Writing a Turf column before the Cheltenham Festival, as the Spectator schedule requires, which you are reading only after the four-day jump-racing bacchanal has concluded, was a problem. I could neither revel in the moments of glory some equine fighter pilots will have enjoyed nor reveal hard-luck stories behind others who did not make it. But after a frozen morning near Newmarket last week, watching one batch of Festival combatants going through their paces, I had one hope above all others: that before the Festival ended the words 'Trained by J. Ferguson, Cowlinge, Suffolk' would have entered the official record beside at least one winner's name.
The great David Nicholson took 18 years to train his first Festival winner. Noel Meade bent and kissed the ground like a pope on making it after 21. But for the energetic John Ferguson this was the last chance. He is giving up the jump-racing life he loves to do still more for a man for whom he has unbounded respect: Sheikh Mohammed.
For 30 years Ferguson has been the Dubai ruler's bloodstock adviser and discreet right arm, signing for seven-figure purchases and circling constantly around the world's Flatracing centres to oversee some 2,000 racehorses and a similar number of breeding stock. He talks compellingly not just about Sheikh Mohammed's fearlessness in ignoring the world's travel-business experts and building Dubai into a global city but also about any aspect of the horse world. How does he pick one out at the sales? 'You look for a horse that is an athlete, that has good conformation and which, knowing the pedigree, looks as it should do on the breeding.'
On the way to becoming a bloodstock expert, via a few years in the Scots Guards, Ferguson worked for three years for leading Flat trainer Sir Michael Stoute. But inside him, too, there was always the passion of a jump-racing man, an ex-master of the hard-running Scarteen Hounds in Limerick who had once led up a Grand National runner for Lambourn trainer Nick Gaselee. In 2011, having not entered a jumps yard since 1978, he decided to turn what had been intended as a stud farm for his retirement into a jump-racing yard. The theory was simple: that the first thing you need in racing is speed and that, provided it can also stay and that you can teach it to settle and jump, a fast horse will nearly always beat a slow one. The only snag is that on the soft winter ground the speed factor can become muffled.
Sheikh Mohammed blessed his ambition and helped Ferguson fill the two Bloomfields yards (named diplomatically after his wife's and his mother-in-law's maiden names) with well-bred Flat-racers who might otherwise have been sold off. In his first season John Ferguson trained around 25 winners at the best strike rate in the country. Last season he trained 50 and this season he led the trainers' table in early season heading for around 75. Then in December it was announced that Sheikh Mohammed's Darley breeding operation and Godolphin racing would merge into a global entity with Ferguson formally becoming the chief executive--and relinquishing his jump-training licence.
Fergie, as friends know him, insists that quitting jumping was his decision. 'I found that I was becoming more and more obsessive about the jump-racing and there was only so much time in the day for worrying about Godolphin and Darley. The more successful we became the more time it was taking me to make sure we were making the right decisions. I suddenly realised I wasn't really fulfilling my responsibilities.' The Boss, it seems, wasn't worried. But Ferguson was. 'He was happy for me to carry on. The difficulty was inside me.' So new berths have been found for the Bloomfields staff, some of the horses that have been carrying the black-with-red-cap Bloomfields colours will go to the sales, the better ones will go to Godolphin for staying races on the Flat. But first there remained the little matter of the Cheltenham Festival, where in his short jump-training career John Ferguson has not had fortune on his side. Three years ago, with his race won in the Neptune Hurdle, Cotton Mill unaccountably lurched left and crashed out. Ferguson had a second in that same race with Parlour Games and New Year's Eve was runner-up in the Festival Bumper. If this week he has had a Festival winner, it would be the deservedly appropriate finale to a fascinating experiment.
John Ferguson is quitting with no regrets and the man who commutes from Newmarket to Dubai like some do from Wimbledon to the City won't exactly be going away. Could he return to his jumping love when his Godolphin/Darley days are finally done? He doesn't close out the question. But with son Alex already riding as an amateur and son James now an assistant to trainer Charlie Appleby he argues, 'The next Ferguson with a licence will probably be one of my sons rather than me.'