Colin Cameron talks to the highly successful racing trainer Hugo Palmer about betting well and winning on the day over lunch at Boisdale of Belgravia.
It’s easy to feel a shade sorry for Hugo Palmer. Raised in the borders of Scotland, the Newmarket trainer is now based in a part of Britain not exactly renowned for culinary excellence. That is if the town’s Chinese restaurant and takeaway mainstay is any sort of yardstick. But a stable with 190 choice thoroughbreds, including Galileo Gold, winner of last season’s 2,000 Guineas, should offset the need for any sympathy.
In any case, Pol Roger, the champagne favoured by Winston Churchill, sponsors Palmer’s Kremlin Cottage yard. His love of the turf made the tie up, along with Palmer’s haul of over 75 winners last season, a serendipitous union.
There is also the comfort of a distinguished pedigree. Palmer is the son of Adrian Bailie Nottage Palmer, the 4th Baron Palmer, and heir to the peerage. Consequently, the Honourable Hugo Bailie Rohan, to give him his full billing, is completely at home in Belgravia and he studies the menu with an intensity usually reserved for bloodstock sales catalogues and racecards.
There is nostalgia in the air. We are in the very place where, earlier in the trainer’s life, after apprenticeships in the bloodstock world and with Patrick Chamings, he decided to quit after three rewarding years as assistant to Hughie Morrison at his Berkshire yard and head for Australia. Home became Gai Waterhouse’s east coast stables for the final leg of his racing education. “As my grandfather always would say, leave a party when you are still enjoying yourself,” Palmer laughs.
With the horses Palmer has to hand, we should really pity other trainers. By the age of 35, he had already registered two Classic race winners – his 2,000 Guineas hero, ridden by Frankie Dettori, and the 2015 Irish Oaks winner, Covert Love. Galileo Gold remains under his care. “I convinced myself that, at very least, he had some sort of a chance in the Guineas at Newmarket,” Palmer recalls (even if a photograph of him after the race shows a degree of disbelief!). “After five runs as a two-year-old some held the view that we already knew how good he was and that wouldn’t be quite good enough. But on the gallops in the weeks before the race he was outstanding.”
In fact, as a two-year-old Galileo Gold showed every sign that he was a talent. In his nap hand of outings, he was first three times in a row after managing runner up on his debut. A disappointing final run of the season in France last October, when he managed only third with the stable hopeful. To make success at Newmarket seem a distant memory.
Recalling the classic race, Palmer pauses for a moment. There were guests staying with him and his wife Vanessa. “So just a bit of pressure,” he jokes. “We had given Galileo Gold a racecourse gallops up Newmarket’s Rowley Mile where the Guineas is run – so a chance to experience the track, where he had never raced, in the company of other horses. These outings usually take place after racing so there were a few in the grandstand. Altogether the excursion got his heart rate up. Plus he had a chance to stretch out on stunningly beautiful ground.”
That day Frankie Dettori partnered Galileo Gold. On dismounting after the gallop, the Italian couldn’t stop talking up the horse. Palmer smiles at the memory. “Toby Atkinson was Galileo Gold’s usual rider on the gallops in the morning. He would always say what a kick he got riding him,” he adds. The special ones, among which Galileo Gold definitely numbers, are rare indeed, assures Palmer.
A feature of the very best is that they are also usually more reliable than the less talented. In this respect, then, a less risky prospect when betting (at least relatively speaking). At the same time, with ante post Classic race punting – wagering on races like the 2,000 Guineas weeks and months before they are run – Palmer suggests that sometimes caution is profitable. “For a race like the 2,000 Guineas, horses don’t usually feature in public much between October and the spring. So, unless you hear something, why punt? Galileo Gold was priced at up to 40-1 over the winter and pretty much the same odds when he emerged for the spring.”
The betting market can begin to move around the time of the spring trial races, upon us in April and May at Newmarket, Newbury, York, Chester and Sandown – ahead of the Classics (May’s 1,000 and 2000 Guineas, and the Oaks and Derby at Epsom June). The winners of trial races and those who perform well in them shorten in price. Again, Palmer suggests folk be wary of backing classic runners on the basis of their trial runs. “For some, the classic trial is more important than the Classic, itself. Take a race like Newmarket’s Craven Stakes, which Galileo Gold missed in preference for a racecourse gallop. That is an opportunity for a colt to win a Group 3 pattern race and prize-money. That, not success in the 2,000 Guineas can be the goal,” he warns.
For a racecourse gallop, which is usually held at the end of an afternoon’s racing with work riders rather than jockeys in silks, Palmer urges folk to stay on and watch, even after a bad day’s
punting. There can be much to learn, he argues. “Key to it, is what a trainer hopes to gain from the outing,” Palmer explains. “Often this is not widely known. So you have to work out what might be the objective. I said to Frankie that our aim was to build up the horse’s confidence after the knock he took in France. In other words, make a fuss of him. When Frankie got off, he was sold on the horse’s chances. What’s more, with Galileo Gold, on the basis of how he performed, some locals backed him for the Guineas.”
A notch below in racing’s pecking order are the handicaps. In these races, in which runners are allotted weights so in theory they will all finish at the same time, big prices like the 14-1 starting price of Galileo Gold in the 2,000 Guineas are wholly feasible with the application of shrewd judgment.
Palmer muses over what is an altogether different challenge to winning classic races. “For the big handicaps, the field is not going to be full of the highest calibre of runner, which it is my main aim to train. For me, handicaps would be for one of my progressive types, who may not be great or even potentially great but are nevertheless getting better every time they run and with a particular handicap coming into view seem to have something more to give.”
A crucial aspect might well be the location. Palmer concurs. “The particular track configuration of the racecourse does come into it, especially at venues like Chester and Epsom,” he insists. “These are unusual tests; Chester is a very tight circuit, Epsom is a steep climb and then the ground falls away in the home straight towards the middle of the track. Experience of these features can be crucial. Horses who like running at these distinctive tracks show their best at them time and time again.”
He adds that tracks like York, which are very flat and regular in shape, dilute the benefits of having run there before. “The course specialist is neutralized as every runner should be able to perform to the best of their ability,” Palmer maintains.
Scotland’s most famous race, the Ayr Gold Cup, is a historic handicap. For all the pleasure a native might take from lifting this prize, Palmer admits he might enjoy more winning the Northumberland Plate just south of the border at Newcastle, where he studied at university.
“Ayr is on the other side of what I would consider my Scottish roots,” Palmer explains. “The Gold Cup? Good prize-money, and a very special race, no doubt about that. Equally, my connection with Newcastle is very strong. The history of the Plate, which locals call the Pitmen’s Derby, is also tremendous and the prize-money is also jolly good.”
Palmer leans forward and speaks with a quiet voice. An experienced horse with stamina is what is needed, he confides. There is a short moment’s contemplation. “Maybe a horse called To Be Wild,” Palmer moots. A very nice four-year-old, he assures.
For before the Plate in July, our guest trainer dons a lucky Boisdale Hat from Bates of Jermyn Street for inspiration to make the weeks and months of the spring and early summer profitable.
A Derby to pair up with last year’s Guineas? The dream, admits Palmer, six years on from the start of his training career. “Best of Days has had three runs as a two-year-old and will hopefully show himself good enough to run at Epsom. Last year he won the Royal Lodge Stakes and was second in the Acomb Stakes. The plan this year would be to run in one of the Derby trials as preparation for June and Epsom.
He laughs: “The colt is by Azamour. I have had five of that stallion’s progeny and four of them have been good enough to win stakes races with the fifth now a polo pony.”
Such are the vagaries of racing. Similarly, Vintage Folly, a three-year-old filly could be ‘everything, anything or nothing,” Palmer shrugs. In preparation for her hopefully being the first of these, she is entered in the Oaks at Epsom. Whisper it, but her owner is the Australian distributor for Pol Roger. Palmer smiles. As you would when well covered for success in that particular race, and, with the champagne house sponsorship, for all other occasions when Kremlin Cottage finds a way to the winner’s enclosure. There may be bubbles ahead.