Sir Michael Stoute: you should play it off the wicket and keep your standards up
Peter Thomas speaks to the leading trainer on the eve of Royal Ascot in 2018
Published in the Racing Post on June 10, 2018
Sir Michael Stoute has been in the game far too long to be seduced by idle flattery, no matter how well intended it may be. Even routine use of his full title is quietly but actively discouraged, so mention of his colossal number of Royal Ascot winners has little or no chance of passing through the filter of extraneous information.
It's a fact that since his first success, in 1977, the avuncular Barbadian has racked up another 74 and heads the rankings of current trainers by 14, from the albeit rather younger Aidan O'Brien; but that's no reason to go on about it. In fact, it's more of a reason to stop chin-wagging and get back to work on this year's team.
"They kept reminding me I was on 75 winners last year," says the master of Freemason Lodge, "and I'm still on 75 – and don't forget we've been at it a long time."
It is not that he doesn't appreciate his back catalogue, but that was then and this is now. It's four years since he won the most recent of his top trainer titles; he still hasn't passed the 75 wins amassed by his old sparring partner Sir Henry Cecil and he lives in awe of the feats of Vincent O'Brien; and when you're 72 years old and the young dogs are snapping at your heels, there's precious little time to be strolling down Memory Lane.
After all, Cecil once trained seven in a week when there were only four days to go at, and O'Brien (the elder) managed a scarcely believable six from just seven runners in 1975, so let's keep the reminiscing to a minimum, although that first winner was a bit special.
"Etienne Gerard, the Jersey Stakes, Paul Cook, Jim Philipps," Stoute reels off with formidable accuracy in response to successive questions. He's five points out on the SP (for the record, it was 25-1 and not 20-1, although bookmakers' prices are not something he sets much store by, as we shall find out later), but his legendary encyclopaedic recall is still very much intact, however much he insists that "it doesn't get any better with age".
"It's a big moment for any trainer," he reflects in a passing moment of indulged satisfaction. "I started in '72, my first Royal Ascot runner was '73, so we were a few years in and it was a relief. You're just setting off and we hadn't had many runners, but you still get impatient.
"I was lucky that the owners I had supporting me were patient people and a lot of them were horsemen, too, breeders and the like, so they knew. We're still very lucky with our clientele, although one or two are a little less patient than the old ones, but that's the way of the world."
His brief reverie is interrupted by memories of the broader reality of Etienne Gerard: "He won at Ascot as a two-year-old and I thought he was a proper machine who could win the Guineas, but he was a big disappointment in the Dewhurst, he had wind surgery, and he was never up to the same standard after that."
The high points of a career are remembered but the disappointments aren't forgotten, not so much dwelt upon as jotted down in the ledger of experience for future reference. It is a mindset that has served Stoute well through his 46 years with a licence, always learning, managing expectations, aware of his limitations but still not acceptant of them.
He's been feted, lauded, written off and restored to former glory, and through all of it he's remained a reassuring presence, at home and on the gallops, with his roaring laugh, ready fund of cricketing analogies and constant reworking of what sounds a little like the Bing Crosby songbook. Around the yard he commands open affection and hushed reverence in equal measure, as befits a man who retains such undimmed vigour despite the passing decades.
"I don't think you can put it on, that kind of enthusiasm," he says, shrugging off the departure of last year's dual Group 1 winner Ulysses before adding with a smile, "although it helps if you've got a good calibre of horse. But I love the life and I feel I'm very fortunate. I was very lucky that I was able to do what I wanted to do – you should be very grateful when it pans out that way.
"It's not something I think about, how hard it is to keep on going after 46 years. I suppose it might happen one day, but at the moment I'm enjoying it. I think you should play it off the wicket, keep your standards up and see how it goes, don't worry too much about the bad days. Obviously when you go to Ascot and come away without a winner it's disappointing, but you can't be pathetic about it."
Scrolling down the list of Stoute's Royal Ascot winners, it's not hard to prompt reactions from the trainer, now that he's in the mood. There's 1981 King's Stand winner Marwell – "the best sprinter I trained, up against horses like Green Desert, Blue Cashmere and Ajdal" – "proper girls" like successive Coronation Stakes heroines Sonic Lady (1986) and Milligram (1987), along with royal winners Blueprint (1999 Duke of Edinburgh), Estimate (2012 Queen’s Vase and 2013 Gold Cup) and Dartmouth (2016 Hardwicke). But pride of place in his memory bank goes to Shareef Dancer, successful not at the highest level but in the 1983 King Edward VII Stakes, yet a key component in the growth of an ambitious trainer seeking the next level of respect and achievement.
"I was very proud of that," says Stoute with a discernible glow, reflecting on the $3.3 million colt who was bought in the glorious year of Shergar's Derby and sent to him by Maktoum Al Maktoum with considerable pressure attached, only to be well beaten in the Esher Cup.
"It was at the time when we'd just started scoping the horses," recalls the trainer, "and he had a very, very bad throat infection that was taking a lot of time to cure. We've learned a lot more since about the antibiotics used to cleanse them, but back then I was getting quite frustrated and so I ended up running him in the King Edward and he won it, which was a relief.
"After that there was a big call to go to the Irish Derby, nine or ten days later, and luckily he had a very good constitution, he was as hard as nails and had it won from the top of the straight, under Walter [Swinburn] again, beating Caerleon and Teenoso in a very strong race.
"They decided to syndicate him and retire him before he ran again, but his career was a big thrill, it was so important that this very expensive horse won, we got what we could out of him and people saw we were doing the business."
They've been doing the business ever since at Stoute's two yards, Freemason Lodge and Beech Hurst, on Newmarket's Bury Road, and that elusive 76th winner will be the main item on the agenda next week, with the highest hopes attached to the second race on Saturday's card, the Hardwicke Stakes, which he has already won a record ten times, from Dihistan in 1986 to the Queen's Dartmouth.
This year it's the turn of Crystal Ocean to carry the standard, after Group 3 successes this term over ten furlongs and 12 furlongs that offered enough promise for him to rank as 2-1 favourite for the mile-and-a-half Ascot Group 2 – a price that leaves Stoute unmoved, except to slight irritation.
"That won't make him run any faster and information like that doesn't excite me any more in 2018 than it did in 1978. He'd have a big chance, but we had a lot of big chances at the meeting last year and now we need a single," he says.
"But yes, I'm very hopeful, which is more than just hopeful, and he looks a little better over 12 than over ten, although the draw is so important on the round course, where they murder each other going into Swinley Bottom and you just have to hope you get round that first bend in one piece."
With Mirage Dancer also a possible runner in the Hardwicke – and notwithstanding the possibility of murder – hopes are high of an 11th victory, with the trainer's customary positivity diminished not one jot by familiarity with the winning feeling. There are always new pleasures to be gleaned from achievement, is his view, and will be for as long as he has a licence.
"Every winner you have is for different people, different connections, different personnel," he explains. "It may be an ordinary horse but you know the lad who does him has put a lot into it, so every winner is a buzz. Everywhere there's a different component, and we have the two yards as well, which makes for healthy competition. One will be on a roll and the others not going so well and you're looking forward to a winner for them.
"There's such an interdependence, such a team surrounding every winner, and while it's a responsibility and it can be very frustrating, it's never boring. Of course, if you're honest, you're really just focused on trying to get the horse to the right race in the right shape, and it's only afterwards that you think about all the other beneficiaries – but it makes it so much more pleasurable in hindsight."
Moore has 'temperament you can't buy'
He follows in the giant footsteps of the likes of Starkey, Swinburn, Fallon, Kinane and Murtagh, but Ryan Moore has ridden 16 Royal Ascot winners for Stoute (topped only by Swinburn's 17) and the trainer makes no attempt to disguise the importance of the 'best jockey in the world' to his operation.
"The association goes back to 2005 and he's always been a star to work with, very loyal," he explains. "I depend on him a hell of a lot. He'll come and ride work on horses who he'll almost certainly not be riding, but I want his opinion. He's a big contributor and a team player and that's a very important thing to have in the yard.
"They all get better with experience, all the good ones who have been here, they get better with riding good horses, and experience can only be earned, but temperament is something different and I remember Ryan at a very early age riding Conduit at Santa Anita, in the pressure cooker of a Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita. They went off like the clappers, down the hill, too fast, reckless, he took his time, took his time, took it up inside the final furlong and that was that. He was very young but he already had that temperament.
"It's a very special thing, something you can't buy, and he possesses it, that inner calmness which comes from confidence. I'm not saying he's never ****ed up," and a laugh comes booming out, "but it hasn't been often and he's always the first to admit it when he does."
The pick of Stoute's Royal Ascot squad
Gabr (St James's Palace Stakes, 14-1)
He ran really well in the Heron last time out and the horse who beat him [Without Parole] is favourite, so he's a possible.
Dannyday (Ascot Handicap)
He had a couple of years off after winning the Northumberland Plate consolation race in 2016 but he's on course now. He's very consistent and will stay well, but so will some of the others.
Expert Eye (Jersey Stakes, 9-2)
He looked good at Goodwood last year, then it went wrong and he's written off by a lot of people at the moment and we need to bring him back. He had stalls trouble in the Dewhurst – where he put his head down before they opened and it was all traumatic for him – so in the spring we did a lot of stalls work and I think mentally it had an effect on him. It was a good run in the Greenham but he was too keen for a couple of furlongs and that cost him the race. I thought he was in better shape for the Guineas but that was his second bad run on the Rowley Mile and he's not going back there again. Elsewhere he's run very well, so it'll be interesting. We're happy at this stage of his preparation and I certainly haven't given up on him.
Poet's Word (Prince of Wales's Stakes, 5-1)
That's the plan, although I reserve the right to change my mind! His win in the Brigadier Gerard was satisfying because he hadn't won for ten months and it was time he got his head in front again after running his guts out and collecting good money all that time. I think he's equally effective at 1m2f and 1m4f, but the ten-furlong race is a Group 1 and a Group 1 is what I'd like to win with him.
Sun Maiden and Crystal Hope (Ribblesdale Stakes, 5-1 and 14-1 respectively)
It's the plan for both of them but the ground will need to be good or softer for Crystal Hope.
Eqtidaar (Commonwealth Cup, 25-1)
He ran very well first time at Ascot but the race went wrong for him at Newbury, where he was on the wrong side of the track and came from very far back, wasn't getting taken forward and was only beaten two and a half lengths. He's a decent horse, I think he's up to this class and I think you should have a bit each-way, because I like him.
Dream Of Dreams (Wokingham, 25-1)
He'd want it good or softer. He has a big weight but he's a decent horse.
Poet's Word won the Prince of Wales's Stakes at 11-2, Expert Eye won the Jersey at 8-1 and Eqtidaar won the Commonwealth Cup at 12-1
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