Ferguson Riding High Into Del Mar After First Group 1 Win


David and Mary Redvers, Oisin Murphy, Wendy Storrie and James Ferguson with Mise En Scene after her Prestige Stakes win | racingfotos.com


NEWMARKET, UK–There's grey, cloud-stuffed sky hanging over Newmarket as the mild autumn is bustled along by an impatient winter. Exactly a week ago, it felt like spring was still in the air in Paris as a sun-dappled day saw second-season trainer James Ferguson announce his presence in the international stage with a first Group 1 winner.

The diminutive El Bodegon (Ire) (Kodiac {GB}) passed almost literally under the noses of observers on the paddock rails who mostly had eyes for his bigger, stronger rivals, but the little colt has the heart to match his talent and continued his upward climb to the top rank of European juveniles with a bold, front-running win in the G1 Criterium de Saint-Cloud. 

Fergsuon's former boss Charlie Appleby, in line to be Britain's champion trainer for the first time this year, had the favourite, Goldspur (Ire) ((Dubawi {Ire}), but he and his jockey William Buick were on this occasion happy to settle for third as they slapped their old colleague on the back in the winner's enclosure, knowing just what such a victory means to a young trainer.

This Saturday morning, Ferguson is back in his regular groove of training the horses at his Exeter Road stable, overseeing some stalls practice for an inexperienced juvenile ridden by his younger brother Alex, and happily chatting to TDN in between bouts of activity. Come Friday, however, he will be back in the sun, this time at Del Mar, to saddle Qatar Racing's Wise En Scene (GB) (Siyouni {Fr}), who will become his first runner at the Breeders' Cup in the GI Juvenile Fillies Turf.

“I was absolutely gobsmacked to be honest,” says the usually eloquent Ferguson as he reflects on El Bodegon's breakthrough triumph. “I get a bit carried away and I'd cheer home a 0-55 at Catterick, but this time I couldn't even speak. I thought Ioritz Mendizabal gave him a great ride. He was very confident even though it wasn't the plan to go forward, but from that draw he just found himself there.”

Mendizabal has been the go-to jockey in France for Aidan O'Brien while Covid restrictions have prevented him from sending his own riders from Ireland, and he has been involved in some notable wins for the Ballydoyle team, not least two Classics on St Mark's Basilica (Fr). But the Basque-born jockey was only too keen to renew his acquaintance with El Bodegon following their win in the G3 Prix de Conde at Chantilly at the end of September, and at Saint-Cloud, O'Brien had to settle for second with Peter Brant's Stone Age (Ire) (Galileo {Ire}), ridden by Christophe Soumillon.

“It was a plan ever since he ran at Chantilly and Ioritz got off and said 'you've got to run him in the Criterium de Saint-Cloud',” Ferguson continues. “It had already been in the back of our minds if we won, but it cemented the idea in our minds as obviously Ioritz knows the tracks well [in France]. But even when he won the Prix de Conde I don't think he actually realised how tough the horse is and how well he really stays.”

It is certainly unusual to see a son of Kodiac staying on so well over 10 furlongs in testing conditions, but then El Bodegon is no ordinary Kodiac. Neither was his full-brother, Godolphin's treble Group 1 winner Best Solution (Ire). The siblings, bred by Cecil and Martin McCracken, hail from a stout family which includes the St Leger winner Brian Boru (Ire) (Sadler's Wells) and Derby and Arc winner Workforce (GB) (King's Best).

He adds of the colt, “He's come out of the race really well. He's the kind of horse that you could run again the next day if you wanted to but that will obviously be him done for the season now. I'll probably keep him on the go just very lightly as he can get very fresh but he's exciting for next year.”

Ferguson, whose father John was the former bloodstock advisor and main buyer for Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin operation, turned 32 the day after saddling his first Group 1 winner. Obviously having family ties within the game is an advantage which will helped him compile a strong line-up at his Newmarket stable, which he rents from Willie Musson. But it would be wrong to conclude that Ferguson's connections have been the key to his success. 

The trainer has served a lengthy apprenticeship, spending two years as pupil assistant to Sir Mark Prescott, who suffers neither fools nor shirkers. He also had a stint in America and a lengthy period working under Appleby at Moulton Paddocks, during which time he successfully oversaw that stable's runners in Australia. Following his time with Godolphin he was also assistant trainer to Brian Meehan for a year at Manton before setting out on his own.

His approach to his own operation clearly revolves around including his generally young team as much as possible. Alex Ferguson is one of his key work riders, Freddie Morley is his assistant, and Katie Thurtle, an experienced horsewoman with an instantly likeable disposition, looks after the office and owner liaison. 

“I can't stress enough that James Ferguson Racing isn't just James Ferguson, it's the whole team,” says the man whose name is on the gate. 

“Dad has always been a big part of this team. Even though he doesn't live in Newmarket he keeps up to date with everything that's going on and manages a few horses in the yard. He's been a tremendous help and to draw on his experience–and he's been doing this an awful long time–has been hugely beneficial to me.”

The immediately obvious benefit is that John Ferguson bought El Bodegon for his owners the Nas Syndicate and Tony O'Callaghan (who stands his sire at Tally-Ho Stud) for 70,000gns. Five years earlier he had also bought the subsequent G1 Caulfield Cup winner Best Solution for Sheikh Mohammed for 90,000gns.

James Ferguson adds, “He's a big part of it and it's very handy when you have someone with his experience buying your yearlings because you're minimising your risk in order to get a good one.”

Mise En Scene, on the other hand, was bred at Tweenhills Stud by The Gadfly Partnership before being kept to race in the Qatar Racing silks. A winner on debut in July, she leapt straight into Pattern company the following month when winning the G3 Prestige S. at Goodwood and most recently finished fourth in the G1 Fillies' Mile at Newmarket.

“Mise En Scene showed a lot of ability early,” Ferguson says. “She wasn't necessarily forward but she always had an aura of class. I didn't actually have many fillies so she ended up working with colts and she always gave you the feeling that she was going up the canter quite easily, whereas El Bodegon was quite different. El Bodegon would sort of only just do what you asked him, but she is desperate to please.”

He continues, “She had a racecourse gallop at Chelmsford before she ran so we went to Haydock knowing that we had a good 2-year-old on our hands but obviously you never quite know. When she went to Goodwood the massive step up in class was obviously a question mark but I was confident enough that she would go and do us proud. I didn't really want to run in a novice and I was working backwards from the Fillies' Mile so in my mind it was either go to the Prestige or the May Hill at Doncaster, and I didn't want to step up to a mile straight away. As a team, with Qatar Racing, we decided on the Prestige. 

“When you look at Mise En Scene she looks like a 3-year-old so we felt that she wasn't a horse you'd want to be giving lots of runs to at two. We knew that we'd have three or maybe four runs this year, so Del Mar will be her fourth. It's very exciting.”

Mise En Scene touched down safely in California on Friday evening in the experienced care of Alison West. Her trainer will join her on Monday. 

He says, “She's going there a fit horse so there's not a lot that needs to be done. I've worked in America for Eoin Harty but that was at Saratoga. I've never actually been to Del Mar so I don't know the backstretch situation but Alison used to work for Sir Mark Prescott and she took Marsha to Del Mar so she knows what she's doing.”

Could lightning strike twice within two weeks for the young trainer? There's certainly no lack of confidence in the camp, but the mood is also sensibly measured. 

Ferguson says of the filly rivalling El Bodegon for the title of stable star, “Mise En Scene is quite relaxed and she wasn't disgraced at all in the Fillies' Mile. I very much came out of the race feeling that she was the one to take out of it–whether it was the track, or a little bit of trouble in running, there was nothing lost and actually the benefit of her situation is that she is very lightly raced and she is going to Del Mar a fairly fresh filly.”

He adds, “We're very lucky to be in this position and we want to be known as people that if we are given the right horses we can do a good job with them. We are also very grateful to Sheikh Fahad and the Qatar team to put such such faith in us so soon after starting out. It would be great to go to Del Mar and get a big win for them but obviously we've got to stay grounded and enjoy the moments when they come. We know they are very hard to come by.”

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