Appleby on Godolphin: 'It's like a football team here, all the players play their part'

William Buick and Charlie Appleby at Saratoga after Nations Pride's Derby victory | Sarah Andrew


NEWMARKET, UK–Dawn hasn't even broken on Thursday morning at Godolphin's Moulton Paddocks and trainer Charlie Appleby is discussing with his lieutenants Marie Murphy and Chris Connett which rugs to pack for his team of seven horses travelling to the Breeders' Cup at Keeneland.

“That's 14 crates we're up to now,” he says, rolling his eyes and smiling. “Wasn't like that back in the day.”

Appleby is a lifer when it comes to racing, from his days as a youngster working for Jackie Retter and Susan Piggott, to his role as Godolphin's trainer at Moulton Paddocks. To say that the private Newmarket estate on which his horses stretch their legs each morning is state of the art doesn't even begin to do justice to the eye-popping facilities available, from figure-of-eight covered rides, to spas, and a selection of gallops on turf, irrigated woodchip, and Polytrack.

By far the most endearing trait of Appleby–a widely-liked member of both the Newmarket and wider racing community–is the lightness with which he wears his success. In fact, he barely acknowledges it for himself, referring regularly to what “we've achieved”. Not the royal we, it's the team of which he is nominally the captain and very much a part.

As he stands alongside the canters that spread across the side of a gentle hill awaiting his first lot of 60 horses, Appleby chats about which surface he prefers (turf or woodchip over Polytrack) and says wryly, “I dread having a bad spell because when you look at all this, it's not like we could be let down by the facilities.”

Fortunately, he hasn't had to worry about too many bad spells, and certainly not in the last few years. As his 10-year anniversary at the helm approaches, he can boast of a record that most of his colleagues in the training ranks could only dream about. Not that he does.

Since taking up the reins at Moulton Paddocks in July 2013, following a turbulent spell in the operation's history culminating in an eight-year ban for his former boss Mahmood Al Zarooni, Appleby, with his collaborative approach, has deftly steered Godolphin back into the big time of top-class winners the world over. In that relatively short time he has trained two Derby winners, an Irish Derby winner, six Breeders' Cup winners, Horse of the Year Ghaiyyath (Ire), champion 2-year-old Native Trail (GB), Melbourne Cup hero Cross Counter (Ire), and a dual Royal Ascot Group 1 winner in one week in Blue Point (Ire). Following last year's sensational hat-trick at the Breeders' Cup, a season in which he became champion trainer for the first time, Appleby followed up this spring by becoming the first trainer to win 2000 Guineas equivalents in three countries with three different horses.

“It's amazing how, when you come to the end of the season now, it just seems so far away what was achieved in the spring,” he says as he casts his mind back to Coroebus (Ire) beating Native Trail in the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket, before the latter took the Irish 2000 Guineas and Modern Games (Ire) won the Poule d'Essai des Poulains.

“I have to remind myself of that, and also remind the team. It's like a football team here, all the players play their part and so you want to keep morale up during times where sometimes it might be a bit quiet. But it is also to just remind them of what they've achieved. Three Guineas winners in three different countries–that hadn't been done before. I take great pride in what the whole team has achieved.”

A key factor in the success of that team is in its longevity. Appleby himself, now 47, has been with Godolphin for almost quarter of a century, and he is surrounded by many longstanding colleagues, as well as an abundance of highly regarded former jockeys, both still in the saddle and on the ground.

As we head out to meet first lot, led by Modern Games, appearing from the trees after their warm-up, a figure emerges from the darkness and Appleby says, “Here's Benny The Dip's rider.” Step forward Derby-winning jockey Willie Ryan, the trainer's eyes and ears as the horses approach the canter. Among those still riding, spotted as daybreak eases the viewing, are former champions Kieren Fallon and Seb Sanders, one rather more stylish than the other.

Three equine-related subjects occupy Appleby's mind this morning. Uppermost is his septet about to depart for the Breeders' Cup, all of whom came through a final strong workout on Wednesday with no issues, and who will board the flight to America on Saturday. Next comes the matter of the trainers' championship, in which he has been duelling with fellow Newmarket trainer William Haggas for much of the season but now has the upper hand. Of no less importance on the personal front is how his twin daughters, the eldest two of four children he has with his wife Aisling, are faring in a half-term show jumping championship in Cheshire. Very well, it appears, and it will be no surprise to see the name Appleby become a dominant force in the pony racing ranks in the not-too-distant future.

The vagaries of the British Flat racing season mean that both the owners' and the jockeys' championships have already been decided, with Godolphin and William Buick lending a true blue hue to Champions Day when collecting their trophies at Ascot. The trainer has to wait until the end of the year to see if he will retain his title, but it is hard to imagine now that he won't. Furthermore, the stallion to whom Appleby owes a significant debt of gratitude, the 20-year-old Darley stalwart Dubawi (Ire), looks set to earn his first champion sire title in Britain and Ireland this year. It is nothing short of a bluewash.

“I know people will say, 'Well, it's done', but the championship runs until the end of the year and I think there are still some little chances for both myself and William to try and gain a bit more,” says Appleby, clearly not resting on his laurels.

“We've had those three Guineas horses, but we haven't had that standout horse that's gone through the season, and I take my hat off to William and Baaeed (Ire) (Sea The Stars {Ire}) for keeping that consistency throughout the season at that top level. We've not had that horse.”

At the beginning of the year, it could well have been hoped that the standout horse would be Derby winner Adayar (Ire), but niggling problems meant that his return was delayed until September, when we saw him easily win a conditions race before chasing home Bay Bridge (GB) (New Bay {GB}) for second in the G1 Champion S. Happily, the imposing son of Frankel (GB) will remain in training at five, while his fellow Classic winners Native Trail and Modern Games look set to return at four.

This will no doubt be music to the ears of those who remember the elite Godolphin team of yesteryear, which was famed for its globetrotting older horses such as Fantastic Light, Kayf Tara (GB), and Daylami (Ire). Appleby, who certainly doesn't want for firepower when it comes to the bluebloods in his stable, has added another dimension of dominance at home and abroad.

“Most importantly, it was a brief from His Highness Sheikh Mohammed right at the start of all of this, very kind words, which were, 'I've got the confidence in you to do what you need to do, and the horses will repay you'. And, frankly, that's what they've done,” says Appleby.

“Last year, winning the championship was fantastic, but some people forget what we've achieved internationally. We're going to the Breeders' Cup hopefully with seven runners, and legitimate runners as well. And we've got a horse that campaigned in Germany all summer, and horses have been to France, and obviously we had our small team in America that did well. And that draws away from your home team. We are going out to try and win a championship, but we're also going out to try and win as many Grade I races as possible, because at the end of the day, we're an operation that is trying to produce stallions and trying to improve the broodmare band, so that's foremost in our programme.”

The cyclical nature of such a business means that next season the trainer will be overseeing the careers of some of the first-crop runners of his first Derby winner Masar (Ire), as well as top sprinter Blue Point.

“That's exciting,” he says, “Especially with Blue Point being so close to everybody's heart. The only thing is that it reminds you you're getting a bit older.”

Season's end can also bring with it pause for reflection but, despite some rip-roaring years, Appleby appears intent on looking forward rather than revelling in past glories.

He adds, “Every year since we've started training, myself and the management, we've got together at the end of the year and pointed out our highs and our lows. We look at what we can try to do to make things better.

“We're approaching that time now, and one thing I want to applaud them all for is the consistency. We haven't dropped below a 30% strike-rate, thankfully, throughout the season. I don't purposely go out there to try and achieve good stats, but it's something that I will monitor throughout the season to see how we are doing, because at the end of the day, they don't lie.”

An international racing programme, peppered with regular trips to Dubai's Marmoon Stable for the trainer, means that consistency in the personnel at home, too, is paramount.

“Alex Merriam and Marie Murphy will represent us at a lot at race meetings internationally,” says Appleby. “They've got a great support team behind them as well, in the head lads that are involved here. We've all worked together for years and I very rarely have to give an instruction now, everything just happens.

“When I'm away and I phone the guys, we're all speaking the same language and we all look at the horse in the same manner. When I go round into those stables and I look at the horses, and I might say a certain horse looks light perhaps, Marie will already be on it because they're seeing it the same way as I'm seeing it.”

He continues, “And again, with the travelling team, Chris Connett and Chris Durham, they do such fantastic jobs on these trips, looking after these horses and training them in the same way. We're in a very luxurious position in that I very rarely have to tell them what to do. There's a system in place. The same people jump the horses off at the bottom of the canter, and the same people meet them at the top. I don't have to see those parts of their training because they will report back to me and say, 'So and so is sweating, he doesn't normally sweat'. We'll get straight back and look at the horse ourselves, and if we feel there's something that needs to be investigated, then we'll ask the farriers and the vets to be involved as well. You're always trying to nip something in the bud early.”

It would appear that Sheikh Mohammed shares his trainer's desire to look to the future. As well as an abundance of homebreds to come into training next year, Appleby can presumably anticipate the arrival of a significant number of the 35 yearlings recently bought by his boss for the equivalent of £26.5 million at Book 1 of the Tattersalls October Yearling Sale.

“The enthusiasm from His Highness and the royal family is relentless, and it's fantastic for us, as well as for the sport and the industry,” says Appleby. “All we've spoken about lately is the yearlings. How are the yearlings getting on? That's the new generation, looking to the future, and that's why Dubai is what it is. There's always a vision there to keep driving on.”

The season may be coming to an end, but even in winter, there is little downtime for the modern-day Flat trainer. The yearlings are already being broken in by Tim Denniff and his team at a separate yard on the Moulton Paddocks estate, and of course the Dubai Carnival is another important focus for all employed at Godolphin. No wonder then that Appleby says in a brief reflection on the events of the last decade, “Where's the time gone?”

He adds, “We all stood at the top of that hill back in 2013 talking about what we were going to try to achieve. There have been some bumps in the road, when the winners haven't flowed, or we haven't had those group winners that we'd like to have had. But I think generally, if I step back and look at our anniversary of 10 years, we could say we've not done too badly.”

Not too badly at all.

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