Gosden: How the Great American Thoroughbred could become increasingly irrelevant

John Gosden at Newmarket. Photo: Dan Abraham/RacingFotos.com

John Gosden is uniquely placed to compare and contrast the racing scenes in the United States and Europe. He trained with conspicuous success in California from 1979, winning Eclipse Awards with Bates Motel and Royal Heroine, before he returned to his native Britain in 1989.

After spells training for Sheikh Mohammed and Robert Sangster, who owned Royal Heroine, Gosden bought his own establishment in Newmarket in 2007. His career subsequently advanced to the highest plain: He was Britain’s champion trainer in 2012 and finished runner-up last year, when the outstanding miler Kingman carried all before him en route to Cartier Horse of the Year honors.

Gosden, 63, has also won G1 races in Dubai, France, Germany, Ireland, and Italy. He is one of only two trainers to have won both the Derby at Epsom (Benny The Dip, 1997) and the Breeders’ Cup Classic (Raven’s Pass, 2008). André Fabre is the other.

Educated at Cambridge University, Gosden has an easy but sharp wit. His articulate intelligence before the media has seen him described in turn as racing’s foremost ambassador, an astute observer of racing politics, and the sport’s great communicator.

Indeed, so comprehensively did he engage in our question-and-answer request that we have divided his thoughts into two parts. In the second part, Gosden addresses the themes of international racing, the Breeders’ Cup, racing’s financial plight in Britain, and much more.

Read part II of Julian Muscat's interview with John Gosden.


Was it difficult to adjust to training in Britain when you moved to Newmarket from California in 1989? What were the main differences between Britain and the U.S. back then?

“I didn’t find it difficult because I’d been assistant trainer to Sir Noel Murless in Newmarket in the 1970s, so I knew the gallops. And I’d been assistant trainer to Vincent O’Brien in Ireland, so I was conversant with European training methods, the racecourses, and the European style of racing. I didn’t find that a problem.

“In many ways it was probably tougher going the other way to the States, where you’re often training on a dirt track in the middle of a city, and you’re training on the clock. And there’s another broad difference: in America you’re often training around the soundness of your horses, whereas in Europe you are dealing with the changes in the season and tend to train more around the health of your horses. In the States, it’s a quantitative method of training because you’re doing everything on time. In England, it’s more of a qualitative assessment because you’re on strips of grass gallops that tend to be moved every day to make fresh ground available to the horses.

“Consequently, times are less of an issue. You’re training more by eye and feel, so I would say they are completely different systems of training and racing. But the golden rule is as follows: you train according to your facilities and the style of racing. In America, speed from the gate is everything. In Europe, you break from the gate and collect your horse, then try to find a suitable position in the race.

“One of the great contrasts between American racing on dirt and Europe on turf is that the last two furlongs in Europe are usually the fastest, whereas in America, the first two furlongs are the fastest and the last two are often the slowest. It’s a different style of racing on different configurations of tracks: the short straights in America and longer straights in Europe.”

You have enjoyed success on turf, dirt, and all-weather surfaces. Do you prefer one surface over the others, and how much are you governed by the individual horse in terms of the surfaces you run them on?

“The majority of racing in the world now is on turf, and I happen to think that both in the aesthetic pleasure of watching racing and to be able to see horses accelerate and increase their speed through a race, racing on turf is by a long way my preferred surface. When races are run in Europe on what we term “good ground,” which is neither too firm nor too soft, you see the finest racing in the world. It’s by far the most exciting to watch. It is about seeing horses really quickening.

“I fully understand dirt racing, having raced on it a lot. Do I find it as good to watch? No, because I probably don’t like to see horses just hanging on over the last furlong or so. I like to see horses bursting with speed at the end of a race, showing their brilliance. Dirt racing is a little bit more of a battle of attrition, which to me, is not as aesthetically as exciting to watch.

“As regards synthetics, I think they very much have their place. When you get heavy rain, horses can race well on them. They can still bounce off the surface. I have found that training on dirt is tougher to keep horses sound, longer-term, than on turf or synthetics. I suppose when a dirt track gets cuppy or loose, or when it rains hard and you’re straight on to the base in the slop, those track are not conducive to keeping horses sound. Nor does it promote a great image of racing when they race in the slop.

“I also regard the ripping up of synthetics in the U.S. as a retrograde step.”

John Gosden at the 2012 Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita. Photo: Neville Hopwood/RacingFotos.com

Is there a particular physical type of horses that will be better suited to racing on dirt than turf?

“There are different bloodlines, of course, but also different conformation. Dirt horses are a lot more loaded in the shoulder, and often straighter in the shoulder. They have a shorter stride; a lot of them don’t have the great stretch of an exceptional turf horse, since that is not suitable for a dirt surface. And they often have shorter cannon bones, shorter pasterns, a smaller hoof, and they have huge muscle bulk.

“Remember, they are racing on one-mile dirt ovals where you need speed and position from the gate, and you have to switch your lead into the straight. It’s a matter of travelling at speed throughout the race. This is very different from turf racing – particularly somewhere like France, where you’re literally collecting your horse up for that great burst of acceleration, that change of gear at the end. As I said, the configuration of the track is a big issue. Usually in the States you’ve only got a home straight of one and a half furlongs, as opposed to three, four, or five-furlong straights, as we have in Europe.”

How many more all-weather tracks would you like to see in Britain, if any?

“What we need in Britain is a proper all-weather track, a classy one. I’m not criticizing what Britain has, but a lot of them have taken their shape from previous facilities that were on the site. Wolverhampton and Kempton are hybrids of what was already there. No-one has sat down with a completely blank piece of paper and created something from the drawing board. There would possibly be a place for a new track like that, but in the end, we have what we have.”

With the betting system as it is in Britain, which is controlled by publicly-quoted companies whose fiduciary duties are to themselves, the racing product has gradually been receding in importance to their businesses. Can Britain ever have prize-money levels that are competitive with jurisdictions embracing pari-mutuel betting?

“Only through sponsorship, but the most valuable sponsorship opportunity in Britain is Royal Ascot, which does not permit it. [The meeting’s] opening day could have 10 times the level of prize-money if some sort of sponsorship was allowed. I’m an advocate of having the appropriate sort of backing at Royal Ascot. I think the Prince Of Wales’s Stakes is the finest race run at Royal Ascot, but it should be run for five, six, seven times the money [it carried total prize money of £525,000 in 2014].

“Overall, sponsorship is one of the ways forward. If you make your industry attractive, especially to television and those who go racing, then you could grow it with sponsorship. If you marginalize it, you can’t.” 

Do you subscribe to the view that there is no significant problem with prohibited substances in Britain, and that the recent anabolic steroid cases were isolated instances?

“In Britain, we race with no medication. You simply cannot have medication in your horse on race-day, period. Therefore, when some lunatic is putting anabolic steroids into his horses, it proves that our raiding of stables and our testing-in-training system is robust, since they were caught. Samples get sent all over the world for analysis and careers are effectively over for anyone messing with anabolic steroids. I think that’s right.”

Do you disagree with the use of race-day medication in the U.S, and if so, on what grounds?

“Obviously I trained in America for 11 years and am conversant with the use of bute and Lasix. However, I now believe that medication administered on race-day, as happens in the States, is a problem. If you allow it, you degrade the breed in the end. How many generations of American horses have now raced on known medications, let alone other stuff where some vet was being extremely clever and ahead of the testing programme? Given those circumstances, how can you trust the breed?

“Have you contaminated the breed? Yes. Have you degraded it? Yes. I think it is becoming increasingly difficult for people to trust performances of horses in Black Type races in America because they don’t truly know what the horses raced on. These medications are performance-enhancing, obviously, otherwise people wouldn’t use them. In Hong Kong, Australia, France, Britain, Ireland, at least you know that the horse raced clean.

“I remember the era of the late 1970s, early 1980s, of the great American horses and their breeders. It was fantastic. There was a wonderful quality of horse and they were tough with it; the likes of Affirmed and Spectacular Bid, for example. But now, it is very tempting for North America to go slightly isolationist and say: “Well, we’re breeding for our domestic market, we race on dirt, and that’s the way it is.” That would render the great American Thoroughbred, for which I have a lot of respect, an increasingly irrelevant creature on the world stage. That really does concern me.

“I am also strongly in favour of pre-race blood testing because of the EPO [erythropoietin] issue. I know in the U.S. they are trying to tighten up, and I know the argument about being unable to keep the claiming ranks going without medication, but that takes you into a moral argument that is indefensible.

“Factionalism is at work here. People on one side say they don’t want to change. And you have all the different state legislatures, so it is very difficult. Any significant change is going to have to be passed down through Federal Law, otherwise there will be endless arguments. But we have got to face the fact that performance-enhancing drugs in sporting competition are a no-no. And yet it’s legal in the States. You can’t argue that it is right. It is wrong.”

Is it realistic to anticipate a day when medication rules will be harmonized throughout the U.S.?

“We’ve been talking about it for 25 years. I remember when New York didn’t have Lasix, but it’s the old story: once you get on that stuff, it’s tough to get off it. In the end, I think it can only come down through federal law imposed on state legislatures. The [American] Jockey Club doesn’t have the power to bring jurisdictions together. They can only lead by example. Breeders’ Cup Ltd. tried to do that and there was a dreadful falling out. But you know, it’s a little hard to call the Breeders’ Cup a world championship when the horses, who had no say in the matter, have a needle put into their jugular vein the day before, and again on the morning of the race. That is not sport. Quite frankly, it is immoral.”

George Strawbridge said in an interview with Thoroughbred Racing Commentary in May that he thought racing in the U.S. was in denial about its image problems. He was not optimistic about the prospects for improving the situation. Is he right, or do you believe progress in reform is being made?

“Well, the New York Times has been running a campaign. I think they started in New Mexico picking off some disreputable people who are trading marijuana as much as training horses. They went for a soft underbelly, but enough unfortunate secrets were filmed for the image of U.S. racing to have become severely tarnished, even though Steve Asmussen was recently exonerated by the Kentucky Horse Race Commission. The damage was already done. There’s no two ways about it: In the public’s mind, the horse is used and abused, and they are not comfortable with that.

“If you go back to the old days, the Hollywood set used to own horses. They were a big part of it. Whether it was Mervyn LeRoy, Liz Taylor, Cary Grant, Bing Crosby, or John Forsythe, that whole generation used to come to the races. But they don’t find it attractive now. It’s not something they want to be associated with anymore. They are more interested in riding western-style over their ranches in Santa Barbara rather than going anywhere near a racetrack.

“You can see where the mentality is heading in the U.S. when they start talking about stopping horses pulling tourists around Central Park on humane grounds. Horses are running on tough surfaces and they break down in front of the grandstand with drugs in them. There are jockeys over-reliant on the whip; I mean, racing is not an easy sell. It has an image problem.

“We have to deal with similar sentiments here in Britain. A lot of people want to ban jump racing. Some people say that in 25 years it won’t exist, even though horses enjoy jumping. We can all see that for ourselves because horses still jump the fences when the jockey has fallen off. But some people say it is cruel; they don’t like to see a horse being hit with a whip. We know that a big, lazy colt is just going to laugh at you if you do not give it a slap, but some jockeys are far too vicious with the stick. That has to be looked at as well.” 

Mr. Strawbridge also talked about his preference for staying pedigrees. There is a school of thought that Thoroughbreds are more resilient in regions such as Japan and Germany, where stamina, rather than speed, is still a significant factor. What is your view?

“Actually, a lot of old sprinters can go on forever. Their whole cardiovascular system is less strained because they are only running five or six furlongs. It’s different when you run a horse over a mile and a quarter, mile and a half. As Charlie Whittingham used to say, “Don’t be running them back too quickly.” So there’s a balance of arguments here. From a breeder’s point of view, it’s quite tough trying to breed middle-distance and staying horses because you wind up with an awful lot of slow horses, and the stallions you need to use are not readily commercial in terms of producing early speed in their stock.

“Obviously it’s different with speed, which is a lot more saleable. Horses can race early in life at 2 and 3, and they are a lot easier for breeders to sell. I certainly know from my patrons in Britain that, for breeders to produce horses to go a mile and a quarter and beyond, it is extremely expensive to have the right stallions and mares. That’s why some of the big owner/breeders are so important to the game.

“Although Australian sprinters are exceptional, and have been for years, it is very noticeable that they can’t seem to breed middle-distance horses in Australia. All those types, the Melbourne Cup runners, are now imported.

“Conversely, when you look at the German example, they have been very strict on which horses they allow to stand at stud. Any horse that has bled is not allowed to stand as a stallion, period. They also breed good stamina into their horses, so they get a lot of slow ones. But when it works, they end up with a lot of exceptional animals.

“Whatever the pros and cons, I don’t want to see us addicted to racing short, where we just ping round one bend. That would be beyond monotonous. But yes, stamina has been eroded. Some people talk about a mile-and-a-half race being a marathon; that’s not a marathon at all. A marathon is the two-and-a-half miles of the Ascot Gold Cup. Overall, we must be careful not to take the breed down the cheap-speed route, because again, that doesn’t have much image appeal either.”


Read part II of Julian Muscat's interview with John Gosden.

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