Good horses are a life enhancer – for those who back them, those that ride them and above all those that train them. Ask Freddie Head – for the last four years he has spent every day with the unique talent that is Goldikova and if Moonlight Cloud wins next Sunday’s 1,000 Guineas it will be proof that even at 63 life has lots to offer.
By rights he should have had his time. Thirty four years as a six championship, four Arc de Triomphe winning jockey finished after winning at Deauville on the appropriately named Marathon in August 1997 and no flat race rider of his eminence had scaled the highest peaks of the training profession since Harry Wragg way back in the 60’s. And whilst he said he was always planning this extra step, you wouldn’t have fancied his chances of breaking the sequence if you had visited him ten years ago.
Back then there were just 30 inmates in the 100 box yard set on the east side of Chantilly’s Les Aigles training ground where Napoleon once drilled his legions. “They are bad,” he had said looking across the stables with a soulful, shoulder-lifting shrug at the irony of not being able to follow where his sister, father, grandfather and great-grandfather had led, “they are just bad horses, what can you do?” On Thursday, he still had that slightly care-worn, morning stubble look, but any strain was in the handling of an inform stable that had posted five winners from the last 14 runners and whose bid for a first English classic with Moonlight Cloud will be followed by tilts at the Prix de Poulains (French 2,000 Guineas) with St James Palace entry Salto and at the Prix Diane (French Oaks) with Goldikova’s half sister Gallikova.
The prospects light him up. “This filly could be just the right type for Newmarket,” he says stepping out into the sunshine and walking across to the box in which Moonlight Cloud is being tacked up. “She’s light and quick and was very good at two. Things didn’t work out for her when she was beaten by Wooton Bassett in the Lagardere but she won her trial very easily and is just right in herself. She is all whip and muscle. I love her.”
The easy, affectionate way he wraps his arms round Moonlight Cloud’s elegant neck reminds you what a rapport he had with fillies in the saddle, winning the English 1,000gns twice, landing the French equivalent no less than 8 times, and in 1987 taking both with the mighty Miesque on whom he won 10 Group One races including the first ever back to back victories in the Breeders Cup. “She’s a honey. You can do anything with her. You certainly can’t do that with Goldikova.”
On cue, the most successful racemare in European history is led out of her box for her trainer to leg the scarlet jacketed Thierry Blaize into the saddle but not indulge her with more than a perfunctory pat. “She’s fine but you need to respect her,” explains Freddie. “One day at Deauville I got a bit too close to her in the box and she grabbed my sweater and threw me straight out of it. She won’t let you cuddle her or anything. It is so frustrating.”
The uncuddable one stomped across the yard with an independent look which hardly denied this allegation. Two days earlier Goldikova had worked for the first time on the Les Aigles grass, moving out and past Flash Dance, her specially acquired lead horse. “She is only 80%,” said Freddie, “but she is thicker and stronger than ever. Like last year we will start her in the Prix Isphaan next month and then go on from there.”
So much of racing talk is whistling in the wind that there is relish in just letting these words register. At Churchill Downs last November that mare in front of us rocketed up the outside to win a third consecutive Breeders Cup Mile and take her Group One tally to an unprecedented dozen. Top class six year olds on the flat are such a rarity that you vow to write a “thank you” note to the owning Wertheimer brothers. It is likely that several signed “F Head” will have preceded it.
“She’s altogether exceptional,” he says as we take the car out into Chantilly and round to the training grounds past the yard from where Francois Boutin sent out Miesque and so many other great champions. “But she was not that precocious at two. We did not run her until September and although she won her two races, both at Chantilly, she was not highly tested. Then in the first part of the next year she was up against Zarkava in the Pouliches and the Diane and it was only when we brought her back to a mile that she really took off winning four straight ending up with the Breeders Cup Mile at Santa Anita.”
Freddie, small, be-jeaned and purposeful, leads the way across the long sandy gallops that thread through the forest. The horses gather at the edge of one of the glades as they always do and again you see the life-throb they transmit to their trainer as he takes on the task of how to spend their energy that morning. He is 64 this summer but now as harnessed up into training as ever his father Alec or his sister Criquette were. The riding days seem a distant and an easy past.
In Freddie’s time the top French jockeys had a better lifestyle than any of their counterparts in any land. The likes of him and Yves St Martin would not ride work or race every day and when they did it was never more than a mile from home. Now they travel all the time, Chateaubriant one day, Lyon the next and most of them having to waste as well. “I don’t know how they do it,” says Freddie sympathetically, “I am sure they won’t be able to keep it up as long as we did.”
What keeps him going are beginning to spin towards up along the long sandy enfilade which for some long forgotten reason is called “La Piste de Perth”. He recites the names and quality and breeding as all trainers do and at times add a sharp insight into their action that only a jockey can. Inevitably this climaxes as Goldikova breezes past the neck set low as a charging rhino in that trademark way of hers. “Isn’t that extraordinary,” shouts Freddie, “I don’t think I have ever seen a good horse move like that. And of course that is why she can’t go in the soft. With her neck set so low and so much power coming up through her hind quarters, she just can’t get her balance and rhythm in deep going.”
Listening to him so on top of his job, and watching him wander from horse to horse afterwards, made you wonder why we ever doubted that he might cut it as a trainer. For Freddie Head is about as steeped in this place and his calling as it is possible to be. Not only did he ride Arc de Triomphe winners for his sister, (Three Troikas 1979), his father (Ivanjika 1976), and his grandfather Willie Head (Bon Mot in 1966 when only 19), but Willie’s wife Henrietta Jennings was the daughter of the legendary Henry “Old Hat” Jennings who was brought over from Cambridge in 1836 and worked for the eccentric Lord Henry Seymour amongst whose diversions was giving his dinner guests exploding cigars and who was the founding father of Chantilly as a training centre.
Of course Alec Head, “Old Hat”s grandson, has founded not just a training dynasty but a breeding empire of his own. His Haras du Quesnay stud farm in Normandy has long been established as one of the finest operations in Normandy and these days Freddy and his sisters have taken up the task of driving it forwards. It was to that, where Freddy now spends up to a day a week discussing and deciding the developments of mares and foals and yearlings, that we all thought the retired jockey would be most likely to be drawn.
“I always knew I was going to train,” he insists when we get back to the yard, “and I had bought this place from John Fellowes a couple of years before I stopped riding. But while there were plenty of promises not many people sent me horses. People say all those things about top jockeys making trainers and it’s difficult. That’s why I am so grateful to Sheikh Hamdan because he sent me horses from the very beginning.” Indeed it was Sheikh Hamadan’s Prix de Sandringham winner Baqah who became his first English runner when finishing 3rd to Soviet Song in the 2004 Falmouth Stakes at Newmarke but the real breakthrough came two years later and this time with a virtual one horse owner.
As a two year old Marchand d’Or was so fractious he needed castrating and so unpromising he ran, and was well beaten in a “Claimer.” But in 2006 he got it together to such he began the charge which saw him win 11 races, five at Group One level and the first of them The Prix Maurice de Gheest at Deaville in August 2006 became the defining moment of Freddie’s emergence as a trainer. That Marchand d’Or’s owner, should decide three years later and a million Euros later, to move his horse to another trainer, must rank quite high in the annals of ingratitude.
But by then Goldikova was well on her way to immortality and the list of patrons was being swelled not just by the Wertheimers and George Strawbridge, whose green and white silks will be carried by Moonlight Cloud next Sunday, but by major players from Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Dubai. They are being drawn by the stable’s success and by the trainer’s enduring familiarity with greatness. They will find not only the latest part of French racing’s longest training lineage but the makings of the next stage of the story. Freddie’s 23 year old son Christopher, who joined him a year ago from a non racing life in Paris, rides up on a brown and white cow pony. “He’ll be kicking me out one day,” laughs his father.
When pressed about his well populated family life which has included three marriages, seven children, three grandchildren and show jumping commitment to his teenage daughter Sara, the trainer will joke it is paying for them all that keeps them going. But as the horses are washed down in front of us, the jest remains pretty unconvincing compared to the enthusiasm that just being around the four legged possibilities can generate.
“This is a nice horse,” he says going over to a handsome colt having his girths sponged over. Salto ended last season running a good second to the O’Brien 2,000 Guineas candidate Roderick O’Connor in the Grand Prix de Saint Cloud. “We think he has improved over the winter,” adds his trainer, “and I am sure he can have a good season.”
But maybe not as good as the two sisters we are trying to assemble for a family photo. Galikova is white faced and rather more leggy than her famous half sister. She never really got into the argument behind Misty For Me in the Prix Marcel Boussac on Arc day but she was a very impressive winner of the Prix Imprudence at Saint Cloud a fortnight ago and there is no disguising the hopes that are held for her with the main target the Prix de Diane.
“She doesn’t look anything like Goldikova and doesn’t move like her either,” says Freddie draping his arms around her. “She is also much kinder, Goldikova would never allow me to do this. It would have to be an astonishing chance if she turned out anything like as good. But I was very pleased with how she won her trial three weeks ago. It was very, very cold in the winter which held all the horses back a bit so I am sure there is a lot of improvement to come. They can change a lot you know.”
Freddie Head has such an easy amenable manner that is easy to underestimate him. Especially for British readers, reared up on some pretty chauvinistic reporting much of which relied on the unhappy experience of the French colt Lyphard in the 1972 Derby and on unfamiliarity with the extreme Yves St Martin style short-stirruped method with which he was so effective both at home and overseas. This is the man who rode Miesque. This is the guy who trains Goldikova.
He shakes his head and gives the broadest of smiles as he ponders his good fortune. “How impossible is that,” he says, “to be involved with two fillies as good as that? To ride one to win two Breeders Cups, to train the other to win three.” The arms go out wide again in that most gallic of shrugs.”It must be a billion to one chance.”
He puts his left arm over Galikova’s neck and for a moment ponders making some sort of endearment towards Goldikova. But he thinks better of it just as he has of any idea of seeing what it was like to sit atop of her at the gallop. “I would just love to ride her,” he says with all the hunger of those jockey days which stretched from a first winner soon after his 16th birthday, “but my left shoulder is not good. It’s not a riding accident. Apart from one concussion I was incredibly lucky with injuries. But the tendons up here are weak. She is strong. I would not be up to her.”
It’s an acceptance of age but not a lessening of ambition. Freddie Head may have already taken a lot from life, but seeing him in Chantilly was to find him in the very prime of it.