A fresh new breeze is wafting through British racing. Led by the enthusiastic Sheikh Fahad Al Thani, the Qatar ruling family is investing heavily in buying British bloodstock and, through their Qipco holdings, sponsoring the richest day’s racing in Britain.
At first British racegoers accepted the newcomers with a polite smile, seeing them as another bunch of mineral-resources-rich foreigners who would enjoy a few nice days out at Newmarket and Goodwood and then pass on to a new fancy such as founding theme parks or financing movies. But that is not how it is: the Qataris love their racing and are spending cleverly — a key example being the racing yard at Robins Farm near Chiddingfold to which Sheikh Fahad recruited Oliver and Hetta Stevens.
Olly’s business card proclaims him ‘Trainer/Director’, and as he explained to me about the heart monitors that the Robins Farm string wear attached to their girths, hooked up to a computer system that can allow owners to monitor their horse’s progress as they go, he noted simply: ‘Training has gone beyond standing at the top of a hill and saying “damned fine filly!”’
He was brought up in Newmarket, carriage-driving with his grandmother and riding her ponies. When he was still in short trousers the family would take tea with Henry Cecil and he used to get butterflies in his stomach, he admits, simply looking at the Warren Place string even during his own Cecil-style tearaway days in his late teens. Olly learned stable crafts with James Fanshawe and had the nonsense knocked out of him during a spell with Jessie Harrington in Ireland. ‘I was the spoiled boy from Newmarket and she let me down to earth with a bump, shouting “time and motion” at me and teaching me how to get twice as much done in a day.’
Hetta, who shared the dream of the training life, gained her experience with Henrietta Knight, with Newmarket trainer Rae Guest and with the genius Michael Dickinson in the USA. Olly’s learning years concluded with Kellyn Gorder in the USA. Hetta was there with Dale Romans and it was in America they had planned to set up until Sheikh Fahad signed them up. In this, their debut season, they explosively signalled their arrival by winning the Windsor Castle Stakes at Royal Ascot with Extortionist.
It is very much a joint operation. ‘If I’ve done a day in the office I wouldn’t dream of making an entry without discussing it with Hetta. If she’s been feeling the horses’ legs she wouldn’t take any decision without getting me to look at it as well,’ says Olly. Their brief is to find and bring on a good team of winning two-year-olds, the kind of quick horses who will do well over six furlongs on good-to-firm ground. But this is no private Godolphin-style operation: Robins Farm is fully open to outside owners as well as the Qataris.
For the moment at least dreams of training expensive Classic candidates for middle-distance races must wait. Standing beside his impressive Valley Gallop, the same length and gradient as Newmarket’s Warren Hill, Olly says, ‘If that makes us something of a fast-food operation then so be it. If you go to Doncaster Sales and spend an average of £30,000 on ten horses you’ve got a reasonable chance of getting a [top class] Pattern horse. If you spend £300,000 on one middle-distance horse you are competing against Darley and Coolmore who will win the Oaks and send their mares to Galileo and your chance of getting the good one is quite small — added to that you’ve got to wait until they are four to know.’
Is their US experience evident in the way Robins Farm operates? In bits and pieces of detail certainly. Staff and horses are all turned out in the blue and yellow logo of Robins Farm Racing to reflect the blue and yellow of Qatar’s Pearl Bloodstock. ‘It gives them a sense of pride; they feel they are working for a proper enterprise and I would do it again even if I had to take a hefty bank loan to do it.’ As Olly, bursting with enthusiasm, shows me the burly Extortionist, the Ascot winner is wearing ice boots to help reduce any risk of tendon inflammation after exercise. Olly’s three barns (and all 40 boxes are full) are not organised traditionally by separating colts and fillies: instead they are graded for cleanliness and healthiness. New arrivals from the sales go at the ‘dirty end’, fully fit performers at the other end.
The most important lesson Olly learned in the US, he says, was one of attitude. He was asked to move and establish in a new barn, fully running, a group of 20 horses. Given an afternoon to do it, he warned it might take him a day. ‘I don’t want to hear that English attitude,’ came the response. ‘You’ll do it in the afternoon. Come back and tell me when you’ve worked out how.’ The lesson was duly learned. If there is one thing more impressive than the facilities at Robins Farm it is the work ethic.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10