It is tough at the bottom, as Adam West pointed out after winning the Nunthorpe Stakes at York on Friday with Live In The Dream, his first runner at Group One level. “Quite simply, it’s not viable,” West said. “The BHA do their best but realistically, unless you are on the top, top scale, [training] is not a viable option. But that’s not why any of us do it, we do it because we love the animals and the sport.”
But it can be tough at the summit as well, as Charlie Appleby, the reigning champion trainer on the Flat, could currently affirm. Having been a fairly constant presence in the winner’s enclosure at the major meetings in his title-winning campaigns in 2021 and 2022, Appleby has won as many Group One races in Britain this year as West’s 46-horse yard in Epsom, thanks to Modern Games’ success in the Lockinge Stakes in May.
For a stable that had no fewer than 254 horses listed as residents in Horses In Training 2023, every last one of which boasts an impeccably blue-blooded pedigree, it is an underwhelming return, to say the least.
While the various trainers on the roster of Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin operation always stress that they are pulling together as part of a team, Appleby’s lean spell at Group One level has also coincided with a first British Classic success since 2009 for Saeed bin Suroor, who trains around 100 horses at Godolphin Stables in Newmarket. In addition to Mawj’s win in the 1,000 Guineas, Godolphin also has a credible contender for the St Leger at Doncaster next month in Chesspiece – but he is trained by Simon and Ed Crisford, and not the operation’s undisputed number one.
Sheikh Mohammed, who was 74 last month, is a famously loyal employer but he also likes to reward success. Appleby has enjoyed uninterrupted success since taking over Moulton Paddocks in Newmarket in 2013 after the Mahmoud al-Zarooni doping scandal and saddled the first of his 69 Group One or Grade One winners, at the Breeders’ Cup no less, just a few months later. Thus far in 2023, though, other stables have hogged most of the top-level victories.
An interesting aspect of Appleby’s current spell in the Group One doldrums is that he has clearly not suddenly forgotten how to train racehorses. His strike-rate in 2023 has dropped just a little from a remarkable 31% last season, but at 27%, it is still the highest of any trainer in the top 150 in the championship with at least 10 runners. In fact, Appleby’s strike-rate has dropped below 20% only once in his nine full seasons in charge in Moulton Paddocks, which is highly impressive given the rarefied and ultra-competitive level at which he tends to operate.
But this year, he lacks the two or three genuine Group One performers, among the three-year-olds in particular, that might have made all the difference between his current seventh place in the table and a serious challenge for a third straight title. In addition, Modern Games and Adayar, two of the best older horses in Appleby’s string, have both been retired to stud and, as yet, there is little sign of a top-class juvenile at Moulton Paddocks to offer the promise of a stronger showing next year.
There is still plenty of time for a turnaround, even if Appleby’s reign as champion trainer is surely coming to a close, for now at least. Barely a quarter of the 126 juveniles listed under his name in Horses In Training, more than 50 of which were sired by either Dubawi or Frankel, have made their racecourse debut, and who would have seen Rebel’s Romance as a likely winner of the Breeders’ Cup Turf this time last year, never mind one of three successes for Appleby at the two-day meeting?
Rebel’s Romance, who remains in the running for a repeat win in November, went under the radar in German Group Ones before his impressive victory at Keeneland. Nations Pride, who picked up a Group One win in Germany last month, is following a similar path towards the major middle-distance events at the end of the campaign and there could always be a juvenile waiting in the wings.
It is encouraging too for Godolphin’s trainers in Newmarket and elsewhere that while Sheikh Mohammed has not been seen on a British track since a court decided in March 2020 that he had organised the kidnapping of two of his daughters, the ruler of Dubai was at the Arqana sale in Deauville last week, where he bought the first seven-figure yearling in Europe this year.
But while immense wealth – ideally of the sovereign variety – is a prerequisite for competing at the top end of international Flat racing, there are still plenty of willing participants at the table, including fresh players such as Wathnan Racing, funded by the Emir of Qatar, and Kia Joorabchian’s Amo Racing.
Appleby is too talented a trainer to remain in the doldrums for long, but his difficult season to date should perhaps be seen as a refreshing reminder that no amount of money will ever be an absolute guarantee of success on the turf.