Ferguson’s flyers ready to take off at Festival
Out in the desert, after lunch, Sheikh Mohammed will sometimes take him hunting gazelle with the saluki hounds.
They wander on foot, over sand and scrub, between trembling horizons. It is a world away from the green hills of Cheltenham — another destination that John Ferguson has found “completely by accident”.
In both environments, however, you know the man whose bearings are true.
Ferguson has spent three decades exploring the lore that governs the breeding and purchase of elite Flat racers.
As manager of the biggest bloodstock empire in history, Darley Stud, signing for unbroken yearlings at millions of dollars, he can scarcely take the view that quality in thoroughbreds is unaccountable. So while he knows that horses will never stop teaching you new lessons, he also understands that the most precious ones will be about yourself.
“If you'd told me last year that I'd be having six runners at the Festival, I'd have said you were on drugs,” Ferguson says cheerfully, driving round the impressive training facility he has set up outside Newmarket.
The horses going to the Festival next week all have a legitimate chance, notably New Year's Eve in the bumper, yet emerge from a barn housing just 10 others.
Ferguson has saddled 22 winners from 61 runners in his first season with a permit, a superior strike-rate to every other British stable with a pertinent sample.
Here is a trainer who plainly knows what he is doing.
He bought Bloomfields with the idea of a little breeding in retirement, patiently turning arable acreage over to grass.
But his two sons became so infected by the racing bug that Ferguson decided a few point-to-pointers might redress some of the family time lost to a job, however stimulating, that could require him to fly from Japan to America via Britain — merely to hand over one suitcase and pick up another.
On his 50th birthday, Ferguson walked his dogs up the woodchip gallop he had laid down for the point-to-pointers, and made the sort of self-assessment merited by the milestone.
“I asked myself: ‘Have you enjoyed your life?’ And John replied: ‘Fantastic, wonderful.’ And then I asked: ‘Do you want to do this for the next 20 years?’ And the answer was ‘No’.”
He went to see “the Boss” whose reaction was typical. “Good leadership is about delegation,” said the ruler of Dubai. Ferguson stresses that their working relationship is unchanged.
Recently Ferguson sent out six winners over one weekend — including four from a team of just 10 between the flags. “With jumping, I'm slightly making it up as I go along,” he said. Judging from the results, you have to suspect that the accidental trainer must be leaving rather less to chance.