Genius. Legend. Great. Words often thrown about in sport with too little care. Not in the case of Peter Chapple-Hyam, a racehorse trainer for 30 years with two Derby victories on a CV that includes countless Group Ones around the world. By very definition, Chapple-Hyam is both a legend and great of our sport. His genius has never been in doubt.
But the road hasn’t always been clear for one of Newmarket’s most popular residents, speedbumps and obstacles needing to be overcome in much the same way Chapple-Hyam has battled with his mental health for a number of years. While Frankie Dettori was treating the Epsom crowd to a flying dismount following Authorized’s brilliant Derby rout in 2007, the trainer was struggling with depression, bouts of anxiety and frequent panic attacks.
It was that deterioration in his mental health that led to Chapple-Hyam losing a number of horses from high-profile owners, as in his words, he “struggled to even talk to people” when at his lowest. The remaining horses in his care, as always, were his saviour.
“I love horses,” is Chapple-Hyam’s opening line. “I love animals and it’s a pleasure to be around horses, doing what I’ve been doing for all these years. I still enjoy training and having suffered badly with depression and anxiety, and lost some of my horses as a result, it’s looking after the horses that has kept me going.
“I still suffer with my mental health, but I’ve learnt to live with it, to cope better, and I’m happy now with a small string. The year Authorized won the Derby, I was really struggling, and I had a big string of horses to train and all the owners that come with those horses. I’ve always joked that I’m better with horses than people and that’s how I prefer it: a quiet life, training my horses.”
It was when based in Manton that Chapple-Hyam rose to the top of the sport, but he has made Newmarket his home since returning to England from Hong Kong in 2003 and has warm affection for the town and many of the people in it. Now an elder statesman in a game, and town, full of new blood, he welcomes the “new brigade” and takes pride in being there to offer help and advice to those trying to make their way.
He said: “Newmarket is a wonderful place to train. It’s a peaceful place in the morning when you’re out with the horses and there are a lot of good people here. We all get along and the young brigade are great. Every year there is someone new to get to know and we all try to welcome them and help out in any way we can. I’ve always said I’m here for advice if they need it along the way and that’s how it should be.”
With a wealth of knowledge like the one Chapple-Hyam has built up, plenty are sure to take him up on the offer, but he’s far from finished with training winners himself and Bharani Star gave sign that she is a filly going places when landing the Listed Rothesay Stakes at Ayr in fine style last month.
Having nurtured the careers of so many high-class horses before, Chapple-Hyam ought to be well placed to judge the merits of a filly who is beautifully-bred and might just be maturing into the finished article.
“She’s always been a very nice filly,” beams Chapple-Hyam with all the conviction of a man who knows he’s got a good one on his hands. “She was a bit backward early on so we gave her time and I couldn’t believe she only dead-heated on her first run as a three-year-old at Haydock. I thought she’d win on the bridle!
“I always thought she might want some cut in the ground, but she only has tiny feet and just flicks the ground when she gallops. Over time she’s shown she prefers a decent surface and she ran great at Ascot when fourth in the Ribblesdale. It was my idea to hold her up as we weren’t sure she’d stay, but she ran great and looking back we should have been more positive. Running in the Oaks so soon after was stupid and I think we bottomed her out there.
“I gave her plenty of time after that and I knew we’d see a better four-year-old. Mentally, she’s always been very straightforward, but physically she was always weak and only now has she really matured in that sense.
“I’d be hopeful she can improve on what she did at Ayr and we’ll go for the Lancashire Oaks next where the flat track should really suit her. If we were to get lucky there, we’ll think about taking on the big girls again. I’d love to have a go at the Nassau but whether she’s quite at that level, only time will tell.”
Despite only boasting a small string nowadays, Chapple-Hyam’s ability to still find that diamond in the rough is unparalleled with Deja doing the yard proud last summer, going agonisingly close in the Duke Of Edinburgh Stakes at Royal Ascot, before landing a nice pot with victory in the Old Newton Cup at Haydock.
Chapple-Hyam said: “He’s a smashing horse. He had injuries before he came to me so we’ve had to mind him all along and he’s always given everything out on the track. He hasn’t fired so far this season, but tends to come to himself later in the season, and with a bit of cut in the ground, he could go well at Royal Ascot again or back at Haydock for the Old Newton Cup.
“He’s in the Hardwicke, and that might be too hot for him, but I’d love to have another go at the Sky Bet Ebor. He had a lot of weight in that race last year and though he likes soft ground, and I think the combination of his weight on bad ground, over that trip, was just too much for him. I have a lot of time for this horse and hopefully he can win another nice race.”
Winning nice races is something Chapple-Hyam has always prided himself on – quality over quantity a saying that sits well with him – and he was almost untouchable in the 1990’s as the likes of Rodrigo de Triano, Turtle Island, Spectrum, Commander Collins and Dr Devious to name just a few scooped big prizes in England and Ireland with frightening regularity; the Chapple-Hyam machine working at full speed in all its glory.
It was Dr Devious who gave Chapple-Hyam his first Derby success, a two-length defeat of St Jovite upstaging the Lester Piggott-ridden stablemate Rodrigo De Triano but coming as no surprise to his trainer, or as it happens, Piggott himself.
“We cantered Dr Devious and Rodrigo round Epsom on the Monday and Lester [Piggott] immediately tried to get off Rodrigo and onto Dr Devious afterwards,” Chapple-Hyam recalls. "Dr Devious had worked great and Lester wasn’t happy with Rodrigo. He thought he might have coughed, but we had him checked out and he was fine.
“I spoke to Robert [Sangster] about the possibility of not running Rodrigo, but Epsom had just had a new stand built and Robert quipped ‘if you pull Rodrigo out now, they’ll hang you from that stand!’ We decided to let him take his chance but Lester had it in his head that he wouldn’t stay and he rode him like that.
“I watched him all the way round and it was only two furlongs out that I spotted Dr Devious; he hit the front and away he went. I knew nothing would beat him from there as he tried so hard and stayed well. It was a special day; lovely memories.”
“The funny thing about Dr Devious was that he was bought and sold so many times, and after Jenny Craig purchased him for her husband, Sidney, they decided to ship him over to America to run in the Kentucky Derby. They really messed it up. He left England on Tuesday to run on the Saturday and he ran in English Plates which you just can’t do on dirt.
“I got a call not long after asking if I’d take him back, which of course I did, but I had to foot the bill to get him back to England. He went out first-class and came back cattle-class, via a night in a Frankfurt Zoo! I think he spent that night sleeping in with a Zebra, but I was paying out of my own pocket so it had to do.
“I had planned to bring him back and run him in the Eclipse, but Paul Francis led him out one morning and he was so fresh and well that we had to consider running in the Derby even though we didn’t have much time to get him ready. One morning someone had to catch him galloping round Manton, he was so fresh, and after he did a really good piece of work in the build up to the big day, I said to myself ‘let’s go for it’. The rest is history.”
If preparing for the Derby by running in the Kentucky equivalent is unconventional, Authorized’s Epsom triumph in 2007 was much more by the book, starting with victory in the Racing Post Trophy as a two-year-old, followed by a stroll in the Dante and a dazzling display in big race itself as Frankie Dettori rode his first Derby winner.
While Chapple-Hyam was at the time facing serious challenges to his mental health, his eye for spotting talent remained as sharp as ever and even before Authorized stepped through the Sales Ring at Tattersalls in October, 2005, he sensed this was a colt with the potential to go far.
“I bought him for the owner,” Chapple-Hyam said. “I suppose that made it even more satisfying and I always had so much faith in him. He was by Montjeu, who was a fantastic sire, and you could do anything with him. He used to panic a little bit in the early days, but I soon worked him out and from February onwards, things couldn’t have gone any better through to Derby day. He never gave me any reason to lose confidence in him.
“On the day itself I never wavered and I’ve never been as confident going into a race as I was that one. The best part about Frankie riding and it being his first Derby winner was that everyone wanted a piece of him. I was struggling badly at the time and it worked out so well for me; I could sneak in, try to hide, watch the race, say a quick well done and let Frankie do the rest while I got in the car and went home.
“The Eclipse was a mess, a messy race with the winner [Notnowcato] coming down the opposite rail under a brilliant ride from Ryan Moore. It’s a race that still haunts me now. But I trained him hard for the Juddmonte at York, probably harder than for the Derby, as to my mind winning a Group One over 1m2f at three was a vital for his stallion prospects. That race probably bottomed him out for the Arc at the end of a long season.”
While Authorized’s profile is more in line with modern Derby winners, with the Dante still viewed as a major trial and a significant stepping stone to Epsom, his Racing Post Trophy success in the previous season was less conventional, owing to the fact it came on the back of only one run – a defeat first time out at Newbury.
Chapple-Hyam added: “Nobody else would be that daft to go for a Group One after one run, but having planned to run at Leicester in a maiden, I changed my mind following a piece of work he did which was as good as I’d seen in a long time. I’d asked Frankie if he’d come and ride him in this gallop – and he’d always said I’d only ask for a good one – and Authorized worked all over a useful one of mine called Al Qasi who had just won four on the bounce and ended up winning a Group Three the following year. He was smart and I knew then that we had to go to Newbury.”
With the Derby having been so good to Chapple-Hyam over the years, then, how does he view the great race now, all these years on and with a few question marks raised against the race more recently?
“It’s a brilliant race, it’s the Derby and everyone wants to win the Derby,” he counters. “It’s the ultimate test for a racehorse, really, and you need so many attributes to win the race on such a demanding track.
“You need a horse that is well balanced, but keeping your horse balanced is all about travelling. If you don’t have a horse who travels well into the race, they won’t be balanced and that’s where you come unstuck on that track. Of course you need to stay, but you must be able to travel.
“If you look at this year’s race, I would dearly love to see John Leeper win for Ed Dunlop. I think he might give the Irish horse most to fear, though I’d worry about him coming down the hill if the ground was firm. Mohaafeth is an interesting horse, but he has a lot of speed will need to prove he stays the trip, and the key horse in the race is clearly Bolshoi Ballet who has speed in his pedigree, but stamina, too, with his brother being that very good stayer Southern France. He looks a very good horse in the making and has plenty going for him.”
While Chapple-Hyam won’t have a runner in this year’s Derby, he certainly knows what it takes to win this historic race, and that sometimes, even the very best can get beaten at Epsom. It takes a nudge, but the master handler finally gives way when pressed on the debate of which horse is the best he has trained.
Victories in the English and Irish Guineas, before ending his career by adding the Juddmonte and Champion Stakes to his CV, backed up an unbeaten two-year-old campaign, confirm Rodrigo De Triano as one of the very best, and Chapple-Hyam can’t help but agree.
“They say you should never compare your friends,” he begins, “but Rodrigo was just brilliant; pure class. The day he won the Juddmonte he was exceptional and that was a great day. He went on to win the Champion Stakes after that, too. He was a special horse.”
And what does the future hold for Chapple-Hyam? A man who continues to make his presence felt in a town somewhat dominated by the next generation, but with lessons to learn from a man who has already left an indelible mark on racing.
He concludes: “I have an unraced Galileo called Lord Marbury who could make his debut at Windsor on Monday and an unraced Frankel who is out of Attraction. I’d say that Lord Marbury will be nice in time, but Aidan doesn’t often let the good Galileos go, while the Frankel colt will be alright.
“I’d love to get sent some sharp two-year-olds again. Because I’ve won the Derby, people send me a horse and ask me to win the Derby, but it’s the hardest race to win and people forget about how many Royal Ascot two-year-old races I’ve won as a trainer. I love training precocious two-year-olds.
“In the meantime, we have a very nice filly in Bharani Star to look forward to and fingers crossed she can keep going the right way.”
Racing is a sport that moves so quickly, so many meetings every day that weeks and seasons roll by before you can take stock. Jockeys and trainers coming in and out of fashion before you can catch up. A shiny new toy making the headlines, a perfectly good one all too quickly forgotten.
It’s only when you get the chance to sit down with someone of Chapple-Hyam’s stature, look back at his achievements in the sport, and listen to him talk so warmly about his horses and the many wonderful days he has enjoyed, that you realise that you are in the presence of greatness.
As Chapple-Hyam says himself, the Derby is the hardest race of them all to win and his two Epsom victories is the same number achieved by John Gosden. Considering the battles Chapple-Hyam has had to fight with his own mental health in that time, it is a staggering achievement, even before considering the many other big races he has won over a career that has always interested the man on the street.
There is no doubting that Chapple-Hyam is a genius racehorse trainer and you can’t help but warm to the man himself. A quick wit, a level of honesty that people still appreciate, and above all else, that ability to keep making his mark on the sport when the odds really suggest he shouldn’t.
A third Derby might be out of the question this year, but one senses there are more pages to be written in this quite remarkable story. Perhaps Epsom will be the stage for one final act.