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Monday, 17 December, 2018

Trainer who flew the flag high as a major player in a dynasty

Geoff Wragg, pictured at Royal Ascot, almost won the 2006 Derby with 66-1 shot Dragon Dancer two years before his retirement
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Geoff Wragg was a key member of a racing dynasty that flourished in Newmarket for nearly a century.

A latecomer to the training ranks, Wragg quickly made up for lost time when becoming the first trainer to saddle a winner of the Derby in their initial year as a licence-holder when Teenoso gave Lester Piggott his ninth and final triumph in the blue riband in 1983.

After serving as understudy to his father Harry for a remarkable 28 years, it was no surprise Geoff knew the ropes when his father finally retired at the age of 80 in 1982 and he took over the training licence at Abington Place on the Bury Road, his home since 1947.

The 53-year-old showed a youthful exuberance that enabled him to hit the ground running. He was not afraid to travel horses and was to achieve overseas success and worldwide acclaim with Teenoso and other high-calibre horses including Pentire and First Island in a training career that spanned 26 years until his own retirement in 2008.

Wragg was born on January 9, 1930 in his parents' house on the Bury Road, Newmarket with a pedigree for racing. His father Harry, known as The Head Waiter for his exaggerated waiting tactics, was five months away from a second Derby success on Blenheim and would become the champion Flat jockey of 1941.

His uncle Sam Wragg won three Classics, including the 1940 wartime substitute Derby on Pont l'Eveque, while another uncle, Arthur Wragg, finished sixth in the jockeys’ championship in 1944.

Geoff’s brother Peter subsequently became a respected bloodstock agent until his death in 2004, while his sister Susan was married to the late jockey Manny Mercer. Their daughter Carolyn went on to marry 11-time champion jockey Pat Eddery.

After spending his childhood at the then family home at Bedford Lodge (now a hotel) in Newmarket during wartime, Wragg was educated at Fettes College in Edinburgh before undertaking his National Service with the REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers), where he learned skills that would prove groundbreaking in later life as a trainer.

After two years in the Army, Wragg studied at Southampton University and graduated to become a radar engineer before a spell in California, where a permanent stay was on the cards until he was persuaded back into the equine world by his father and was appointed his assistant in 1955. The pair achieved notable success at the highest level when Psidium won the Derby in 1961. Other stars when assistant to his father included Talgo and Salvo (both Arc runners-up), Full Dress (1,000 Guineas) and Intermezzo (St Leger).

The clock did not lie

Duties were divided and Geoff looked after the yard at Abington Place while his father concerned himself with training. Gradually, Geoff became more involved on the gallops and his background in electronics saw him bring both the clocking and weighing of horses to Newmarket for the first time.

After one brisk morning workout from a trio of juveniles had stopped the clock at 46 seconds for three furlongs, father said to son: "Either you made a mistake or these are Royal Ascot two-year-olds."

The clock did not lie and the youngster who finished last in the gallop went on to score by 15 lengths first time out at Birmingham, while the other pair did indeed score at the royal meeting. The father/son association went on to achieve multiple success at the highest level and again triumphed in a Classic when On The House won the 1,000 Guineas and Sussex Stakes in 1982.

Wragg was always adamant that in their 30 years working together he and his father had only one dispute – and that was nothing to do with racing. "We set ourselves different responsibilities," Wragg said. "I ran everything in the yard  but I would never interfere with his work gallops list. We seemed to go well together."

Teenoso gives Lester Piggott his ninth and final Derby winner in 1983

On assuming control at Abington Place at the end of 1982, Wragg inherited a yard full of top stock owned by the likes of Eric Moller and Sir Philip Oppenheimer, long-standing owner-breeders.

A little more than two months into his career, Wragg had an early present in the shape of Teenoso, who sprung from winning a maiden at three to becoming a live Derby candidate when a wet spring played to his strengths.

Teenoso carried the renowned chocolate and gold silks of the Moller family and shook off his maiden status and that of his trainer in style when scoring by eight lengths in a mile-and-a-half maiden at Newmarket that April.

He then breezed through a stiffer test of his Epsom credentials in the Lingfield Derby Trial when, again encountering a soft surface, he bounded to a three-length triumph.

Atrocious conditions

The following month, the rains once more played a major part when Teenoso and a mud-splattered Piggott handled atrocious conditions at Epsom to score by three lengths in the slowest time for the Derby since 1891.

Teenoso did not win again that year and was found to have sustained an injury after disappointing in the Great Voltigeur, but he returned better than ever at four.

Wragg was not afraid to travel in search of success and Teenoso gave him his first notable overseas success when landing the Group 1 Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud in July 1984.

He then showed his Derby win was no fluke when overcoming the new Classic generation on fast ground at Ascot in the Group 1 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, a race he was to win again with Pentire in 1996.

Wragg, who picked out Teenoso as the best horse he trained, attributed his success to "good horses and good staff".

Pentire and Michael Hills take the 1996 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes

Kevin Murrell was head lad at Abington Place for 14 years and provided one of the dozen signatures adorning the commemorative plate presented to Wragg by his staff on his retirement. Together, they represented staff with more than 200 years of service to the family.

"Geoff Wragg was an absolute saint,” according to Murrell. “Never once in all the years I knew him did I see him lose his temper or speak badly about anyone.

“He loved his gadgets and did all the electrical wiring and created a box-by-box alarm system at Abington Place. The first time I met him he was up a pole fixing the telephone line.

“But he really knew his horses too. He was a very clever man."

Wragg was denied further Classic success when Marling was beaten a head by Hatoof in the 1,000 Guineas in 1992, although she did gain compensation in the Irish equivalent.

Pentire was another potential Classic winner who got away, when he was not entered for the 1995 Derby then almost put one over the Epsom hero Lammtarra in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. Many believed he would have gone close at Epsom on that showing, and Wragg made the best of the situation by saddling him to go one better in the Ascot showpiece 12 months later.

Dragon Dancer (5) goes down by a short-head to Sir Percy (15) in the 2006 Derby

Wragg enjoyed plenty of success at the highest level at that time, with top sprinter Owington landing the July Cup in 1994, while Arcadian Heights galloped to glory in the Ascot Gold Cup the same year.

First Trump, First Island and Most Welcome consolidated Wragg’s standing as a fine handler of older performers, and his many overseas trips yielded victories in the Hong Kong Cup (First Island, 1996) and EP Taylor Stakes (Braiswick, 1989).

In 2006, two years before his retirement, Wragg nearly achieved a mighty last hurrah when 66-1 chance Dragon Dancer came within a short-head of winning him with a second Derby.

He finally brought down the curtain on his career in November 2008 when, at the age of 78, his penultimate runner, Convallaria, won at Kempton.

Geoff Wragg was an absolute saint. Never once in all the years I knew him did I see him lose his temper or speak badly about anyone
E.W. Terms
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