Derby-winning trainer looks back at his career in 2014 interview
Peter Thomas met Geoff Wragg six years after his final runner
First published on, May 30, 2014
When Grand Passion fizzled out like an inappropriately damp, ninth-placed squib in the Churchill Stakes on November 22, 2008, it marked the final appearance of the name Wragg on a British racecard and the passing of a prolific and persistently glorious era.
Anybody who had lived long enough to see both the birth of the dynasty – when Harry Wragg was spawned in the unlikely breeding ground of Sheffield – and its end – when his son Geoff walked out of Lingfield on that unremarkable winter’s afternoon – would have been entitled not only to geriatric treatment on a National Health Service that wasn’t founded until Harry’s illustrious riding career had ended, but also to a telegram from the Queen.
In between times, that same geriatric might have witnessed father win all five Classics in the saddle and all but the Oaks as a trainer, and son cut a silver-haired dash through the Group races of three continents, including the Derby of 1983 with the gifted but underrated Teenoso.
Neither won a trainer’s championship and Harry managed just one jockeys’ title – when the omnipotent Gordon Richards was hamstrung by injury in 1941 – but between them they, along with Harry’s jockey brothers Sam and Arthur, ensured the family name would remain etched in racing folklore long after the final Wragg had called it a day.
It could all have been so different, however. There were times, decades apart, when the racing futures of both Harry and Geoff hung by the slenderest and tautest of threads, with only destiny to prevent the irreparable fraying of their bond with the turf.
Geoff, now 84 and comfortably retired on Newmarket’s Bury Road, in reassuring view of the clock tower of his former Abington Place stables, is happy to recount the tale of how his father, having been born in 1902 and escaped a life of shovelling coal for the furnaces of a Sheffield steelworks, came within a hair’s breadth of abandoning what would prove to be his route to glory and fortune.
Having made his way to Newmarket – where he quickly made up for never having sat on a horse before – and ridden with some success for trainer Bob Colling, he finally decided the time had come to reap rather more reward than was available to the apprentices of the day, and so he stated his case to the guv’nor.
“When he came out of his time he’d ridden a few winners and earned a bit of cash,” says Geoff, “but when he went into the office to see the old boy, hoping to get a bit more lolly, Colling said ‘Don’t you realise I’ve made you and you should be thankful for all you’ve got’.
“Father went down the Bury Road with tears in his eyes, got to his digs and told everyone he was fed up with racing and going home to Sheffield. Luckily, there was a lad that used to drive him around who told him not to be so stupid. ‘You’ve got two rides at Brighton tomorrow and you’re coming with me,’ he said, ‘and don’t argue’.”
He went to Brighton the next day, rode two winners and never looked back.
Just as the steelworks’ loss was racing’s gain, so the world of electronics let Geoff Wragg slip between its wiry fingers 30 years later.
Geoff had attended Fettes School in Edinburgh, almost ventured into veterinary medicine, completed his National Service in Longniddry on the Firth of Forth (“bloody cold”) and Manorbier in south Wales, avoiding a War Office posting to Libya only by the expedient of tipping a 100-8 winner to a grateful sergeant-major.
He was briefly seduced by work on a stud farm in the United States – which was supposed to involve him travelling horses across the Atlantic but in reality saw him swanning across on the Queen Mary while the horses made their own arrangements – but on his return he rekindled his great fascination with electronics, which had been fostered by courses at Southampton University during his time in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.
With a head full of gadgetry, he joined the Pye telecommunications company in Cambridge, where he maintains he came close to a ground-breaking innovation.
“I was working in the experimental laboratories,” he explains. “I went into the chief’s office and told him we should be working on the theory that everybody had a telephone in their pocket, because I was sure it would come, but although he agreed with me, he thought it would be too much work to persuade the government to release the frequencies.”
“You could have been a millionaire, Geoffrey,” chips in his wife, Trish, only half joking. Instead, when his brother Peter decided on a career as a bloodstock agent (their sister Susan was married to Harry’s main jockey Manny Mercer), a frustrated Geoff accepted the call to assist his father at Abington Place, and in 1955 a grand career on the turf was born – one year before the arrival of the first, admittedly gargantuan, mobile phone, and one year before he married Trish, the daughter of Phil Lancaster, bookmaker to the Newmarket racing elite.
It wasn’t until 1983 that Geoff took over the licence in his own right and landed the Derby winner that set him on the road to recognition, but his place in the family firm was long established by then. His quiet efficiency in running the yard – and rewiring it – contributed enormously to the father-son dynamic, to the point where he was very much the dominant partner by the time Harry bowed out.
Between them they pioneered training methods that had barely been sighted on British soil, weighing horses long before it became the norm and timing their gallops – as Harry had seen during spells in the States – to resounding effect.
“One day we had three two-year-olds working together with a lead horse up Waterhall, on the trial ground,” he recalls. “When we worked the time out, it was around 46 seconds for four furlongs and father said I must have clicked my watch too soon, but I told him I did it perfectly – in which case, he said, they must all be Ascot two-year-olds.
“The lead horse went on to win a Birmingham maiden by six lengths and two of the two-year-olds won at Ascot and the other one was second.”
The Abington Place team also led the field in travelling horses to what were then exotic, and sometimes chaotic, destinations around the racing world. There are tales of a night spent in a Genoa cowshed before Atilla’s success in the Gran Premio del Jockey Club in Milan in 1965, and of Teenoso’s Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud in 1984, in the famous chocolate and gold silks of the Moller brothers.
“The horse threw its head up before the start and hit Lester in the face,” remembers Geoff. “The man leading the horse wanted to call an ambulance but you can imagine what Lester thought of that. They went to the start regardless and duly won, but when Lester came back in his goggles were full of blood, which splashed all over him when he took them off.
“On the plane home, Eric Moller and I were discussing what trophies we’d received and Eric turned round to Lester and asked, ‘Did they give you anything.’ ‘Yes, the Croix de Guerre,’ said Lester, but I don’t think Eric really knew what he was talking about.”
Unsurprisingly, Teenoso holds a special place in his affections, having landed the Lingfield Derby Trial (after Chester had been flooded off) before being selected by Piggott as his Epsom mount and being sent on a long way out to see off Carlingford Castle in the unseasonal mud, thereby helping Geoff to emerge from the shadow of his newly retired father.
“I’d been running the yard for so long that when I took over it was just like another day,” he shrugs, “so I can’t say having a horse like him in my first year was really a relief, but the Derby was a great day and I remember Peter Walwyn saying as we came down from the grandstand that I could retire there and then because I’d done it.
“I still feel Teenoso didn’t get the credit he deserved because he won a soft-ground Derby, but he was a bloody good horse and he didn’t need slow going, as he showed in Paris, and in winning the King George on his final run.
“Marling was probably my best filly – her Goodwood win against Selkirk [Sussex Stakes, 1992] was the piece de resistance – and my best colt was Pentire, who won his three Derby trials but wasn’t even entered at Epsom because I didn’t want to be tempted or persuaded. His King George win the following year showed what a good horse he was, although when he missed the break by four lengths I was ready to leave and go home until Trish persuaded me all wasn’t lost.
“My favourite, though, was First Island, who won at Royal Ascot, Goodwood and Sha Tin for us as a four-year-old [in 1996] and landed the Lockinge at five. He was very special.”
Recollections of the great horses – Owington, Balisada, Braiswick, Most Welcome, First Trump et al – bring a bright-eyed smile to Wragg’s face, as do tales of the daring foreign raids, either by unpressurised Bristol freighter plane to Baden-Baden with Pelerin, or to Woodbine via Niagara Falls with the Oppenheimers.
He glows as the memories flood back, of dining, dancing and golf with the Sangsters during the Ayr Western meeting, where he would routinely come down to breakfast at the Turnberry Hotel to find Sam Hall and an owner or two still in their dinner jackets waiting for a chauffeur to take them to the stables.
“It was fantastic,” says Trish, of a lifestyle long since consigned to history by the forces of economics. “There was always a trainers’ lunch room, even though it may have been just a wooden hut, like they had at Lingfield, where you’d sit down for a bit of chicken and a glass of wine – everywhere except Newmarket, where you never got anything at all.
“But there were only a handful of trainers then, and as more and more started up, so it all disappeared. Racing had changed so much that it wasn’t really a wrench to stop. All the people we knew when we first started weren’t there any more.”
Far more than just a chronicle of the lost glamour of the turf, however – of two lots a day, drinks before lunch at the Subscription Club and bridge in the afternoons – the story of the Wraggs is also a chapter in the history of the headquarters of British racing, through some of its greatest upheavals.
Harry may have established himself as one of the key figures in Newmarket in the 1920s and 30s, earning himself the nickname ‘The Head Waiter’ for the tactical acumen that saw him bag his first Derby win with a bold hold-up ride on 33-1 shot Felstead in 1928, but there were forces abroad even greater than those that earned him the patronage of two King Georges and much of the English aristocracy.
When the second world war broke out, racing was abandoned for six months before the government saw the error of its ways, allowing Harry to ride a third Derby winner on Watling Street at his home track, but many yards were pressed into service as munitions stores and the conflict left few in the town untouched.
Harry himself was posted to RAF Mildenhall, on the anti-aircraft ‘pom-pom’ guns, and would bring home members of the flight crews for breakfast at their Bedford Lodge home, until his wife Marjorie, upset by the regular loss of familiar faces shot down in action, put a stop to the practice.
Geoff, just nine when the hostilities began and evacuated to Lambourn when the worst of the bombing hit the town, nonetheless remembers the Messerschmitt aircraft kept secretly by the RAF among the trees that guard what is now the Al Bahathri gallop, which flew intrepid missions into enemy territory and once famously stopped for emergency refuelling at a German filling station – then flew back to Suffolk while the enemy scratched their heads.
As for his dad’s worth to the Allied cause, he has his doubts. “I remember one day seeing a Dornier hedgehopping past us so low I could have waved to the pilot,” he smiles. “Father had been given a Lewis gun to look after but when I ran back into the house to tell him, the gun was in pieces on the floor being cleaned.
“The plane flew off while father ran up and down saying ‘Jesus Christ, I could have got it’, with mother telling him to shut up because if he’d had the gun set up he’d have missed by miles and the pilot would have got home and told his friends that next time they were over Newmarket, they should drop a bomb on that Bedford Lodge.”
World war couldn’t stop the Wraggs, of course. After riding 13 Classic winners, Harry bought Abington Place and took up training in 1947, enjoying another five in that sphere. When Marjorie died, the lawns at the yard went unmowed, the stables unpainted, until Harry died in 1985 and Geoff and Trish moved there from their home on the Hamilton Road.
The new licence holder never repeated his first-season Derby success – despite coming within a whisker of it with Dragon Dancer in a blanket finish behind Sir Percy in 2006 – and slowly, after a quarter-century of high times, the old owners finally faded away and the new ones arrived too infrequently to sustain the silver-topped maestro.
On the evening of November 19, 2008, Geoff’s Convallaria won the 8.50 at Kempton, a 0-55 handicap, under Chris Catlin. It was a race too low in quality to do justice to his glittering career, but as a swansong it was apt in that the winner was owned by one of his most loyal patrons, Mrs Claude Lilley. One more runner, and the curtain came down, quietly and without a final bow.
Geoff Wragg’s career, however, straddled diverse generations of the British turf and stands as an object lesson in patience, persistence, innovation and longevity.