Three-time International Trainer of the Year Charlie Appleby has for several years now been delivering significant success for Godolphin, the horse racing stable owned by HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, and Ruler of Dubai
In our latest ‘Sport Industry Insider Meets…‘, Appleby discusses his life and career in horse racing, working with Sheikh Mohammed and future hopes of glory with Godolphin.
I was brought up with ponies. Horses are in my blood.
We lived in the West Country in England, a very rural place, and my parents always had ponies so we grew up having to break them in ourselves from a young age. We learned how to deal with them and I suppose that’s where the interest started. I can remember my first time getting on, and of course my first time being bucked off. It’s like riding a bike. You have to take a few falls before you get the hang of it. For us it was all about horses which means that I didn’t really get into other sports like football. I’ve always wanted my own children to know more than just horses and they are a lot more educated about different sports than I was!
There was never another choice of career for me.
I don’t ever remember a moment where I thought ‘I definitely want to work in horse racing’. It just happened and there was a sort of inevitability to it as it was my life from the age of six or seven. By the time I was 16 I’d already been involved in Arab racing, professional stables and the jump racing scene in the West Country. Then I went to the British Racing School, going through all the courses and the education, and spent time at Newmarket. I first started with Godolphin working in France with [trainer] David Loder and later joined Saeed bin Suroor.
You don’t need to be a good jockey to be a good trainer.
There are obviously some who have been. Aidan O’Brien is probably the most successful – he rode very successfully himself, like the rest of the family. But equally some of the greatest trainers of all time weren’t jockeys – people like Henry Cecil. They rode horses of course, but weren’t jockeys. I rode myself a little bit on the flats and had a little bit of success riding Arab horses. But training is all about what sort of a feel you have for a horse – that’s the be all and end all. It’s like any sporting coach, you see talent and then it is your responsibility to manage it and challenge it.
Horses have distinct personalities – that’s why trainers are important.
When I discuss it with people who don’t know much about racing, I say that looking into a yard is like looking into a school playground full of kids running around. They are all individuals – some are natural athletes, some have a cheekiness, some need more discipline. You are looking for the right attributes to be a successful racehorse – obviously the raw talent is a part of that. But you have to manage them as individuals. Do they thrive on exercise? Do they like to be lightly trained? Some need pushing hard, some need to be treated delicately in order to channel them in the right direction.
You definitely warm to different characters. Blue Point will always be one of my favourites at Godolphin as he was a natural sportsman right from the word go. You’ve got to pick out that certain individual who’s got that bit of spirit or individuality about himself- those are the ones that, generally, go forward and do what you hope they can achieve.
Working for Godolphin is the pinnacle of horse racing.
I’ve got one of the best jobs in the world; we’re lucky to travel around the world with Godolphin and deal with high-class animals. I’m lucky to be closer than a lot of people to His Highness Sheikh Mohammed, to be close to that vision and that positive energy. In any sport, there are going to be days where you don’t have success but you’ve got to put that behind you and take the positives out of it and go forward. That’s the drive I get from His Highness. We pass that on to the jockeys and personnel as they are representing Godolphin – it’s the same as if you represent Nike or Under Armour. Wherever they are around the world, they are representing a brand as much as a racing stable. Of course it’s also a brand that will always be recognised as being Dubai.
A wonderful night for Godolphin at the @Cartier Racing Awards as brilliant sprinter #BluePoint and outstanding juvenile #Pinatubo receive accolades following unbeaten 2019 seasons 🏆— Godolphin (@godolphin) November 14, 2019
👑 Blue Point, Champion Sprinter
👑 Pinatubo, Champion Two-Year-Old Colt pic.twitter.com/Pe4ldP5wRh
Sheikh Mohammed’s passion for horses runs deep.
He was brought up with horses in the desert in Dubai; when he was young it was still an important form of transport. He has told me many times that horses were a big part of his childhood, just like myself. That passion just grew with age and his love of the sport as everyone knows now with Godolphin is huge. We’re very lucky to be a part of it and to share in that. Nobody has a more forward-thinking vision than Sheikh Mohammed.
Godolphin’s Marmoom Stables is a special place.
It’s a half-hour drive from Dubai; the benefits and the luxuries of being out there is we have our own dirt surface there, which is the old surface from Nad Al Sheba. We have grass gallops there as well. It is an oasis, really. Horses thrive out there because it’s a very relaxed, peaceful environment. Just like people, horses always do better when they are not stressed. I went out there for the first time about 10 years ago now and of course it’s changed – we’ve modernised certain parts and other parts have matured as the years have gone by.
At the start, all I wanted to achieve was winners.
Just get the winners rolling in, that was the aim. We were very lucky, we punched out plenty of winners in the first two years but the goalposts have changed in respect to the calibre of horse that we are looking after. The targets were to compete at a higher level – I didn’t want to turn up to all these high-profile meetings around the world like Royal Ascot, just to make up the numbers and be there with a 33-1 shot. I’d rather have three runners that are among the favourites than 16 who aren’t really in the running. We signed off 2019 very happy with what Godolphin has achieved and we’re building for next year. The aim is to be competing in the classics, but more importantly, be competitive in the classics.
It feels like a blur when you celebrate a victory.
To be brutally honest you forget those moments quite quickly – you are just doing your best to stay as professional as possible without jumping around all over the place. 2018 was one of those very special years where one success led to another. The Derby was particularly memorable, turning round and seeing the royal family all there. Sheikh Mohammed is a man who’s put so much into this industry and the delight that it brought him, that meant something very special. Then there was the first Melbourne Cup win too. My kids have taught me how to use YouTube so I’ve watched a few races back. You still get goosebumps when you watch because they are truly historic moments.
The build up to any big race is a nervous time.
We take it on a day-to-day basis. When you open that stable door each morning ahead of a race, you just hope that you don’t see your horse has done something silly in their stable during the night and given themselves a bang or something. It’s a relief just to get to that start line and at that stage you’ve got to take a step back and congratulate yourself, as that’s a huge challenge in itself, let alone trying to win the race. Regardless of the result we’ve done what we feel is best for the individual and we’ve prepared him for hopefully his peak performance. Then you just hope they are firing on all cylinders and 100% fit.
There is actually less pressure at the Dubai World Cup.
It’s Godolphin’s home race and we always discuss what runners and what races we’re going to compete in with Sheikh Mohammed. He always stresses that whatever happens it is a night that everyone should enjoy. If we’re lucky enough to have success that’s fantastic, but he’s also happy to see the worldwide runners coming in and winning as well. That takes the pressure off. Last year’s carnival was fantastic. Luckily enough, we took the championship there and set a new record for carnival winners. When you’ve got horses coming to a big night, that’s what the crowd want to see. They want to see the good horse go and win. The expectations were there last year that Blue Point and Cross Counter, being the Melbourne Cup winner, would win and thankfully they did. We obviously enjoyed it but hopefully it was just good for the sport and good for the people who came to the World Cup to see good racehorses perform at their highest level.
The Saudi Cup is going to be a huge night.
It had been in the pipeline for a while and obviously there’s a lot of prize money on offer so they’re hopefully going to attract good racehorses. For the region, it’s very positive as people around the Middle East are getting more opportunities to see top-class racing. In Europe there are so many great races on the doorstep and it would be great to have more than just the Dubai World Cup here. I’m sure we’ll be sporting a team to go over there, and hopefully take a few of those international runners on. Making the Saudi Cup a success won’t happen overnight but if you look at the Dubai World Cup, people raised their eyebrows at first but it matured into the calendar.