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'She was one of those amazing fillies who just got better and better'

Roger Charlton with Thistle Bird, transformed from 'cranky' to classy Group 1 winner
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Roger Charlton, 67, has enjoyed a hugely successful career training from the historic Beckhampton Stables, where he took over from his former boss Jeremy Tree in 1990.

That year Charlton sent out two individual Derby winners and has since assembled an enviable collection of big-race wins, often a reward for his notably patient handling of top-class horses.

Interview by Scott Burton

Danehill 
Pedigree Danzig - Razyana
Trainer Jeremy Tree
Regular jockey Pat Eddery
Biggest win 1989 Haydock Sprint Cup 

I can remember being at Keeneland sales with Humphrey Cottrill when he bought Danehill’s dam, Razyana.

Pat Eddery elected to ride him in the Guineas and he was third but really beaten pretty easily by Nashwan. Then we went to the Irish Guineas but he never settled at all.

Danehill flies to a course-record success under Willie Carson in the 1989 Cork and Orrery

When he was dropped back in trip for the Cork and Orrery [now the Diamond Jubilee] and because he was a three-year-old with no penalties, he had a very low weight and so Willie Carson rode him. From two furlongs out he was always going to win and he broke the six-furlong course record.

He was third in the July Cup before finally getting his Group 1, winning the Haydock Sprint Cup readily.

Of the horses who have been through Beckhampton in my time he has had a huge influence as a stallion in virtually every country that races thoroughbreds.

During the autumn of his first crop we were looking at yearlings and someone asked Henry Cecil what he thought of Danehill and he said he thought they were always going to need soft ground and that the ones he had were rather disappointing. But from then on his runners in Australia started to run incredibly well on quick ground. He could produce winners over five furlongs and two miles.

Danehill, one of the most influential sires of the modern era, at Coolmore Australia in 1997

Quest For Fame
Rainbow Quest - Aryenne
Regular jockey Pat Eddery
Biggest win 1990 Derby 

After he won at Newbury in April – not over-impressively – I remember thinking that in order to promote myself and Rainbow Quest, it would be important to run him in a Derby trial if we could.

He ran honourably to be second in the Chester Vase to Belmez, who unfortunately then broke down.

We had three horses – Quest For Fame, Deploy [who would be second to Salsabil in the Irish Derby] and the Dante winner Sanglamore – and in their work there was really nothing between them. The idea was that, in a string that included only perhaps 18 three-year-old colts, if three of them were beating each other in the mornings, they were unlikely to achieve success at Epsom.

When Sanglamore won the Prix du Jockey Club the Sunday before Epsom, the pressure started racking up that maybe we had a chance in the Derby. What is required is a horse who genuinely stays a mile and a half and I think in Quest For Fame’s Derby, with the exception of Blue Stag, who finished second, it would be fair to say none of those in behind ever ran over a mile and a half again. He was always travelling well and had the race won two furlongs out. 

Patavellian
Machiavellian - Alessia
Regular jockey Steve Drowne 
Biggest win 2003 Prix de l'Abbaye

Patavellian and Steve Drowne (right) land the 2003 Prix de l'Abbaye at Longchamp
He started life with Willie Muir and was a sort of strange, rather sweaty horse. I ran him over seven furlongs to begin with and gradually went up through a mile, a mile and one furlong, and he was getting more and more disappointing.

So we dropped back down to seven furlongs and put a pair of blinkers on him at Chepstow, where he won very easily at 14-1.

He never looked back and won four in a row before getting beaten in the Wokingham when we thought he was a good thing.

Then he picked up again and won the Bunbury Cup over seven furlongs with Steve Drowne. At halfway he was probably ten lengths clear and in the end won by a diminishing short head.

He won the Stewards' Cup back over six in a canter and I was thinking that, even if the handicapper put him up from 95 to over 100, he didn’t have a Group-race rating and we should be looking at the Ayr Gold Cup. But the owner said he wanted to win the Prix de l’Abbaye.

He had never run over five furlongs and was rated just over 100 but, blow me down, he went and won the Abbaye. His form tapered off a bit at the end but he was a most amazing horse, and a rather unusual one.

Thistle Bird
Selkirk - Dolma
Regular jockeys James Doyle/George Baker
Biggest win 2014 Pretty Polly Stakes

Owner-breeder Lady Rothschild with Thistle Bird after winning the 2014 Pretty Polly

She split a pastern as a two-year-old and had two or three screws placed in her leg.

To begin with she was very highly strung and rather difficult. She used to fly-jump on the way down to the start and was cranky and difficult here in the mornings, where you had to run and jump to get on her because she wouldn’t stand still.

She was one of those amazing fillies who just got better and better. At the end of her five-year-old career she was due to retire and I managed to persuade her incredibly supportive and enthusiastic owner to keep her in training with the hope – I must say quite an optimistic hope – that she could win a Group 1.

Her final, splendid moment came when she won the Pretty Polly at the Curragh, beating a decent field.

Earlier on in her career she ran one day at Haydock and the ground was like concrete but she gutsed it out and she had gone from being particularly awkward to being loved by all.

Al Kazeem
Dubawi - Kazeem
Regular jockey James Doyle
Biggest wins 2013 G1 hat-trick of Tattersalls Gold Cup, Prince of Wales's Stakes and Eclipse

Al Kazeem adds the Eclipse to the Tattersalls Gold Cup and the Prince of Wales's Stakes

At the last minute he failed the vet when on the verge of being sold to Hong Kong at three. How much of a blessing was that?

He ran in the Jockey Club Stakes in 2012 and won pretty impressively but ended up drifting across the course. It was found a couple of days later that he had a broken pelvis and we didn’t quite make it back that year.

He had plenty of stamina but for obvious and commercial reasons we dropped back to ten furlongs. He won at Sandown and then the Curragh was chosen because Camelot was due to make his first start back there and we thought it would be a small field and there was a good chance of at least being placed in a Group 1.

The satisfaction was to beat Camelot, who was, after all, very nearly a Triple Crown horse. We went on to the Prince of Wales’s Stakes, where Camelot was a shorter price again, but Al Kazeem showed his fighting qualities, his versatility and his determination to win.

And it was an incredibly brave effort to follow up in the Eclipse.

Expectations hadn’t been for that level of success earlier in his career but he just kept on improving and was a true fighter. 

He retired to stud and then, when he came back into training, it was a great fillip for the yard. But I think we were all expecting a raging bull to come back and indeed he was built like a stallion and pretty heavy by then.

He demonstrated his wonderful temperament and took his work very well. And it took a lot of work and slowly he ground his way back up to the level he had been at.

To win another Tattersalls Gold Cup and then have that epic battle with Frankel’s brother in the Champion Stakes, he was a great horse.

And the one I wish I had trained . . .

I would really love to have been around Sprinter Sacre. He had so much class that I would have liked to run him in Cup races on the Flat.

When Sanglamore won the Prix du Jockey Club the Sunday before Epsom, the pressure started racking up that maybe we had a chance in the Derby