The Head family has a history steeped in horseracing, just as horseracing has a history steeped in Heads. Their dominance began in France in the late 1800’s with Alec’s jockey-turned-trainer grandfather Willie, a British expatriot. Alec’s father, also Willie, was a highly successful jumps jockey and dual purpose trainer in France. Willie trained six individual classic winners as well as Le Paillon who won the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and was second in the 1947 Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham when ridden by Alec. Alec stopped race riding that same year and transitioned into five-time leading trainer, breeder and owner extraordinaire. Say what you will: the clichés are plentiful, the headlines unoriginal, but the claim that the family is “at the head of the class” has been consistently accurate for over a century.
Their story is inextricably connected to the land on their idyllic Haras du Quesnay near Deauville, France, which has equally been at the epicentre of racing for many generations. During the tenure of W.K. Vanderbilt, the undefeated Prestige was France’s leading sire in 1914. An influential resident when the stud was owned by Kingsley Macomber was Rose Prince, the sire of Belgian Triple Crown winner Prince Rose who was in turn the sire of Princequillo.
World War II interrupted the tranquility of Normandy, and the Germans seized Quesnay only to flee when the Allies landed. To put it into context, Rose Prince’s son Prince Rose was killed 75 miles up the road from Deauville in the 1944 bombings. Although Deauville was spared from the fighting, Quesnay bore signs of occupation, so its American owner abandoned it and the property remained vacant until after his death. Chantilly-based Alec Head, with the eye that later enabled him to spot the potential in Lyphard and Riverman, found Quesnay and, with his parents, bought and restored it to beyond its former glories. The list of horses bred, raised at and/or retired to Quesnay is extensive – among the first was French Derby winner Le Fabuleux, trained by Willie Jr. – but Alec and Ghislaine Head (a member of the van de Poele racing family) also reared their four children in the idyllic 16th Century chateau. Three of them – champion trainer Criquette; champion jockey Freddy, now a trainer; and Quesnay’s manager Martine, who oversees the stud careers of Anabaa and Bering, among others – went into the family business.
At the conclusion of the 2007 French racing season, the Head’s homebred colt Full of Gold, sired by Quesnay’s stallion Gold Away and trained by Criquette, won the Group I Criterium de Saint-Cloud, in a now-typical display of family unity: when Criquette was a fledgling trainer, she conditioned her mother’s filly Three Troikas to win the 1979 Arc under Freddy. That was Freddy’s second Arc, after Ivanjica, trained by Alec, in 1976. Alec-trained Beaugency lost the 1969 Prix du Jockey Club by (what else?) a head to Goodly, trained by Willie and ridden by Freddy. With this family, there is a myriad of these examples.
From racing as well as historical perspectives, sitting down with the father-daughter team of Alec Head and Criquette Head-Maarek at Quesnay is a humbling yet singular experience.
Criquette, what kind of difficulties have you met in becoming the most successful woman flat racehorse trainer in the world?
Criquette: Well I’ve never had any problem. I was born with all my background so it was easier for me. Even after I started training for the Arabs, you know, being a woman, it’s unusual. I still train for Prince Khaled Abdullah, who is a fantastic owner, and until the death of Sheikh Maktoum al Maktoum I had horses for him and it was the same, it was absolutely fantastic for me. I think they see you as a trainer and not as a woman if you win races, and I was lucky to have good horses. So, that’s all. But I was the first licensed female trainer in France.
And the first to win a classic race in France, and officially in England, and the first to win the Arc…
Criquette: Of course, because I started before the others. You need horses in this job. If you have good horses it helps you a lot. I had good teachers in front of me. My father, my grandfather – they taught me everything I know and that I’m doing today.
After returning home to France from Spain you started in bloodstock and bought Three Troikas, who you trained to win the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, as a yearling in 1977. Was that a big turning point for you?
Criquette: I came back because I was missing horses, and then I was a bloodstock agent for a while and I started training when I bought Three Troikas at Newmarket, that’s the year I started training. It was lucky. It’s like the link of a chain. If everything goes together it’s easy. So that’s how I started. At the beginning I won’t say they didn’t say, “Ah, it’s the daughter of Alec Head and he’ll be behind her all the time,” so I just plugged my ears. I didn’t want to listen to them. I knew what I was doing. I knew that I was training my horses and whatever people would say I didn’t mind, so it didn’t bother me.
Either way, it’s not a bad thing to have Alec Head there behind you.
Criquette: Exactly. Yeah, that was a big help. On top of that, when I was making a mistake they wouldn’t say anything to me because they thought Papa was making the mistake. You need time when you start training. You can’t be a super trainer in one or two years even if you have good horses so you need a bit of time, and it did help me to get through everything because people were thinking that my father was the trainer. So for me, it was easy.
And you’ve probably reached the point now that when something goes wrong they don’t look at your father anymore.
Criquette: Well no, no, they still look at my dad. In November when I won the Group I, with Full of Gold, we won on Sunday and Papa had come back on Friday. He’d been away for nearly six months because my mother was sick. And people said, “Ah, we can see you’re back,” you know, like they were saying that was why we won…I don’t mind. For me, I am so pleased when I win races for him or for any client of mine of course, but when I win races for Papa and my mother it’s something special for me, absolutely. When I see my brother, or [son-in-law] Carlos [Laffon-Parias] winning, it’s rewarding.
I think it’s fair to say the Heads have had quite a monopoly in the French horseracing ranks for many, many years.
Criquette: Well, I’m not sure, but we’ve been very close together and we’ve worked together for a long time because Freddy was a jockey. He was the jockey for my grandfather – he started with my grandfather, then my father, then me. It’s a big help when the family is all close together.
How does winning the Criterium de Saint-Cloud with homebred Full of Gold last year compare with Three Troikas in the Arc?
Alec: That was nice. I was delighted. So was Criquette! But he is not Three Troikas yet. You couldn’t compare because Three Troikas, she didn’t run much as a two-year-old.
Criquette: She won just a maiden, by a nose at St Cloud.
Not so much the horses themselves, but as proud moments in Head racing lore.
Criquette: Oh but you are always proud when you have horses like that. To win with a horse that you raised is fantastic. I think it’s better than to buy it.
Alec: Of course. It’s your baby. It is your baby. It’s like your children.
Full of Gold brings everything full circle, in a sense. Criquette trained his sire Gold Away who now stands at Quesnay, and Alec, you trained his grandsire Goldneyev and won the Arc with Goldneyev’s dam Gold River in 1981. Your family also bred and raced his broodmare sire Sillery and was involved with Full of Gold’s first five dams spanning 50 years. Full of Gold is 4x4 to Riverman and his dam is 4x3 to Lyphard, probably the two best horses you bought. Just about the only horses in the pedigree you weren’t involved with were Nureyev and Blushing Groom!
Alec: I was underbidder on Blushing Groom when he was a yearling.
Criquette: As you say, ouch. And Vaguely Noble, and Arazi – Arazi as a foal and as a yearling. Remember, Papa?
Has training changed much since the days of your grandfather?
Alec: I don’t think so. Maybe a little bit in the way of feeding horses. I don’t think there’s been much change in the training. There may be a lot of changes in the veterinary world. That’s improved quite a lot, but the training itself is more or less the same I would say.
And the horses?
Criquette: Maybe they’re more fragile than before, Papa, no?
Alec: Yes, possibly. The cross of the American breeders brought us more fragile horses, that’s for sure.
Criquette: And maybe because of the medication they can use over there.
Alec: Yeah of course. You get unsound horses that go to stud because of medication and they will produce their problems.
(Watching as a horse sells for a big price at the ARQANA sale)
Alec: I’m getting to know less and less in this business. I suppose that at one age, the thing is, you go up, up, and then when you get to a certain age you start going down. And I’m halfway down – not completely. I wouldn’t give 300,000 euros for that. I understand less and less!
I wonder if, since you’ve been breeding your families for so many generations, you have less of these problems, the fragility, unsoundness?
Alec: It’s difficult to know where the lightning is going to strike, in every way. I know I’m lucky. If you’re not lucky in life you’re in trouble. You need a bit of luck, but you’d better help it. We’ve all got a bit of it, but some pick it up more than others. And that’s the point.
So I gather you’re anti-medication.
Criquette: Ah yes, that’s terrible. That’s one thing that we have to fight in this country. You can’t give any medication, and that’s very good. Nothing.
And when you do get a bleeder you have to send it somewhere like America, where it can race and will usually go to stud afterwards.
Criquette: Yes, it’s like that. It’s terrible for all the matings. Here in this country we’ve got less stallions maybe, but they’re all sound. We’ve got much more sound horses than they do in the States. I think they should be stricter on medication. Mind you, they race on dirt, and it’s hard on horses to train on dirt. Without any medication they would have no runners. But me, I’m in favour of no medication. I think a trainer should train. The trainer shouldn’t be a chemist. I’m against everything. A lame horse shouldn’t run. A sick horse shouldn’t go on the racecourse. It’s so simple – those horses should not run.
Where does the breeding industry stand today?
Alec: I’m a bit sad at the moment to see these two big operations. That’s what Miss Kirsten Rausing said the other day in a speech. In my opinion she was right, because it’s not good when you have too big a monopoly. There’s a lot of other breeders that would like to buy a stallion and try to make a living. They cut them off, and they don’t have a chance.
Criquette: That’s why there’s less and less breeders.
Alec: Luckily, for the moment in America, it’s such a strong country you have other people. You need people to spend and buy. That’s our problem today in France, we don’t have many young new breeders to come in. We used to have quite a number. Now you can count them on one hand. It’s like breeding those stallions to 200 mares. It stops other horses from having a chance to make it.
Criquette: And it’s bad for racing. It’s no good.
Alec: Everybody criticised [Rausing]. I congratulated her. I said, “You had the courage to say what you thought.” She didn’t say anything bad. It’s not because you say that it’s not good that you’re saying anything bad.
Criquette: It’s like me saying the bookies are bad for racing. It’s true. The bookies, they won’t agree with me. I had a call from England saying, “How dare you say things like that?” and I said, “I’m going to say it again and again and again.” I can have that opinion, that I think they kill racing. But Rausing said what she felt.
As the newly elected Chair of the European Trainers Federation you will have to deal with many touchy agendas. I know the bookie situation you just referenced is very important to you.
Criquette: I’m very against the bookmakers and I’ll do everything I can to stop them. The system that we’ve got in France, the pari-mutuel, is very well organised and it gives a lot of money back to racing so it helps a lot of the people who work in racing. We don’t want to see the bookies taking all the money from us and not giving anything back.
So what can you do?
Criquette: I don’t know, but we’re going to fight. I’ve seen things, where the bookies have a big horse with a lot of money on his back and you find that horse doesn’t run exactly to what was expected, and you could always think that something was funny. In Germany there’s no racing because of them, in Italy racing’s gone down, in Belgium there’s no more racing – all because of the bookies. They came in very nicely saying they would help, and then after time they took everything from them, so I think it would be unfair to force a country to change. It’s unfair to try to put everyone on the same level. There are 34,000 people working directly from racing and 162,000 people working around racing. So that’s a huge amount of people, a huge amount of money goes into your country for your country. You’ve got the proof all around that every country who has them went down, and we’re not going to let the country go down because, the EU internal market commissioner, Mr McCreevy wants to have everyone on the same level. It’s impossible.
And the tie-in with the prize money?
Criquette: In England the prize money’s going down, it’s getting worse and worse. In France we’re going up, and they’re going down and down, and we don’t want to see that. In France we haven’t got all those sponsors who put money in. In England they’re better off because they’ve got big sponsors, and that’s not our case; here the money goes back because the pari-mutuel is organised like that and it puts all the money in. We’ve got premiums for breeders, for French owners, for French horses even if the owner is from America or wherever. They wouldn’t do that if they didn’t have the money, and the day the bookies come in it’s over, there won’t be any more money. We won’t drop in one year. It’ll take time, but it will decline completely and we’ll be like all those other countries. Look at America: they’ve got the pari-mutuel. That’s why it’s working.
What about other problems, like home-grown staffing shortages?
Criquette: We’re not allowed in this country to bring people in like they do in England. It’s hard to find people. Our government is trying to make us employ French people who haven’t got any jobs, but it’s difficult to find people who are good enough to work with horses, so it’s quite complicated. We’re going to ask the government to let us import people from countries where they like horses. So far in France we’re not allowed to employ them. It will change, I suppose, in 2008. They’ll open something to let us bring people to work in France.
Alec, you yourself have overseen some major changes or improvements during your time as a trainer.
Alec: My jockey was the first one to wear goggles in Europe. There were big headlines in all the papers about the French jockey wearing goggles. I think in the States they were already wearing them. It’s like the helmet. That came gradually. I used to ride with a helmet over jumps in my day, but we didn’t used to have them on the flat. I was one of the ones who got the French to use the starting stalls. I pushed very much for that. We used to have a couple of jockeys that were better than the others at the start, so it was important to bring the stalls in. It was a big fight because lots of trainers found excuses, they were against them. There’s always somebody.
This year marks 50 years since you bought Quesnay. How did you acquire it?
Alec: I bought the farm with my dad. He was away because he used to go down to the south of France with his horses in the winter, and I bought the farm in December or January. I did the whole deal, and he said, “Okay, I’ll go in with you.” So we bought it together and he came back from the south in February. And of course the first thing he said was, “Let’s go and see that farm we’ve bought.” We opened the gates, drove in and he said, “You must be crazy. We’re going to ruin ourselves in this place.”
So you didn’t tell him the extent of how what bad condition it was in when you asked him to go in on it with you?
Alec: No, no. No! My mother was a lovely lady, and when I asked him, she said, “Listen, if he buys it, let’s go, it must be okay.” I told them when we bought it, “It’s in bad shape. We’re going to have a lot of work to put it back to being a good looking place.” So he said okay but he didn’t realise it was that bad. Imagine a farm untouched for ten years, the roof, trees, broken fences.
Criquette: Since the war, Papa, there was no one there.
Alec: In 1940 the war broke out. We bought it in ’58. It was in a terrible state, my God.
Criquette: Going up the main alley the grass, the weeds were very tall. It was incredible.
How did the farm survive its Nazi occupation duing World War II?
Alec: We didn’t have any fighting in this area because the Allies went straight to Paris. And when the Germans started retreating they had to get out quickly, because they were all going to be trapped. That was very lucky because the German general commanding the whole of Normandy used to live in the house. It was camouflaged, the whole place, the yard, everything. In the boxes you can still see some of that green stuff. We found the bunkers that they built. I blew up quite a number of small ones, but there’s three big ones we couldn’t. We’d blow the whole place up. They’ve got walls as wide as this table.
Criquette: And they’re very close to the house.
Alec: It was lucky because behind what Vanderbilt built there were still a lot of good things that the Germans couldn’t break up.
What has been your greatest success?
Alec: On the racecourse, the greatest success was Three Troikas, because she was owned by us, trained by my daughter, ridden by my son. You can’t do much better than that, unless the stable boy that looks after it is your grandson or something. That was a great thing.
The biggest challenge?
Alec: To try to keep on top in this business. That’s a big challenge, because it’s tough to be always near the top. I’ve had my bad days and my problems. I had a great jockey who died in my arms. That was a very sad moment. Terrible. On top of it all he was a nice fellow. I had to call his wife to tell him that her husband had been killed on the racecourse. And that’s no fun. That was one of the worst times of my life. I sold the horse straight away, and I changed my colours. They were my grandfather’s colours.
Criquette: You wouldn’t like to see those colours again on someone.
And you Criquette, your biggest challenge? The cancer?
Criquette: Yes, yes of course.
Another battle you won.
Criquette: Yes, I hope so. You never know if you win it really. But anyhow, that could be one but let’s think about things nicer than that.
Your greatest success, then.
Criquette: I don’t know which one. There’s a few. Let’s say the first horse you win a Group I with. That was Sigy in the Prix de l’Abbayé. She was very, very fast. When she won the Abbayé she was a two-year-old [against older horses]. I think the first Group I is something that you remember always. And the Arc of course, and then all my wins, I would say, all the wins I can get. It’s a big achievement, whatever you win, a small race, a big race. You remember the big ones, but it’s hard to bring a bad horse to the racecourse and win with it.
Alec: You know what I say, a winner a day keeps the doctor away.
How do you stay so young?
Criquette: He works hard, that’s why.
Alec: No, not these days I don’t work very hard. I don’t know. Good genes.
What do you want to be your lasting legacy?
Alec: The one thing I’d like to be remembered for? That I raised a nice family. I mean, that’s the best thing in the long run, all the family – the children, the grandchildren, the great-grandchildren, because I’ve got quite a number of them.