Turnbull’s BC Journey With Mondialiste


Mondialiste | Racing Post


John Magnier couldn’t believe it, either, the day Geoff Turnbull told him how he first fell in love with horses during his Co Durham boyhood.

“My father was a horse-keeper down the mines,” Turnbull explained. “They had 3,000 pit-ponies in five collieries, and eventually he became head horse-keeper in the North-East, with a couple of hundred men under him. He loved those horses, and used to look after them when they got injured–they didn’t use vets in those days. And the stables were immaculate. He would take me along on Saturdays, when he was breaking them, and I’ll always remember as a 10-year-old running around while he walked them round this post, it was like a ship’s capstan. And I said to him, ‘Daddy, one day I’m going to have my own horses. Racehorses.’ And he looked at me and told me I was Walter Mitty.”

If only the old man could see him now. Turnbull is having a coffee at Clockers’ Corner at Santa Anita Park, having just visited one of the leading European fancies at the Breeders’ Cup in the quarantine barn. Mondialiste (Ire) (Galileo {Ire}) was second in the GI Breeders’ Cup Mile at Keeneland last year, crowning a season of remarkable improvement after Turnbull had picked him out from a Horses-in-Training sale at Deauville and sent him to David O’Meara. Having since confirmed his flair for North American racing by winning the GI Arlington Million, Mondialiste is set to break new ground with a crack at 12f in the GI Breeders’ Cup Turf. But however astonishing his transformation, since his days of servitude as a pacemaker in France, it does not begin to compare with the story of his owner.

Turnbull remembers his dismay when it was ruled that he was not to work in the Horden mine. His brother had suffered a life-changing disaster down there, breaking his back when trapped for three days by a rockfall. His mother had lost her own father in just the same way.

“But in those days you never went out of the village, it was all you knew, the mine,” Turnbull said. “So yes, I was upset. I had to go off and do an apprenticeship instead. Tailor, photographer or engineer. So I chose engineering, and started with Castrol Oils at £2 15s a week. That was with overtime as well. I met my wife there, she was working in the design office. And we’ve been married 52 years.”

The parallel benefits have been no less sustained. By 1973, two years after the pit-ponies were brought out of service, he was able to enter a partnership as a subcontracting engineer. In time he took sole control of the GT Group and, even as the collieries began their terminal decline, Turnbull remained so far ahead of the game in environmental engineering that when he finally sold the business, in August, it had a payroll of 300 and a turnover of £50 million.

“I was a design nut,” he explained. “Research and development has always been a passion. The latest thing we did was ship-to-ship refuelling of liquid nitrogen gas, though probably the biggest thing we did was develop an emissions system for heavy goods vehicles. We sold three million of those, worldwide.”

Critically, Turnbull understood not only that industrial processes would have to be cleansed, for the sake of the planet, but also that the legislation required as a result would drive a massive commercial market. In the years that followed, his counsel was sought by statesmen–he accompanied David Cameron to Russia, and has a picture on his phone of a barbecue in the garden of No. 10 Downing Street–and he sat on advisory panels alongside the bosses of BP and Tesco. Nor is there the remotest danger, even at 70, of Turnbull retiring to enjoy the proceeds of his remarkable career. Since selling up, he has already started new ventures in finance and construction. But his unequivocal priority is Elwick Stud, embracing a 200-acre site on a former arable farm near Hartlepool and the state-of-the-art stallion station he is erecting on the grounds of his nearby house.

If you did not know of his deeds in business, of course, you might attribute a bigger role to luck than judgement in Turnbull managing to meet a challenge as ambitious as unearthing a legitimate stallion prospect at auction. But the rest of his owner’s story suggests the rise of Mondialiste to be no coincidence.

“Freddy Head had been using him as a pacemaker, and he had held on for third in the G1 Prix Jean Prat,” Turnbull recalls. “But when I saw him I was very disappointed. I thought he must have a pelvis injury, he was so weak, so thin, he had no condition at all. That could have been the stress of racing, it could have been any number of things. The fact was he’d been able to run very well just a few days before, and I thought if he could do that, looking like that, then he’d do for me. At least the way he looked kept the price down [€190,000]. So we took him home, put him in a field, and gave him plenty of time, plenty of care and attention, plenty of carrots.”

The dividends were immediately apparent when Mondialiste resurfaced in the Lincoln H. last year, going under by just a neck under a big weight.

“I got that wrong,” Danny Tudhope said on dismounting. “Should have won. But we’ve got something here. This is some horse.”

True, the horse would not vindicate that assessment until the summer, but once getting on a roll it took 2015 GI Breeders’ Cup Mile heroine Tepin (Bernstein) herself to stop him. Mondialiste won a race at Pontefract by 10 lengths, made his G3 breakthrough at York and then won the G1 Woodbine Mile before overcoming an unsuitably steady tempo and heavy traffic to finish second at Keeneland.

This time round, Mondialiste again came to hand in midsummer.

“To be fair, David was training from a building site at the start of the season, and there was a bit of a bug in the yard for a time as well,” Turnbull said. “But he’s a bit like me. Everything must be the best. He has gone from a round field, where you couldn’t get two 2-year-olds side by side, to a facility that’s going to be as good as there is.”

Turnbull is bringing that same trademark ambition to a bloodstock investment that is already far bigger than many realise: there are already 70 head of horses at the stud, while he has 23 to be distributed among several northern yards next year. As in business, picking the right team is essential: whether at the stud–where he has hired Gary Moore, seasoned by long stints at Coolmore and Whatton Manor–or in the stable.

“Each trainer has his strengths, and you try to match them to the horse,” Turnbull explained. “You don’t necessarily put the best horses to the best trainers.”

Finding an apt complement to Mondialiste’s genes has likewise governed the recruitment of mares and fillies, notably the yearling half-sister to Beauty Parlour (GB) (Deep Impact {Jpn}) by Dansili (GB) (Danehill) purchased for €270,000 at the recent Wildenstein dispersal at Goffs. Whether Mondialiste is retired to the stud now, or continues racing as a 7-year-old, depends on what happens on Saturday–both in the race, and in the debrief. In the meantime, moreover, Turnbull still has to win O’Meara round to trying the longer trip.

“We’ve always been confident, on his pedigree, that he’ll get a mile and a half,” he said. “But David tells me that we don’t need to re-invent the wheel. And I tell him that you can always make the wheel rounder, cheaper and better. I do take advice occasionally!”

At the same time he knows that advice is not always sound, especially in a highly conservative industry.

“Everyone tells me that if I want to make a stallion I have to send him to Newmarket or Ireland, that I can’t do it in the north,” he said. “It gets my back up. This stud is going to be my main business, going forward. I’ve already made a massive investment and we’re going to continue investing until we get it right.”

There he goes again: Walter Mitty.

“Everyone has always tried to temper my expectations,” he said. “I’m a businessman and all my life people have told me not to get carried away. But I say whatever you do, do it right. We won’t be the biggest in the world, we’ve set off too late for that. But you can always try to be the best. If you don’t reach for the stars, you’ll never get them.”


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