patience should be one of William Haggas’s middle names. For, if Mukhadram can dethrone the winners of the English, Irish and French Derbies in today’s £800,000 Juddmonte International, it will be another vindication of the Yorkshireman’s modus operandi as a top-class trainer.
The son-in-law of legendary jockey Lester Piggott, he is prepared – willing owners permitting – to give his horses time to mature. His forensic knowledge of the form book means he has an enviable record when it comes to the placing of horses.
Both explain why the Skipton-born trainer has chosen to take on Aidan O’Brien’s dual Derby hero Australia in the Juddmonte, the day one highlight of the Welcome to Yorkshire Ebor Festival, with his five-year-old who has become one of the Flat’s most consistent performers.
“I just think he is fully matured and I think this is the year,” Haggas told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview. “When he first came to us, he was beautiful but he was weak. He had a great fame, but he had no strength.
“Even as a two-year-old, he didn’t do much. As a three-year-old, he won twice and was fourth at Royal Ascot. We set him up for the Cambridgeshire and he was only fifth, I couldn’t believe it when he was beaten in a handicap.”
There was significant strides forward last year – Mukhadram narrowly lost out in two epic battles with Al Kazeem in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot, and then the Coral-Eclipse at Sandown, before struggling to win the Sky Bet York Stakes on Knavesmire because of a foot abcess. “He was very uncomfortable on his near fore and did well to win in the circumstances,” said the trainer.
Yet it was the narrow Royal Ascot defeat, after Mukhadram’s jockey, Paul Hanagan, had tried to steal the race with an enterprising piece of front-running, that was pivotal to the future of the horse.
Haggas met the horse’s owner, Sheikh Hamdan al Maktoum, who suggested that his dream was for Mukhadram to carry his colours to victory in the Dubai World Cup – the world’s richest race.
It confirmed that the horse was going to stay in training, a personal boost to Haggas, 54 on Saturday, and the ambition so nearly paid off – only African Story was too good for Mukhadram, whose champion sire Shamardal won the Group One St James’s Palace Stakes when York hosted Royal Ascot in 2005.
Since then, Mukhadram has taken his career earnings to £1.9m after finishing fourth to The Fugue in this year’s Prince of Wales’s Stakes before landing the Grade One Coral-Eclipse and finishing a creditable third to Sheikh Hamdan’s fabulous filly Taghrooda in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes.
“I don’t think it has much to do with me,” says Haggas, who saddled his first winner in 1988 and whose yard is operating at a career-best strike-rate of 28 per cent this season.
“It is the owner’s decision and it is my job to do the very best. If you get no pressure from an owner, and they trust you to do what you think is right, it is an enormous fillip. If we run our horses, we want them to have a chance of winning but I’m happy to wait until the right one comes along when it is bigger races.”
It also explains why Hanagan – the 2010 and 2011 champion jockey before leaving Richard Fahey’s Malton yard to become Sheikh Hamdan’s retained rider – appears to be so at ease in the iconic blue and white silks that Mukhadram will carry.
“He was claiming seven pounds when he won the Ayrshire Handicap for me. The owner of the horse had a massive punt and had spotted Paul as a young conditional riding well,” explained the trainer, who won the Epsom Derby at the very first attempt in 1996 with Shaamit.
“He has ridden for us ever since and has always been a very straightforward human being. When he got Sheikh Hamdan’s job, it was difficult. He had to move house, move his wife and kids, which is very hard. He had been with Richard since he was a young boy.
“I’m only a relative newcomer on Sheikh Hamdan’s roster of trainers, but I know how loyal he is – you have to make a drastic error to upset him. Paul is a big confidence person. When Paul is on song, he is very hard to beat. Like most humans, when things aren’t quite right, he goes into his shell.
“In five years’ time, when he has ridden one of the favourites for five successive Eclipses, he will sleep like a baby the night before.”
As a schoolboy, Haggas had trials with Yorkshire CCC – but there is no doubting his priorities. “Winning the Juddmonte comes first but I think Yorkshire will win the Championship any way,” he said. “The Juddmonte is a race that every trainer wants to win. It’s competitive and it’s a championship race. It is what York is all about. I haven’t many runners, but I haven’t had many with a chance of winning.”
That is why Mukhadram is a fascinating contender – he would not be running if William Haggas thought the horse could not do justice to his abilities.
A week in the life of a Flat jockey: Page 11.