THE anxiety in the voice of William Haggas is discernible as he prepares to saddle Mukhadram in today’s prestigious Sky Bet York Stakes.
After throwing down the gauntlet to Al Kazeem, one of the horses of 2013, in two epic struggles, Mukhadram carries the weight of racing expectation this afternoon.
And despite the Yorkshire-born trainer’s understandable caution, the Hamdan Al Maktoum-owned four-year-old should have the class to prevail and set up a probable tilt at the £750,000 Juddmonte International – York’s richest race – next month.
“He’s not been on anyone’s radar this year, but he will be (today),” said Haggas, speaking exclusively to the Yorkshire Post ahead of today’s Group Two clash over 10 furlongs against last year’s winner Sri Putra and the globetrotting Wigmore Hall.
“It will be a different scenario because no one expected him to do anything. Now, all of a sudden, he will be favourite and expected to win.”
However, Haggas, son-in-law to the incomparable Flat jockey Lester Piggott, does not deny the fact that Mukhadram is now one of Britain’s top middle-distance horses after coming of age this summer.
Unraced as a juvenile, Mukhadram won his first two races at Newmarket before just failing to hit the heights anticipated by Haggas and jockey Paul Hanagan – fourth at Royal Ascot, the colt rounded off 2012 when fifth in the Betfred Cambridgeshire.
This relentless galloper has been a revelation this year. A winner of Sandown’s Brigadier Gerard Stakes, run in the honour of racing’s great champion of the 1970s, he appeared to hold a decisive lead in the Group One Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot before being reeled in by Al Kazeem and an inspired James Doyle.
There was then the controversy of Sandown’s Coral-Eclipse Stakes when Al Kazeem’s winning move saw Hanagan’s mount suffer considerable interference on the running rail and lose out to Declaration Of War in the battle for second. Doyle’s subsequent suspension offered scant consolation.
Despite this, Haggas is dismissive of any suggestion that his stable star only has to turn up to win on Knavesmire.
“I would never be as stupid to saying something like that,” he says. “But the horse is in very good condition and is thriving with his racing. If he runs to his potential, he will take some beating.
“I thought he had slipped the field at Royal Ascot – and I said to Roger Charlton that Al Kazeem must be a very good horse to have got to him. It is optimistic to suggest we would have beaten the winner in the Eclipse, but realistic to believe that we should probably have been second.
“After (today), and assuming the Sky Bet race goes to plan, we will eye up the Juddmonte International. It is my job to make the horse a stallion for Sheikh Hamdan – and the Juddmonte is a stallion’s race. We are hoping to use (today’s) race as a stepping stone.”
Yet, unlike some, Haggas was not surprised when Hanagan – the 2010 and 2011 champion jockey when based with Malton trainer Richard Fahey – gave up on the chance of a career-defining win aboard Ektihaam in today’s King George at Ascot so he could stay loyal to the tenacious Mukhadram.
“He won the Ayrshire Handicap when he was a claimer for us on a horse called great News in 2001,” explained Haggas, 52, whose finest hour came when Shaamit won the 1996 Epsom Derby.
“We have used him ever since. When I got word of the news that he had been offered the job with Sheikh Hamdan at the end of the 2011 season, I was absolutely delighted. We have a great partnership. He seems a very quiet, unassuming sort of chap but he is fiercely determined and extremely skilful.”
Unlike those Yorkshiremen who forget their roots when they leave God’s own county for pastures new, Skipton-born Haggas remains fiercely proud of his White Rose ancestry. His father Brian is chairman of Harris Tweed while his mother, Christine Feather, owned Michael Dickinson’s 1982 Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Silver Buck.
His early memories are characterised by his family’s association with the Dickinson stable when it was run by Michael’s parents Tony and Monica. There was the famous occasion in November 1980 when Haggas was sent to Folkestone races for one of Silver Buck’s races.
“With the track some distance away from Folkestone in Westenhanger, and an Irishman called Tommy Carmody booked for the ride, that was quite a tricky one – but the horse won,” he says.
On one never-to-be-forgotten occasion, Harrow-educated Haggas opened the batting for his beloved Yorkshire County Cricket Club’s second XI alongside Ashley Metcalfe – “I gave the coach Doug Padgett a duff tip at Goodwood and never got selected again.”
He smiles broadly when told that cricket umpire Dickie Bird believes Lord’s centurion Joe Root could be Yorkshire’s best batsman since Len Hutton – he hopes it means that cricket’s Ashes will remain in England’s hands for some time.
His current owners include Steve Parkin, the man behind Guiseley Football Club.
“When I was a little boy, I would go to Harry Ramsden’s,” he said. “It used to be marvellous until it became too commercial.”
Having taken out a training licence in 1987 after serving an apprenticeship with Jeremy Hindley, John Winter and Sir Mark Prescott, Haggas and his wife Maureen are buoyed by a campaign that has already yielded 51 winners and nearly £840,000 of prize money. With luck, their personal best of 86 successes – accrued in 2008 – could be eclipsed.
These numbers were boosted by the stable’s historic one-two with Danchai and Stencive in the John Smith’s Cup on a never-to-be-forgotten afternoon when Sun Central also took the Silver Cup.
The latest update is this: Danchai could run at Haydock next month; Stencive might head Down Under to race in Australia and Sun Central could return top the York for the Ebor, Europe’s richest handicap.
“I think we’re doing okay because Lester hasn’t said anything,” says Haggas.
As for today, the trainer saddles Our Obsession in the opener and has booked Frankie Dettori as the former champion continues his comeback from his six-month ban for a drugs offence.
He said: “I gave him his first winner back and it is only a matter of time before he is back in the groove. Don’t worry about him.”
If only William Haggas felt confident to say the same about Mukhadram.