08/09/2012 11:48AM

Arlington: Gosden returns to Million day on top of his game

Edward Whitaker
John Gosden, here with Beverly D. runner Joviality, has six Group 1 wins this year, including the Irish Oaks and Prix Rothschild.

Among the exploits of superhorse Frankel, the appearance at Royal Ascot of the Australian sensation Black Caviar, and 3-year-old Camelot’s historic bid for a triple crown, the stuff that trainer John Gosden has been doing this year has almost gotten lost in the shadows in British racing. Almost. So relentless has been Gosden’s string of successes that his name has crept into headlines, anyway.

Gosden already has racked up six Group 1 wins in 2012, with top-level victories in England, Ireland, and France, and he is putting himself in a spot to add a fourth country to the ledger, with prospective runners for all four major stakes races on Arlington Million day, Aug. 18. Gosden last tried the Million in 2010, when he sent out two horses: Debussy won it, Tazeez finished third.

Gosden’s recent roll has been amazing. Consider that on July 21 Gosden came within an eyelash of winning the Group 1 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes – the biggest European 1 1/2-mile race of the summer – for the second year in a row with Nathaniel, a colt who just two weeks prior had won the Group 1 Eclipse Stakes in his first start of 2012. A week later, on July 28, Gosden sent Elusive Kate from his Clarehaven Stables at Newmarket to Deauville in France, where she won the Group 1 Prix Rothschild. And last weekend, Gosden took a loss in the Group 1 Nassau at Goodwood with favored Izzi Top but won the race anyway with a filly named The Fugue, who has the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf on her agenda.

And that’s just the last few weeks. In England, Gosden also won the Group 1 Coronation Stakes with Fallen for You. In Ireland, Izzi Top won the Group 1 Pretty Polly while Great Heavens captured the Group 1 Irish Oaks.
That’s six Group 1 victories with six horses, and the calendar scarcely has flipped over to August, but Gosden – against all evidence – downplays the notion that this is his best year as a trainer. He mentioned as comparable 1997, the year he won the Epsom Derby with Benny the Dip, but Gosden won only five Group 1’s that year.

“This is a nice group, between all the fillies, some older horses,” said Gosden, who won the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Classic with Raven’s Pass. “But you’re only as good as your horses. Next year could be entirely different.”

Tall, imposing, witty, articulate, Gosden strides into a space and, without effort, basically takes it over. As the son of a longtime English trainer who died when Gosden was 15, Gosden, 62, fits neatly into the spacious niche he has carved. But his path to this point has been atypical.

Gosden graduated from Cambridge University, where he studied economics, and then found work in Venezuela, where he was involved in land management, but racing burbled on a back burner all along.

“I didn’t like office work,” Gosden said.

Gosden came back home to work with trainer Noel Murress at Newmarket, then moved on to Vincent O’Brien’s stables at Ballydoyle in Ireland before taking his big leap, a move to Southern California in the late-1970’s. He first worked for trainer Tommy Doyle but took out a license and began training on his own in 1979, something, Gosden said, that would’ve been far more difficult in England.

“To set up training in Europe is a much more extensive business,” Gosden said. “In America, you can manage to get yourself a couple horses and train on the track. I had three when I started out. It gives you a chance.”

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Gosden excelled as an American trainer. He has won 512 races in the U.S., including 58 graded stakes. He also trained two champions in the early-1980’s, Bates Motel and Royal Heroine, who won the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Mile. A decade into his tenure abroad, Gosden seemed firmly ensconced in California, but other factors came into play. Gosden’s wife, Rachel Hood, was meant to be a lawyer in England. The couple had begun a family – they have four children in all – and thought carefully about where they preferred to raise them. So in 1989, when Gosden got an offer from Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum to set up shop at Stanley House Stables at Newmarket, England, he took it.

Gosden’s operation didn’t sprout wings, and some slow early years spurred English racing’s chattering class to wonder if the prodigal son was cut out for European training.

“There were two factors at work there,” Gosden said. “One was [Sheikh Mohammed’s] whole homebred operation was in its infancy. They were still building farms, and everything was in an early stage. Second, there were a great number of other trainers as well. In the end, I had a Derby winner, so I suppose things weren’t that slow.”

Having established his place in English training, Gosden began looking beyond England’s borders. Gosden, having learned his trade in two parts of the world that conduct racing on far different terms, had accumulated a wider knowledge base than almost all his peers. He set about putting it to use.

“You have to be adventurous in life,” he said. “I think that’s the way to go.”

Gosden is especially deft at picking out horses for particular racing venues. He has won the 1 3/4-mile St. Leger Stakes four times, and regularly goes on successful raids of French tracks, of which there are hundreds. Gosden knows most of them, even the tiny provincial venues with a trotting oval inside the flat course. Colombian, one of Gosden’s two possible Million runners, won the Grand Prix du Nord last fall at something called Croise Larouche, a low-rung track 50 miles north of Paris.

“I thought the horse needed a confidence builder at the end of the year,” Gosden said. “It was a perfect race for him.”

George Strawbridge, the noted American owner and breeder, keeps about 10 horses with Gosden in England and has employed him for decades.

“He’s terribly smart,” Strawbridge said. “He knows an awful lot about every horse he trains – their strengths and weaknesses – and he knows about all the courses in Europe and in the United States. That’s how he’s able to match them up so well.”

Debussy, who gave Gosden his first Million in eight tries, provides an object lesson. Debussy had proved to be a decent Group 2 to Group 3 performer in his 12 starts before the Million, but one race in particular, a sharp two-length score in the Group 3 Huxley Stakes, had convinced Gosden to try Arlington. The Huxley was no major event, but Debussy had produced one of the best races of his career going around sharp left-handed turns on the Chester course – just the sort of conditions he’d encounter in the U.S. Debussy never duplicated his Million performance and, racing for a different trainer the next year, wound up as a rabbit for more highly regarded Godolphin runners.

Workouts this week at Newmarket will help Gosden sort out his final Arlington contingent, but it will be a significant one, regardless. Either Questioning or Colombian – both, like Debussy, owned by Princess Haya, Sheikh Mohammed’s wife – will be pointed to the Million. Colombian, a 4-year-old, has one win from three starts this year and has proved at his best to be only a marginal Group 2-type horse in Europe. And he’s more proven than Questioning, who has tended more toward mile races than Colombian, who regularly has tried one and one-half miles.

Aiken or Zuider Zee will start in the first edition of the $400,000 American St. Leger, a 1 3/4-mile race. Aiken, bred and owned by Strawbridge, beat Melbourne Cup winner Dunaden in France earlier this year and, at age 4, still seems to be developing. Zuider Zee, another Princess Haya horse, has won only once the last two calendar years but has solid form in races at the long American St. Leger distance.

Gosden’s Beverly D. and Secretariat runners basically are set. Joviality, who won the Group 2 Windsor Forest earlier this year, goes in the Beverly D., Darkest Hour in the Secretariat.

On paper, not one of these horses will look anything like a standout, but it’s a good guess that each has been selected to travel for a reason. And the way Gosden’s year has gone, figure all of them to be live.