bin Suroor has clearly never contemplated; a confused expression spreads over his face. Ask him the littlest thing about the littlest of his horses, and he would have the careful, considered answer ready. Ask him where he would like to go on holiday, and the conversation dies on his lips.
"I would go somewhere," he blusters, not even convincing himself. "I don't know where. My friends send me photos of where they go, some beautiful places.
"I love my job. It's been in my blood for years, in my culture. My family has been breeding horses for generations. I have targets for myself and for Godolphin. I am always looking for Group 1 winners, I've had 179 Group 1 winners and I need to get more. I'm never going to retire – what would I do? I'd be bored."
It's easy to see that any disruption to his working life would be keenly felt, sharply unwelcome, for he has already willingly given up so much for his job. "My family never see me. I have ten children who grow up without me, and I am now a grandfather. But every day is work."
Is that a good thing? He doesn't answer. And then he does. "I enjoy it."
Immature juvenile intake
He is enjoying it more now than at this time last year, although this season will try his mantra to its limits as he seeks to cope with an intake of immature two-year-olds who will, in the main, not see a racecourse until they become slightly less immature three-year-olds. The system has let him down, and his pride bridles at it.
"This year we are behind by miles in regard to what we received for two-year-olds. I've never seen anything like it. They need plenty of time, and a lot of them will not run this year.
"It is a disaster. Normally the two-year-olds come here from Darley at the end of October, or early November. This year some came in January, some in February, some in May. They are very, very backward. I can't train them, have no chance to run them. The system is not quite great this year. And two-year-olds are the future of any yard."
They will benefit from Bin Suroor's patient approach in the same way that his Derby trio have done, despite the early Classic deadlines that try the soul of every top-rank trainer.
"There's no time, the season goes very quickly, and the minute you put pressure on them you can cause problems. Benbatl and Dubai Thunder – I couldn't run them last year, they needed looking after. They began to show something in October, but October is too late."
Memories of Lammtarra
Mention of the once-raced Dubai Thunder inevitably evokes memories of Lammtarra, who was similarly inexperienced when his Derby victory thrust Bin Suroor into a spotlight he has never vacated. He has been on the scene for so long, winning four trainers' titles and more than 2,000 races, that it is a surprise to discover that he is only 48. How young he was when he began his collection of the world's great races.
"Lammtarra was good before he came to us, of course, but he always worked really well, flying up the Limekilns, no horse could get near him. The quality of horses at that time was very good, top quality. That made life easy. We had a small number of very good horses and we focused on the big races.
"In the old days I used to say to Sheikh Mohammed and Sheikh Maktoum, we have a problem . . . four horses for the Guineas, five for the Derby, five for the Oaks . . . very big problem! We don't have that now. It's so hard to find those horses."
Dubai Millennium, Daylami, Halling, Swain, Kayf Tara, Sakhee and Shamardal gallop across the years between then and now, their names readily traded back and forth in a catechism of champions, the sort of horse it's so hard to find.
The best race in the world
Perhaps one of Benbatl, Best Solution or Dubai Thunder – about whom Bin Suroor speaks with the greatest warmth – might one day do enough to be vouchsafed into that company. Godolphin have changed so much in recent years but their ethos sustains, and sustains them. Big races are always what have mattered most, and there are none bigger than the Derby.
"The Derby is the best race in the world for three-year-olds," says Bin Suroor, with feeling. "It would mean a lot if I trained another Derby winner for Sheikh Mohammed, because this year he is very focused on our stable.
"It is very good that now the yard is a happy place again – look at the results so far this season. Now I am very positive about the future."
He walks away into bright sunlight, across the great quadrangle of Stanley House, on his way to check up on his three Derby horses. A happy man, with the potential to grow happier yet.
Three against the field at Epsom
He was very backward last season so I gave him an easy time, because I liked him a lot. He's done very well this year and ran really well in the Dante, when he was only beaten by a good horse in Permian who had a great deal more experience. The ground was a bit too sticky for him at York and he'll prefer the faster ground we will probably get at Epsom.
He has improved all the time, and at the end of last year I sent him to Saint-Cloud for the easy ground and a mile and a quarter, because even at that stage he needed a longer trip. He did very well in that Group 1, only beaten a length, but after that he didn't like the dirt at Meydan. He developed a lot physically after coming back from Dubai and back on the turf he won the Lingfield Derby Trial with some nice horses behind him. He worked really nicely on the Limekilns last week, he's been doing everything right, a medium-sized horse who should have no problems handling Epsom.
He was a bit coltish before his debut at Newbury, a big baby who didn't know what he was doing, so I told Adam Kirby to give him plenty of room in the race and that made things a bit easier for him. From winning a maiden to Epsom is a big step, but sometimes you need to try it, and after all there's only one Derby. He works very well in the mornings and I know that one day he'll be something special. I like him very much for the Derby despite his lack of racecourse experience, and although he went well on soft ground he'll be even better on good to soft.