13 July 2003

Bloodstock agent Charlie Gordon-Watson has a photographic memory and a knack for spotting talent

A wolf in sheep’s clothing, that’s Charlie Gordon-Watson’s double-barrelled trick. To an innocent at Ascot he would have looked like any other well connected youngish man passing time at the race track between spending tens of thousands playing polo in the summer and hunting in Leicestershire during the winter. He actually does both, but they are funded not by family money but by a very special talent. Charlie is a bloodstock agent and can spot a winner at a walk.

Next time we come to Ascot he will be watching the best “spot” so far. Derby winner Kris Kin comes out to tilt at the “King George”. Two years ago he was just a name in the Keeneland September Yearling Sale catalogue. But Charlie liked the pedigree, “it’s got to have European connections”, liked the horse when he watched him walk, “I am very quick, just a couple of minutes”, and persuaded owner Saeed Suhail to part with $275,000 for the handsome chesnut.

“I was pleased to get him for that, I had told Saeed we might have to go as high as $450,000. It took me eight years, 39 horses and six million quid to win him the Derby. But the winnings have paid the training fees and the stallion values after King’s Best won the 2,000 Guineas two years ago have put him in profit.”

It’s all said in such a genial public-school manner that it’s easy to picture this good fortune as merely gilded good luck. Yet dig beneath the surface and you find a mind and a manner as tough as that of his Brigadier father who won two M.C.’s during the war and worked in both the Paris and Washington embassies after it.

Charlie was 25 when he set off on his own. “I was unemployable, so I thought I had better employ myself.” In the 18 years since he has bought eight Classic winners, 16 Royal Ascot scorers and 21 individual victors at international Group One level. At Ascot on Friday the promising Hawk Flyer notched the 88th success of the season for horses bought by Gordon-Watson at auction over the last four years.

But the numbers are just the proof that there is a lean and sharp efficiency about his three-strong London office. What’s interesting is the talent. What is it about this still boyish-faced 43-year-old that can detect quality in the unbacked, unraced young thoroughbred and draw “satisfied client” eulogies from as mixed a bunch as Andrew Lloyd-Webber, Alex Ferguson, John Magnier and American ambassador Will Farish?

The secret is in the eyes. They go hard and cool when he is concentrating, but they warm and soften when he talks of horses. They were part of him from the very beginning. His sister Mary Gordon-Watson was world Three Day Event champion, and his mother bred and sold Connemarra ponies which Charlie used to ride. He rode his first point-to-point winner when he was 14, spent his summer holidays with Ryan Price at Findon, escaped from Lloyds (his father said he had to have a “proper job”) to be assistant to Fulke Johnson Houghton at Blewbury and then spent a year in Robert Sangster’s Isle of Man HQ in the Sadler’s Wells season.

“I did ride some real good horses like Giacometti at Ryan’s,” he remembers, “and had a hunter chase winner at Cheltenham later. But some time before that I had realised I would never be a great rider. After the time at Sangster’s (legend has it that when young Charlie suggested he take over, the genial Robert put him on the next boat) I had got such a buzz about looking at the pedigrees and seeing such deals done that I thought I wanted to be part of it.”

Nowadays he buys some 70 yearlings each autumn, no more than eight or nine for Saeed Suhail and is adamant that you have to have an even balance between pedigree, conformation and budget. The system he applies is a mixture of common sense and instinct; “there is no point in buying a stunning looking horse with no pedigree or of getting involved in something which will run way beyond your budget,” he said, “but the real challenge is to try and envisage the horse walking in front of you as a two and three-year-old.”

We are getting close to the secrets now. “I am very lucky,” he adds. “I have a photographic memory for these things. I can remember all the horses we bought and what their families did. Kris Kin? I can picture him now. Barn 41 he was in. He walked out and was exactly what his pedigree suggested he should be, a fine, sensible looking, athletic, three-year-old type. I see a lot of yearlings but in the end you have to put it all together in your head, do it the natural way.”

At Ascot yesterday, Charlie stayed only long enough to watch Richard Hughes bring the admirable Tillerman with a beautifully-timed finishing kick to win the featured Michael Page International in the green and pink silks of Khalid Abdulla, which were to triumph again with Far Lane in the John Smith’s Cup up at York. While Gordon-Watson was on his way to polo or some other pursuit, Hughes continued on his winning ways with Chinsola and King Carnival to take his seasonal score to 69 and to make one wonder at the elegant, easy David Gower-like sweetness of his riding talent.

With his starved-out frame and pipe-cleaner legs, 5ft 8in Richard could audition for a part in an Auschwitz movie. But the smile he gave as he pulled the saddle off that third winner of the day was just as deep as that of Charlie Gordon-Watson as he talked of Kris Kin returning here in a fortnight. Their’s are rich pickings, but the secret is that they love it.

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