Menuisier: 'I Wanted to be in a Niche Where Nobody Else Was'

David Menuisier and Classic hope Sunway | Emma Berry


One test of a visit to a racing yard is whether you come away wishing you owned a horse to send there. David Menuisier's set-up is one such place. If you like patient trainers with strong opinions who pride themselves on being self-made while displaying a virtuoso's touch, Dancing Brave's old home near Pulborough in West Sussex could be for you.

Menuisier, a Frenchman in love with British racing – despite the inferior prize-money – is L'Etranger of the training ranks. One translation of that label is somebody who isn't part of a community or organisation. Menuisier, who started in 2014 with one raceable horse, largely avoids bloodstock agents and isn't impressed by privilege. It hasn't stopped him becoming an assured and intuitive trainer of Group-race winners.

In the Arcadia of Guy Harwood's old domain – Coombelands, with its radiant South Downs views – Menuisier watches his best hope for 2024, the three-year-old colt Sunway (Fr), trot through cold winter air before laying out, back in his office, his training manifesto, which is a mix of traditionalist and radical.

The story blends tough beginnings and a strong vein of pride in being an underdog.  “I'm not fashionable – and you have to realise I'll never be,” he says. “It's fine. It will always be harder for me than those young trainers in Newmarket, because I don't belong to those circles. I'm happy with it. Very little in racing works with merit. Probably 20% of it.”

If this sounds like disillusionment, Menuisier delivers it wryly, and enjoys his work too much to be bitter. And this Flat season brims with promise. His best horses so far have been the dual Group 1-winning filly Wonderful Tonight (Fr), Thundering Blue and Danceteria (Fr). Last year he bucked his own trend of being a cautious starter by winning the Lincoln Handicap with Migration (Ire) – and finished the campaign with a flourish. There were two-year-old stakes wins in France for Tamfana (Ger), War Chimes (Fr) and Sunway (the Group 1 Criterium International), and a Group 3 win for Caius Chorister (GB) – all in the space of five days.

No wonder he feels vindicated in working with the natural development cycle of horses, rather than against it, as some trainers do in search of faster gratification.

“It's always been my line of thinking. I wanted to be in a niche where nobody else was – but it's also what I love,” he tells TDN. “I'm different to some others. I don't criticise others. But I would find it a little bit boring to be someone who only trains sprinters or only trains sharp two-year-olds. It's not really my cup of tea.

“Some of my best clients chuck it in my face every now and then that I can't train two-year-olds. What they mean by two-year-olds is sharp ones, in the first few months of the year. I would always prefer the ones who come through in October and make three-year-olds and four-year-olds.

“If you want a really good three-year-old they have to be good as a two-year-old as well because the talent gets them through that. Like Sunway. You can't say Sunway is a real two-year-old but he's always found life easy. You'd like to believe or hope his best seasons are ahead of him rather than last year. He's bred to be more of a three-year-old slash four-year-old. If you want a top three-year-old, obviously they'll be top two-year-olds as well – but I don't mind one that takes more time, and gets better at four or five.”

All the people I have here are people who have decided to be with me. I have never picked up the phone to get anybody in here.

Even at a trot, Sunway floats up Menuisier's gallops with noticeable fluency in his action. And though Menuisier is a true adopted Sussex man, he's also prodigal. Many of his biggest wins were landed in France and Sunway's targets are the Poule d'Essai des Poulains and Prix du Jockey Club, ideally on good or slightly softer ground.

You can't help wondering though why he trains in England rather than France, where prize-money is higher and political paralysis in racing less evident. He says: “It makes me unique. When I came back from America to work for John Dunlop I think I just fell in love with the area, fell in love with English racing.

“I've been lucky enough to compete in nine different countries and I've not seen a better jurisdiction than this one. The prize-money could be better, this or that could be better, recruitment…

You could make the same comment for any jurisdiction. Owners want to be in England.  The next big owner is more likely to start in England than America or Australia, or France or Germany. It's the right place to be.

“We are blessed with a good programme on the whole.

The handicap system allows you a chance to go up step by step.

“In terms of the management of British racing I think there are too many entities. It's better when people sit down and discuss things than pull the sheet to their side. I don't think there's enough unity in British racing. Who is in charge of what and what do they do? I have no idea. That makes British racing have too many middlemen, and each middleman is going to take his little chunk of money. People are putting a veto here and a veto there, and everything is at a standstill the whole time.

“I feel that some of the entities in racing are more than happy to carry on the way it is because they make enough money. Not everybody sees the situation as desperate. We do, but it's only one branch of British racing.”

In his debut year, England might have felt very much like the wrong place to be. Menuisier and his partner Kim Johnstone took the plunge in 2014 with four horses (three borrowed) and a £60,000 fighting fund.

“If I had to do it again, I don't think I would. Or, if I had to do it now, starting in 2024, I'm not sure I would,” Menuisier says.

“In those days we were 10 years younger but things were a little easier than they are now. Even though it was a difficult start we never thought we could fail. It was a weird impression because we had absolutely nothing and nobody on our side. But despite all, it never felt like a risky thing to do. These days things are a lot more expensive. It would be extremely difficult now to start the way we did. We were meant to be wiped out in the first few months.”

Instead a horse bred by his parents in France – Slunovrat (Fr) – scored a breakthrough win at Newcastle and enticed Clive Washbourn to become the yard's first major owner. “Not many trainers would start with one runnable horse, a middle-distance horse, an unbroken horse. This very first winner showed the trademark of the yard,” Menuisier says.

“I knew Clive from John Dunlop's. He said, 'all my horses are allocated but if you prove you can train a winner I'll back you.' I won my first race on 25 August 2014. The very next day he said – 'I said I'll back you and I will.'

“All the people I have here are people who have decided to be with me. I have never picked up the phone to get anybody in here. All the owners I have have come here because they've seen our results and decided to be here. That's another thing I'm really proud of.

“Most of my owners are self-made people. They are not people who've inherited. So they know what it takes and we can speak on the same level. Clive is a mate now. We've become friends. There's nothing to hide from him. He's always been here for me and I've always been here for him. I don't need to change my tone when we speak. It's the same with Guy Pariente [Sunway's part-owner and breeder] from France. He's a very successful businessman but he's not part of the jet set. He's a grounded person. I think grounded people suit me.”

Menuisier's high regard for Oisin Murphy is based only partly on Murphy telling him Sunway was the best two-year-old he sat on last year: a review that will have featured in Qatar racing's part-purchase of the full brother to Sealiway (Fr), a G1 Champion S. winner. Both were bred by Pariente, the owner of Haras de Colleville, and they are by his stallion Galiway (GB) from the Kendargent (Fr) mare Kensea (Fr).

“Oisin Murphy was an integral part of the team.” Menuisier says.  “Last year he came down on a regular basis. Oisin kept on saying – with the bunch of two-year-olds you have, you'll be fine.

“He's a nice person. You can easily build a lovely work relationship with him. When he comes here he's part of the team. He doesn't think of himself as a superstar, he makes his own coffee, he gives a hand to the staff – even sweeping, or whatever. He's just the simplest person. I'm a simple guy as well. We just get on. His opinion is invaluable. I use Jamie Spencer as well for the same reason. He's a really good worker. He's interesting – and interested, in what we're doing. He's another jockey I have a lot of time for.”

Murphy's enthusiasm for Sunway had to be taken on trust because Menuisier is not one to mistake a training ground for a racecourse: “We thought he was special but you can only compare him to the other horses. And in the morning we don't really test the V12. So it's hard to be confident you definitely have a world beater. When an outsider who's a superstar jockey comes down and tells you that, it does comfort you.”

Menuisier may lean on jockeys for insights but bloodstock agents and fixers are consulted less frequently: “I have nothing in particular against any of them. I feel as a trainer I would rather go and buy the horses I want to train rather than use somebody to buy horses I may not like.

“I'd rather do it myself because I'm going to live with them for two or three years. As I don't rub anyone's back, they don't have to rub mine. I've built this yard not relying on them. They were not here when I started in 2014, so I don't need them now.”

He relies instead, at the sales, on his own eyes and instincts. Two years ago he spotted a filly who had won at Newbury but was now surplus to requirements at a big yard. He takes up the story: “I noticed she probably wasn't running over the right ground and probably needed a bit of time.

“I rang Kim and said, 'If this filly makes 25 grand we might buy her as a project. She's well bred, she's a winner as a two-year-old, I'd like to bring her back later in the season and hopefully give her a bit of black type.' She was only rated 72. Sometimes you feel she's going to be lucky or…it's an intuition. I work a lot with intuition.

“I bought the filly for 26 grand – I went above my budget – turned her out, identified a little infection in her throat – nothing too bad. She basically needed time. 

“Anyway I never saw the best of her in the morning, so we trained her to sit on the tail of somebody else and not move an eyelid. I didn't know whether she'd improved. I sold half to my loyal client Clive, a quarter to one of his mates, a Spanish guy. I ran her at Saint-Cloud in a Listed race, rated 72. Everything else was above 100, including Tribalist, who was third in the Guineas. She ran second in the race beaten a whisker. A stride after the line she would have beaten the winner. 

“We sold her in December for 385 grand. The guy that bought her decided he knew better and sent her to a good trainer.” But less than a year later the filly's owner asked Menuisier to take her on again. “I said, look, I've done it once, I'll have her back because I love her, and I know how she works, but I can't guarantee I can do it twice. She came back here. She was placed in a Group 3 at the end of the year, rated 102.

“Something I learned at Criquette [Head's] is that some people over-train them. You have to be careful not to over-train. Always try to under-train rather than over-train. Because if you under-train you get fitter as you run, which is fine, but they keep their sanity in the meantime. This filly – you didn't need to do anything, She was more than happy to hack every morning. If you tried to go a stride quicker her head would be in the air.”

This brings him on to the perils of trying to train too many horses. “If I were Number 1 at the BHA I would put a number on the size of the yard. Above 70 or 80, you should have a cap. Then you would see the best people. With 300, you can't go wrong, obviously. Whether you're good or not doesn't matter. The wastage is huge.”

In his outlook Menuisier manages to blend passion and ambition with a bit of Zen. “My intention is not to be champion trainer. I'm happy with the life I have, getting good horses every year,” he explains. “My yard's a bit bigger this season. We've had the back-up of really nice people. 

“I'm old fashioned. Nowadays if I have to have 300 horses I have to admit that 50% of my staff would not be at the level I want, so I'm writing off half the staff already because those guys won't work to the level. If it's radical to say that, I'm sorry, but it's a fact. We have core staff. I only have 70 horses. If I have four times that number I will have at least 10 people who won't be able to get to our level. I don't want to be in that situation.”

And to conclude he tries to articulate why he works in such a precarious, stressful, unstable and yet sometimes sublime profession (this particular morning at Coombelands it feels like a celestial calling).

My aim is not to become a millionaire. My aim is to carry on doing what I do, educate my daughter for her to have a good life, and be happy, and for people around me to be happy, and have enough good horses to run in lovely races.

“We start the season with 72 horses. I have three older horses who are black type, we have five three-year-olds with black type. So that's eight already, out of 40, with 32 two-year-olds on top. Why should I envy anybody – including those big yards?  I can't, because I'm living my best life. I know where I come from, I know how I started, I know I don't owe anything to anybody apart from the people who helped us – and that's that.

“My aim is to be happy in life. That's all.”


Not a subscriber? Click here to sign up for the daily PDF or alerts.

Copy Article Link

Liked this article? Read more like this.

  1. “How Many Can I Have?” – Breeders Queue Up To Use Galiway
  2. Team-Building at the Core of Menuisier's Sussex Haven
  3. Top Producer Kensea to Bring the Curtain Down on Sceptre Sessions
  4. 'Show Us Your Money': Effervescent Washbourn Lands Pinatubo Colt in Some Style
  5. “Rare Commodity” Kensea To Be Offered At Tattersalls Sceptre Sessions As A Wildcard

Never miss another story from the TDN

Click Here to sign up for a free subscription.