The journey to victory at Epsom begins years earlier. In some cases, generations earlier. Hugo Palmer has been training horses for flat racing at Hugo Palmer Racing in Newmarket for eight years, achieving notable successes at group 1 level. The partnerships that drive those wins are years in the making, he explains: “These horses are the product of a huge amount of work which starts before the horse is born.”
“The majority of racehorses have been bred according to a highly considered mating plan that experts have crafted, trying to produce a cross which works and an individual that breeders think is potentially a champion racehorse. All the work that goes into producing that horse on stud before they train is huge. The trainer and their team are the final part of the assembly line of the racehorse – then we have to guide it through those steps.”
As Frankie Dettori puts it, “A Derby-winning horse doesn’t fall out of the sky.” Horses that arrive at Palmer's facilities at Kremlin Cottage Stables have only just been broken in, and begun to feel comfortable carrying a rider. They must learn to develop a bond that lets them communicate and ultimately race. "What's very important is not only the partnership between the horse and their big-race jockey, but also the day-to-day partnership between the horse and the rider."
Sympathetic, careful, firm handling from the right rider moulds and shapes the racehorse. Conversely, bad handling can ruin good horses
The trainer must also facilitate a partnership with the horse’s owners and breeders. The best bloodstock is a good predictor of a new prospect, but it’s by no means certain, and expectations must be managed. “The breeder and the owner tend to have hopes, as the horses arrive with us so early, but of course it’s very hard for a horse to reach that potential,” Palmer explains. “Trying to find them is what brings the excitement – as a trainer, you have to be open-minded to the realities of racing, given that so few will become champions, but the dream of it all coming together is what drives you.”
To make sure owners have the best experience they can, Palmer manages the flow of information carefully. “An owner pays a considerable sum to have a horse in training – I see it as part of my job to make sure they have regular information. But with that flow of information that comes more involvement, and more likelihood that they’ll want to tell you when and where the horse should run. Just like the jockey, they should all be aligned in order to be successful.”
Uniting behind a special talent
The alignment needed to win a group 1 race is reliant on deep bonds. “The horse and the jockey need to build up a good rapport, and the jockey needs to understand how and when to produce the horse’s best ride in the race,” Palmer explains. “There are some jockeys that get on with some horses and not others.
"You want to make sure that the horse behaves itself – you want the jockey to get a good impression from it and feel confident.” Only if the team is aligned trainers can dare to dream of victory at the world’s greatest flat race."
‘Only if the team is aligned trainers can dare to dream of victory at the world’s greatest flat race.’
“I dream of winning the Derby and that’s what’s got me out of bed every morning of my life since I’ve been involved in racing,” says Palmer. In that time, while new training methods have emerged, the Derby’s unique character remains unchanged. “There are new young hungry trainers coming along every year, and it gets more and more competitive, but the basic principles of horseracing haven’t changed for 100 years.
"That’s the magic of racing – we’re all trying to do the same thing on the same course over the same distance.” In its 240th year, the Derby still remains a formidable challenge for any trainer – but the right partnerships, and the ability to learn from them, can bring victory that bit closer.